By Dickson Jere
The longest trip we took on a Presidential Challenger Jet was to Brazil in 2010. We made three-stopovers to refuel. Because we had to fuel to full-capacity, the usual Presidential close party had to be removed from the aircraft to reduce on weight. So it was only President Rupiah Banda and myself, as two passengers, and the aide-de-camp on that 16 hour-long and punishing journey. Not the best way of moving a President.
In 2008, when some of us joined government, we found a position paper on the need to purchase a new presidential aircraft. The document was first crafted by technocrats under President Frederick Chiluba government. And so, during our first few months in office, I was one of those taken on a test-flight by the Canadian aircraft manufacturer, Bombardier, who came to market the new plane (Challenger Global). It was what Zambia was looking for at that time – long haul machine – with bigger passenger capacity. But due to some unforeseen issues, the transaction was never concluded. At that time, Rwanda and Botswana had just acquired similar machines for the presidential duties.
The Challenger aircraft 604 which was designed as “Zambia One” was not really suitable for presidential movements. It was small and could not take longer trips without stopovers for refuel. Remember that whenever the Head of State makes a stopover, it means that security and protocol detail must be stationed there in advance. This is costly too! We also tried,as a country, the option of chartering private aircrafts for the President but this too proved unsustainable and costly. Not forgetting putting the life of the President in the hands of foreign crew!
Another alternative to the Challenger, which has been used before, is to board commercial flights. This is very inconveniencing for the Head of State. It is difficult to plan as flights can be delayed and entire presidential assignment disturbed. Commercial flights can be canceled and affect the presidential movements. This also entail making stopovers when going on long distance trips such as New York (UN General Assembly). Each stopover require security and protocol detail stationed in advance in those countries. Sometimes, the flight bookings can be crazy and involve several stopovers. The President, in case of emergency, should be able to travel back at short notice from wherever he or she is than waiting for tickets to be changed or negotiating for available seats on commercial flights.
So, the need for a long haul aircraft, has always been a necessity.
What about sudden change of programs?
Zambia One must be able to make sudden U-turn when the final destination becomes hostile. For example, the President destined to country B must be able to change plan midair when suddenly war breaks out in that country. This cannot be done with commercial flights that can be diverted to some other countries which may not be suitable for Zambia One.
The current debate is interesting. Zambia Air Force (ZAF), in an unprecedented statement, explained that the presidential plane cannot be sold. I think that is besides the point. I think what we should be looking at is the cost-benefit analysis of having our own long haul aircraft Vs selling and getting back to commercial flights for our Head of State. How much can we save from the two options? What are the security implications of the two options? This is where we should focus the debate! As for me, based on my very little experience in the presidency, I would prefer whoever is Zambian President, to have a long haul aircraft for easy movements and safety. It does not matter whether it is Gulf-stream, Challenger Global, Airbus or Boeing, so long as it can do the job. Whether it is President Edgar Lungu, Hakainde Hichilema, Harry Kalaba, Sean Tembo or Chishimba Kambwili in office, they need to have such machine.