MBABANE, Swaziland - The Swazi king, dressed in traditional leopard skins and whisked around in an open-topped BMW, celebrated his 40th birthday and his nation's 40th independence day with lavish glee Saturday — hosting an extravaganza that contrasted sharply with the biting poverty of his subjects.
King Mswati III toured the national stadium to cheers and flag-waving. Tens of thousands of Swazi maidens who had performed for the king last weekend at the annual Reed Dance were at the festivities, which included traditional dancing and drumming and a full military parade.
"I'm aware that many in the world might be wondering why we are so excited about the celebrations of our 40th anniversary," the king told the crowd. "The answer is simple. We are celebrating our nationhood."
However, the so-called 40-40 party was preceded by demonstrations against its excessive cost in a country that has the world's highest AIDS rate and where only one in four Swazis lives to be 40.
The cost was officially put at US$2.5 million, but it was widely believed to be at least five times more. There was special anger at the jet-set shopping spree by eight of the king's 13 wives to Dubai to purchase birthday outfits, and the fleet of luxury cars bought to carry VIPs around.
Visiting heads of state were whisked into the stadium in a long convoy. The loudest cheer was reserved for Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who climbed out of a car with a "Zimbabwe" number plate to a standing ovation. The 84-year-old autocrat is popular in the region because he is seen as standing up to the West.
Mswati made no reference to the unhappiness among his subjects in his 45-minute address. Instead he urged the southern African nation's 1 million people to redouble efforts to boost the nation's growth and tackle the scourge of AIDS.
He also told foreign investors that Swaziland was a calm, peaceful and safe place for their money, and invited more tourists to visit the small nation surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique.
"We are telling a world full of prejudices that we are a happy nation in spite of the challenges that face us," he said.
Swaziland holds parliamentary elections later this month, but critics have dismissed them as a sham because political parties are banned. Voters have to choose from a list of individuals with no strong political platform.
Mswati urged residents to vote for people who can tackle Swaziland's huge problems. Many previous government officials have been criticized for serving only their own personal interests.
"We need people who take their responsibilities seriously," he said.
Mswati is Africa's last absolute monarch. He is widely revered but there is anger about the luxurious lifestyle practiced by him and his 13 wives.
One in five Swazis now depend on international food aid, partly because AIDS has devastated rural areas and led to an explosion in child-headed households who can't tend the fields.
Life expectancy has nearly halved since 1998 because of the AIDS epidemic and is now less than 31 years, according to U.N. figures.