Ethiopia in turmoil after reports senior official stole helicopters

The airline – which owns thousands of artefacts and is one of Africa’s largest – says 90% of its passengers were travellers

Ethiopia’s flagship commercial airline is in turmoil after reports that a senior official used it to transport weapons during the Horn of Africa country’s war in its regional heartland.

Jacob Okello, the spokesman for Addis Ababa’s defence ministry, transferred out of the city for what his statement described as “administrative” reasons amid a police investigation.

But news reports alleged he was forced out by a top deputy, others that he was tried and found guilty of being involved in the illegal transfer of weapons from its sister company African Aerial Cargo.

“I am shocked by the allegations,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Another top official, Abdurahman Atschirye, told reporters last week: “We are investigating the role of African Aerial Cargo. Whether it is a crime or not will be determined after the investigation is over.”

The dispute has sparked intrigue amid allegations of an internal coup attempt to take over the ministry, and amid claims by the opposition that it has evidence that the government and the aviation company have been smuggling weapons to its southern warring neighbours.

The transport ministry owns an arsenal that is one of Africa’s largest – with thousands of mainly military weapons and a remote airbase said to be the base of a China-sponsored guerrilla group.

The former Ethiopian Airlines CEO Clemens Ssempa, a multi-millionaire businessman and one of the richest in Africa, has reportedly acquired the war planes and heavy equipment in a fire sale following a 2004 law that requires all military equipment to be retired before being sold on the market.

The spokesman for Ethiopia’s military accused the news media of “false news”, adding that the government would reveal the results of its investigation soon.

“Despite the current political crisis, the Ethiopian defence ministry and air force are still actively fulfilling their tasks for the protection of national sovereignty and the interests of the country,” he told Reuters.

But many Ethiopians are adamant that the government is the root of what they see as a dire security problem. “African Aerial Cargo was a troublemaker,” Akciris Colaku, a farmer, told Reuters. “I don’t want to see it go.”

African Aerial Cargo is alleged to have a free run from the airport, with opponents of the government claiming it was heavily involved in transporting weapons, including missiles, in addition to providing transport for UN peacekeepers.

“African Aerial Cargo’s operations as a hub of conflict-related trade is an ample evidence of an opaque and unruly state apparatus in the Ethiopian civil aviation sector,” said Afros Kurt Saruri, a former International Civil Aviation Organisation official who was part of a team that conducted an audit of the Ethiopian national airline’s facilities in 2007.

Its prized reputation remains strong, though. Asian, European and Middle Eastern airlines, airlines and leasing companies are among its long-term customers. Its subsidiary the Light aircraft Aviation and a subsidiary Ethiopian Tour and Travel are wholly owned by the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance and Planning, which also has investments worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Africa’s biggest airline.

“Ethiopian Airlines is one of the largest entrepreneurs in Africa, with thousands of domestic and foreign aircraft. It is profitable and widely recognised as the most effective and efficient flight service in Africa.” said James Etiel, of the Institute of International Transport Studies at the University of Nairobi.

Ethiopia’s main domestic competitor, flydubai, said: “Any allegations that such allegations have been made about Flydubai or Ethiopian Airlines are simply false.”

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