BY TINASHE KAIRIZA
PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa cancelled a deal by his late predecessor Robert Mugabe to acquire a presidential helicopter from Russia opting for an Airbus-made superjet in a deal involving a third party which resulted in costs surging.
Mnangagwa splurged US$18 million on an Airbus H215 helicopter in a deal which sparked outrage early this month.
The aircraft Mugabe wanted to buy would cost at most US$14 million, implying a US$4 million variation.
Aviation evaluation journals, including the US publication, AIN Online, highlights that the cost of the H215 ranges between US$15,4 million and US$16,5 million.
However, in the case of Mnangagwa’s acquisition, sources say the price rose to about US$18 million considering that Zimbabwe cannot buy directly from Airbus due to sanctions imposed on the country by the European Union (EU), which imply that Airbus cannot directly do business with the government.
“The purchase could only have been done through a third party. If you are buying directly from Airbus, they issue you with an end-user certificate. In the case of Zimbabwe, a third party must have been roped in, and if you factor that in, the cost will escalate to about US$18 million,” an official source said.
Sources also revealed that Mugabe originally had the plan to buy a VVIP helicopter from Russia in a deal that was intricately linked to Zimbabwe’s vast platinum resources.
“Mugabe wanted to buy the Russian made Mi 17IE in a deal that was tied to Zimbabwe’s vast platinum reserves along the Great Dyke but this was cancelled in favour of the one from Airbus which was paid for in cash,” the source said.
According to the Airbus Helicopters Naming Convention, the H215 was previously known as the EC225.
The Mi17IE which Mugabe wanted to buy is valued at between US$13 million and US$15 million.
Mugabe’s interests to buy a helicopter from Russia, which has sold a range of armaments to a Zimbabwe reeling under European Union (EU) sanctions, dates back to 2016 when Russian Helicopters showcased a range of multifunctional choppers to the late president during the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) held that year in Bulawayo.
During the 2016 edition of the ZITF, a Russian delegation led by minister of trade and industry Denis Manturov showcased a variety of helicopters that include the Mi-8/17; Ansat; Mi-38 (medium utility) and Mi-8/17.
According to B2B-Export Blog, a Russian publication, Mugabe held a high-level confidential meeting with Manturov during the fair where the eastern European country announced that it was going to start extracting platinum in Darwendale through the Great Dyke Investments in 2018. At that time, Great Dyke Investments was part owned by Russia’s Afromet and the Zimbabwe Pen East (Private) Limited.
“The Russian Delegation, led by Denis Manturov, Minister of Trade and Industry of the Russian Federation, participated in the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) 2016 held in Bulawayo from the 26th to the 30th of April.
“Russian Helicopters presented a diversified range of helicopters: multifunctional Mi-8/17; light helicopter Ansat; and Mi-38 medium utility helicopters. Mi-8/17 helicopters are particularly popular in African countries, where about 700 units are currently in use,” B2B-Export blog reported.
“During the fair it was also announced that the Russian-Zimbabwe Great Dyke Investments, owned by the Russian Afromet and the Zimbabwe Pen East (Private) Limited on a parity basis, is going to launch industrial mining of platinoids in Darwendale, the second largest deposit in the world, in 2018. On the 29th of April 2016, Zimbabwe President Robert Gabriel Mugabe visited the Russian stand at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) 2016 and had a business lunch with Denis Manturov, Minister of Trade and Industry of the Russian Federation.”
The 2016 exhibition was followed up by a visit to Kubinka Russia by the then Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi the same year to attend war games where fighter jets including MiG-29s were showcased among other Russian armaments.
Though it remains unclear whether Mugabe placed an order for a helicopter at the time, Mnangagwa appeared to have rekindled interests to buy from Russian in 2018 when a high-level delegation from Zimbabwe visited Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant of Russian Helicopters Holding Company owned by Rostec to specifically inspect Mi-17IE choppers tailor made for the transportation of key state officials.
As reported then by HeliHub, another Russian publication which specialises in aviation, Zimbabwe’s delegation also sought to understand payment and delivery terms for the purchase of helicopters.
HeliHub reported on April 8, 2018: “(A) high-level delegation from the Republic of Zimbabwe made a working visit to Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant of Russian Helicopters Holding Company (UAP).
The main purpose of the visit was examination of Mi-171E helicopters in VVIP configuration intended for transportation of top state officials and also familiarisation with the terms of helicopter delivery and after-sales support.
“Representatives of the Republic had a look at the U-UAP technological and manufacturing capabilities and rotorcraft under production. A familiarisation flight in a VVIP helicopter was organised for the delegation members. Tentative terms of delivery of the Plant’s products were discussed at the meeting with the U-UAP management.”
The publication further noted that the U-UAP managing director Leonid Belykh observed that the Zimbabwean delegation was pleased with what they saw during their tour.
“Delegation from Zimbabwe expressed satisfaction in the results of the visit to U-UAP, the representatives noted a high level of the Plant’s manufacturing potential and the quality of its products,” Belykh was quoted saying at the time.
In 2019, Mnangagwa visited Russia where he underscored to Kremlin’s officials that Zimbabwe’s long-term plan was to bolster its military capabilities by acquiring Russian made fighter jets.
But in a turnaround policy on Mugabe’s initiatives, Mnangagwa two weeks ago took delivery of the European made Airbus H215 under unclear transactional terms since the EU slapped sanctions on the southern African country.
With Zimbabwe barred from buying armaments from the West, sources this week told the Independent that Mnangagwa’s administration could have “engaged a third party to buy the chopper,” while there could have been reservations around the transactional terms, which “cast Zimbabwe’s platinum reserves in the mix.”