Swaziland: U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland Wants Constitutional Change to Stop King's Lavish Spending

King Mswati III of Eswatini disembarks from a plane at Sochi International Airport as he arrives to take part in the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia (file photo).

The US Ambassador to Swaziland (eSwatini) Lisa Peterson has called for the kingdom's constitution to be changed to stop absolute monarch King Mswati III's lavish spending.

In November 2019 he purchased between 13 and 15 luxury Rolls-Royce cars at an estimated cost of up to US$4 million. He also has two private airplanes, at least 13 palaces and fleets of top-of-the-range cars. At his 50th birthday in 2018 he wore a watch worth US$1.6 million and a suit beaded with diamonds that weighed 6 kg. 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.

Peterson who has criticised the King's lifestyle in the past was speaking with newspaper and magazine editors in a discussion broadcast on Facebook on 23 July 2020. She said she had previously had a private meeting with the King where she voiced her concerns.

The Ambassador said she had a 'concern about Royal Family trips to Disneyworld in the middle of the drought [and] the number of royal children who for some reason go to the UN General Assembly'.

She said the US had given more than half a billion dollars in assistance to eSwatini over the past 15 years. 'It does reach a point where you ask yourself why are we putting this money in. Why are my taxpayer's dollars going to this, my children's tax dollars, heaven forbid, my grandchildren's tax dollars go to pay for healthcare in this country when someone [the King] clearly has a lot of money and doesn't quite seem to know what to do with it all.'

Speaking about the Rolls-Royce cars she said, 'I'm still not completely convinced they were a purchase.'

She said all kinds of people talked about the purchase at the time. 'There was anger, there was disappointment, one person said they felt abandoned.'

She added, 'I thought it was a golden opportunity for people to mobilise to get something out of this moment of collective anger / anguish, pick your word, and nothing really happened.'

She predicted, 'I think you're going to see another kind of gift or purchase that's going to raise ire again.'

She called on people to advocate for a law on limiting the gifts government officials and the monarchy could accept. '[The] gift law should specify that it will apply to everyone,' she said.

In Swaziland it is impossible to take the King to court. The Ambassador said people needed to send a message to the King, 'We expect you to behave the way the rest of us have to behave.'

She called for people to advocate to change S9 of the Swazi Constitution which deals with royal emoluments - the amount of money the royal family gets from the national budget each year. S9 (ii) states that the level of the King's allowances can never be reduced.

She said, 'That section of the constitution fundamentally takes away any power parliament has over the purse and at a minimum people should be engaged on [saying] we think he has enough already, we should place a cap on this. Change section nine of the constitution so actually there's some room to move it down if necessary when you are in times of dire fiscal need.'

Ambassador Peterson had previously publicly criticised the King for his lavish spending. Speaking about the purchase of the Rolls-Royce in an interview with The Nation, a monthly magazine, in December 2019, she said, 'My initial anger was at the excessive luxury enjoyed by a tiny segment of the country, while 40 percent of the population lives on less than E29 per day [US$2], according to the World Bank.'

She added that people in Swaziland felt bound by 'a cultural expectation' to keep quiet while more powerful people took advantage of their goodwill and respect.

She said, 'Goodwill and respect should be earned based on a person's actions, which must be guided by giving the utmost consideration to human dignity.

'They require that a person deal honestly with those around him, particularly those who depend on his conscientious leadership. By always dealing honestly, a leader gains the trust and respect of his public.'

Peterson also made comments while giving certificates to young entrepreneurs at Nhlangano on 8 November 2019. A transcript of her speech issued by the US Embassy in Swaziland quoted her saying, 'While the government continued using its existing vehicle fleet, the palace sees fit to acquire more than a dozen Rolls-Royce vehicles with a minimum price tag of E52.5 million. To accompany this royal fleet, there is now an even larger fleet of official escort vehicles, purchased with public funds.'

She said, 'It is exceedingly difficult for development partners to continue advocating for assistance to eSwatini when such profligate spending or suspicious giving is taking place.'

In an article published in November 2018 by both of Swaziland's two national daily newspapers she called for the decree that puts King Mswati in power as an absolute monarch to be repealed. She also called for political parties to be allowed to contest elections.

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