US setting up ‘spy base’ in Swaziland?
New embassy has Africa watchers speculating on its intelligence role
THE US is building a R1-billion embassy in Swaziland on a site roughly the size of five rugby fields.
The building is bigger than the embassy in South Africa, which is of far greater economic and diplomatic significance to the Americans.
The construction site dwarfs a neighbouring shopping mall in Ezulwini, 20km south of Mbabane, Swaziland’s capital.
A network of security cameras covers the surrounding streets and a three-storey-high fence shields the site from prying eyes.
A Sunday Times reporter found a high vantage point overlooking the site. Locals said they had seen deep excavations that had taken place to possibly house a subterranean element of the building.
The US State Department’s bureau of overseas buildings operations did not respond fully to questions about the new complex.
It said only that the new embassy “will greatly enhance our ability to carry out our diplomatic engagement and is being built in accordance with the size and security regulations that are used for all new embassy compounds constructed around the world”.
Local Africa watchers speculated that the complex might be intended to house an intelligence-gathering operation.
“In recent years, particularly in light of the increasing influence of the Chinese, we have seen the US take a much more keen interest and focus in the African continent,” said Dr Mopeli Moshoeshoe of the University of the Witwatersrand’s department of international relations.
However, given the Southern African Development Community’s eastward leanings and the AU’s desire to retain its influence in Africa, the US’s attempts to gain a stronger presence in Africa had been resisted, said Moshoeshoe.
“If we were to speculate, [the complex] may serve as a base for Africom,” said Moshoeshoe.
Africom — or Africa Command — is the US strategic command for Africa, established in 2008, essentially marshalling intelligence from the continent. Africom is based in Brussels after struggling to find a base in Africa.
“It seems like there are extra security arrangements associated with the whole architecture of it all and the site of the building,” said Dimpho Motsamai of the Institute for Security Studies.
She pointed out, however, that “Swaziland has always had a very fancy US embassy in comparison with other countries in the region”.
She said that the building needed to be seen “through the lens of the strategic importance of Swaziland to the US”.
The new embassy is being built at a time when the US is publicly distancing itself from the continent’s last absolute monarch — a regime seen to be incompatible with the American notion of democracy.
Two weeks ago, US President Barack Obama’s administration expelled Swaziland from the Agoa trade pact with the continent, which suggested that the Americans needed a smaller — not larger — presence in King Mswati III’s kingdom.
One executive involved in the construction industry in Swaziland said all the building materials had been imported from the US.
CURIOUS: The new US embassy complex