Up Front

The Human Development Cost of the King of Swaziland’s Lifestyle and his “Bevy” of Wives

Mwangi S. Kimenyi

I have now had it with the extravagancies of the King of Swaziland—King Mswati III. Aside from accumulating a “bevy” (for no better word) of 14 wives—plus or minus a few, but who is counting—he has taken on an obnoxiously luxurious lifestyle, including a large fleet of the most expensive vehicles (some said to cost up to $500,000), many expansive mansions and, to crown it all off for the good king, a top-of-the-line personal jet. The lifestyles of his ever-increasing household —thanks to the frequent addition of young wives—dwindles that of many Western millionaires and is financially supported by the poor people of Swaziland. In the recent past, the king and his fun-loving entourage have taken expensive trips oversees to visit other royals and to luxurious resorts abroad. His wives frequently tour Western countries for shopping sprees. King Mswati III is, to an extent, following the footsteps of his father King Sobhuza II who had accumulated 70 wives and over 200 children. Mswati is only 44 years old and, at this rate, he is likely to surpass his father in the department of wife accumulation. For an impoverished country like Swaziland, the behavior of the king resembles that of a roving bandit—one who has no interest in the welfare of the citizenry.

There are many who see merit in upholding the tradition of the African monarchy and the institutions it represents. Such systems have been known to be stabilizing and serve as anchors for developmental states. In fact, many of the African traditional systems that were based in inherited leadership were not dictatorial, but largely consensual: The authority of chiefs and kings was derived from consent. As it were, the advancement of the community’s welfare—providing protection and supporting productive activities—was the primary objective of such systems. King Mswati III, however, seems to take Swaziland’s resources as his personal property and views its people as mere subjects whose welfare does not feature in the monarch’s calculus.

Swaziland is a poor country with a large proportion of its population living below the poverty line: Over 60 percent of its citizens live on an income of less than $1.25 per day and 80 percent live on less than $2 per day. Life expectancy at birth in Swaziland is about 45 years and only about 40 percent of the population has access to improved water sources. Given the state of human development in Swaziland, it is reasonable to ask ourselves: What is the human development cost of the king’s luxurious lifestyle? How many infant lives could be saved if the king’s wives’ shopping sprees were curtailed? How many villages would have access to safe drinking water if the king were to reduce his fleet of vehicles or if his many mansions were reduced to a comfortable minimum rather than an extravagancy? When I tabulate the various luxurious undertakings of the king and his household, I find that the human development cost is not trivial. No matter how much we may value African traditions, such traditions must be questioned when their continuance links with heavy costs in terms of human development. The current monarchy of Swaziland is anti-developmental and it is high time that the people of Swaziland evaluate the value of continuing a system that imparts such heavy costs.

But there is something interesting if not laughable about the hypocrisy by the developed countries and international development institutions quick to criticize African dictators while holding the king in high esteem. Then there are the other African leaders who are critical of regimes that infringe on the rights of the citizenry, but there is nothing but praise for the Swazi king. It is a high time that African leaders and the development partners subject the king and his ruling coalition to the same criticism that they normally direct to exploitative dictators.

Personally I am sickened by this king and his playboy lifestyle. It is not in keeping with present day “rising Africa,” and the monarchy should be subjected to international censure in order to curtail the exploitation of the people of Swaziland.