Swazi Economic Deficits

Published: 01-MAR-04

Swaziland's economic problems, caused by government's reckless spending and unfavourable economic policies are crippling the country 's democratic governance and international relations, reports Hobbs Gama.

Uncontrolled expenditure has burdened Swaziland with record national debt that is worrying domestic stakeholders in the economy and international development partners. Some senior government officials admit of the runaway financial gaps, one of them finance minister, Majozi Sithole in sharp contrast to the tendency among King Mswati's cabinet ministers: "The growing deficit is straining available resources and has been financed in part by draw down in the government's foreign exchange reserves," observes Sithole.

The national debt has hit a staggering $145 million, a deficit which represents 6 percent of the country's GDP, about double the size considered healthy for a small economy like Swaziland. The debt also equals the amount of loans and grants acquired by the Mbabane government from foreign donors and lending institutions in the 2003 fiscal year.

King Mswati, who has absolute powers over all state institutions, is blamed for the economic mess. He is alleged to have embarked on what are termed unaffordable "Millenium Projects. These include a multi million rand airport in the eastern lowveld, an international trade fair and amusement park and a twin sport stadia outside Manzini.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) scoof at the projects as a waste of scarce public funds. This is in the light of declining revenues and foreign investments, growing humanitarian needs caused by HIV/Aids, critical food shortage and widespread poverty affecting two thirds of the tiny African kingdom's 1 million population. The IMF laments that of particular concern about government's role in the economy in recent years is weaknesses in fiscal transparency and accountability, the slow pace of legislative change and lapses in the rule of law.

Ephraim Hlope, principal secretary in the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, which is monitoring the millenium projects, backed the projects as being to the benefit of the citizens and a foundation for prosperity of the country's economy.

As uncertainties take a better part, the kingdom is facing acute drought due to erratic rains in the southern African region. The humanitarian World Food Programme (WFP) said it was expected to feed 243,000, while the International Red Cross was distributing food relief parcels. Chairman of the Swaziland National Disaster Relief Task Force Ben Nsbadnze has since recommended King Mswati declares the drought a national disaster. Swaziland is also inflicted with one of the highest HIV/Aids incidences in the world. It has a 39 percent prevalence rate, equaling that of neighbouring Botswana, according to United Nations Aids Programme (UNAids.)

International donor agencies and pro-democracy proponents have in this context, expressed dismay over government's plans to spend more than $14 million to construct new palaces for each of King Mswati's 11 wives. The local press reports that another $2.8 million has been earmarked for luxury homes for Mswati's aunts, the widows of Mswati's father, King Sobhuza II. This is on top of the $8 million that was spent last year on royal housing and related road developments.

By contrast, government has budgeted $30.8 million for national health services this year. Gladys Yende, of the Women's League of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress condemns the wayward expenditures saying. "This spending illustrates how isolated and out of touch the royal family is with the realities the people are facing." GDP growth for Swaziland was only 1.7 percent last year, half of the rate achieved in 2002 and well below the 3 percent annual growth rate required to keep the country's economy at a sound footing, according to Central Bank.

Diplomatic sources say, Swaziland's unreasonable spending is likely to discourage donors from favorably responding to the state's plea for humanitarian aid. "We are angered and embarrassed by the wanton, senseless and limitless expenditure by the monarchist government. The palace construction is typical of autocratic regime lacking the democratic fundamentals of inclusivity and grassroots participation," hints Mario Masuku, president of the banned opposition party, Peoples United Democratic Movement.

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