Editors memo: Compromised airport security a huge risk

Cleopas Chidodo

Cleopas Chidodo is probably a name Zimbabweans had never heard off until recently when he popped up on the keenly followed investigative documentary by Al Jazeera detailing how he helps gold smugglers transport their contraband to Dubai via Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport.

Even more disconcerting, Chidodo is the head of security for the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe.

He features in Episode 2 of the Al Jazeera documentary and his shenanigans are troubling, because they show just how much security at the biggest and busiest airport in the country has been compromised.

I do not think even he realises just how much his misdeeds have the potential to cost the country, and put the RGM International as a probable haven for terrorism because his actions tell us that security, or lack of it can be purchased.

In October last year, Zimbabwe was voted onto the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) council, a 36-member board as a representative of the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) after Transport minister, Felix Mhona led a local delegation to the meet.

It was the first time the country had been elected into the United Nations body for civil aviation and understandably, the government was elated.

It was a step in the right direction, not only for its re-engagement efforts, but for its long-held ambition to develop Harare as a regional aviation hub.

Mhona enthusiastically spoke about how the country was going about in developing this hub.

In 2021, Elijah Chingosho, the former secretary-general of African Airlines Association (Afraa) was appointed CAAZ director general to help realise this dream.

In an interview with this newspaper late last year, he expanded on the dream.

“The authority’s long-term vision is to be a regional centre of excellence in civil aviation regulatory services by the year 2030,” Chingosho said.

“We are confident that this vision is achievable as the government has undertaken or is embarking on major infrastructure projects at airports in the country.”

Zimbabwe has signed over 60 air service agreements since 1980 and is looking for more in a bid to open its skies and improve its global connectivity. So, there is a clear plan and actions to drive that dream. Security is a key driver to all this.

Then came the Al Jazeera documentary, which has the potential to torpedo the dream.

In the second episode of the Gold Mafia documentary, Chidodo tells the undercover reporters that:  “Anything, anything, that you need to take out of the country, that is my area. This is 23rd year. 23 years I’m at the airport. That’s why I got promoted and I’m now the big boss.”

Chidodo got promoted to violate the very principles he is supposed to uphold? By whom? He even brings in another member of the CAAZ, staff who is in on the racket. This tells us that the smuggling is widespread and not just limited to the minerals; that there is a well-organised syndicate at the RGM International and that other airports in the country may be just as compromised.

The airport has seen many a drug peddler being arrested on arrival while others have been apprehended after clearing the airport checks, which tells us that the syndicate may also be responsible for facilitating the entry of dangerous drugs into the country.

Zimbabwean drug mules have been arrested in other countries with contraband that allegedly originated from this country, and at RGM International.

This is not an out-of-our control variable that authorities can brush under the carpet. The CAAZ board’s management committee has either been sleeping on the job, powerless or part of the scheme.

Now, air travel is built on tight security at airports, which engenders customer trust and a key driver of its growth over the years.

With our airports security so compromised to the extent that anyone can get ‘anything’ through our checks, there is grave danger that all that trust could be lost and that anyone flying from RGM International or Zimbabwe is vulnerable.

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