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Published: Thursday, 8/5/2004

Swaziland king's excesses

SWAZILAND is among the most dismal places on the planet. It is home to 1.2 million people, most of whom are desperately poor, and a third of them have HIV or AIDS. It also has an absolute monarch who may be the most insensitive ruler in the world. With his tiny nation locked in crisis, King Mswati plans to build five new palaces for his 11 wives - with public funds squeezed from a land that lacks the bare necessities.

Swaziland, a nation wedged between Mozambique and South Africa, provides the world a perfectly hopeless picture of the state of nearly all of Africa, with rampant disease, poverty, unemployment, drought, and starvation.

The 36-year-old king has reduced what he initially intended to spend on the palaces. His first plan was to build a palace for each wife; that would have cost $15 million. Now, he will spend only $4 million for five palaces, with $3 million more set aside for furnishings. That comes to two wives per palace, except for one case where three will just have to make do and share a single palace. It's not likely that millions of desperate Swazis will be sympathetic.

Meanwhile, as King Mswati indulges in conspicuous consumption, Swaziland's economy remains on a 10-year-long downward spiral. Starvation is extensive, the unemployment rate hovers at about 34 percent, 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, and a drought is in its third year.

The monarch clearly doesn't care, which isn't surprising. Two years ago in the midst of widespread famine, the government bought the king a jet for $50 million. That's a fourth of the national budget. Also, judges have resigned because the government refused to accept court decisions. Last year, the government forbid the media to criticize it.

If ever there was a monarchy crying to be toppled, this is it. The people of Swaziland deserve a lot better than the king and his many wives are prepared to offer.

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