WHEN Simbarashe Mutsahuni Chikore married the late former president Robert Mugabe’s only daughter with ex-first lady Grace, Bona Nyepudzai Ouma, in 2014 at the height of the authoritarian ruler’s reign — at a lavish wedding attended by 4 000 guests and broadcast on state television while costing millions of United States dollars — he would have told himself “I have arrived”.
Given his humble background, including doing some menial jobs while studying in the United States, that would have been a dream come true for Chikore. He had joined Zimbabwe’s political royalty, a family whose head had run the country for 34 years without a break.
It was also a family that had come to be known for opulence as demonstrated by Grace, a shopaholic whose love for top exclusive and expensive fashion brands earned her the moniker “Gucci Grace”.
Besides, he was marrying a beautiful overseas-educated university graduate who was known and admired by some for being intelligent and scandal-free in a controversial family, unlike her dunderhead siblings notorious for being allergic to education, leading champagne lifestyles, throwing costly parties with harems of gold-diggers and quaffing expensive cocktails, champagnes and whiskies.
Having ascended the social ivory tower, living in the lap of luxury was guaranteed. He now had a seat at the VVIP table. Some people would have assumed that his snout was now firmly lodged into the official feeding trough.
Chikore’s life was truly sorted, or at least it appeared to have been at the time. However, no sooner had he settled in his new dream marriage than he started venturing into the public domain and business.
While at AirZim, Chikore — a pilot who had started on a deceptive note claiming he was a captain (commander of a flight) when in fact he was a first officer (co-pilot) — began making manoeuvres to form a new airline using his aviation background and family ties in a US$70 million shady deal supported by the then Transport minister Joram Gumbo.
This saw him being deployed to Air Zimbabwe where he became chief operating officer between October 2016 and November 2017. Chikore ruled the roost at AirZim; he called the shots even though he did not have the necessary credentials to run an airline.
Government officials, aware of Chikore’s links with the powerful Mugabe family, facilitated the deal before some concerned people raised a stink about the corrupt arrangement.
The ZimAirways deal involved the formation of a new airline and purchase of new planes — used Boeing 777s and Embraers — for US$70 million. The saga sucked in national flag carrier AirZim and ministers.
The airline would be owned by an entity known as Aeronautics Africa Trust registered on 13 November 2017, a day before Mugabe was toppled by his proteges President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his deputy Constantino Chiwenga in a coup.
The story of ZimAirways and AirZim is not only that of the government’s determination to press a self-destruct button on the debt-ridden state-owned airline, but that of ever-changing narratives which read like a cock-and-bull story, an implausible tale told as an excuse to cover up a bad deal and corruption.
AirZim was on its knees mainly due to extended periods of mismanagement, corruption, state impunity and poor corporate governance, among other factors. Yet in the midst of this, Treasury, which has for years poured public funds into the airline, had over the few years discretely sunk taxpayers’ money into the ZimAirways project, whose arrangement and inner-workings are as clear as mud.
The government said ZimAirways was a state project and former Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa came out in the open insisting on this. He also said the Zimbabwe Aviation Leasing Company (Zalc) associated with it was a state entity. Gumbo publicly supported that and has come out validating it.
Rewind to November 2017. Gumbo had said the government was facilitating the setting up of ZimAirways owned by lawyers living in the diaspora. As drama continued to unfold, what then emerged is that directors behind Zalc, the firm which controversially fronted buying four Boeing 777 planes for ZimAirways, were lawyers.
Documents showed Harare lawyer Phillipa Phillips was one of the two Zalc directors, together with another legal practitioner Gift Watinaye. It was not clear why the lawyers were representing government interest there, if Chinamasa’s explanation was anything to go by.
“We were approached by the Zimbabwe Aviation Leasing Company, which said it was seeking partners, so we took them to Malaysia which had shown interest in the Air Zimbabwe deal, but could not take it, as long as there were legacy debts,” Gumbo said.
“So when Zalc came, my ministry was ready to assist because all we want is to use our facilities at the airport and at the same time creating jobs.”
Gumbo also said Chikore had nothing to do with ZimAirways as he remained an AirZim employee. He, however, said Mugabe’s then son-in-law was giving “advice” to ZimAirways as he was an “expert” in the aviation industry, without elaborating what was in it for him.
During the secretive negotiations to clandestinely buy aircraft from Malaysia while at the same time trying to wind down AirZim, Chikore, who then worked for the flag carrier, also worked with Gumbo to set up ZimAirways.
