Presidential planes are one of the perks of holding a country’s top post. In Africa, the relationship between some leaders and their aerial fleets can serve as a manual on how power is wielded – and often abused.
The US president has “Air Force One” – or more specifically, two customised Boeing 747-200B aircraft fitted with secure communications equipment, a large office, a conference room and a medical suite that can function as an operating room. In Africa, the fleet of presidential planes is diverse, as one might expect. Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, for instance, has not less than ten airplanes in his presidential fleet. On the other hand, some African leaders – such as Cameroon’s Paul Biya – prefer to charter luxury planes.
Behind a number of these presidential planes lie stories that provide insight into how power is wielded on the African continent.
In a recent cover story on African presidential planes, “La Lettre du Continent,” a respected French bimonthly, examines the relationship between some African leaders and their magnificent flying machines."The plane [is a] symbol of sovereignty, of power," noted the journal. “But not all presidents are traveling under the same flagship."
As the leader of the cocoa-rich, West African economic powerhouse Ivory Coast, Ouattara tops the regional list of presidential aerial dominance with his 10 aircraft. Chad’s Idriss Deby, in contrast, has only four presidential planes – a Boeing Business Jet, a Gulfstream II, a Beechcraft 1900 and a Fokker.
But it's not just the number of aircraft in a presidential fleet that matter. The real story often has more to do with how these multi-million dollar flying machines are acquired, abandoned or upgraded.
Zuma’s ‘gravy plane’
The fracas around South African President Jacob Zuma’s bid to acquire a luxury presidential jet never seems to end.
Earlier this month, stories of the new presidential jet found their way into local news again after it emerged that around 800 South African peacekeeping troops in Darfur, Sudan, had been stranded as the military scrambled to bring them home. The problem, according to local reports, was the military’s “unoperational” C130 heavy-lift aircraft. As an editorial in South African daily “The Times”, noted, “Finding the money to replace the ageing C130 fleet has to take precedence over vanity projects such as buying a new presidential jet.”
Zuma’s predilection for luxury – including opulent private residential upgrades – is well known and comes at a time when budgets are being slashed and students have been protesting fee hikes.
Given the circumstances, his administration’s bid to acquire a new presidential jet with a long-haul fuel range of 13,800 kilometers complete with a luxury bedroom suite and a conference room was not about to go down well with the opposition.
Sure enough, the estimated bill of around $280 million sparked howls of protest and calls to scrap the new aerial acquisition plan.
South Africa’s Defense Department, however, argues that the current presidential plane – a Boeing 737 called “Inkwazi” after the Zulu word for the African fish eagle – is outdated and has been grounded a number of times due to mechanical problems.
The continuing furore has sometimes left South African authorities with a myriad of bad choices. When Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa had to visit Japan in November, for instance, the military had to choose between chartering a plane from companies associated with corruption scandals, arms manufacturing or colonial-era exploitative mining. It looks as though Zuma’s bid to get on a gravy plane does have some merit. But the problem seems to be the price of the fixtures.
Issoufou of Niger gets a ‘prestige purchase’
The opposition does not count for much in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, which consistently ranks at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index. Earlier this year, President Mahamadou Issoufou was sworn in for a second term in office following an election boycotted by the opposition.
But back in 2014, when Issoufou announced the acquisition of a $40 million Boeing 737-700 to replace the existing presidential jet, it sparked howls of protest from the opposition.
"With our country facing a new famine and with further serious flooding this year, the state decides to spend billions [of CFA or Central African Francs] on a prestige purchase," Ousseini Salatou, spokesman for the Nigerien opposition coalition, told reporters.
By then of course, it was already too late.
Defending the purchase, then Defense Minister Karidjo Mahamadou said the new presidential jet would help improve “the influence of our illustrious republic”.
Meanwhile the old presidential jet – a Boeing 737 bought in the 1970s by former president Seyni Kountche – remains in service despite one aviation expert likening it to “a flying coffin”.
But that’s an analogy that was also used in Cameroon – to disastrous effect.
Cameroon’s tale of aerial greed and intrigue
The acquisition of pricey presidential planes in a continent dogged by poverty and corruption is bound to kick off an occasional stir. But few aerial controversies come close to the Cameroonian experience in terms of sheer intrigue, greed, paranoia and retribution.
