Mali’s presidential plane has undoubtedly been the subject of controversy. If its acquisition in 2014 led to outcry, its operation could become another scandal.
The government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) acquired the Boeing 737 in March 2014 in the US, but a shell company named Mali BBJ Ltd. filed the export request with American authorities. This company was created in Aruba just two weeks earlier.
The opacity surrounding the plane’s true cost prompted the IMF to demand an audit by Mali’s Bureau du Vérificateur Général (BVG). The BVG determined the cost to be 19 billion CFA francs (roughly US$40 million), of which 1.4 billion francs were commissions and fees paid to a broker linked to IBK’s friend and French mafia figure Michel Tomi. Moreover, the BVG never received access to the plane’s operating contract. A line in Mali’s national budget has existed (under “common costs”) since 2015 to cover the contract’s expenses; since 2016, according to documents posted on the Malian Finance Ministry’s website, it has been over three billion francs per year. A structure created within Mali’s presidency, known as the Groupement Aérien Présidentiel (GAPR) and led by Col. Youssouf Diarra, is now in charge of the plane.
Mali’s president travels abroad a lot: a database maintained by MaliLink Investigative Reporting Group (MIRG) reveals the destinations and dates of his trips. One-third of them have been either private or for the swearing-in of other heads of state. These trips are costly, amounting to an estimated 10 billion francs since 2014. The president averages two trips per three-week period, leading to high maintenance costs for his plane.
In February 2016, the Boeing went to Basel, Switzerland for routine repairs. IBK had decided that the lettering of “République du Mali” on the fuselage was too small. Against the advice of AMAC Aerospace, which had the maintenance contract for the plane, the GAPR had a larger inscription painted the length of the fuselage. Apparently someone was displeased with the outcome, for the job was redone six months later; a confidential source put the total cost at 50,000 euros. This episode led us to look more closely at the plane’s maintenance expenses. The numbers speak volumes.
Since late last year the maintenance contract was stripped from AMAC Aerospace and awarded to KLM UK Engineering (KLMUKE), a UK-based subsidiary of Air France Industries. Repair costs rose in some cases over 500%. For example, the Malian government pays 839 million francs for a “D-check” maintenance visit with KLMUKE, compared to 153.8 million it paid for a D-check with AMAC. Why so high? The answer might be connected to the relationship between two key players: GAPR head Youssouf Diarra and the plane’s captain, Stéphane Poncet, who reportedly manages the maintenance contract personally.
Stéphane Poncet isn’t well known in Mali, visible mainly when shaking IBK’s hand at the stairway before takeoff. Poncet began his aviation career as a steward with Air Liberté, a now-defunct French airline. He underwent flight training and eventually became a copilot in the Fokker 100, a 100-seat regional jet. A 2007 online profile described the then-35-year-old as a “former pilot with 15 years’ experience,” but it is not clear if he was ever a full-fledged pilot for a commercial airline; he would have had to begin piloting at age 20 for that implausible claim to be true. In 2005 Poncet cofounded a charter company named Air Sports France specializing in sports team travel. By 2007, the company’s best year, it recorded a turnover of roughly 300,000 euros and had contracts with Spanish and French soccer and rugby teams. Amid subsequent financial difficulties, Poncet took on other piloting contracts, notably in Azerbaijan where he qualified in the Boeing 737. He was hired to fly Mali’s presidential jet in 2014, and Air Sports France closed shop the following year.
Following the Boeing’s initial two-year maintenance deal with a company called JetMagic, Poncet got involved in its lucrative maintenance contracts. The GAPR, under Colonel Diarra, issues these contracts and Poncet recruits contractors. Our sources indicate that behind the scenes, Poncet has considerable control over decisions. Neither Poncet nor Diarra responded to repeated requests for comment on these matters.
Why did the GAPR choose a contract far more expensive than its predecessor? Did payments take place under the table? In a perfect world the Malian justice system would investigate, but there is little probability of it looking into a structure linked to the presidency. The National Assembly should also demand answers from the government about the plane’s operating costs. It is unthinkable that a country dependent on international handouts should bear such exorbitant expense. France, the UK and the EU all have anti-corruption laws; the presence on their territory of the contractors in question offers an opportunity to make justice prevail. Mali’s citizens deserve no less.