Dumisani Muleya/ Shakeman Mugari
ZIMBABWE’S plans to purchase passenger aircraft from Russia have collapsed amid bribery allegations involving US$25 million.
Reliable aviation sources said this week that Transport minister Chris Mushohwe and Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono recently left Russia in a huff after a dispute erupted during negotiations.
They feared a Russian Mafia-style backlash after the deal fell through as a result of disagreements over a US$25 million “commission” that was supposed to be paid in advance, over and above the agreed price for the controversial planes.
Zimbabwe wanted to buy at least five llyushin and Tupolev aircraft from Russian’s Voronezh Aircraft Construction Company (Vaco). Zimbabwe was to get five Ilyushin 1l-96s consisting of three 400T and two 400M passenger aircraft.
The planes have been nicknamed “flying coffins” because of their technical faults and frequency of horrific crashes. Engineers at Air Zimbabwe, which is trying to buy planes to beef up its depleted fleet, have raised serious concerns over the quality of the planes although Russian diplomats in Harare have downplayed the concerns. Air Zimbabwe recently acquired three MA60s from China.
Sources said Gono had to virtually flee Russia in fear of his life after the protracted negotiations stalled and the deal turned sour.
The problem, sources said, started after the Russians demanded that Zimbabwe must pay in advance a “commission” of US$25 million which was to be shared equally among political and business “chefs” in Moscow and Harare to facilitate the deal.
Questions have been raised in government circles about how they were supposed to be the beneficiaries of this “commission”.
The “commission” has been interpreted by aviation observers as a kickback.
An aviation expert said there were unscrupulous dealers in the industry who behave like arms dealers.
Mushohwe went to Russia recently as the responsible minister to conclude the talks over the planes. When he arrived the Russians told him Zimbabwe had to pay a US$25 million “commission” before the deal could be concluded.
While Mushohwe was still negotiating with the Russians, President Robert Mugabe dispatched Gono to carry out a due diligence on the deal and tie up the loose ends. The central bank was going to help with foreign currency to pay for the planes.
Sources said when Gono arrived in Moscow he was told a US$25 million “commission” had to be paid before the deal could be signed.
He was also told, according to sources, that half of the money — US$12,5million — would go to senior officials in Russia and the other to Zimbabwean big shots.
The sources said while Mushohwe was still looking into the issue, Gono told the Russians that Zimbabwe was not able to raise that kind of money because of foreign currency shortages and a general fiscal crisis.
The Russians however insisted that it was the norm in the aviation industry for a “commission” to be paid to senior politicians when such deals were negotiated.
“When Gono tried to protest, the Russians were not amused and told him he was becoming a problem,” a source close to the issue said. “It then became clear that Zimbabwe must withdraw from the deal but the Russians did not take it lightly.”
The Russians insisted that money had to be paid and warned they were not interested in negotiating such a deal with “inexperienced” officials who did not know the unwritten rules in aviation deals.
Gono pretended to give in under pressure and said the issue would be looked into and said he still needed to consult his principals. After getting off the hook through delaying tactics, Gono, fearing for his life, scurried out of his hotel and went to another near the airport, before leaving the country in a hurry.
“Having bought some time in the deal, Gono booked out of his initial hotel and went to check into another one by the airport to ensure his safety before practically fleeing Russia,” a source said.
“Mushohwe also left Russia in a hurry after he failed to deliver on his side of the bargain and had also developed a misunderstanding with Gono over the deal,” the source said.
Sources said Gono’s security fears were worsened by the recent murder of his friend, deputy chairman of Russia’s central bank, Andrei Kozlov, who was shot dead while coming from a football match in Moscow. The sources said Gono and Mushohwe had to literally flee Moscow fearing reprisals from the Russians. Neither Gono nor Mushohwe could be reached for comment last night. Mushohwe hung up the phone as soon as he heard that it was the Zimbabwe Independent calling. Gono was still locked in meetings.
Sources said in the end Mushohwe and Gono were at loggerheads after negotiations faltered because the minister thought the Reserve Bank chief had thrown a spanner into the works. Mushohwe, sources said, was angry because Gono had come to Russia trying to dictate how the deal should be done when he had already made progress in his talks with the Russians.
It is also said Vice-President Joice Mujuru, who was acting president when Mugabe was in China, was also unamused by Gono’s role because it had led to the collapse of negotiations.
Sources said the clashes which occurred between Mujuru’s allies in the National Economic Development Priority Programme and Gono during a recent National Economic Recovery Council meeting were linked to events in Russia.
It is also said the political fight over the importation of inferior fertiliser from South Africa was part of a chain of events which have been playing out in the corridors of power.