7 March 2014

Swaziland: Fanciful Opening of King's Airport

King Mswati III of Swaziland said that one day planes will land at the newly-opened Sikhuphe Airport at a rate of one per second.

He was making a speech at the opening ceremony for the airport, dubbed by critics as a 'vanity project' for King Mswati, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch.

To date, no airlines have signed up to use the airport which has been built in the wilderness of eastern Swaziland, about 80km from the kingdom's capital Mbabane. It is not clear when the first commercial flight will use Sikhuphe.

Sikhuphe which has cost an estimated E3 billion (US$300 million) so far to build was opened four years behind schedule. Originally the cost of construction was expected to be E500 million.

In the past few weeks allegations of corruption in the awarding of contracts have surfaced.

In January 2014 the Times Sunday, an independent newspaper in Swaziland, reported officers from the Anti-Corruption Commission and Auditor General offices were separately investigating how money allocated for construction of the airport was spent since 2003 when the project was launched.

King Mswati said Sikhuphe was a 'First World facility'. This was in reference to his stated aim to make Swaziland a 'First World' nation by 2022. At present 70 percent of King Mswati's 1.3 million subjects live in abject poverty, earning less than US$2 a day. Swaziland also has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world. In 2003, the International Monetary Fund said Sikhuphe should not be built because it would divert funds away from much needed projects to fight poverty in Swaziland.

King Mswati said the airport was not an extravagance but important development infrastructure.

However, there are doubts that the airport is fit-for-purpose. In June 2013 an engineer's report was published by to the Mail and Guardian newspaper in South Africa saying the structure of the airport was defected and large jet airlines would not be able to land.

There are also doubts about the size of the passenger terminal. One estimate suggested it might take a passenger landing at Sikhuphe two hours to get through the terminal.

This was based on official figures from the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) that said the terminal would be able handle and process about 300 passengers per hour: which is roughly half the number of passengers on a fully-laden Boeing 777 plane.

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