Uganda's Museveni fumes with Kenya Airways. He's not the first; the story of African VIP run-ins with airlines

Former Malawi president Banda had to jump on US leader's Obama plane after her request to Botswana president Khama to hitch a lift was turned down.

AN incident where a commercial aircraft failed to cater for Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has threatened to blow into a diplomatic headache, as Kenyan legislators prepare a probe.

Private Kenyan daily The Standard reported that the fallout stems from an alleged request last month by Museveni to Kenyan flag carrier Kenya Airways to change its flight schedule to accommodate his intent to fly to Nairobi from his rural home for a high-profile heads of state summit.

Kenya Airways, known by its international designator code KQ, did not oblige, forcing Museveni to turn to Ethiopian Airlines on which he arrived for the meeting. 

The Standard reported that Museveni raised the issue with his host Uhuru Kenyatta, leading to a parliamentary house team investigation.

The carrier termed the event “regrettable”. “The incident was a misunderstanding that has since been cleared. KQ is always honoured to serve the region and Africa,” the paper reported chief executive officer Mbuvi Ngunze as saying.

The presidential jet was said to be undergoing maintenance. Museveni has two jets with the other said to be advanced in age. In 2009 he flew economy from a Commonwealth meeting, although this was dismissed by critics as a publicity stunt. The country’s flag carrier Uganda Airlines officially ceased operations in 2001, but folded years earlier.

In good company
The Uganda leader would join a long list of African VIPs who have struggled to come to terms with flying on commercial carriers or have had their luxurious presidential jet instead bring them diplomatic grief. 

Former Malawi president Joyce Banda in 2013 had to seek alternative transport to an African leaders’ summit with US leader Barack Obama after her request to Botswana president Ian Khama to hitch a lift was turned down.

The Malawi government had reportedly sent an official request to Gaborone to carry Mrs Banda along on president Ian Khama’s presidential jet.

Botswana authorities said the request was denied as Khama was not travelling to the summit, despite having been invited. The Botswana leader rarely attends international meetings.

“It is true she requested to fly with us but we declined because the president will not be going to America,” Botswana media quoted foreign minister Phandu Skelemani as saying.

Malawi’s presidency subsequently denied making the request.

Mrs Banda, who lost elections last year, had put up the country’s presidential jet up for sale as she instituted austerity measures to help right Malawi’s listing economy following pressure from donors.

The West African nation of Mali last year also run into diplomatic headwinds after its controversial purchase of a presidential jet saw donors cut foreign aid.

Bamako in May bought the jet for $40 million in a deal said to be irregular, leading to major financiers such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to freeze $70 million in funding to the country struggling to recover from internal conflict.

Mali, which was seeking billions in reconstruction funding, already had a presidential jet. The EU in December last month led the resumption by donors following the release of audits into the deal.

In August 2013 Sudan president Omar al-Bashir’s privately-rented plane was barred from entering Saudi Arabian airspace, forcing him to turn back home.

The Gulf-state said the plane did not have a diplomatic permit as per regulations. But Bashir was said to have been on his way to attend the inauguration of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Saudi Arabia and Iran maintain frosty diplomatic relations.

Flight turbulence

In 2012, a commercial flight carrying former Madagascar leader Marc Ravalomanana was turned mid-flight back to South Africa.

The exiled president had sought to return to shore up his presidential run. He is currently under house arrest in the capital Antananarivo, after he slipped into the country last October.

The ousting and exile of Ravalomanana, and the fierce personal rivalry with his immediate successor Andry Rajoelina,  deeply polarised the island nation. Neither run for December 2013 elections but propped up proxies.

In 2011 there was heated debate in Liberia after vice president Joseph Boakai was forced to submit to a search on US carrier Delta Airlines.

Boakai was on an official trip to the US, with which his country has maintained close ties with for over a century. He demanded an apology, which the airline gave verbally, but he continued to press for one in writing. 

“Delta will not be allowed to run the government of Liberia or dictate to it,” his spokesman Sam Stevekuoah said. In a statement, the carrier said the search was in accordance with US law, and said the Liberian leader had not been exempted as the trip had not been properly arranged with the airline.

The outlandish

Some uses of commercial aircraft by African VIPs have also bordered on the outlandish, and ostentatious. Many reports speak of state owned carriers being delayed for hours to wait for ministers, being turned around to collect late First Ladies, and being commandeered for shopping in London, France, or New York by African First Families. 

Former Democratic Republic of Congo rule Mobutu Sese Seko takes the biscuit for ostentation, as he famously enjoyed chartering supersonic Concordes from Air France. 

One one such trip in 1989 saw him attend the French bicentennial celebrations in Paris, while he also built an airport that could accommodate the aircraft at his personal Gbadolite palace at his remote ancestral home.

On a continent where presidential jets are seen as an ultimate power symbol, those who are forced to go commercial stand out. South Sudan president Salva Kiir is known to charter commercial aircraft for his travels, though it is surely a matter of time before this situation in the oil-rich country changes.

Other leader have come up with innovative ways of meeting the bill. Rwanda president Paul Kagame’s jet is said to be used by a charter when not in use.

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