FOUAD DIOUMAN

The doomed dodo looked into the mirror and saw a petulant Pailles en Queue. But is it any surprise that Air Mauritius is in its current dire situation? This reflection is not about Air Mauritius as it is plainly (and painfully) obvious that the company is merely a reflection, or rather a microcosm, of the country. This has been going on for at least 30 years, regardless of any government. No government was brave enough to correct the course at Air Mauritius just as no government ever remedied the dismal governance the country has suffered from. These are two sides of the same coin.

For more than three decades now, there has been no clear vision and no strategy for both Mauritius and Air Mauritius. Leadership, and therefore governance, have been very poor in both cases. Lack of meritocracy and political patronage have inflated the workforce with a plethora of employees and civil servants ill-suited for the job. Good people have left the organisation and the country.

Both have a bulging pension liability which is almost unmanageable. Billions have been recklessly wasted on dubious ‘investments’ saddling the airline and the country with costly debt repayments (the six glorious A350s being from the previous government, let’s not forget and that bright spark from… South African Airways). In both cases, ignorant politicians and their non-accountable, unqualified nominees and inexperienced advisers make technical decisions, only to disappear when the shit hits the fan. The infamous joke of the Air Corridor joins the so-called ‘Cyber’ City and various property schemes only to blow hot air over the island. When the economy and the business model were no longer sustainable, the currency and shares started losing value. Last but not least, egos at Pailles en Queue have rivalled only those at the Government House.

Covid has merely worsened and made transparent a situation that was very close to catastrophic. As Warren Buffet, the genial investor, said, “it is when the tide is low that you find out who have been swimming naked”. As last desperate resorts, people with extensive experience in Finance agree that funds are siphoned from the central bank by government – just as they were siphoned from the airport by Air Mauritius. The irony of voluntary administration is that it’s not voluntary at all… No wonder, the air in Mauritius is getting more and more foul by the day. But it is easy to be the Prophet of Doom. What can be done? When every other trick fails, try hard work. This is a godsend opportunity to review how the country is organised from A to Z.

Using tourism as a more visual metaphor, our strength does not come from beautiful buildings or even our service. In this respect, whether it is idyllic Maldives and Seychelles or artificial Dubai, these countries are better than us nowadays. Even Ethiopia and Rwanda, previously amongst the most doomed African nations, are now better at governance than us. We harbour false hopes that Ethiopian Airlines may save us when… it is Mauritius which should have been buying and managing airlines and airports all around Africa. How mighty Mauritius has fallen. This should not come as a surprise, the writing has been on the wall for very long. What is eminently still of value to us is our unique identity driven by our fabulously rich history. Not this hub or that cyber thing or yet another property and residency scheme or, our only novel ‘idea’ this century, the Air Corridor with no passengers. For Mauritius to rise from the ashes of COVID-19 requires a completely new and fundamental re-thinking of our values and who we are. Allow me to propose four pillars:

(1) A new Curriculum for a new education agenda, as the first step of a new foundation for our next 50 years. Not to be confused with building schools.
(2) This curriculum will, partly, teach us and crystallise our Identity, stemming from our rich history, which will make our thinking and tourism, among other things, unique – again. If we ignore our history we will have no future.
(3) The Environment, obviously. As witnessed by the dead corals in our lifeless lagoons, quick and easy money is not sustainable.
(4) Ethics. From global macro revelations like the Panama Papers (ie. there is now nowhere to hide) to the latest local ‘crime crapuleux’, Mauritius is now looking down into an abyss. A Strategy and especially a Vision not based on Values is doomed.
We tried to be Hong Kong with manufacturing, Switzerland with Finance and Singapore with urbanisation, the metro and myriads of property schemes. Here’s a weird idea, let’s now try to be Mauritius. Air Mauritius is merely the visible symptom of the Mauritius disease, the air we breathe in Mauritius. The virus is not new, it has been with us for 30 years and maybe even since our independence – and it is wholly man-made in Moris, in our very own socio-political laboratory.