Jet deal could threaten aid

Swaziland stands to lose crucial foreign aid if King Mswati III presses ahead with the purchase of a US $50 million private luxury jet.

"The cost of the airplane is just too high for Swaziland," Alan Brody, national representative for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN.

"In Swazi communities, we find so many children in desperate conditions. About 50 people are dying from AIDS every day in Swaziland, and most of them are leaving orphans behind. I consider that airplane to be the enemy of those orphans," he said.

In response to the assertion of Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini's cabinet, who are all palace appointees, that South Africa was purchasing a similar jet for its president, Brody said: "If the people of South Africa buy a Global Express Bombardier for their president, each of them pays just R10 (US $1) to cover the cost. But if the Swazi people buy the same plane, each of them has to pay R450 (US $45). There are only a few Swazis to share the cost, compared to the numbers of South Africans.

"Imagine how spending R450 (US $45) on that airplane is going to feel to a granny who is struggling to feed six or eight orphans, and has no money to pay their school fees."

Last weekend, Natural Resources Minister Magwagwa Mduli signaled the palace's intention to acquire the jet, even though parliament had voted against it, when he told a group of destitute drought victims: "The king needs the plane to get food for you."

MPs voted 25-16 against the purchase of the plane, with half of the House of Assembly abstaining. Cabinet ministers responded that MPs were merely rejecting a two year-old preliminary report on the jet purchase.

The local agent for the plane, ExecuJet South Africa confirmed that the jet was still on order. The palace-owned newspaper, the Swaziland Observer, said that the government would lose its US $2.8 million deposit if it cancelled the deal. Visitors to the nation's only airport at Matsapha reported watching a Global Express Bombardier land at 10.20 am on Saturday on what appeared to be a test flight to the facility.

The Times of Swaziland reported that a Swazi pilot, Nhlanhla Dube, a resident of South Africa, was currently in Canada on a training course to learn to fly the jet.

"The minister is still polluting people's minds about the issue of the jet, and really this is contempt of parliament," MP Mfomfo Nkambule said in the House of Assembly on Monday.

"The king himself said the matter will be finalised by parliament. It would appear that the parliament decision is not respected," said Senator Walter Bennett.

Last month, Mswati was told by British ambassador and European Union (EU) representative to Swaziland, David Reader, that developmental and other assistance would be jeopardised if he went ahead with the purchase of the jet. The price, operation and maintenance costs, equalled a quarter of the impoverished kingdom's 2002 government budget.

The media reported that already up to US $400,000 in food development aid promised to the Swaziland Red Cross had been lost due to the plane's purchase. The money was meant for seed and fertiliser for impoverished farmers.

Media reports quoted the US ambassador to Swaziland, James McGee, as saying: "More than 250,000 Swazis are short of food, and almost 40 percent of the adult population is HIV positive, and yet many in government seem content to let the international donors tackle these challenges. In my view, the government’s decision to proceed with the jet suggests that it is not giving priority to the most pressing needs of the country."

He said that although the final decision was still to be considered in Washington, the jet issue meant that chances were slim that Swaziland would access US aid.

Recent estimates from the World Food Programme placed over 260,000 Swazis at risk of starvation by year's end because of this year's crop failures.

In a statement, the Swaziland Democratic Alliance, an umbrella organisation of banned political parties and progressive labour unions, described the parliamentary vote against the plane as meaningless. Under a 1973 State of Emergency, which still exists, the Swazi king had ultimate legislative, executive and judicial authority.

It was not yet clear what the impact would be on Swaziland's trade treaties with the EU and the United States. The US African Growth and Opportunities Act is tied to democratic reform in the kingdom and the country's key export, sugar, benefits from a favourable trade treaty with the EU.