Malaysian airline company to help rescue Zimbabwe’s national airline

Simba Chikore

PETALING JAYA: The son-in-law of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was in Malaysia recently to close a deal with an airline company here to help salvage the crisis-riddled Air Zimbabwe (AirZim).

The Zimbabwe Independent reported on Monday that Simba Chikore had travelled with the country’s transport minister Joram Gumbo to seal the bankrupt airline’s aircraft lease agreement.

His trip here was apparently arranged at the same time that Mugabe, 93, had been in Singapore for a week, reportedly for a medical checkup.

The newspaper cited sources as saying that Chikore and Gumbo were finalising a deal which would see a Malaysian airline company (the report named it as “Malaysian Airways”) partnering with the struggling AirZim.

According to a July 14 report in the Air Transport World (ATW) online magazine, AirZim is believed to have arranged for the lease of four Boeing 777-200ERs from Malaysia Airlines.

ATW noted that AirZim had reportedly initiated a retrenchment exercise for almost half of its more than 400 staff due to financial problems, with debts estimated at US$330 million (RM1.4 billion).

Sources quoted by the Zimbabwe Independent said the deal with the Malaysian airline involved a “wet lease”.

A wet lease entails an arrangement where one airline provides an aircraft complete with crew, maintenance and insurance to another airline, with payment made based on the number of hours the leased aircraft operates.

The report said a 10-member team comprising key personnel from AirZim had also flown to Malaysia a week earlier to oversee the planning of the ferry flight, involving transfer of the leased aircraft without passengers or cargo, to Zimbabwe.

The sources were reported to have also said that the negotiations undertaken by Chikore and Gumbo had been made to the exclusion of other senior AirZim executives.

“Chikore and Gumbo are already in Malaysia but, surprisingly, they did not go with the Air Zimbabwe chief executive officer Ripton Muzenda and not even the board chairperson Chipo Dyanda,” the report quoted the sources as saying.

Chikore, who married Mugabe’s only daughter Bona, had been appointed chief operations officer of AirZim, which is the national airline.

The sources said he had been carrying out executive duties and day-to-day running of the state-owned company, with Muzenda being politically sidelined.

“Chikore has effectively displaced Muzenda because of his proximity to the first family,” one source quoted by the Zimbabwe Independent said.

“He takes instruction from the family and enjoys direct access to the minister.

“The first family should not be involved, but it seems they are giving him ideas and instructions because everything he does is said to be having the blessings of President Robert Mugabe’s family,” the source added.

The report also said the Zimbabwean transport ministry had been engaging other potential partners to help AirZim, including Kenyan, Ethiopian, Singaporean and Turkish airline firms.

Meanwhile, on July 15, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) reported that Mugabe and his wife Grace had returned to Harare that day after a week’s visit to Singapore where he had undergone a “routine” medical checkup.

Although it did not specify if Chikore was with them on the return flight, it reported that he and Bona were with the presidential couple when Grace was taken for minor treatment at a hospital following a small road accident on the way home from the Harare International Airport.