Gumbo then failed to explain this conflict of interest on Chikore’s involvement in the murky project.
“I involved Chikore when I was looking for partnerships, so Zimbabwe Airways are also seeking his advice and expertise. They are talking to him, just like Fly Africa is doing, so that he gives them best advice. He has experience in the aviation field and that is what we want,” Gumbo said.
ZimAirways at one time operated from Mavis Gumbo’s Gletwyn home. Mavis is related to the minister.
It only took Chinamasa to come to Gumbo’s defence when he said the ZimAirways project had been kept off the radar as a sanctions-busting measure. A closer look at the initial purchase agreement, however, for the planes, tells a different story.
Documents show the sanctions-busting story is a smokescreen as the purchase agreement openly indicated the government bought the airliners on behalf of AirZim. This suggested the sanctions-busting narrative was a convenient snake oil story to cover their tracks.
Gumbo for his part did not explain why he had been telling the government ZimAirways was a state project, yet publicly insisting it was a private entity. However, Chinamasa, who officiated at the delivery of one of the aircraft in April 2018 said ZimAirways was wholly-owned by the government, contrary to Gumbo’s remarks.
He also said Zalc was a government special purpose vehicle.
Gumbo and Chinamasa’s explanation was that two Boeing 777-200 were bought from Malaysia Airlines through their sole agent PricewaterhouseCoopers Kuala Lumpur, but are now being leased to ZimAirways via Zalc. They claimed ZimAirways and Zalc are owned by the government.
But Gumbo had always maintained they are private companies owned by Zimbabwean Diasporans. It later emerged that Zalc’s offices were located at 1426 Gletwyn in Harare, a property owned by Mavis Gumbo, although she denied any connection to the airline. Despite her denials, details showed she is linked to ZimAirways.
Documents and investigations at the time showed in October 2016 government entered into an agreement with the Malaysian Airline System Berha for the sale and purchase of four Boeing 777-200ER aircraft with manufacturer’s serial numbers 29065, 29066, 28421 and 28422.
The agreement was signed by Gumbo and former Mines minister Walter Chidhakwa — Mugabe and Simba’s relative — on 10 October 2016.
In the terms and conditions of this agreement also signed by Lim San Peen of Malaysia, the parties agreed “the aircraft are made available for sale on the basis they are solely to be used for commercial aviation purposes. The intended operator of the aircraft is Air Zimbabwe (Pvt) Ltd.”
The initial arrangement was that two of the Rolls Royce-powered planes would cost US$16.5 million each, while the other two would be bought for US$18.5 million apiece, bringing the total to US$70 million.
But Gumbo and his associates later decided to buy two Boeing 777s for US$18.5 million and US$16.5 million, a total of US$35 million. It was also later resolved to buy two Embraers for US$6 million using Treasury Bills. This brought the total of the revised deal to US$41 million.
However, documents show that even if the planes were bought in AirZim’s name, the flag carrier’s board and management were later kept in the dark after their initial involvement. Chinamasa did not produce documents to back his account.
In yet another glaring example of the government’s deceit, Chinamasa and Gumbo in their joint statement to painstakingly justify the setting up of ZimAirways said the government could only bail out AirZim once the airline had a turnaround strategy. What Gumbo did not disclose was that he had written the foreword for AirZim’s strategy for 2018-2020 contrary to his claims.
Then came the US$1 million which Chikore received from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to set up the airline and was supposed to pay back.
The money was squandered like confetti at his wedding with Bona, buying office furniture, equipment (laptops, desktops, printers and televisions), software, ticketing system, consultancy, and paying salaries, security, expatriates and building an airport office.
The money went down the drain as Chikore could not register the airline to fly internationally and pay back the central bank as initially agreed.
He was in 2018 arrested for corruptly hiring security company Safeguard Security without following proper tender procedures. He was alleged to have hired the security services company for US$16 445 instead of the recommended US$10 000.
Further, Chikore was accused of kidnapping ZimAirways legal head Bertha Zakeyo and detaining her for two hours at the airline’s offices in June amid chaos at the company.
He was however acquitted on kidnapping and criminal abuse of offices charges.
Yet in the end, Chikore’s ZimAirways audacious bid — which included liquidating AirZim — collapsed in chaos, while his fairy-tale marriage to Bona ended in tears just on Tuesday.
His only consolation though would be fighting for properties he acquirred with Bona, some of them donated to the couple by Mugabe and his widow Grace.-STAFF WRITER