Feb 14, 2010 12:00 AM | By De Wet Potgieter and Raymond Joseph
The cash-strapped Rwandan government has splurged millions of rands on two ultra-luxury passenger jets to fly its president and VIPs around the world – and tried to hide ownership of the jets behind a South African-based company.
Rwanda is battling to rebuild its fragile economy after the 1994 genocide in which 800000 people were killed. The country is still dependent on international aid and donor funding.
The UN says 60% of Rwanda’s mostly rural population live in poverty.
The pair of Bombardier Global Express BD-700 jets – with a new price tag of $50-million each – was acquired in 2003 and 2008, respectively.
They are “owned” by Repli Investments 29 (Pty) Ltd, a company registered in South Africa.
Repli has three directors, one based in Pretoria and the other two in Rwanda, according to official records of the Companies and Intellectual Property Registration Office (Cipro).
An investigation has revealed that the South African-based director, Paul Nyirubutma, works as second counsellor at the Rwandan embassy in Pretoria. The other directors, who are also believed to be Rwandan government officials, are Paul Manasseh Nshuti and Sekoko Harari. They live in Kigali.
Repli, which is involved in “financial intermediation”, according to Cipro, was established in May 2008 and was set up to conceal the real ownership of the jets.
The jets, registrations ZS-ESA and ZS-XRS, are piloted by South Africans and “operated” by Lanseria-based ExecuJet.
A Rwandan embassy spokesman last week confirmed that Nyirubutma was a second councillor at the embassy, but denied knowledge of the jets or that his government owned them.
Nyirubutma this week confirmed that the jets were bought for the use of the Rwandan president, the vice-president and the country’s prime minister. “We are from a troubled region that has a troubled history of genocide and civil war. We needed safe, secure and cost-effective planes for my country’s VIPs. Security was paramount,” he said.
Nyirubutma said he was appointed as one of the directors of Repli Investments to allow the government to have a say in the operations of the aircraft “for security reasons”.
He said his government had decided to base the jets in South Africa because his country did not have the “skills, expertise or knowledge” to maintain them.
Both were available for charter when not needed by the Rwandan government.
“We went into a structure of partial ownership, basically to provide a right of first refusal and also to provide a level of control on the crafts’ operations,” Nyirubutma said.
The XRS Global Express corporate jet is described on Bombardier’s official website as “the most luxurious, most accomplished business aircraft ever built … accommodating the desires of the most sophisticated and demanding traveller with no compromise”.
Aviation experts say the XRS is capable of flying “halfway around the world without refuelling”.
It is one of the biggest business-class jets available .
ExecuJet’s Steve Bothma refused to comment.
The newest jet, the ZS-XRS, has been photographed all over the world by aircraft spotters.
Spotter websites are abuzz with talk of the aircraft’s Rwandan ownership.
People working at Lanseria say that it is an open secret that the jet is owned by Rwanda.
“Everyone here knows the jets are for the use of Rwandan president Paul Kagame and other government officials, and belong to his government,” said a well-placed source at Lanseria, who asked not to be named.
“ExecuJet maintains the jet on behalf of Repli Investments and whenever Kagame needs to get to Europe, the UK or the US, the Rwandan government ‘charters’ this plane (ZS-XRS) from ExecuJet,” said the source.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair is understood to have been a passenger on the aircraft on several occasions.
Andrew Siebert, a US-based plane spotter, photographed the aircraft at Boeing Field in Seattle last June.
He said in an e-mail: “It was carrying the Rwandan president at the time.”
He added: “Someone commented on my photo saying the following: ‘ZS-XRS is registered in Lanseria, but is actually based in Kigali, Rwanda, where it operates exclusively for the president of Rwanda.’ ”
Another plane spotter photographed the aircraft at Zurich Airport in January last year.
He wrote on his blog: “This 2007 Global Express XRS is appropriately registered as ZS-XRS to Repli Investments 29 (Pty) Ltd, but is being operated by ExecuJet South Africa, and on this flight was carrying the Rwandan delegation to the World Economic Forum.”
He said when he photographed it, the aircraft had just come from Kigali.
Another plane spotter, known as “Drewski”, wrote: “Whoa! South African reg’d GLEX. The person on board left the airport with an entourage of 10 SUVs and undercover police cars.”