The big interview BY XOLISANI NCUBE
Deputy Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet responsible for presidential communications, George Charamba (GC), has said President Emmerson Mnangagwa will continue to use hired private jets for his travels for as long as the national airline Air Zimbabwe, does not have aeroplanes that are reliable enough to fly him. Charamba said this yesterday in a wide-ranging interview with our Senior Reporter, Xolisani Ncube (XN), where he also spoke about other controversies surrounding Mnangagwa’s recent actions. Below are excerpts from the interview.
XN: We understand that President Emmerson Mnangagwa has today left the country for Angola. What is his mission in Angola?
GC: Yes, the president left for Angola this morning. He is due to return home late today. It’s a fly-in fly-out situation due to serious commitments here at home. As you know, we have a day set aside in the Sadc region to commemorate the Cuito Cuanavale battle, fought in the Angolan province of Cuando Cubango in 1988, between the Angolan army, aided by Cuban forces, and the invading troops of the former apartheid regime in South Africa. The Angolan government has been pushing that we declare this day a Southern African Liberation Day. The invitation came over the weekend and it was presented to the president on Monday during the usual Monday briefings. But because we have the disaster that befell us and the declaration of the two days of national mourning, the president decided to make it a fly-in fly-out scenario. He has to show support at the meeting in Angola as well as remain cognisant of the fact that we have pressing issues at home. He has to be here for tomorrow’s (today’s) prayer day as well as attend to the rescue efforts in Chimanimani.
XN: Many people have complained that the president is flying too much using hired expensive luxurious private jets for all his foreign trips. Who is footing the bill?
GC: (laughs) … You ask me who is footing the bill for the president? Well, who is flying in this case? The president right, so who do you want to foot the bill? It is government because he is not travelling for his personal business. This is what international engagements come with. We would want to be part of the global village and we have to carry the cost. I often hear people say this and that, but if we want that global presence, the state has to meet the cost that this comes along with.
If I was to talk about the recent trip to the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and you look at the benefits of that trip, the opportunities alone that came with that trip, surely the costs are way less than the results we reaped from the trip. If you were to look at the business opportunities for the country created thereof, indeed you could see that this was a necessary expenditure by the state. The assistance coming from there, the energy business deals and so on and so forth, you will appreciate that it was a necessary cost.
XN: Many people have been complaining that it does not make sense for the president to be hiring an aircraft from as far as Dubai for him to fly from Harare to Bulawayo. In fact, some have said it is like hiring a tax from Gweru to go to the airport from the city centre. What do you say about that?
GC: Again you have to understand how the aviation industry works. For starters, we have to appreciate that we do not have a national airline with an adequate fleet to service both the presidential trips and its commercial needs. Then coming to the Bulawayo issue, the aircraft you are talking about came in on Thursday and has been here preparing to take the president to South Africa for the Sadc Solidarity Conference on Western Sahara, scheduled for 25-26 March 2019 in Pretoria. So it had to take the president to Bulawayo since it was here already and it did so at the same charge that it had billed the state to take the president to South Africa. We booked the aircraft to be here until it brings back the president from the summit on Tuesday.
If you were going to check, the aircraft is currently at the tarmac of the domestic flights and it is cheaper than to hire the aircraft on the day when the president wants to fly out. Let me pre-empt you. I know you would want to ask why not use scheduled flights for the president. Here is the tricky issue. One, it is very risky to do that for both the president and the airline. In this case, we are talking of a national airline which has one aircraft to service all its routes. If the president was to use a scheduled flight, it means that all the luggage in that flight will be opened and subjected to search by our security system. This inconveniences the reputation of the airline and the passengers. Also the passengers themselves will have to be subjected to those security systems and this definitely will lead in some people leaving the airline and it loses business. Also when the president is flying, he would fly in the business class and no one will be allowed there. Just imagine you as a reporter you are supposed to fly to South Africa and you have bought your business class ticket and just because the president has joined the flight, you will have to move to the economy class and this will definitely lead to some people abandoning the airline. Remember the aviation business works on a patronage system and losing one customer is a big blow which no airline would risk. So we look at all those factors and if you are to look at the opportunity costs, you are bound to agree with us that hiring an aircraft for the president is much better than going through all those challenges.
Key to this, the scheduled flight will have to change its time to suit the president. This is dangerous for any airline. Talking about the Bulawayo trip and the idea that the president could have used a scheduled flight, it meant that he would need to divert the Harare-Johannesburg route to go via Bulawayo, do you think people were going to agree to that? So really let us be realistic when we discuss some of these issues.
XN: But surely the opportunity cost for taking an aircraft from Dubai for $200 000 to take the president to Bulawayo does not make sense?
GC: Well, on the figure that is the creation of the media. It is someone who created that figure in the newsroom and decided to make it real. I have said this, the aircraft has been here in preparation for the Monday trip to South Africa and the trip to Bulawayo did not matter at all. No extra charge whatsoever.
