President Emmerson Mnangagwa's government is moving to impound aeroplanes linked to deposed Robert Mugabe's family, which stands accused of acquiring the aircraft through taxpayers' money.
Mugabe’s son-in-law Simba Chikore, who was briefly chief operating officer at struggling flag carrier Air Zimbabwe, as well as the increasingly under scrutiny Transport minister Joram Gumbo, were reported at the time to have been intimately involved in the formation of Zimbabwe Airways, as well as the purchase of the aircraft.
Well-placed sources told the Daily News yesterday that Mnangagwa had apparently ordered that one of the planes — a Boeing 777 jet liner which is arriving at the Robert Mugabe International Airport today (arrived already) — be immediately parked among Air Zimbabwe’s fleet upon landing, until a probe establishing how Zim Airways acquired its fleet is completed.
Apart from investigating the funding of the planes, Mnangagwa is also said to be keen to know the exact shareholding structure of the airline, in the light of its allegedly “opaque” set-up.
“Unless the probe exonerates the role players, chances are that these planes will be seized and added to the Air Zim fleet. The pressure has also been on Gumbo to bring the planes home while investigations continue.
“Alternatively, he was told that if the planes could not be brought back home, he should at least recover every penny paid for them,” one of the sources familiar with the issue said.
On his part, Gumbo confirmed to the Daily News from the Malaysian capital city of Kuala Lumpur yesterday that one of the Boeing 777s would be arriving in Harare this afternoon — with insiders saying he had been ordered to go to Malaysia by Mnangagwa to make sure that the plane was flown to Harare.
“I can confirm that we are bringing the plane tomorrow (today) … landing time is at 12pm,” Gumbo, who flew to the Asian country on Sunday, said.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ) also confirmed that the plane would be arriving in Harare today.
“The authority wishes to advise that one Boeing 777 aircraft under Zimbabwe Aviation Leasing Company (ZALC) will arrive tomorrow (today), 11 April at 1200hrs from Malaysia. The guest of honour will be … minister Patrick Chinamasa,” CAAZ said.
According to other sources, the plane which is coming today is already registered as Flight Z-RGM, apparently a short code for Zimbabwe-Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
The plane is one of the four 12-year-old aircraft which Malaysian Airlines wanted to dispose of at a total cost of $70 million last year, with two of them having already been paid for by Zim Airways.
The Daily News also learnt yesterday that the initial deal by the Malaysians was offered to Air Zimbabwe, but was “inexplicably” taken over by the new airline at the time that Chikore was still Air Zim’s chief operating officer — following his controversial earlier appointment at the struggling national airline by Gumbo.
“There is lots of stuff that is being said about the planes and Zim Airways, and it is everyone’s hope that the planned probe will put to rest some of the allegations if they are not true. Some of the claims are to the effect that Zim Airways was allegedly formed to plunder State resources, and hence their contested seizure of the opportunity to buy the Malaysian planes.
“It is also claimed that the strategy was also to fast-track the demise of the debt-ridden Air Zim by bringing in a strong competitor which, in addition to plying local routes, would also be granted permits to service the lucrative European routes which Air Zim cannot service anymore,” one of the sources said.
The abrupt departure of Chikore from Air Zim last year, apparently to spearhead the establishment of Zim Airways, had further heightened speculation that the project belonged to the former first family.
It had not helped matters that mystery also surrounded the source of the funds that were used to purchase the new jetliners.
Gumbo has consistently claimed that the money came from Zimbabweans living in the Diaspora under the auspices of a little known company called Zimbabwe Aviation Leasing Company (ZALC) — although this explanation has not convinced the new dispensation, hence the current probe.
“So I started negotiations to buy, and so I informed government that I had clinched a deal with Air Malaysia to buy four Boeing 777 planes at $70 million for all of them and I thought this was a good deal for Zimbabwe. But again, government failed to raise the money. I was buying these for Air Zimbabwe.
“So, after government introduced the policy to engage the Diaspora to invest in the country, I reached out to them. There was a group in London and another in Dubai. I engaged them to say here is an opportunity if you are interested. My role as minister of Transport is to ensure that there is activity in the country. Therefore, I facilitated for one of these groups to negotiate with Air Malaysia through PWC (Price Waterhouse Coopers auditors).
“This group then formed the Zimbabwe Aviation Leasing Company. They have now managed to purchase some of the planes. They have now paid for two planes and they are raising money to pay for the other two. The agreement is to purchase four,” Gumbo told the Daily News last year when he was quizzed about his involvement in the Zim Airways deal.
Mnangagwa’s tough stance on the Zim Airways deal comes as Air Zim is now barely managing to fly its domestic and international passengers, who are increasingly enduring horrendous flight cancellations and reschedulings.
And although Air Zim’s fleet supposedly comprises 10 “active” aircraft — two Boeing 767s, three 737s, three MA60s and two Airbus A320s — well-placed sources recently told the Daily News that the debt-ridden national airline now only had three of these in the air, servicing both its domestic and regional routes.
Air Zim has over the past three decades struggled to shake off claims of gross corruption and ineptitude, which has led to the dismissals of several of its boards and senior managers.
The airline is said to be losing up to $3 million a month, in addition to being saddled with a $300 million declared debt.