CONTROVERSY surrounding struggling national flag carrier Air Zimbabwe (AirZim) is deepening, while its fate remains uncertain. This comes against the backdrop of the unexpected exit of AirZim’s chief operating officer Simba Chikore who had been the main architect in spearheading the formation of a new company that would have taken over the state airline through the back door, signalling its demise, it has been established.
By Bernard Mpofu
AirZim chief executive Ripton Muzenda has been elbowed out following his fallout with the board and former president Robert Mugabe’s son-in-law, Chikore who was second in charge. Just last week, Chikore, who is married to Mugabe’s daughter Bona, threw in the towel at AirZim when the military pressured the long-time leader out of office.
It is understood that Muzenda was forced out after refusing to approve a board decision for a retrenchment plan that was meant to reduce the troubled carrier’s high employment costs, which had reportedly undermined turnaround efforts.
The AirZim board had decided to cut 300 jobs, including some of its longest serving executives, as part of efforts to turn around the struggling airline.
Chikore’s exit comes at a time the airline had been discretely winding down its operations to pave way for another company with an opaque shareholding structure.
Sources at AirZim said the airline has in recent months been on a massive retrenchment exercise. Three AirZim employees, sources further said, are currently stranded in Malaysia after they had travelled to the Asian country to collect planes before the deal collapsed with Mugabe’s downfall.
“The chairperson is currently running the airline and has been hiring new people to plug gaps left by experienced staff,” a source familiar with the developments said. Some of the key staff recruited recently include Gilfern Moyo (human resources), Tafadzwa Mazonde (corporate services), Adam Siyachamwaika (strategy planning) and Louisa Muparuri (IT).
AirZim chairperson Chipo Dyanda could not be reached for comment as she was said to be in a meeting.
The new managers, sources said, will be earning more than those retrenched, further piling pressure on the struggling airline.
It is also understood that US$45 million that had been advanced to purchase two new planes from Brazil had been diverted to the new Zimbabwe Airlines project.
The project to establish Zimbabwe Airways, whose relationship with flag carrier Air Zimbabwe (AirZim) is murky, was, until Chikore’s exit, moving towards finality, amid revelations that Transport minister Joram Gumbo and Mugabe’s son-in-law were be caught in a massive conflict of interest storm.
Last month, the Zimbabwe Independent reported that Gumbo and Chikore had been assisting in the setting up of what is supposed to be a privately-owned airline at the expense of the flag carrier, AirZim, which fell under their purview and supervision, raising a serious and damaging conflict of interest on their part.
Information gathered shows that Zimbabwe Airways is owned by a local firm, Zimbabwe Aviation Leasing Company
The company was formed by an identified group of Zimbabwean investors, among them lawyers and businesspersons with interests in the aviation industry. Some of the ZALC shareholders are said to be based in the diaspora.
An enquiry with the Deeds Office in Harare indicated ZALC was registered under file number 3015/12. The file was, however, missing from the office, meaning the directors could not be immediately ascertained.
But information obtained shows that Zim Airways was initially set to take to the skies on November 9 after acquiring four long-haul Boeing 777 aircraft from Malaysia Airlines.
There have been widespread reports Mugabe’s family or Chikore is a stakeholder in Zim Airways. The Independent has established Chikore assisted in setting up the company, purportedly as a consultant at a time when he was still serving as AirZim chief operating officer.