Of monarchs and monopolies

By Richard Lee | February 03rd, 2014

You’d think that Swazi King Mswati III would be happy enough with the powers – and wealth – that comes with being Africa’s last absolute monarch. Along with being politically, legally and culturally untouchable, Forbes has estimated his wealth at US$200 million, which is a pretty fortune wherever you happen to live – let alone in Swaziland where the majority of people live on less than US$2 per day.

And yet – greed and corruption (and abuse) are at the heart of any absolute system of government. And so, King Mswati and his cronies are always looking for new ways to make more money, whether these harm the country’s economy or make it even harder for ordinary Swazis to survive.

The latest example – the decision by the Supreme Court (aka the king's judicial lapdog) to overturn an earlier ruling by the High Court and ban the Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (SPTC) from operating its wireless network services. Not only did this leave SPTC’s many customers cut off from the World Wide Web, but it also created a new monopoly for MTN.

And guess who stands to benefit from this latest monopoly – and who also benefited when SPTC’s One Mobile service was closed down leaving MTN with a monopoly over mobile phone services – none other than King Mswati who has a substantial shareholding in MTN. But ordinary Swazis will, of course, lose out since MTN will now be able – as the sole, absolute provider – to charge whatever it sees fit for its services.

The Swazi authorities often talk about how the country is ‘ready for business’ but this shows just how ‘un-ready’ it is. Or rather how ‘un-ready’ it is for genuine, competitive business. And how unlikely it is that the country will be able to lure the foreign direct investment it needs to bolster the economy and help kick-start development.

But the king and his gang don’t care. After all, whatever SPTC’s former clients do, Mswati will win. Either they will remain cut off from the internet – and therefore have even less idea of what is going on inside their country – or they will switch to MTN and help to recharge the king’s coffers.

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