European Union taxpayers' money is being used to finance the lavish lifestyle of Swaziland's Royal Family, an investigation has revealed.
This happens while seven in ten of the 1.1 million population live in abject poverty.
Money given to develop Swaziland's sugar industry ends up in the pocket of King Mswati III who rules as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch. In April 2018 at a party to mark both his 50th birthday and the anniversary of Swaziland's Independence from Great Britain, King Mswati wore a watch worth US$1.6 million and a suit weighing 6 kg studded with diamonds. Days earlier he had taken delivery of his second private jet. This one, an Airbus A340, cost US$13.2 to purchase but with VIP upgrades was estimated to have cost US$30 million.
The report from Danish NGO Afrika Kontakt (Africa Contact) called The European Union in Swaziland: In support of an Authoritarian King? says EU money 'benefits the Royal Family greatly' and undermines democratic forces in Swaziland.
The EU spent 120 million Euros (US$144 million; E1.76 billion) to improve the competitiveness of Swaziland's sugar industry in the ten years up to 2017. Sugar accounts for almost 60 percent of the agricultural output and 16 percent of employment in the kingdom.
The sugar industry in Swaziland is dominated by Tibiyo TakaNgwane, a royal investment company that the King holds 'in trust for the Swazi nation'. Tibiyo owns 50 percent of the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation (RSSC) and 40 percent of Ubombo Sugar Ltd (a subsidiary of the South African-based Illovo company), the industry's major players. Tibiyo also has stakes in sugar estates and haulage companies and has a 30 percent share in FINCORP, which provides loans to small-scale sugar farmers with interest rates above 20 percent.
Afrika Kontakt said the Swaziland sugar industry mirrored Swazi society by being largely owned by the Royal Family through various companies and investment funds, and by the royal chiefs playing an important role.
It added the purpose of EU funding was to increase the competitiveness of the sugar industry. 'However, a large percentage of the funds have benefitted the two major sugar millers RSSC and Ubombo Sugar Ltd, and their major shareholder the royal investment company Tibiyo TakaNgwane.'
It said that EU funding had helped subsistence farmers, but had also enriched chiefs through the payment of royalties and Royalty-affiliated haulage companies.
Afrika Kontakt said Tibiyo's ownership in RSSC secured it a dividend payment of E98 million (US$8 million) in 2015-16. Ownership of Illovo paid out E15 million as dividend in 2012-13. Illovo is no longer listed so it is impossible to find information about more recent payments.
Afrika Kontakt reported Tibiyo is controlled by King Mswati III and Freedom House has reported it is an open secret in Swaziland that the Royal Family uses the fund to pay for personal expenses. The Managing Director of Tibiyo A T Dlamini is a former Prime Minister and the board consists of several members of the Royal Family.
Tibiyo's annual accounts are sketchy. For example in 2015, E49 million - almost half the total expenses - were budgeted under 'sundry expenses' without further clarification. Afrika Kontakt reported this was 'a sign that funds which are supposed to aid the public are being used by fund managers and/ or the Royal Family in an underhand manner'.
Afrika Kontakt said, 'The sugar industry in Swaziland is structured so that external assistance [from the EU] to the industry ends up benefitting the last absolute monarch in Africa.'
It added this support for the Royal Family undermined the democratic forces in the kingdom. Swaziland is not a democracy. Political parties are banned from contesting elections and groups advocating for democracy are banned as 'terrorists' under the Suppression of Terrorism Act. Media are severely censored and freedom of assembly is curtailed. Elections are held every five years in Swaziland but people only get to select 55 of 65 members of the House of Assembly. The King chooses the other 10. No members of the Swazi Senate are elected by the people; the King chooses 20 and the other 10 are elected by members of the House of Assembly.
After the last election in 2013, King Mswati appointed nine princes and princesses to the House of Assembly and the Senate.
The Afrika Kontakt report stated, 'By continuing to support these sectors, without raising demands from the Swazi Government to prioritize its citizens' well-being over the lavish lifestyle of its monarch, it is essentially EU taxpayers' money that finances the lavish spending of the monarchy.'
After the most recent national election in 2013, the African Union (AU) mission called for fundamental changes in the kingdom to ensure people had freedom of speech and of assembly. The AU said the Swaziland Constitution guaranteed 'fundamental rights and freedoms including the rights to freedom of association', but in practice 'rights with regard to political assembly and association are not fully enjoyed'. The AU said this was because political parties were not allowed to contest elections.
The AU urged Swaziland to review the constitution, especially in the areas of 'freedoms of conscience, expression, peaceful assembly, association and movement as well as international principles for free and fair elections and participation in electoral process'.
In its report on the 2013 elections, the Commonwealth observers recommended that measures be put in place to ensure separation of powers between the government, parliament and the courts so that Swaziland was in line with its international commitments.
They also called on the Swaziland Constitution to be 'revisited'.
The report stated, 'This should ideally be carried out through a fully inclusive, consultative process with all Swazi political organisations and civil society (needed, with the help of constitutional experts), to harmonise those provisions which are in conflict. The aim is to ensure that Swaziland's commitment to political pluralism is unequivocal.'
It also recommended that a law be passed to allow for political parties to take part in elections, 'so as to give full effect to the letter and spirit of Section 25 of the Constitution, and in accordance with Swaziland's commitment to its regional and international commitments'.
In 2015, following a visit to Swaziland, a Commonwealth mission renewed its call for the constitution to be reviewed so the kingdom could move toward democracy.
There is concern in Europe that not enough is being done to press for democracy in Swaziland. In May 2015, the European Parliament voted for the release of all political prisoners in Swaziland and called for the kingdom to be monitored for its human rights record.
A statement issued by the European Parliament said, 'Parliament considers the imprisonment of political activists and the banning of trade unions to be in clear contravention of commitments made by Swaziland under the Cotonou Agreement to respect democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and also under the sustainable development chapter of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Economic Partnership Agreement, for which Parliament's support will depend on respect for the commitments made.'
The resolution was passed by 579 votes to six, with 58 abstentions.