Chiwenga flies to Togo on luxury jet linked to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar

HARARE – Zimbabwe’s vice president Constantino Chiwenga on Tuesday flew to Togo on a private jet linked to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, a renegade military commander who now controls the eastern and some southern parts of the north African country.

The San Marino-registered Gulfstream G450 (T7-LJA) flew into Harare from Dubai on August 22, according to flight data from FlightRadar24. Chiwenga, who doubles up as health minister, was onboard when it took off to the Togolese capital Lome for a United Nations health summit for African countries a day later.

The Gulfstream, described by aviation experts as “often operating for” Haftar and his Libyan National Army, previously flew to Zimbabwe from Libya on April 21 this year, leaving for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates a day later and onward to Switzerland on April 23.

The same aircraft was again in Harare on June 11 after taking off from Beida Al Abraq International Airport in Libya. It headed to Dubai two days later.

The Gulfstream also flew from Dubai to Harare on July 7, returning to the UAE a day later from where it flew to Kozhikode Calicut International Airport in India.

The 14-seater aircraft with a cruising altitude of 45,000 feet and a cruising speed of 885km/hr has been operated by the Dubai-based SkyMark Executive since April 2021. It costs around US$20,000 per flying hour, although terms of Chiwenga’s charter for the five-hour, one-way trip to Lome are unknown.

Comfy … Inside the luxury jet which flew vice president Constantino Chiwenga to Togo

The Zimbabwe government refuses to say how the private jets are hired. President Emmerson Mnangagwa previously claimed his travel was financed by the government of the United Arab Emirates.

In 2020, the United States and Libyan authorities said they were investigating Haftar for suspected gold-for-cash trades with Venezuela, carried out using private jets, to undermine sanctions against the government of Nicolás Maduro.

Haftar, the officials said, preferred to keep his assets in gold over fears “his accounts could be frozen if he comes under sanctions.”

At the time, officials said they were tracking Haftar-connected private jets suspected of carrying gold between the South American country and West Africa, which then went to Europe – mainly Switzerland – and the Middle East.

Haftar heads the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) and waged war on western factions after the country split in 2014, including a 14-month offensive to take Tripoli that was repelled after devastating areas of the capital.

A former senior military commander under Muammar Gaddafi before defecting to the United States where he sought asylum, Haftar – who has support from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt – reportedly works with the Wagner Group in Africa, a group of Russian mercenaries, to topple the government in Tripoli which is recognised by western countries.

It remains unclear what link Chiwenga, a former army general, has with Haftar – if any.

Strongman … Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar gestures during Independence Day celebrations in Benghazi, Libya December 24, 2020 (REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori)
Togo trip … Vice President Constantino Chiwenga flew to Togo on August 23, using a private jet with links to Libyan rebel leader

Zimbabwe’s late former President Robert Mugabe’s foreign trips were the lifeblood of the struggling national airline, Air Zimbabwe. His predecessor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, rarely uses the national carrier’s aged aircraft.

Since assuming power in a 2017 military coup, Mnangagwa, 79, has regularly used Dubai-registered private jets for most of his foreign and domestic trips – including summoning an Airbus A318-112 (CJ) Elite from Dubai to fly him the 275km trip to Gweru from Harare in July 2019.

Responding to a ZimLive story at the time, Mnangagwa insisted that “we do not pay anything for that plane.”

He claimed that during a meeting with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed, “I told him we had a problem with availability of planes and he said whenever I want to travel, all I need to do is call.”

Mnangagwa has also flown on a luxuriously-fitted Airbus A319-115 (CJ) owned by the Azerbaijan government, notably to a United Nations summit in Scotland, United Kingdom, in November 2021.

The Zimbabwe leader’s willingness to accept gifts from foreign governments, as he publicly claims, has raised fears he is involved in some opaque transactions benefitting his benefactors.

Critics claim that the Dubai-registered jets flying into Harare are in fact a conduit for delivering scarce United States dollars to the regime, and then smuggling gold out, made easy by the United Arab Emirates’ dubious no-questions-asked gold policy.

In 2016, the UAE reported gold imports from Africa topping US$16 billion. That same year, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) noted that the UAE – which is not a gold producer – ranked third globally in terms of gold exports, with a total value of US$25.4 billion, or 7.8 percent of total world exports.

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