March 17, 2004

King opens parliament amid controversy

King Mswati has opened parliament by announcing R120 million (US $18 million) in spending on humanitarian programmes, but avoided commenting directly on the controversy surrounding the resignation of the Speaker and the country's "rule of law" crisis. "The nation knows that the administration of our justice system has been facing some challenges this past year," said Mswati, referring to the resignation of the Court of Appeal bench in protest over palace interference in the judicial system. "I have been assured that the minister of justice has engaged stakeholders on this issue, and await their views on the way forward." Mswati did not mention his postponement of the opening of parliament, or last week's resignation of the house speaker, Marwick Khumalo, who had headed a special parliamentary committee that recommended against the purchase of a R720 million (US $111 million) private jet for the king - advice that was accepted by the House of Assembly. Though still an MP, Khumalo absented himself to attend a meeting of the Pan African Parliament in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. MPs loyal to Khumalo, who had threatened to boycott the king's speech, changed their minds after Prime Minister Themba Dlamini issued a strong warning against "disrespecting" the monarch.

The Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, an umbrella group of labour organisations, human rights bodies and banned political parties, had called for Swazis to wear black as a symbol of protest over what they described as the palace's undermining of parliament. The prime minister and traditional authorities warned that any person wearing black would face punishment. The national highway running one kilometer north of parliament, and connecting roads, were blocked by police, who questioned any person seen wearing a dark garment.

In his speech Mswati gave top priority to thanking God for this summer's rains, but later acknowledged his kingdom was in its fourth year of drought. The king told parliamentarians he had granted R50 million (US $7.6 million) of government money to the National Disaster Relief Fund to spend on food assistance. AIDS, bad weather, poor land management policies and poverty have conspired to slash food production in the the agriculture-dependent country. In addition to the food relief allocation, Mswati told MPs he was ordering R30 million (US $4.6 million) to be used for a regional development fund, R20 million (US $3 million) to pay for school fees for impoverished children, and a further R20 million for a fund to provide specialised medical care to indigent patients. (IRIN)

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