XN: So the president flew to Angola using the same aircraft, the one for the SA trip or he used our local Air Zimbabwe?
GC: The president went to Angola using a small aircraft, hence I am here, because of the nature of the visit. Let me hasten to say we are dealing with a man who is trying by all means to cut costs. Believe you me, this man is serious about cost-cutting. He is very serious to an extent that today he compromised his security. He trimmed down the delegation and opted to use a smaller aircraft so that it becomes cheap and affordable. Imagine, he went to Angola leaving behind even his press secretary and his security. Who does that? I have been in government for years and I know what I mean when I say he means business when it comes to cost-cutting. This is a touch-down touch-up situation.
XN: So the state had to hire another aircraft for the president which is smaller than the one we have?
GC: I think he used a small executive jet that has been availed by a well-wisher for use by the president in attending to the disaster that befell us. This jet could not be used to go to Mutare because of the state of our aerodrome, so now it has been used to fly to Angola.
XN: So you mean the Airbus from Dubai has been here for five or so days and we are paying for it while it is here? Does that make economic sense?
GC: If you were to talk to people in the aviation industry, you will realise that it would be cheaper to book an aircraft for long days because it comes with a discount. Also you have to understand that this business and its charges are determined by when you book, is it at its peak or not, so all those issues come into play. From the transport economics perspective, booking the aircraft here for days could be cheaper than making short-notice bookings.
XN: Would you mind sharing how much we are paying for its stay here?
GC: I don’t have the figures and I know the agenda you are pushing, it’s an assumption premised on wrong information. Let me tell you something. Airlines that are in the business of hiring out executive or VVIP aircraft are normally not busy. I know you want to say the aircraft has been here since Thursday to Tuesday and try to calculate the figure based on those assumptions you have been peddling that are false anyway. The issue you have to understand is that the aviation industry is very complicated. The charge is determined by the demand of the aircraft. If it is off-peak, definitely it would be cheaper and those who are in the business of engaging these airlines know that.
XN: So for how long are we going to be hiring private jets for the president, Cde Charamba?
GC: Until such a time we have a presidential jet or a functioning national airline with a fleet of aircraft. At the moment, our economy cannot sustain the purchase of a presidential jet. Imagine what would happen if the president decides to get a presidential jet. Definitely it would cause an uproar. So until such a time when our economy can sustain the purchase of a presidential jet or we have a national airline with many aircraft, we shall always resort to hiring of private jets. The idea to buy a presidential jet is part of our plans in the long to medium-term, but for now, our economy cannot allow us to do that.
XN: You have explained well on the presidential jet and why the state hires, how about the VPs (vice-presidents), why not use scheduled flights? We have seen them being flown using hired private planes, at whose cost?
GC: This is part of conditions of service for the top three. Even ministers, if their conditions of service stipulate that they should be airlifted whenever they need medical attention at the expense of the state, it must be done. Even top civil servants, if their benefits include airlifting, there is nothing that we can do to change that, it is in their contracts.
XN: I understand well on the need to airlift them when they are in need of medical attention, how about when they are travelling for government business, a trip which cannot be booked within time, why do they use private jets and still who foots the bill?
GC: Well, I don’t know that part, do you have an example when such a thing happened?
XN: When VP Chiwenga was travelling to the Democratic Republic of Congo for the inauguration of the new president there, he took a private jet.
GC: As I said on the president issue, it comes down to circumstances. In this case, we do not have a direct flight to the DRC and if we were going to use scheduled flights, it meant that the VP was to fly to South Africa and connect from there. The security risks at play here are so huge and also the time factor. Again it meant that we were going to disturb the business class of the airline and this is something that has issues with many airlines. Look at the event he was attending, it was an inauguration, something to do with international relations. Remember as well, this inauguration was organised within a short period of time and the VP had to represent the country within that short time.
XN: So you are suggesting that when the VPs are going for scheduled trips they are supposed to use the normal system like ministers and others?
GC: Oh yes, that is the case.
XN: Lastly, when the president flew to Mutare and Chimanimani we saw a picture of a private helicopter delivering luxurious sofas to be used at the interface with victims of Cyclone Idai, what was the logic behind the act?
GC: (laughs) Did you verify that indeed that picture was from Zimbabwe? Did you verify that indeed the sofas were there in Chimanimani as is being alleged?
XN: There is a picture of a jet that supposedly delivered the sofas behind VP Chiwenga and from that point, one makes an easy conclusion thereof.
GC: You are a senior journalist and I expect better from you. Did you verify that indeed the picture you are referring to is authentic and the said act happened? Well, yes, we had a number of private jets that were there when the president visited Cyclone Idai victims, but let me say this: I was there too. At no point did we have a jet delivering the said sofas. The private jets that were there had no capacity to carry the said sofas. We had jets with a capacity to carry only four people. This is the reason we did not bother ourselves to respond to the lies peddled by people with ulterior motives.
XN: Thank you very much.
GC: Most welcome.