When it comes to international intrigue, the small southwestern Ontario community of Huron Park seems an unlikely setting.
But for the past few months, the area — part of the municipality of South Huron (pop. 10,000) — has been at the centre of an improbable story involving a jet-setting African king, his now-impounded luxury aircraft and a mysterious Singaporean businessman.
It’s a tale that has now found its way into a Toronto court.
In mid-January, in a hangar at a former military airport, the official plane belonging to King Mswati III of Swaziland was having its entertainment system upgraded by workers at New United Goderich, Inc., a small company specializing in the lucrative niche field of jet refurbishments and “VIP conversions.”
Then a bailiff walked in and seized the luxuriously outfitted DC-9 over an alleged $3.5-million (U.S.) debt. The plane has been grounded ever since, forbidden to leave the premises until the case is resolved.
Mswati’s office denies the king owes money and has spent more than $170,000 in legal fees fighting the seizure, which was sought in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice by Shanmuga Rethenam, a Singaporean businessman who sold the jet to the king years ago.
On March 27, the court ruled on technical grounds that Rethenam couldn’t hold the plane, but didn’t rule on whether the king owes him money. Rethenam appealed the decision, keeping the plane in place for now.
As the battle rages on, court documents have shone a spotlight on a once-strong relationship, now soured, and the lavish aircraft the king’s office has claimed publicly was a gift.
A plane fit for a king
Mswati’s Boeing McDonnell Douglas DC-9 was purchased nearly hollow on May 12, 2010, for $11.45 million (U.S.).
Over two years, it was transformed into a flying palace at a cost of more than $6 million (U.S.).
The firm that did the work, then known as Goderich Aircraft Inc., has been based in Huron Park since 1997, and with the help of a $4.4-million federal loan in 2010 expanded to outfitting planes for the rich and famous.
Company officials declined to comment on the case, citing privacy concerns.
The plane’s sale was arranged between a British Virgin Islands aviation firm, SG Air Leasing Ltd., and Inchatsavane Co. (Pty.) Ltd., a shell company owned by Mswati. Rethenam, SG’s owner, then embarked on a Swaziland mining venture with the king. In an affidavit filed with the court on Jan. 8, 2015, Rethenam said the king had become a “close business associate.”
Rethenam alleges in his statement of claim that he paid more than $3 million of the remodelling bill in Huron Park due to his personal relationship with the king. He also spent more than $1 million on replacements in the meantime, he alleges. He leased at least two planes, after Mswati rejected one because “it only had one toilet on board and was therefore very inconvenient.”
Though he rules as absolute monarch over a tiny country with an average annual income of less than $3,000, Mswati is renowned for his lavish lifestyle. When the king’s new plane rolled onto a Swazi tarmac in April 2012, it set off a wave of questions about royal spending.
At that time, Mswati’s office said the plane was a gift of “anonymous sponsors.” But Sihle Dlamini, the king’s private secretary, said in a Jan. 27 affidavit that the plane had been purchased.
Dlamini, who was in Toronto to deal with the current case, did not address the apparent contradiction when contacted by the Star.
After the plane’s delivery, Rethenam said Mswati repeatedly assured him payment was coming. He added that his ties with Mswati had “strengthened,” and he did not “press for payment aggressively.”
That, however, soon changed.
An ‘engineered’ collapse
By the end of last summer, the mining firm Rethenam operated in Swaziland, SG Iron Ore Mining (Pty.) Ltd., had “collapsed” and he was “almost broke,” according to documents submitted to the court. He alleges in a supplementary affidavit that Mswati had “engineered” the mining company’s fall.
At the beginning of 2014, Rethenam said, Mswati, who allegedly owed the firm $7 million (U.S.), had asked to have the money “retired from SG Iron’s books and records.” Rethenam said he tried to help, but was unable to do so. And so their relationship deteriorated, Rethenam said.
In August, one of Mswati’s appointees to the mining company’s board blocked all sales, the businessman alleged. Ships waiting to receive cargo sat empty, “starving the company,” Rethenam said. “HMK then sent his army to expropriate the mine belonging to SG Iron.”
Rethenam eventually met with Mswati on Nov. 13 last year at Lozitha Palace, the king’s official residence. In his affidavit, the businessman said he told Mswati he needed to “restart my life” and alleges the king agreed to pay him $3.5 million.
Emails Rethenam provided to the court show he sent the terms to Dlamini on Dec. 6, 2014. Three days later, Dlamini replied: “Acknowledged.” Rethenam took that to mean agreement to the terms and sent an invoice, though Dlamini later said in an affidavit that he had merely noted receipt of the email. A month later, having received no money, Rethenam moved to seize the plane.
Showdown in Toronto
Rethenam and Dlamini eventually met in Toronto on Feb. 11 this year for what appeared to be a tense cross-examination of the businessman.
“I made a deal with His Majesty,” the businessman said. “Where is His Majesty?”
At Dlamini’s cross examination, for which Mswati was not present, he said the king did not agree to give Rethenam $3.5 million during their Nov. 13 meeting — a supposed deal for which both parties agree no documentation exists. Dlamini said Rethenam, in fact, owes Mswati $3.5 million, a debt due to what Dlamini said is a breach of terms by Rethenam in the sale of the plane and “mismanagement” of SG Iron.
“SG Iron Ore’s financial problems were caused by Mr. Rethenam’s own conduct,” Dlamini said in his affidavit, disputing claims that Mswati caused them. In an email to the Star, Dlamini called Rethenam’s allegation “not true.”
Neither party’s claim has been proven in court and Mswati hasn’t given a statement. Neither Dlamini nor the Swazi government press office responded to requests to interview the king. Swaziland’s embassy in Washington, which handles the kingdom’s affairs in Canada, said “no one” there can comment.
The man who ‘lost almost everything’
Rethenam is determined to get back what he says is his, whatever the result of his appeal, which the Ontario Court of Appeal will hear June 11.
“Even if Canada allows the plane to leave, the debt is still outstanding,” Rethenam said. “I’ll get a worldwide freezing order to arrest the aircraft wherever the aircraft is.”
The businessman told the Star he is already fighting Mswati elsewhere. The dissolution of SG Iron is before an international arbitration court in Washington, D.C. He’s also suing Mswati in New York, where Rethenam says he spent $1.5 million (U.S.) on antiques on the king’s behalf.
Meanwhile, Mswati appears to be in the market for a new plane. Citing “confidential documents,” Swazi Media Commentary, a blog by a former Swazi journalism professor, reports the king is buying a Boeing Airbus A340 with an insured value of $15 million (U.S.).
A spokeswoman for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs said officials are “aware that there is an ongoing court case,” but the department is not commenting as the issue is before court.