UNTIL his recent conviction, former Air Zimbabwe chief executive officer Peter Chikumba had lived with corruption allegations for a good part of his aviation career.
BY NDAMU SANDU
Chikumba and former Air Zimbabwe company secretary Grace Pfumbidzai are serving an effective seven-year jail term each for fleecing the airline of over $8 million in an insurance scam. They were sentenced to 10 years jail each before three years were suspended for each of them.
Investigations by Standardbusiness showed that allegations of corruption practices have loomed large over Chikumba’s career.
As deputy to the late Huttush Muringi, Chikumba was accused of misdirecting the airline to lease a Fokker 50 aircraft equipped with wrong engines for the climatic conditions of this country. This resulted in the bussing of passenger cargo to Kariba on several occasions.
When the airline later sold two Boeing 737 engines to an American company, there was a huge difference between the official selling price of the engines and their market value. Again Chikumba was implicated but, according to airline employees, the matter was swept under the carpet.
Chikumba was later to land a post as CEO of Air Namibia. Under his watch, there were concerns of underhand dealings after it emerged that the partnership between the airline and a Gambian carrier was benefitting the latter. There were concerns that the lease rates had been grossly inflated to the detriment of Air Namibia.
Among a litany of other corruption accusations, it is alleged Chikumba once facilitated to have his daughter obtain passes in a flying course at all costs.
The allegations against Chikumba were however never brought to any court of law or proved and sympathisers said it was all a smear campaign to soil the name of one of the country’s most experienced aviation executives who had seen it all at Air Zimbabwe, Air Namibia and the International Air Transport Association.
That was until the forensic audit unearthed serious irregularities during Chikumba’s second tenure at the airline.
In delivering the seven-year jail terms on Chikumba and Pfumbidzai, regional magistrate Fadzai Mthombeni said many companies had collapsed because of corruption by senior managers and she implored the courts to impose punitive sentences on offenders. Mthombeni accused Chikumba and Pfumbidzai of bringing the flagship carrier to the ground.
It was a fall from grace for a man who had made history by electing not to renew his contract at the airline in 2011 where his predecessors had either been fired, forced to resign or “quit to pursue personal business interests”.
“I take pride in the fact that I have set the record for being the first chief executive officer to complete a full term in office and Zimbabweans should feel good and obliged when time comes to pass on from the Moses generation to the Joshua generation,” the Bible-quoting Chikumba told Standardbusiness then.
In the Bible, Moses took the Israelites from Egypt into the desert and Joshua made sure that they reached Canaan.
Chikumba said he was confident the country had capable people to give the airline new wings.
“Looking ahead, I am confident that Zimbabwe still has committed people who can now take AirZim out of the desert into the Promised Land,” he said.
At Air Namibia, Chikumba was known for prayer sessions that he held during management meetings and in which he asked God to help him and his team to rid Air Namibia of fraud and corruption.
Former colleagues at Air Zimbabwe said despite the prayer meetings that Chikumba led, he treated workers like little children, making them whisper things he would have told them in meetings into each other’s ears.
They alleged that he would, for example, announce the date of salary payments in a meeting and order them to whisper the date into each other’s ears.
Chikumba said in a 2011 interview he told workers at his farewell meeting that “life does not begin and end at AirZim and we should never be in the habit of burning bridges”.
He failed to adhere to that maxim.