Tackling a high-flying king

In 2002, the Times of Swaziland once again rallied to the cause of enforcing government accountability, this time with an exposé by Vusi Ginindza on the unlawful purchase of a jet for King Mswati III. On 7 July 2002 the publication dropped a bombshell: the government was secretly engaged in a process of buying the king a Bombadier Global Express Jet. ‘In what has been government’s most sternly guarded secret for the past two years, it emerges that the state has since made several payments for the purchase of a US$45 million state of the art executive jet for the King …’ The report came as a shock to the Swazi nation and parliament, because it came in the face of serious socio-economic challenges. The nation was E3 billion (US$230 million) in debt; the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate had risen by 40 per cent and the country had just taken over from Botswana the distinction of having the highest infection rate in the world; and the population was being ravaged by famine with approximately 230,000 people going hungry every day.

The revelation had a substantial impact on public opinion and parliament. Parliament was outraged at being bypassed for the purchase of this luxury item. It was particularly vexed because the issue of the feasibility of a private jet had been raised before in parliament in 2000. A committee had been assigned the task to look into the matter but it never came back with a report. The royalists and traditionalists realised they could no longer get away with undisputed decision-making and a debate (with parliament involved) was opened on the issue. A parliamentary probe was carried out where the ministers involved had to give an account on how the acquisition had gone through. The audacious misuse of public funds was regarded as ‘theft’ by the members of parliament since the money used for the purchase was meant for development projects. The majority called for the resignation of Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini. However, not all legislators were against the acquisition of the jet. Some thought it was ‘not too bad an idea’ as it would cut costs incurred by the ‘frequency of the royal travels abroad’.

The public would have none of it. The normally passive citizenry stood up in arms at this extravagant purchase. Protests were scheduled by labour movements and unofficial ‘opposition’ parties. They wanted to pressure the government to cancel the purchase and put the money where it was most needed: addressing the AIDS and famine calamities. The international community looked on aghast at the audacity of cabinet’s actions. Donor agencies threatened to withdraw aid if the purchase went through. Ultimately the deal was stopped and government was ordered to get a refund. The media had once again played a critical role in the promotion of good governance.

Top of the range jet
Vusi Giningdza, Times of Swaziland, 7 July 2002

The government is engaged in a secret mission to purchase a private jet for King Mswati III for an incredible E450 or US$45m. The aircraft has not simply been identified or merely admired for later consideration but a Sales Agreement plus a down payment of over US$2 million (E20 million) has been made through cryptic transactions, some of which were not entirely authorised by the government. As it is, government is struggling to raise a monthly instalment of about US$480,000 (E4.8 million). The 14-seater Global Express Bombardier, one of the new class of ultra long-range corporate jets, competes against the Gallstream V, Boeing 737 BBJ (used by South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki) and Airbus A319C. It is designed to fly long distances at high speed and its range is such that it can fly between any two points on the globe and needs only one refuelling stop, while it can fly non-stop between intercontinental destinations such as Cape Town/London, Sydney/Los Angeles, New York/ Tokyo and Tapei/Chicago …

The process to buy this jet started over a year ago, during which period it was kept as a foremost state secret but accelerated this year as the minister of Works and Transport Titus Mlangeni desperately tried to get rid of two national aircraft in what cabinet sources explained as an ‘attempt to raise the deposit for the private jet’. Minister Mlangeni has since the start of the year taken at least two trips to Canada where the plane is manufactured. The purchase, according to highly placed sources who declined to be named, was facilitated through the help of two Swazi pilots, one working for South African Airways and another working for Execulet in South Africa. Execulet is a representative of Bombardier Aerospace, the manufacturer in Canada. At least two Cabinet ministers have been invited for demonstration flights, including Prince Guduza who was then Minister of Works and Transport.

The need for the king’s private aircraft was first raised two years ago by Lobamba MP Marwick Khumalo and supported by many of his colleagues who felt that the king was losing a lot of face among his contemporaries by using general passenger planes when other leaders owned private jets for state business. Another concern was the condition of the two national aircraft, now put up for sale, which had mechanical problems, coupled with reports that Swaziland’s airspace was highly suspect according to international aviation monitors. ‘At the time the economy as not was bad as it is today …’

What’s the fuss about jet?
Alec Lushaba, Times of Swaziland, 10 August 2002

His Majesty King Mswati III yesterday said he is aware that government plans to buy him a private jet, which he would use on his many travels abroad. Speaking at a press conference … the king told all what he knows about his yet to be delivered jet, an E450 million Bombardier Global Express … Journalists defied an unwarranted warning from an over-zealous Foreign Affairs Minister Abednego Ntshangase that anything outside the king’s smart partnership trip shouldn’t be asked. Ntshangase seemingly enjoys dictating to journalists what to or not to ask the king in press conferences. The king was happy to answer the question on government’s plans to buy him a private jet and he conceded that to some people it might appear an extravagant and unnecessary expenditure. He said it is up to the cabinet to explain everything to the people.

What king’s jet?
Alec Lushaba, Times of Swaziland, 24 July 2002

The Swazi National Council (SNC) has not been briefed on the purchase of the king’s private jet worth E450 million, equivalent to about US$45 million. SNC secretary Sam Mkhombe disclosed in an interview recently that the matter was to be dealt with by cabinet, but it has not yet reached them. ‘There is nothing I can say or claim to know about the jet because it has not been brought to the Council’s attention. Government can be in a better position to comment on the issue,’ Mkhombe said. It is said that the Government has already paid over E20 million as a … down payment, some of which has not been entirely approved by government. It is said that Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini’s Government is struggling to raise the monthly instalment of about US$480,000 dollars (E4.8 million) …

Who got the big bucks?
Vusi Ginindza, Times of Swaziland, 13 October 2002

if exposed, could end several careers within the Cabinet. Who received US$1.5 million (about E15 million) as ‘commission’ for the purchase of the Global Express Bombardier? This is an executive jet ordered for exclusive use of the King, the Queen Mother and their selected entourage due for delivery before the end of next month. The Times can reveal that it is a standing policy of the manufacturer, Bombardier – as it is with many makers of aeroplanes – to give commissions to buyers once the initial agreement of purchase is concluded.

Experts close to the matter said in the case of this particular deal, a commission of 1.5 percent (of the total purchase price of US$45 million) was paid out to ‘a representative’ of the buyer, but the ministry of finance has not seen such a deposit into any government account. Sources in Cabinet said this issue is avoided like a plague every Tuesday when ministers gather for their weekly meetings. ‘The Cabinet is decidedly divided on many issues but this one crowns them all,’ a minister who asked not to be named revealed. ‘Maybe some of us are jealous, you may never know, but the general feeling is that the matter should be discussed openly so that it does not taint all of us. The people who were active in this deal are known’ …

US questions PM on king’s jet
Musa Magagula, Times of Swaziland, 20 October 2002

Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini saved the day during his recent trip to the United States when White House officials expressed reluctance to host His Majesty for the Songs for Life launch, because of plans to buy him a jet. The premier is said to have met White House, health and … service officials whom he convinced the purchase of the king’s jet would not get in the way of the objectives of the Royal Initiative to Combat AIDS (RICA) project. The king is expected to be a guest at the White House where he will attend a reception with President George W Bush …