Mauritius deserves better

At an extremely short notice meeting of the board of Air Mauritius on Friday last, the board took the decision to revoke Megh Pillay as its Chief Executive.

The board meeting was sparsely attended – mainly representatives of the public sector which has a controlling interest in the airline – but was quorate to take the decision. In other words, the decision was taken by a lawfully constituted minimal board consisting mostly of representatives of the public sector. Other members could not or decided not to attend the board meeting, given the agenda and the very short notice.

When this decision was announced in the afternoon of last Friday, a shock wave travelled across the country. It was unbelievable that a company which had in the past several years paid a heavy price due to rash political intrusions had, so shortly after having appointed a new chief executive to redress the dangerous situation the company had landed into, called an urgent board meeting to dismiss its CEO who many believe is competent enough to help turn the company around.

It appears that the Chair of the board and the CEO did not see eye to eye regarding a staff matter, from the little that has transpired in public. In short, the CEO appeared unhappy at decisions taken at a subordinate level regarding the affairs of the company – which he did not approve of – without his knowledge but supported by some members of the board. One such controversial decision concerns the company having recently agreed to give a 15% rebate on tickets to public officers and their families, which the CEO became aware of only after the decision had been confirmed by the board.

It is clear that there were tensions between some members of the board and the CEO. Normally, such tensions are sorted out after civilised discussions between the parties and, that too, behind closed doors, so as not to parade in-house differences in the open which may have negative consequences on the public standing and good health of the company. So, something extraordinary must have been at stake for the board to hurriedly convene a board meeting with the sole agenda to sack its CEO. For a publicly listed company such as Air Mauritius, it would have been expected that the board, which took the decision – no matter the majority of its members being absent at the crucial meeting – to publicly explain without delay why such an overturning decision was inevitable and that the company had plans in place to bridge the gap efficiently. No such communication issued from the board. It looked like taking the public and the staff of the airline for a ride as regards the company’s future prospects.

This has unfortunately been the fate of several of our public companies. Their decisions, which have a bearing on the good health of the concerned state enterprises, are barely explained. Even where that is done later on by ministers, the language is complex and generally unintelligible to ordinary people. Arrogance and threats sometimes accompany explanations, if any.

In such conditions, people start suspecting that the opaqueness surrounding the decisions of concerned public bodies must be due to “un-disclosable” political interferences or private accommodations of bad taste. In the present case, it is difficult to imagine that Megh Pillay would have sufficient counterweight to overcome a board dominated by public servants and political advisers, along with the full weight of the political machinery having backed the board’s decision against him.

Who gains from such a decision? Those pushing for private advantages behind the screens, which the CEO would resist? Those who aren’t prepared to discuss cool-headedly the opportunity to replace a sub-optimal previous decision taken by something better? Those who think they have the monopoly of all knowledge about how the airline should be extricated from the difficult pass it has landed into due to serial past political interferences? An independent inquiry would have thrown some light as to what exactly is being defended by the protagonists from each side.

It is unfortunate that the short-sighted adventurism of politicians has kept overtaking in the past the good standing of many of our public and nationally important institutions such as Air Mauritius. This is how Air Mauritius, despite being of strategic connectivity importance to the economy, has not renewed its fleet for too long. Competitor airlines are serving passengers with the latest in aviation in the meantime, while Air Mauritius has been left to heal its severe wounds inflicted by past very costly and miscalculated hedging operations.

The latest in a series of replacements of the company’s CEOs will expose clearly the heavy price public companies are made to pay. It is not only a company like Air Mauritius which suffers when such overturning unexplained decisions, which sully the reputation of the company, are taken. It is the general image of the country which takes a beating. The time has come perhaps to concentrate on the actual job to be done to improve the working of several public sector enterprises.

M.K.

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