It all began in 2001, when longstanding Cameroonian President Paul Biya decided he wanted a new plane to replace the existing presidential plane – called “the Pelican” – for his personal and official trips. But the impoverished West African nation at that time was trying to reduce its debt under a World Bank and IMF programme. The bill for a Boeing Business Jet class aircraft was not going to pass muster with the international financial institutions.
So, the country’s elites came up with a strategy to appease their “Big Man”.
The aircraft would be bought by the country’s national carrier, Camair. A financial package was duly set up, with the money – $33 million – coming from the National Oil Corporation, known by its French acronym, SNH.
Three years later, with the jet duly delivered, Biya – along with First Lady Chantal and the couple’s children – boarded the new presidential plane for an inaugural flight bound for Geneva. But the aircraft developed technical problems and had to make an emergency landing in the Cameroonian port city of Douala.
The saga of the Albatross, as the plane was called, had just begun.
The plane Biya and his family had boarded turned out not to be new at all. Through a series of intermediaries and shady negotiations, the Cameroonian state had merely leased the Albatross, an old Boeing 767-212. And the $33 million coughed up for a spanking new presidential plane had disappeared.
A darker chapter began shortly after that doomed April 24, 2004 "inaugural" flight of the presidential plane. Was the acquisition – or rather non-acquisition – of the faulty aircraft part of a grand plot to overthrow or bump off the president?
“The Albatross Affair” – as the scandal came to be called – suddenly had all the elements of a high-profile murder plot. Ministers – who also happened to be threats to Biya’s grip on power – were arrested in succession and thrown into the high-security Kondengui prison in the Cameroonian capital of Yaounde.
The senior officials in jail included a politician a 2007 WikiLeaks cable revealed to be the man favoured by the US, France, and other Western diplomats to lead the country. Some in Yaounde joked that there were enough top politicians in the country’s high security jail to form a parallel government in Kondengui.
Since then, La Lettre du Continent notes, Biya has "not dared" buy a presidential plane. The Cameroonian strongman instead relies on luxury private charter jets to ferry him back and forth from Cameroon to Europe. This happens alarmingly often since the octogenarian leader spends extended periods living in a Swiss hotel, which has earned him the moniker “the absentee landlord” in diplomatic circles.
A presidential plane waiting to be used
Sometimes intrigue and presidential planes go hand in hand and one of Africa’s newest leaders is apparently not above the fray.
Benin’s President Patrice Talon – a tycoon-turned-politician who was sworn into office on April 6 – is not enthusiastic about using the country’s new presidential plane, according to La Lettre du Continent.
The jet, a Boeing 737, was ordered by Talon’s predecessor and arch rival, Boni Yayi and delivered just 24 hours before the new president was sworn in.
According to the French bimonthly, Talon has requested a technical investigation of the aircraft.
But the paranoia between Talon and Yayi runs both ways. In 2013, the current Beninese president was accused of trying to poison his predecessor. Talon was forced to flee Benin for France, where he stayed until a presidential pardon was issued a year later.
Under the circumstances, Talon probably has good reason to be suspicious. Meanwhile, the spanking-new Boeing 737 lies waiting to be used.
Goodbye ‘La Pointe de Sangomar’
In Senegal, the saga of the presidential aircraft dubbed “La Pointe de Sangomar” [a narrow sandbar in the Atlantic Ocean west of Senegal] finally ended in June 2014, when President Macky Sall donated the plane to the country’s air force after failing to find a buyer.
A Boeing 727-2M1 fitted with a private bedroom, a shower as well as presidential and ministerial meeting rooms, “La Pointe de Sangomar” served three presidents – including Senegal’s founding father, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and his successors, Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade.
The controversy around “La Pointe de Sangomar” erupted during Wade’s last term in office, when the increasingly unpopular octogenarian leader announced his plan to buy a new presidential carrier, arguing that “La Pointe de Sangomar” was outdated and frequently ran into mechanical problems.
Wade replaced the presidential aircraft with a new Airbus 319 christened “La Pointe de Sahel” in 2011, sparking an outcry, with opposition leaders noting that the $43 million for the new acquisition was not authorised in the country’s budget.
Two years later, Wade’s successor Sall came to power. After several unsuccessful bids to sell the “La Pointe de Sangomar”, the aging presidential plane was finally donated to the Senegalese Air Force. The aircraft is expected to spend its last days in an army museum, where the exhibits include three presidential limousines.