Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is a major owner behind a new national airline, which is set to be handed lucrative long-haul licences to London and the Far East.
The move has been condemned by opposition leaders who say it would make Mugabe, 93, the first head of state in the world to own a national airline.
Mugabe and his family have become “beneficial shareholders” in a new carrier called Zimbabwe Airways, reported business weekly The Financial Gazette, citing “multiple aviation sources”.
The airline is registered in the tax haven of Mauritius, and Mugabe’s son-in-law, Simba Chikore, who has been instrumental in setting up the new airline, is tipped to become its chief executive officer.
Chikore is currently the chief operating officer of ailing flag carrier Air Zimbabwe, which is saddled with debts of around $300m and is barred from flying into the European Union after failing to meet safety standards.
Setting up a fresh airline would be a way of sidestepping Air Zimbabwe’s debt and picking up lucrative long-haul routes to Europe and Asia, say some experts.
The new carrier would lease aircraft from a company in Malaysia. In June, a Boeing 777-branded Zimbabwe Airways completed a two-hour demonstration flight from Subang airport in Malaysia.
Zimbabwe transport Minister Joram Gumbo is also heavily involved in founding Zimbabwe Airways, and last year travelled to Malaysia on a flight with Mugabe and his wife Grace.
Gumbo denied reports that Mugabe owned Zimbabwe Airways, only saying that the carrier belongs to a consortium of local and non-resident Zimbabweans.
“We were on the same flight with the first family, on their way to Singapore, while I dropped off in Malaysia for the lease negotiations. I then followed them to Singapore and we returned back together,” Gumbo told The Financial Gazette.
However, industry insiders speculate that the new airline could unveil its fleet as early as 9 November, to coincide with the renaming of the Harare International Airport to Robert Mugabe International.
But Mugabe’s plans to set up and own a new national airline have been slammed by the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
“The first family has become a centre of corruption and looting and is a disgrace,” PDP spokesman Jacob Mafume told the New Zimbabwe newspaper.
He added: “That a deal can be negotiated on behalf of the state and then turned into a family entity is criminal, Zimbabweans must be angry. The law of the land does not allow a president to use his official position for personal gain.” – IBTimes