Johannesburg – Swaziland’s King Mswati's lavish personal lifestyle has come under scrutiny in the wake of the millions of dollars he has spent over the years, including the cash laid out to celebrate his birthday in April, as the country continues to grapple with impoverishment.
"The primary development challenge for the Kingdom of Swaziland is to address the high rate of poverty and inequality in the country. An estimated 63 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and about 29 percent lives below the extreme poverty line. Inequality is very high," said the World Bank in its 2018 report.
During his 50th birthday bash on April 19, Mswati wore a watch worth $1.6 million (about R20 million) and a suit beaded with diamonds.
Days prior to the birthday celebrations the king had received delivery of his second private jet. This one, an A340-300 Airbus, reportedly cost as much as $30 million after VIP upgrades, according to Swazimedia.blogspot.
Mswati allegedly has fleets of top-of-the-range BMW and Mercedes cars and his family travels the world in luxury while seven in 10 of his 1.1 million subjects live in abject poverty with incomes less than the equivalent of $2 per day.
The media in Swaziland, where political parties are banned, doesn’t report these facts in detail so it’s often problematic getting to the bottom of all the spending.
Furthermore, the royal budget is not debated in parliament, as discussions would be seen as challenging Africa's last absolute monarch. Swaziland scored 39 points out of 100 on the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International.
"[The] Corruption Index in Swaziland averaged 34.36 Points from 2005 until 2017, reaching an all time high of 43 Points in 2014 and a record low of 25 Points in 2006," said Transparency International.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its 2018 report added that recently passed amendments to the Public Order Act allows critics of the king or the Swazi government to be prosecuted, and upon conviction be fined $770, imprisoned for two years, or both for inciting “hatred or contempt” against cultural and traditional heritage.
And his lavish lifestyle goes back many years.
In 2013, several of the King’s wives travelled to Japan and Australia on a trip estimated to have cost $10 million. In July 2012, some of the King’s then 13 wives went on a shopping trip to Las Vegas, where 66 people reportedly stayed in 10 separate villas -- each costing $2 400 per night.
In 2012, Mswati acquired his first private jet, estimated to cost $17 million. He refused to say who had paid for it, leading to speculation that the money came from public funds.
More reports of the king’s lavish spending include a trip to London in 2012 to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee costing $794 500.
The year prior to this, he stayed at a hotel costing $1 000 per night when he attended the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton during a trip that included paying $700 000 for hiring a private jet to fly him and his party to the United Kingdom.
The extravagant spending came just as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) criticised Swaziland for diverting money that should have been used on education and health to other spending.
As a result of this spending the IMF withdrew its team, that was advising the government on economic recovery, from Swaziland.
"There is no oversight on how Swaziland's King Mswati III, his 14 wives and vast royal family spend public money, a 2016 United States report concluded.
The US makes annual reviews of the 'fiscal transparency' of governments that receive its financial assistance to ensure that American taxpayers' money is used appropriately.