I recently ran into an acquaintance from a neighbouring east African state who regalled me with stories of that country’s own public sector corporate governance shenanigans that are not too far removed from our very own. For purposes of this story, we will call him Matiku. Matiku, and others not herein named, were board members of a parastatal that provided oversight on players within an important industry and key economic driver of this special country. With barely two months remaining to the end of their first three-year term, the line minister announced that he was dismissing the entire board.
Now if you know how the public sector works in these east African parts, a board director appointment to a parastatal is typically done by the line minister under whom the parastatal falls while the board chair is often appointed by the President. The board was rightfully indignant, after all there had been no malfeasance nor whiff of scandal regarding its role prior to the offending letters from the minister. Furthermore, with two months remaining to the end of their terms, it beggared belief that the minister would be chomping so hard at the bit that he couldn’t wait for their term to expire in a mere 60 days. But the mother of all umbrages had been taken by the board chairman. What the heck did the minister think he was purporting to do by dismissing him, a whole presidential appointee?
So the chairman did what any good chairman would do. He sought audience with his appointing authority because, if he had done anything wrong, he wanted to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. The meeting with the President went well. Very well actually.
To begin with, the President had no issues with the board. In fact, he told the chairman, the minister had reached out to him earlier and asked him to fire the chairman, but when asked why, the minister couldn’t give a good answer. So the announcement of the entire board’s firing came as a surprise to him. “Call a press conference and tell the media that the only person who can fire you is the President. The minister has no such authority,” were the sagacious words of the President.
Which is exactly what the good chairman did. As some folks like to say, the lightning that was about to strike started doing pushups in readiness. The media went to town with the story, highlighting the spunk of the ordinary mortal of a chairman to dare thumb a whole Minister in the eye. The Permanent Secretary at the line ministry then called the chairman saying “Please ask the board to ignore the dismissal that was undertaken in a mistaken chest thumping, egotistical manner,” or something along those lines. Within 48 hours of the chairman’s meeting with the President, Matiku and his colleagues were back in office. But the vindicatory lightning was not done striking. At the end of the two months, the entire board was reappointed for a three-year term by the minister, who quite likely had received a tongue lashing from his boss.
At an event to welcome back the board, the line minister stood up to give a speech. “My friends, congratulations on your reappointment. I know you are unhappy with what I did the other day, but I was just doing it to test you.” Matiku’s shoulders shook mirthfully by the time he got to this point in the story. “We had to pin the chairman down to his seat as he was about to stand up and accost the minister,” Matiku humorously recounted.
But why did the minister take such a brazen step of firing a board if there was nothing negative on record, I asked Matiku. His brow furrowed in deep thought.
“We don’t know. Even if he wanted to appoint his own friends to the board, he could have just waited two months and done it as our terms were coming to an end.” While Matiku and his board colleagues try to decipher the “mystery of the minister who couldn’t wait for 60 days,” it is noteworthy that the political structures that govern board appointments in the public sector often do suffer from the folly of human ego.
It goes without saying that if appointments were based on meritocracy and not political expediency and largesse, the minister in this case would not have played a bad poker hand. More importantly, the key take away from this story is that even at the best of times, an East African President does use an often vilified media to do his dirty work for him!