The US Ambassador to eSwatini, Lisa Peterson, has called for a constitutional reform in the small, landlocked kingdom to check the lavish spending of King Mswati III. A known public critic of the king’s extravagant lifestyle, Peterson made her recent comments during a Facebook Live discussion with newspaper and magazine editors on July 23, Swazi Media Commentary reports.
Last year, King Mswati III – who currently has 15 wives and 23 children – incensed critics following his acquisition of over a dozen Rolls-Royce vehicles estimated to have cost around $4 million. That was followed by another purchase of a fleet of BMWs which were to be reportedly used by the kingdom’s army and police for royal escort duties.
The king also owns two private jets, with the second purchase, an Airbus A340 he took delivery of during his 50th birthday celebrations in 2018, estimated to have cost as much as $30 million after VIP upgrades, according to Swazi Media Commentary.
Peterson, who said she has personally had a discussion with the king about his spending, 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.”
The ambassador revealed the kingdom had received more than $500 million in financial aid from the United States over the past 15 years.
“It does reach a point where you ask yourself why are we putting this money in,” she said. “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.”
Touching on the Rolls-Royce purchases, she said: “I’m still not completely convinced they were a purchase,” adding: “There was anger, there was disappointment, one person said they felt abandoned.”
“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 said, Swazi Media Commentary reports.
Peterson also cast a projection, saying: “I think you’re going to see another kind of gift or purchase that’s going to raise ire again.”
The vehicle purchases in 2019 came at a time the kingdom – formerly known as Swaziland – was facing civil unrest over plummeting economic conditions and heightening poverty.
The ambassador called for a reform that would place a cap on gifts the monarch and government officials are entitled to receive. Section 9 (ii) of the kingdom’s constitution stipulates emoluments given to the king from the country’s budget cannot be reduced, according to Swazi Media Commentary.
“[The] gift law should specify that it will apply to everyone,” she said, adding that King Mswati III, who is immune from prosecution, should be held accountable by his fellow Swazis.
Peterson encouraged Swazis to demand changes to that section of the constitution, saying: “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.”
An open critic of the king’s ostentatious lifestyle, Peterson openly registered her displeasure with “the leadership example currently coming out of the palace” in a speech during an entrepreneur graduation ceremony in 2019.
“While government has 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 52.5 million emalangeni. To accompany this royal fleet, there is now an even larger fleet of official escort vehicles, purchased with public funds,” she said.
“We are supposed to take comfort in the fact that the Rolls Royces either came from His Majesty’s personal funds, or they were a gift and are the King’s personal business. However, should the people of Eswatini really be comfortable with such disregard for the perilous fiscal state of the country, particularly with so many of His Majesty’s subjects living below the international poverty line? Should people really believe that a possible multi-million dollar gift came without any strings attached?”
She also added: “It is exceedingly difficult for development partners to continue to advocate for assistance to Eswatini when such profligate spending, or suspicious giving, is taking place. Would King Sobhuza [Mswati III’s father] have made such lavish purchases? We know from his own words that he saw such “attachment to luxury” as the pitfall for empires. More recently, a very eloquent liSwati related that such ostentatious acquisition felt like a spit in the face of this country’s people. As someone whose government has partnered with Eswatini to respond to the needs of His Majesty’s subjects, I can say that we feel this sting as well.”
King Mswati III ascended the throne at the age of 18 after his father’s demise and he rules eSwatini with absolute political and military authority.
He changed the name of the country Swaziland to eSwatini during the double celebration of his 50th birthday and an early version of the kingdom’s 50th independence anniversary in 2018.