HARARE – Parliament is turning up the heat on beleaguered Transport minister Joram Gumbo, demanding that he provides convincing answers on all aspects of the controversial new airline, Zimbabwe Airways — said to have links with former president Robert Mugabe’s family.
This comes as the purchase price of four wide-bodied aircraft from Malaysia Airlines to be used by Zim Airways has set tongues wagging — amid damaging allegations that this had been inflated by more than $100 million, from $70 million to a staggering $180 million.
At the centre of the controversy is a secretive company, the Zimbabwe Aviation Leasing Company (ZALC) — which all along was said to be fronted by Zimbabweans living in the Diaspora, but is now said to belong to the government.
ZALC owns Zim Airways, and despite the fact that its new airline is close to taking to the skies, its documentation is still not publicly available — including at the offices of the Registrar of Companies.
Now, Parliament is asking the under-fire Gumbo to provide a comprehensive statement on ZALC’s shareholding and how it came to purchase its aircraft, amid the damaging claims of malpractices and corruption.
“Seeing that there is a lot of talk about Zimbabwe Airways and the dualisation of the Harare-Beitbridge road — and there are a lot of things that have been said pertaining to that road, including the cancellation of tenders and tenders being awarded to people that have not submitted bids in the first place — I thought I would want him to favour this House with a ministerial statement on basically those two issues.
“On Zimbabwe Airways, he (Gumbo) should tell the nation issues like who owns it, how the aeroplanes were bought and the shareholding of that company.
“So, I submit and hope that the minister will favour us with that ministerial statement,” Mabvuku-Tafara legislator James Maridadi said in Parliament on Thursday — in a motion that apparently enjoys wide, cross-party support.
Zim Airways inked its deal with Malaysia Airlines for the acquisition of the four Boeing 777 planes last year, in the process making an upfront payment for two of the aircraft to the tune of $36 million.
Gumbo and Mugabe’s son-in-law Simba Chikore, who was briefly chief operating officer at struggling flag-carrier Air Zimbabwe, were reported at the time to have been intimately involved in the formation of Zim Airways, as well as the purchase of the aircraft.
Last week, the government took delivery of one of the four planes as part of the opaque deal that will see a total of four wide-bodied planes eventually being sourced from Malaysia.
Meanwhile, fiery Norton legislator Temba Mliswa alleged in Parliament last week that a Singaporean company was involved with Zim Airways, further challenging Gumbo to furnish the august House with full details about the controversial airline and its aircraft purchases.
“I just want to add something … there must be the shareholding structure because I am told that the statement made by (Finance minister Patrick) Chinamasa (last week) is not true that there is a company.
“What I am trying to say is that Zimbabwe Airways is a company that is going to lease from another company. That company is registered in Singapore and the Zimbabwean government owns the planes.
“Hence, we need to know who that company is because it appears to be a very sophisticated structure. That is why I am spending time saying Zimbabwe Airways shareholders as well as shareholders of the company that leases from the government must also be known.
“Therefore, your statement must be clear so that there will be no more grey areas in that regard,” Mliswa thundered.
But Gumbo insisted that the Zim Airways deal was above board, promising MPs that he would bring all the necessary evidence.
“I am ready to give a ministerial statement containing all details, including commas and full-stops thereof … I have no problem … I will give you everything … Do not worry.
“However, let me just preliminarily explain for the sake of the media. The company he is referring to, for your information, is not registered in Singapore. It is registered in Zimbabwe. Wait for the issuance of the statement and then ask your questions. I assure you that you will be very happy at the end of the day,” he said.
Gumbo was also forced to respond to a question from Binga North MP Prince Dubeko Sibanda who alleged that Zim Airways’ offices were housed at the minister’s niece’s house.
“The issue about a house that is said to have been rented and is alleged to be my daughter’s house … with all due respect, it is not my daughter’s. All Gumbos cannot be my children, but they can also be relatives to me and there is no problem about that.
“After you mentioned it, I investigated and only discovered that the house being rented by the Zimbabwe Airways was identified through an estate agent and it was not actually because there was a Mr Gumbo as a minister.
“It was identified from an estate agent. So, you can be assured that I had no role to play (there) … I am as white as snow regarding issues like that,” Gumbo told Parliament.
The minister, who has consistently said ZALC was owned by Zimbabweans living in the Diaspora, was last week embarrassed by Chinamasa who said the company belonged to the government.
Speaking at a function at Robert Mugabe International Airport last Wednesday where he was receiving the first Zim Airways plane, Chinamasa stunned journalists when he said ZALC was a government company which it had used to acquire the planes from Malaysia as a strategy to overcome sanctions.
“I am here to categorically state that the aeroplane standing outside is the property and an asset of the government of Zimbabwe. I know speculation has been rife that the airline belonged to the former first family. That is false.
“They have no interest of any kind in this aircraft. I am also here to make it clear that Simba Chikore has no shareholding at all, directly or indirectly,” he added.
“We kept the deal under wraps to avoid the trap of sanctions. As you know, we are under sanctions and with the hostility that we have received, it was difficult to do business.
“Each time we said we were going to one country for business, lots of emails would be sent there and we would not get any favour from the hosts. So, we decided that it was best to keep our heads cool and remain focused until the deal was done,” Chinamasa also claimed.
He revealed that ZALC would lease the new planes to Zim Airways — adding that the company was formed after realising that there was no future for the debt-ridden flag carrier, Air Zimbabwe.
However, this raised even more questions regarding the whole deal, as well as the government’s preparedness to flying and servicing the new aircraft.
An aviation expert also told the Daily News last week that the deal to purchase the Malaysian planes was “way too costly”.
“Firstly, no one wanted those old planes and so they should have cost much, much less. Secondly, Zim Airways has no capacity to operate those aircraft, as they have no trained pilots and engineers for them.
“This means that they will need to hire expatriates to fly the planes, and the going rate for a B777 captain is at least $20 000 per month, which is unaffordable in this market, where you don’t even have the passengers to justify the investment.
“You require at least three sets of pilots per aircraft, although you can even go up to five if you have 15-hour flights and above,” the expert added.
The Boeing 777 which arrived in the country last week was being flown by a set of five Malaysian pilots.
Chikore disembarked from the aircraft in a full captain’s gear, despite being just a first officer which is a berth below a pilot.