eSwatini, Africa's last absolute monarchy, heads to polls
Mbabane, eSwatini - The tiny country of eSwatini, until recently known as Swaziland, is ruled by a playboy king with many wives and supreme control over a nation struggling with poverty and HIV.
Ahead of parliamentary elections on Friday, here is some essential background about the landlocked kingdom wedged between South Africa and Mozambique:
* King Mswati III was crowned in 1986 when he was only 18, four years after the death of his elderly father, Sobhuza II.
Now aged 50, he has been in power for 32 years, making him one of the longest-serving rulers in Africa.
With unrestricted political power over his 1.3 million people and ruling by decree, he is the only absolute monarch on the continent and one of the few remaining in the world.
His surprise declaration in April that the kingdom would return to its pre-colonial name, eSwatini, was criticised as an example of his authoritarianism.
Mswati has 14 wives -- his father is said to have had at least 70 -- and the right to choose a new one at the annual Reed Dance, when thousands of bare-breasted virgins dance for him.
* After independence from Britain in 1968, Sobhuza II abandoned a British-style system and in 1973 restored a traditional form of government that gives the royal family supreme power.
It effectively bans political parties, which are barred from parliamentary elections held every five years.
Candidates for the 69-member parliament stand as individuals; the king directly appoints 10, as well as the prime minister, senior cabinet members and the judiciary.
The government stifles dissent and demonstrations, including by pro-democracy trade unions.
A much-criticised 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act has been used to arrest and charge democracy and opposition activists.
* Around 63 percent of Swazis live in poverty and a quarter of children under five show signs of malnutrition, according to UN agencies.
About 26 percent of the labour force is unemployed and 77 percent of Swazis rely on subsistence farming, with severe drought leaving many in need of aid.
The country has little developed industry, with sugar production being among the most important, and is heavily dependent on South Africa, which provides 85 percent of its imports and receives 60 percent of exports, the World Bank says.
Its key textile sector lost thousands of jobs after the United States removed the kingdom from a lucrative trade pact in 2014 due to concerns over workers' rights.
It was admitted back into the African Growth and Opportunity Act in December 2017.
* Around 27 percent of adults aged 15 to 49 were living with HIV last year, according to UN figures, the highest prevalence of the AIDS-causing virus in the world.
However the number of new HIV infections has halved since 2010 and AIDS-related deaths are down 28 percent, according to UNAIDS.
This is after campaigns to boost access to virus-suppressing drugs and male circumcision.
Around 3,500 people died from the disease last year, from a peak of in 7,900 in 2005, while 44,000 children were AIDS orphans.
* The government has almost total control of the media and the only independent newspaper, the Times of Swaziland, is routinely intimidated into retracting articles that are critical of the authorities.
Homosexuality is outlawed, miniskirts were banned in 2012 and in 2017 the government ordered that only Christianity could be taught at primary and secondary schools.
The Economist Intelligence Unit 2017's democracy index ranks Swaziland 144 out of 167 countries, placing it firmly in the "authoritarian" category.
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