Democracy activists in the tiny impoverished kingdom of Swaziland want to know who gave their already wealthy king a luxury jet for his birthday.
The government insists it was not purchased with taxpayer money, but activists are skeptical, and now rumors are flying about who would give King Mswati III such a gift.
“It is highly irresponsible for the government to buy and maintain a jet,” said Ntombenhle Khathwane, who is with Swaziland Diaspora Platform. The human rights group is pushing for transparency and democracy in the southern African nation where the king does not allow opposition parties to operate.
The plane was identified as a DC-9 twin-engine aircraft. According to aviation websites, the plane can be configured to carry between 30 and 50 passengers and can cost between $41 million and $48 million.
The gift was announced Tuesday at a government press conference where the prime minister said it came from anonymous “development partners.”
Khathwane does not believe a legitimate development organization would donate a jet instead of spending the money in ways that directly benefit Swaziland’s poor. She points out it is not the first time the king has tried to obtain an expensive jet for private travel with his typically large entourage. In 2002, Swaziland’s parliament cancelled an order for a multi-million dollar aircraft for Mswati after street protests.
South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper reports it is rumored the jet was a gift from an Indian-based company mining iron ore in Swaziland.
“In any other country that would be considered a bribe,” said Khathwane.
“The king has given people a license for mining in a process that wasn’t transparent, plus the king and his government are 60 percent shareholders. That money goes to the monarchy, not the people.”
Even if the jet was a gift, Khathwane doesn’t believe the government should spend the money it will take to fuel and maintain it. An aviation expert told the Mail & Guardian the aircraft could cost more than $5,000 an hour to fuel.
Human rights groups are demanding the government reveal who paid for the jet, but a government spokesperson told reporters the donor specifically asked to remain anonymous.
King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch with an estimated personal fortune of $100 million. He is widely accused of inappropriate spending while Swaziland is on the verge of bankruptcy, has the highest HIV rate in the world, and the majority of citizens live in poverty.