Did Kenya buy defective helicopters from China? That is the question being asked by military engineers after it became apparent that eight Chinese choppers delivered to Nairobi in January have not been flown.
The helicopters were bought from a company that has previously supplied planes to Kenya.
However, the ministry of Defence said the helicopters had not been grounded but did not explain why they have not taken to the air three months after they were delivered.
“We wish to state that so far we do not have any Z-9 helicopters which are grounded,” the DoD spokesman Bogita Ongeri said in response to enquiries about the aircraft. But engineers at DoD said the military utility helicopters had never been airborne since they were delivered in January.
Sources at DoD said several of the eight helicopters were meant to beef up the VIP fleet that is usually at the disposal of the President, Prime Minister and the Vice-President.
Currently, President Kibaki uses the French-manufactured Puma helicopters that are reconfigured for VIP usage.
As military utility helicopters, the Z-9 have a variety of roles including ground attack, air assault, cargo, reconnaissance and troop transport. They can carry 10 armed soldiers.
Engineers note that while they expected the “new” helicopters to reinforce the VIP fleet, they were disappointed that they had not flown three months after arrival.
“For three months we have waited for them to take to the skies but to no avail,” our source, who cannot be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media, said.
The Harbin Z-9 is a Chinese military utility helicopter licence-built version of the French Eurocopter Dauphin.
The first Z-9 flew in 1981, and was built in China by the Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Corp from components supplied by Aérospatiale.
This is the same French firm that supplied the Puma helicopters still in service for the Kenya Air Force.
The latest armed version, the Z-9WA, was introduced in 2005 and has night attack capabilities with an under-nose low-light TV and infra-red observing and tracking unit.
Information on the purchase of the choppers is contained in the latest factsheet of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which monitors worldwide purchase and transfer of military hardware.
According to SIPRI, the four Z-9WA armed version helicopters were ordered last year by the ministry of Defence and delivered in January.
The DoD termed the purchase of the helicopters a prerequisite for readiness on the part of the military.
Mr Ongeri said the acquisition of the helicopters is one of a series of steps aimed at modernising the armed forces.
“We have an obligation to equip our soldiers with the very best, most modern equipment/systems our nation and budget can provide,” he said.
Without revealing how the country procured the aircraft, DoD said contracts in regard to procurement of military equipment the world over take a long time.
Last week, SIPRI disclosed that Kenya had spent more than Sh45 billion on military equipment.
This was the third largest budgetary military expenditure in Eastern and Southern Africa.
African countries that exceeded Kenya’s expenditure were South Africa and Angola.
Last year, DoD was on the spot when it insisted that tanks imported from the Ukraine belonged to Kenya while it was generally assumed the end user was Southern Sudan.
The department promised to take journalists on a trip to show the tanks in action but, more than a year since the pledge, nothing has come of it.
Since President Kibaki took office late in December 2002, Kenya has continually looked to China and Eastern Europe countries for its arms and military hardware.
In 2006, Kenya bought an estimated 400 troop-carrying vehicles from China in a deal that sparked questions from other suppliers.
A year later, Kenya bought 32 armoured personnel carriers from China.
Earlier, the country had received Y-12 military utility planes from the same country.
Queries over the state of the Chinese choppers came as the Sunday Nation learned that the much-awaited Jordanian fighter jets that cost taxpayers Sh1.6 billion are expected in the country next month.
Meanwhile, DoD has said it is in negotiations with the Spanish firm awarded the tender to build a warship for the Kenya Navy in May 2003.
Mr Ongeri said DoD has entered into arbitration with the ship manufacturers, Astilleros Gondan, and the company awarded the deal, Euromarine Industries.
The Defence and Foreign Relations Committee chaired by the then Laikipia West MP, Mr G.G. Kariuki, had in 2007 asked the government to hire independent experts to evaluate the naval ship’s works and services done as a basis for working out payments to the shadowy Euromarine Industries.
“Other options the government may consider include nullifying existing contracts and renegotiating new terms and entering into new well thought-out agreements with a clear exit strategy to safeguard public funds,” the report says.
The committee recommended that those who deliberately make the government enter into irregular and lop-sided procurement contracts where Kenya stands to lose money, image and international standing should be dealt with firmly.
Naval ship contract
The committee urged the government to bear in mind the need to protect public funds in whatever action it takes on the naval ship contract.
Although DoD declined to state how much money had been paid to Euromarine Industries, independent sources put the figure at Sh2.3 billion.
Euromarine Industries is reported to be demanding a staggering Sh1.8 billion for same ship.
The naval ship deal is among the 18 dodgy contracts that the government either terminated or suspended after the Anglo Leasing and Finance scandal blew up.
Euromarine Industries was awarded the contract to construct the ship for a staggering Sh4.1 billion (Euros 51,997,000).
The firm is said to have proposed a medium term financial package that was to ease the budgetary burden on the government.