US set­ting up ‘spy base’ in Swazi­land?

New em­bassy has Africa watch­ers spec­u­lat­ing on its in­tel­li­gence role

Sunday Times - - NEWS - reesm@sun­day­times.co.za MAL­COLM REES Com­ment on this: write to tel­lus@sun­day­times.co.za or SMS us at 33971 www.times­live.co.za

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.

Pic­ture: MAL­COLM REES

CU­RI­OUS: The new US em­bassy com­plex

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