Amid a corruption scandal that has alarmed donors including Britain, the president of Malawi faces questions over her free use of the private jet apparently sold to an arms firm with government contracts
A jet sold by Joyce Banda, the Malawian president – attracting praise from key donors including Britain – is believed to have been bought by a controversial African arms group and she is now using it for free, it can be disclosed.
The Dassault Falcon 900EX was bought last year by Bohnox Enterprises, a firm registered in the British Virgin Islands, and sent to South Africa, where it is loaned to VIPs by the jet company Fortune Air.
Both companies are linked to Paramount Group, Africa’s largest private defence and aerospace firm, which has already signed deals with the Malawian government for agriculture, fuel and military contracts through a network of investment firms.
Reports in Malawi suggest that since the plane was sold, Mrs Banda has continued to use it regularly to travel to events around the continent. The trips formed part of a total of 20 private plane flights she took in just three months at the end of last year, it was said.
Asked who paid for the use of the jets, her spokesman said it was “well-wishers” who “have told us not to disclose their identities”.
Mrs Banda is currently dealing with a major scandal over corrupt procurement deals made by government departments, leading foreign donors including Britain to suspend direct aid that had accounted for 40 per cent of the impoverished country’s budget.
In November, The Daily Telegraph revealed that a family foundation run by the directors of Paramount was paying for Bell Pottinger, a London PR firm, to burnish Mrs Banda’s image.
Her spokesman had previously refused to identify the “well-wishers” paying for the PR operation.
At about the same time, Paramount signed a deal with Malawi to provide seven interceptor boats to patrol Lake Malawi.
Britain, which in 2012 spent £117 million supporting Malawi, has said it is seeking “greater clarity” from Mrs Banda about the latest “concerning” revelations. “Selling the jet was taken as a good symbol of the government prioritising austerity measures and tackling poverty,” Michael Nevin, the UK High Commissioner to Malawi, told the country’s Nation newspaper.
“We were under the impression that the jet had been sold to the best bidder in an open competition, but media reports suggest it was not a straightforward deal as such.
“It is particularly concerning if there is a nexus between the selling of the jet, the buying of boats and the Paramount Group.”
Duncan Halliday, a spokesman for Fortune Air, initially confirmed to The Daily Telegraph that Bohnox, Fortune Air and Paramount “are all part of the group”.
Asked to confirm that Bohnox was part of Paramount Group, he replied: “That’s correct.”
Mr Halliday later said in a statement that Bohnox was an “independent aircraft-owning company” and Fortune Air “is not part of the Paramount Group”.
When Mrs Banda announced the sale of 60 Mercedes limousines and the presidential jet in June 2012, she was praised as a “very good president” by Andrew Mitchell, the then international development secretary, who delivered a £33 million cash injection for her government.
“The importance of an African leader giving up the jets and Mercedes is iconic,” he said.
But despite claiming to have also slashed her government’s travel budget, Mrs Banda has raised eyebrows by continuing to travel by private plane.
The Nation newspaper said it had obtained government documents revealing that she had taken 20 private jet flights between August and December last year alone, 17 of which were with Fortune Air jets and at least three of which were on the plane previously owned by Malawi.
Mrs Banda was photographed standing on the tarmac next to her former plane in Nairobi in December, and next to another Fortune Air plane in Harare in April last year. Steve Nhlane, Mrs Banda’s spokesman, said “well-wishers” supplied the jets for free and there was no cost to the Malawi taxpayer. Asked who the well-wishers were, he replied: “You do not have to know them. Besides, they have told us not to disclose their identities. That is what friends are meant for, for helping each other.”
Pressed on the matter, he said that the costs were “usually” borne by whoever had invited Mrs Banda to attend an event. For example, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) paid for her, as the current chairman of the organisation, to travel on its behalf.
Leefa Martin, a spokesman for SADC, responded that she had “never heard” of the organisation paying for the travel of African heads of state. “How can he not know how the travel of his boss is paid for?” she asked.
Mr Nhlane would neither confirm nor deny whether Paramount Group or any of its associated companies had provided any travel for free. “The president has been accepting any appropriate means of transport available,” he said. “We are now going towards an election campaign and people will say anything to dent the image of the president.”
Mr Halliday, the Fortune Air spokesman, confirmed that the company had leased planes “on occasion” to Mrs Banda. “All costs for the leasing of aircrafts for the President of Malawi have been settled in full by a number of third party donors,” he said.
He declined to say whether Paramount Group was among the third party donors, adding that further details could not be given “for legal and high-level security reasons”.
Robert Phiri, executive director of the Malawi Public Affairs Committee, a watchdog, said if the government had “nothing to hide”, it should be open about who was funding Mrs Banda’s transport. “At the moment, no one believes what they say,” he said. “No one would believe that companies provide things entirely for free — that’s not how it works.”
Malawi’s government has said that the money raised by the presidential jet sale would go to the Malawi military to fund “peacekeeping operations” while the rest would go to agriculture and restocking medical supplies.
Paramount Group is run by the South African brothers Ivor and Eric Ichikowitz and specialises in manufacturing armoured vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles. It previously brokered a deal for the Malawian government to equip its peacekeeping troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Trans Africa Capital, a venture capital firm run by Eric Ichikowitz, has also signed agriculture and fuel contracts with Malawi’s government.