Air Zimbabwe’s alleged deal to buy two Airbus 340-500 planes from France despite European Union (EU) targeted sanctions on President Robert Mugabe, his cronies and selected companies, plunged deeper into controversy this week when Finance minister Tendai Biti distanced himself from it.
Biti’s move will further complicate Air Zimbabwe’s attempt to circumvent the EU’s restrictions to secure the planes.
Biti said on Friday he was not aware Zimbabwe was buying the Airbuses because Treasury was not involved. He said the government could not afford to buy planes which would cost up to $500-million, almost a quarter of the Budget, when it was failing to adequately pay civil servants.
“The Ministry of Finance is not involved in the deal,” Biti said.
“I heard this was a Zanu-PF deal that involved diamonds and shady characters.”
Details of the Air Zimbabwe deal show the airline has bought the planes through China Sonangol, a Chinese-controlled oil company based in Angola, which has interests in Zimbabwe. The deal involves diamonds and Sonangol was reportedly roped in to circumvent the sanctions.
French aircraft manufacturer Eads was expected to supply the planes, through Sonangol. The Chinese company would then advance payment to Reliance Aerospace Solutions, an aviation consulting firm, which would transfer the funds to Airbus.
The deal has put France, a key member of the EU, under the spotlight as it amounts to an attempt to circumvent sanctions through China. It is widely seen as a test of the EU’s resolve to maintain restrictions on Zimbabwe.
The EU has removed measures against a few individuals and eight State enterprises, which do not include Air Zimbabwe. The airline is still struggling to get spares for its Boeing fleet due to sanctions.
The conflict over the sanctions and Airbus planes deal is expected to intensify when Zimbabwe government lawyers leave next week for Brussels, Belgium, to file a lawsuit against the EU on “illegal sanctions”.