Five years ago, Swaziland, a small, impoverished country in southern Africa, announced that King Mswati III had received an unusually generous birthday present: a luxury DC-9 twin-engine aircraft.
The plane featured red, yellow, and blue stripes that matched the colors of the Swazi flag, and was loaded with amenities, including rows of first class seats, faux marble countertops, a shower, and a roomy bed.
The king’s benefactor was cloaked in mystery, but the plane’s tail number told a familiar tale about private planes used by foreign leaders: It was registered in the United States.
Federal Aviation Administration records show the plane was last registered in the United States as N871SG to Wells Fargo, long a leader in providing services that allow non-US citizens to own US-registered aircraft. But Wells Fargo, which last year announced plans to close its aviation trust business, was only serving as the legal representative for the real owner.
The arrangement, called a non-citizen trust, can be beneficial to foreigners for a number of reasons that include tax benefits and anonymity.
As a result, foreign dignitaries can often be seen stepping onto tarmacs from jets that sport American registration numbers — they always begin with “N.” Former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli fled his country from impending corruption charges in 2015 on an aircraft registered to the Bank of Utah, the local media reported. And, when the US Treasury accused Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami of being a “drug kingpin” earlier this year, the government froze his access to a US-registered Gulfstream 200 luxury jet. Treasury officials said Aissami controlled the plane through a US shell company under the name of his front man.
The lavish gift of N871SG to the Swazi King immediately sparked speculation and concern in the country, which has long been mired in poverty, accusations of corruption, and one of the world’s highest rates of AIDS. It also has a king with expensive tastes. Mswati reportedly has 15 wives, multiple palaces, and a fleet of luxury cars. Some political opponents worried that government funds may have been used to pay for the jet.
Yet, in part because of the opaque US registration system, the true origins of the plane were hidden for years
“It was very obscure,” said Phathizwe Zulu, a freelance journalist based in Swaziland who tried to track down the plane’s origins at the time.
The true provenance of the plane became widely known only when Mswati had a falling out with a Singapore businessman, Shanmuga Rethenam, who had been given lucrative rights to mine iron ore in Swaziland in partnership with the king. Their relationship frayed after iron ore prices plunged and the mining venture collapsed.
In 2015, Rethenam won a court order temporarily detaining the jet in Canada, claiming Mswati owed him millions of dollars for the purchase of the DC-9. The king’s lawyers denied the accusation. But in court documents, both sides acknowledged that the luxury plane was not a gift, but rather a sale between their respective companies for $11.45 million in 2010.
The revelation that the king had bought the plane from Rethenam sparked questions in the region. Why did the king’s ministers claim the plane, now registered in Swaziland, was a gift? Was it a corrupt transaction? One South African journalist asked Rethenam whether his dealings with the king, including providing the plane, could be considered a bribe to obtain mining rights.
“This is the custom in Swaziland,” Rethenam told City Press of South Africa. “This is how things are done.”
Globe correspondent Rhiannon Russell contributed to this report. Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.