Temba Dube Acting News Editor
THE government stepped in at the eleventh hour to prevent the country’s airports from being shut down after a group of fire-fighters obtained a court order to attach fire engines at the facilities. The fire-fighters won a $3,1 million lawsuit against the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ). Sources close to the matter said the debt arose over the deployment of at least 122 fire-fighters to the DRC between 1998 and 2003. The fire engines are said to be technologically advanced and second to none in Africa.
They were supposed to be attached on Monday, said the sources, but the government has blocked the process and is seeking an administrative solution. One of the firemen said attaching the engines would have virtually stopped all flights in the country as no plane would have been able to land or take off.
“Worldwide aviation safety requirements, bar an airport from operating without fire tenders. Our lawyers have told us that the attachment has been halted as it would have been detrimental to the economy,” said a fireman on condition of anonymity. The fire-fighters said all they wanted was their money. “I’m not sure which airports the attachment order covers.
“But if it’s all the airports, it means we would have attached three water tenders from Harare airport, two each from Bulawayo and Victoria Falls and one each from Kariba, Buffalo Range, Hwange National Park, Masvingo and Charles Prince,” said the fireman.
“That would have meant no flights in and out of the country,” he added. Another fire-fighter said the group that went to DRC between 1998 and 2001 were paid $50 daily allowances. “We were paid three months allowances as a lump sum. We were supposed to get the remainder when we got home. Most of us never received it,” said the man.
He said in April 2001, a statutory Instrument was gazetted that stipulated they should get $250 per day. “For some reason, we continued getting $50. Some said they were getting $20. No one knows what happened to the balance of $200 a day that was supposed to come our way. We know CAAZ received it.”
The CAAZ chief executive officer at the time was Karikoga Kaseke and his deputy was the present ceo, David Chaota. The legal battle over the allowances has been raging since 2003. The fire-fighters have won it in every court but CAAZ would appeal.
It went up to the Supreme Court this year, which upheld the decisions of the lower courts. Kaseke could not be reached for comment on his mobile phone. However, in March 2006, he was quoted in the Press saying the firemen were at loggerheads with CAAZ because they misunderstood their mission in the DRC.
“They thought they were on a “a foreign business mission” when in fact they were on external duty for which they had to be paid less than they were demanding,” he is quoted saying.
“The CAAZ board had recommended that the firemen receive $20 per day in allowances during their deployment, although management had offered them between $75 and $100 per day.”
“However, the fire-fighters later demanded payments of $250 per day after seeing a memorandum circulated by Kaseke which stipulated allowances of $250 per day for staff on foreign business missions.”
CAAZ public relations manager Anna Hungwe yesterday said she could not comment as she was driving. Chaota’s mobile phone rang without being answered.
Transport and Infrastructural Development Minister, Cde Joram Gumbo, also was not answering his mobile phone. Zimbabwean fire fighters were reportedly deployed to the DRC in 1998 when the Kinshasa Airport caught fire after a plane crash-landed.
Local fire-fighters failed to put out the fire, which threatened to spread to residential areas. The DRC government sent an SOS to CAAZ, which then sent firemen to assist.
Media reports suggest the then DRC president, the late Laurent Kabila, was so impressed by the way the Zimbabweans dealt with the fire that he requested their services in the training and setting up of fire brigades at Kinshasa and Lubumbashi airports.
The DRC government was to pay CAAZ for the firemen’s services