By Edmund Kagire
A Cabinet meeting chaired by President Paul Kagame on Wednesday removed John Mirenge as the chief executive officer of national carrier RwandAir, replacing him with Col Chance Ndagano in an acting capacity.
Mr Mirenge has been at the helm of RwandAir since 2010 and is credited with steering an ambitious expansion plan. His exit came in the week RwandAir made its maiden flight to Mumbai, India, and announced a route to Harare, Zimbabwe.
Col Ndagano is also the board vice chairperson of the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority (RCAA).
Another military officer, Lt Col. Sylvere Munyaneza was also appointed the airline’s deputy CEO in charge of operations.
Mr Munyaneza replaces Jean Paul Nyirubutama, who was appointed to the airline’s board.
Yvonne Makolo Manzi, who has been the chief marketing officer of MTN Rwanda, was appointed the position of deputy CEO in charge of corporate affairs at RwandAir.
There were no immediate reasons for the removal of the airline’s top executives, but reliable sources indicate that mismanagement of resources and failure to contain financial leaks could be behind the sacking.
Mr Mirenge has been credited for expanding the airline from five aircrafts since his appointment to 11 aircraft currently, including two triple class wide-bodied Airbus A330 planes deployed on intercontinental routes. The airline also has three Boeing B737-700 and -800 aircrafts.
The changes come at a time when RwandAir was planning to launch a direct flight to London, Gatwick in May. RwandAir’s maiden flight to Harare arrived on Wednesday, increasing the airline’s routes to Southern Africa to three.
While RwandAir has not started making profits yet, there have been reports of financial losses, with a reliable source indicating that an internal probe unearthed missing funds up to the tune of $2 million.
On December 8, 2016, Nigerian media reported that RwandAir had incurred heavy losses resulting from fines linked to fake entry visas carried by Nigerians travelling to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
The report, which was first carried by The Guardian and later picked by different websites, claimed that the Rwandan national carrier had made heavy losses in fines in just six months.
Under the international aviation rules guiding the Global Distribution System, the fines are paid by the airline which carried the individual.
“For every passenger that arrives in Dubai without a valid visa or is in possession of forged papers and ultimately turned back at the port of entry, the airline pays a penalty of $30,000,” the report is quoted, adding that RwandAir was planning to scrap Nigeria from its destinations.
RwandAir rubbished the report, describing it as “erroneous, wrong, misinformed and invalid.”
“There is no basis whatsoever for what the story tries to portray or to insinuate,” the airline said, asking The Guardian to retract the story.
However, a reliable source in the airline told The EastAfrican that the reports became a tip off for investigations into the airlines finances, leading to new revelations.
In January 2015, local media reported that employees in the ticketing department had defrauded the airline of millions of francs, leading to heavy losses. Some of the suspects fled the country while others were arrested.
Mr Mirenge admitted that some individuals were involved in defrauding the airline but said that the stolen amount was less than the $700,000 reported, putting it at $30,000.
The failure to arrest internal financial leaks is blamed on RwandAir’s struggle to breakeven after heavy investment in aircraft. President Kagame, who is personally keen on the growth of the airline, is known for not tolerating financial mismanagement.
RwandAir had expected to start making profits by 2018 but the target has been revised following the addition of two new $250 million Airbuses last year.
Mr Mirenge, who had been a board member, replaced German Rene Janata in October 2010, after the latter resigned. Mr Janata had replaced Gerald Zirimwabagabo as CEO in July 2010.
Prior to joining RwandAir, Mr Mirenge had been the CEO of Crystal Ventures Ltd, the ruling party Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF-Inkotanyi) investment vehicle. Until 2009, he was the director-general of the country’s electricity and water utility Electrogaz.