Can Air Mauritius take off, again?


There was a time when Air Mauritius contributed to our national pride. It flew the flag of Mauritius across the world. This was no mean achievement for a tiny country like ours that had been written off as a lost cause, economically speaking, barely decades ago. It showed that we could break new grounds as well as the economic sound barrier. With it, our tourism industry took off. From being a laggard initially, this industry surpassed in the space of a few years even the mighty sugar sector in terms of foreign exchange earnings. Air Mauritius contributed to make the charms of our country known across the world more than our ambassadors did. Thanks to such fundamental groundwork, we have become well known enough to attract currently substantial amounts of FDI in real estates, something that is staying us on course in terms of foreign exchange availability despite a persistent structural deficit on our international trade account. One can easily see how seeds sown in the past can keep producing positive economic outcomes for the country years later.
Was it necessary or useful to erode this hard-earned “capital”? It appears that this is so. Air Mauritius has now become better known as a place for pass-through CEO and administrative mess-ups. It is unbecoming that the national airline which suffered a severe reputational setback barely a few years ago for having used a “black box” to dish out unaccounted-for money, should again fall into such bad limelight on a continuing basis. We are not assuming that airline Chairmen and CEOs cannot fail. We want to point out rather that when a key institution becomes the ground for useless conflicts of personality, a poor image of our style of management of important institutions of the country is projected worldwide.
The world concludes, when situations like this happen, that we are devoid of the element of predictability and lack the basic governance when it comes to serious matters of state. It frustrates staff and key personnel within who would have wanted to identify themselves rather with star performers in the aviation industry. They are demoralised by such a succession of management failures. Will this kind of situation be the magnet to draw high performing Mauritians overseas to come back and “do something” for the advancement of the country? We appear to have lost our way. Instead of focussing on an international market that is becoming tougher by the day, our national airline can afford, it seems, to while away precious time and energy discussing the fates of individuals who are supposed to be running the airline.
It is important for key decision-makers to engage in some serious self-introspection to identify the real reasons behind this recurrent pattern of institutional failure. “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings…”.

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A Sense of Commitment

We have a big backlog of work to do in various sectors to keep the key economic infrastructure of the country from degrading further. It goes to the credit of the government that it has finally embarked on construction of several roads in an attempt to de-congest a traffic problem that had been worsening by the day for at least one decade. The visitor to Mauritius was and is still being caught in the all too familiar thick and slow-moving traffic from which he thought he was escaping before landing in Mauritius. The first impression we have been exposing him to, is that of a country which has been unable to manage a smooth flow on its rather limited land area. This is a clear sign of incompetence.
If a solution for this enduring problem is on the way, nevertheless, the question which arises is: was it a matter of financial constraint or was it due to decisional failure that actions that ought to have been taken were actually not taken to solve the problem wholesale? Despite the so-called “triple shocks” of past years, the government was able to amass large quantities of funds for different purposes during the past five years. It shows that money was not the real constraint. The fact also that we have been able to spill out billions of dollars burning imported fuel in massive traffic jams over so many years shows that financial resources were not the real constraint. Road construction projects have been undertaken piecemeal in past years. When one problem appeared to have been solved by so doing, another one cropped up somewhere else. So, the whole of the machinery and equipment was moved to the next sore point. By that time, signs of fatigue started appearing in the first places where such ad hoc work had initially been carried out. More money was spent to get things in order again. This is the signal feature of patent wastage and want of coordination in actions taken.
Several sectors have been showing similar anatomies of failure. This situation seems to point out that it is the lack of an integrated response to the problem that was at the heart of the matter. An integrated response to a structural problem usually emanates from decision-makers who have faith in the perenniality of the State. When they are convinced about this, they do not hesitate to take long-term decisions for the benefit of the res publica and get them implemented instead of merely counting the beans. They are driven by a sense of commitment towards the superior interest of the State. Capital spending which improves the capacity of the country to deliver better cannot be deterred even if fiscal conservatives saw only one side of the picture, notably the scale of the ensuing fiscal deficit. It is absolutely irrelevant to concentrate on the size of fiscal deficits if, by so doing, one ends up crippling down the economic potential of the country. It is because we have not listened to such fiscal conservatives at times in the past that we have been able to see the bigger picture and taken bold decisions to invest in a lot of physical and human capital. The fruits those decisions have actually borne are testimony to superior wisdom transcending the mandate of individual governments.
A comprehensive, bold and committed leadership at the macro level can embark the country on to projects which will bear fruits for coming decades. If it is confident that the action it is undertaking is for the enduring benefit of the country and its citizens, it will not be deterred from taking the necessary actions simply to be able to stick to neat statistics. Statistics are things of the past, not the future. A strong and committed leadership knows that it is the future that really matters.

* Published in print edition on 10 December 2010

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