13 October 2013

Swaziland: 'Corruption' At King's Airport

opinion

Accusations of corruption surrounding the Sikhuphe International Airport project in Swaziland have surfaced after state documents relating to contracts disappeared.

Sikhuphe is the airport, dubbed by critics a vanity project for King Mswati III, which was due to open in June 2010, but has still not.

The Times of Swaziland, the only independent daily newspaper in Swaziland, where King Mswati rules as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, reported that documents relating to contracts at the airport disappeared from the office of the Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development.

The Times called the documents 'sensitive' and the disappearance 'corruption'.

It said, 'It doesn't take a particularly brilliant mind to figure out that an audit must be coming down soon and the documents were spirited away. That is the only explanation for confidential state documents being removed from an office without lawful authority, which is what the custodian of those documents, Phesheya Dlamini, claims.

'This is a red flag that there is rot within the Sikhuphe project that requires an immediate investigation from the Anti-Corruption Commission. Billions have gone into this airport and it is still non-operational. What more proof do we need that events have gone very wrong there?'

The newspaper did not give the background to the Sikhuphe project, because it involves King Mswati and in Swaziland the media never criticise him. The king has been the leading force behind the airport which is being built in a wilderness in eastern Swaziland, about 80km from the kingdom's capital, Mbabane

The Sikhuphe project started in 2003 and is part of the king's attempt to show that his impoverished kingdom is close to attaining what he calls 'first world status'. No needs analysis on the airport was ever undertaken and in the decade since no airline outside of Swaziland has signed contracts to use it when it eventually opens. Only Swazi Airlink, which is run in partnership with the government, has said it will use Sikhuphe.

In 2003, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said building the airport was a waste of resources that could be better used on pro-poor development projects. About seven in ten of the king's 1.3 million subjects live in abject poverty, earning less than US$2 per day.

Meanwhile, the king has a lavish lifestyle, including a personal fortune, once estimated by Forbes magazine to be US$200 million, 13 palaces, a private jet and fleets of top-of-the range Mercedes and BMW cars.

It is impossible to get an accurate estimate on how much the airport has cost so far. In June 2013 the South African Mail and Guardian newspaper put the bill at E2.6 billion (US$26 million), which the newspaper estimated was 20 percent of Swaziland's annual national budget.

In 2010, the Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the king, estimated the cost at US$1 billion (E10 billion), but gave no breakdown of how that figure was arrived at.

The Sikhuphe project has been the subject of much misinformation from the king, the government he hand picks, and civil aviation officials in Swaziland.

They regularly announce new deadlines for completion and opening of the airport, but these dates come and go and Sikhuphe remains unfinished. No explanations for the missed deadlines are usually given. When they are they often relate to claims that 'bad weather' hampered construction work.

The Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) has projected 300,000 passengers will use the airport each year, raising E7 million (US$700,000) per year in service charges. Although SWACAA did not say so, this equates to only 822 passengers on average per day. Swaziland at present has an airport at Matsapha, close to the main cities of Mbabane and Manzini, but it only manages to attract about 70,000 passengers a year.

Critics of Sikhuphe have argued for years that there is no potential for the airport. Major airports already exist less than an hour's flying time away in South Africa with connecting routes to Swaziland and there is no reason to suspect passengers would want to use the airport at Sikhuphe as an alternative.

The Times is not the only newspaper to allege corruption at Sikhuphe. In June 2013, the Mail and Guardian reported on two confidential technical reports by engineer Derrick Dlamini alleging that there were major structural defects in the airport's concrete apron and 'that it is unfit for use by large commercial aircraft'.

The newspaper also said that there might be 'widespread fraud and other irregularities' at the airport, but did not give details.

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