Swaziland gov't beefs up security ahead of protest

An activist said Thursday that Swazi ministers have used money from their self-imposed salary cuts to pay for 500 recently hired security officials, further beefing up forces ahead of a planned April 12 pro-democracy uprising.

The government is passing out guns to the tiny mountain kingdom's army, one of the largest in the region, instead of using the money to provide public services, said Mandla Hlatshwayo, founder of the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organizations.

The government has stepped up its security presence since a March 18 protest for democracy brought 7,000 protesters to the usually quiet capital of Mbabane, said Thuli Makama, director of the Swaziland Legal Assistance Center.

The current police presence is unlike anything the country has seen, with frequent checkpoints and roadblocks, she said at a news conference in Johannesburg.

"The king is determined in making sure armed forces are comfortable and thus ready to serve him," Makama said. "One would think he's ready to quash any uprising. If space is not open for people to participate in the government, I can see the whole thing imploding."

Swazi government spokeswoman Macanjana Motsa did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

An anti-monarchy movement has gained momentum since the government, embroiled in a budget crisis, proposed freezing civil service wages which prompted the protest in March.

"If there are salary cuts, who inherits that money?" said Sibongile Mazibuko, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers. "Unless the prime minister and cabinet resign from office, we are not going to sit down to negotiate our salaries being cut. We are not going to cut anything."

Talks on the civil service salary freezes are ongoing.

Swaziland's Cabinet agreed to their own 10 percent salary cuts March 24, which they said would save the government 240 million Lilangeni ($34.9 million) over the next three years when combined with salary freezes.

Mazibuko and Makama said the Cabinet pay cuts were a publicity stunt and that they had actually given themselves recent pay raises to cushion the cuts.

Swazi youth are rallying support for a pro-democracy protest on April 12, exactly 38 years after Swazi King Mswati III banned political parties and abandoned the country's constitution, said Pius Vilikati, the former president of the Swaziland student union, who is now living in exile in Johannesburg.

Swaziland's budget deficit was worsened by an out-of-budget wage increase for civil servants and politicians in April 2010 and a $50 million budget addendum for a new airport project, said Joannes Mongardini, the IMF's mission chief for Swaziland.

People in the conservative kingdom of Swaziland see monarchy as central to their national identities, even those who do not like the current king, who democracy activists call corrupt and irresponsible.

"Swazis are proud of the institution of the king insofar as its a symbol of the Swazi nation," Makama said. "Whilst we love him, people have started asking questions."