Air Zimbabwe In New Headache Over Infamous Mugabe Aircraft; US$51m Paid But Planes Grounded Since 2020

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By Agencies

AIR Zimbabwe wants to do any business with its two infamous Boeing 777-200s, it has emerged.

The latest news is that the company is even willing to turn them into freighters, according to its acting CEO Tafadzwa Zaza.

“We are not in a position to operate them before consolidating at the national or regional level,” he told a State-run Sunday newspaper.

“So, as a short-term plan, we want to lease these aircraft as wet-lease or dry-lease and we have invited investors interested in them.

“The long-term plan is to convert one or both into cargo planes.”

In total, there are two Boeing 777-200ERs, which have been stationary in Harare since the end of 2020. They bear the brands Z-NBE (msn 28422) and Z-RGM (msn 28421) and are configured in a two-class arrangement with 247 seats in economy class and 35 in business class, as reported by our partner in Brazil, Aeroin.

The history of these Boeing 777

Simba Chikore is welcomed at Robert Gabriel Mugabe airport by Zanu PF’s Patrick Chinamasa

In 2016, state-owned airline Air Zimbabwe had debts of more than $300 million and had been dragging losses for years. So, at the time, the country’s government did what any “rational” government would do: it swept the debt under the rug, opened another airline, and announced that it would buy, for starters, four Boeing 777-200s.
Goodbye to Air Zimbabwe, welcome to Zimbabwe Airways. What could go wrong? All. First, a government that makes this decision loses credibility. And, as a result, the airline would have to pay cash for its planes.

This didn’t seem to be a problem. At the time then president Robert Mugabe personally negotiated the purchase of the four twin-engines, which had been retired by Malaysia Airlines in 2016.

The triumphant arrival of the first 777

However, a military coup in 2017 toppled Mugabe and put the delivery of the planes on hold. But that was short-lived. Somehow inexplicable and without warning, one of the 777s appeared in Harare in early 2018, already painted with the Zimbabwe Airways scheme.

At the time, the government seemed to want to improve the company’s reputation and give it access to new markets. The claim was that the new airline had nothing to do with dictator Robert Mugabe and his family, but was managed independently.

It turns out that when the first plane arrived, there was a surprise: it was “coincidentally” registered as Z-RGM, the exact initials of Robert Gabriel Mugabe, even his son-in-law emerged triumphant from the plane wearing a captain’s uniform, although it is not known if he is really a pilot.

The situation would be strange enough on its own, until in May of that same year, a company spokesperson issued a statement regretting that the company could not fly the plane. The reason: hiring pilots cost too much money and there weren’t enough passengers to justify the investment.

After all these disputes, and months of being stranded in Harare, the plane was finally returned to Malaysia. But this is not the end of the story.

The financial problem

Since the fall of Robert Mugabe, current President Emmerson Mnangagwa says he has pledged to demand greater transparency from government bodies, including unraveling the financial scandals of the past three decades.

An audit conducted in July 2019 revealed that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe disbursed an amount of $51 million to Malaysia Airlines as part of the agreement to purchase two Boeing 777-200s without the necessary approvals.

It turns out that Zimbabwe may have paid much more than that, or else some of the money simply disappeared while the deal was closing. Media reports indicated that in this agreement 140 million dollars “could not be accounted for” and simply disappeared, which led to an investigation that has not yet concluded.

The Return of Those Who Were Not

In another twist, the government of Emmerson Mnangagwa decided that it no longer wanted Zimbabwe Airways, led by Mugabe’s son-in-law Simba Chikore (the same one who arrived dressed as a commander when the 777 arrived), so it decided to transfer its assets – including aircraft – to Air Zimbabwe. Yes, the same company they had closed, with more than $300 million of accumulated debt.

The government’s promise is to regularize Air Zimbabwe’s situation and restore institutional confidence. Among the upcoming missions is the reinclusion of the company in IATA, following all safety regulations.

In addition, the government decided it was time to relive the golden days of the local flag carrier and asked them to bring back the two Boeing 777s, after all they were already paid, although the disbursement occurred in such a controversial way and there is an ongoing investigation.

Robert Mugabe was also ousted from power on corruption charges, plunging the country into poverty, as well as being accused of crimes against humanity such as genocide and persecution of local populations.

And evidently the name of the dictator is omnipresent in the African country: Despite all the efforts of the new government to eliminate the paint scheme of Zimbabwe Airways, the plane arrived with the registration Z-RGM. To Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport.