Former MD of Air Namibia Theo Namases discusses with New Era’s Managing Editor, Toivo Ndjebela, her protracted suspension and the mooted attempts to reinstate her.
How did your suspension by the Air Namibia board come about last year?
The reasons given for my suspension were to “allow the company to investigate various allegations raised both in the forensic audit, as well as my role in the AOC [Air Operator’s Certificate] re-certification process.”
I was never invited to any “investigatory interviews”, nor were the results of both these “investigations” shared with me, so I don’t know what the outcome was.
By the time I was suspended the Board had received the forensic audit report three months earlier. Given the millions paid for the forensic audit, one would expect clear findings and recommendations, instead of “allegations” needing further investigation. The recipients of the said report are better placed to explain why the forensic audit report contained “allegations”, which needed further investigation.
My name has been tarnished by allegations of a “criminal element” and this was communicated as the reason why the board could not see its way clear to reinstating me, pending finalisation of the disciplinary hearing.
Having failed to convene a disciplinary hearing for more than a year to hear the charges against me it seems – that out of desperation – the board decided to convict me in the ‘court of public opinion’ through irresponsible media statements.
What is the historical background to your suspension? Did you see it coming?
Yes, a few weeks before my suspension, it was evident that my suspension was imminent. My run-ins with the chairperson started within a month of their appointment as a Board way back in August 2012, due to his disregard for sound corporate governance principles.
Tim Ekandjo in his recent interview with New Era confirmed that, “the forensic investigation was ordered by the then Minister Nghimtina a few days after our appointment as Board Members for various reasons.”
In 2013/14 the SOE Governance Council (SOEGC) became aware of the deteriorating relationship between the board and management, as a result of which both parties, including senior ministers, were invited to discussions on two separate occasions. The chairperson of the SOEGC requested a “ceasefire” and appealed to all parties to set aside their differences and work in the best interest of the airline.
Notwithstanding the exhortations by the SOEGC, the situation at the airline continued to deteriorate to the point where on 21 May 2014 I wrote a letter to the line minister, in which I requested urgent government intervention into what I termed the “governance crisis at Air Namibia”. The grievances that I communicated to the then line minister in that letter probably warrant a separate article.
The minister never acknowledged, nor responded to my letter. Instead, at a subsequent board meeting in early June 2014 a very agitated chairman wanted to know from me whether I had received a response from the minister.
When I confirmed that I had not received any response, the chairman self-assuredly informed the meeting that he had in fact received a response from “his minister”. How he received a response to a letter he did not write, only he and “his minister” will know. Soon thereafter I was suspended, and as they say, the rest is history!
What happened during your suspension, in terms of disciplinary proceedings? Did any hearing take place?
The Air Namibia Disciplinary Code and Grievance Procedure requires that “an employee who is on suspension is entitled to have a disciplinary hearing into his or her conduct held as soon as reasonably possible as contemplated in clause 7.1.2 (a) and (b) of the Disciplinary Code and Procedure, which period may not exceed 60 working days in the case of an employee, who works a five-day working week.” This roughly translates to within 3 calendar months from the date of suspension.
I was presented with the charges shortly before expiry of the 60 working days in late September 2014. Within a matter of days of receiving the charge sheet I requested through my lawyers – in early October 2014 – for further particulars of the rather vague charges, as well as a copy of the forensic audit report, which was the basis for my suspension and also the basis for some of the charge, so that I could prepare my defence.
To date I have still not received the further particulars and or the copy of the forensic audit report, despite several follow-ups by my lawyers. The scheduled hearing date of 22nd June 2015 was decided unilaterally by them, without due regard to my availability or the availability of my lawyers.
Tell us about how the settlement between you and Air Namibia came about.
I am aware that they have made much ado about the fact that I “initiated” the settlement, as if that was the first time settlement was ever discussed. They had initiated disciplinary steps against me against sound legal advice, which told them they had no case to start with – hence, no wonder they failed to provide the required supporting evidence.
The disciplinary process had stalled and they were running out of time as their term as a Board was coming to an end. Contrary to what they would like you to believe my settlement offer offered them an “honourable” exit from this mess that they found themselves in.
It is also said that on top of the reported N$3 million settlement fee, you had also asked an extra N$500,000 for damage to your name and reputation, which was apparently turned down.
Yes, I did make a demand for damages – which I believe I am entitled to – given the extensive reputational damage to myself without any hearing taking place and any charges being proven against me. I am, however, not at liberty to discuss specific amounts.
Did you wish you had gone through a disciplinary hearing to clear your name, and if so, why did you agree to a settlement?
In the press release, which I issued on 2 July 2015 I clearly explained why I had settled.
The matter had dragged on much longer than I expected and I am just tired and want to move on with my life. Secondly, it is impossible for me to return to Air Namibia and work with the same board. Trust and respect and general goodwill have been destroyed between myself and my adversaries on the board. The working relationship will be difficult and this is neither in my interest nor in the interest of Air Namibia.
Thirdly, as head of the national airline I should have a healthy working relationship with the industry regulator (DCA). Again, I believe the relationship with key personnel within the DCA has been damaged beyond repair. The involvement of the DCA in the events at Air Namibia has been covered extensively in the media over the past year.
Were there any projects or programmes that you were leading as MD and which, in your opinion, suffered as a result of your extended absence from office?
It would be fair to say that my suspension came at a time when things were really looking good for Air Namibia for the first time in many years – thinking back to the pilots’ strike in late 2012 and the financial and operational challenges that we had right up to early 2013.
We were beginning to see the results of our Cabinet-approved business plan – as we completed the fleet modernisation and the implementation of various initiatives, including a thorough review of agreements and contracts entered into with service providers across the globe – and it was beginning to bear fruit. Of course the cash injections by the shareholder in 2013 had eased our financial and operational challenges.
Our operational and financial performance was really looking good. We had just updated and re-prioritised the implementation of the remaining aspects of the business plan and I was looking forward to driving these.
A few months after my suspension there were claims of much-improved operational performance and that for the first time Air Namibia was making a profit, although they have since backtracked on the claimed profitability in recent months.
I hear the budget deficit is going to run into hundreds of millions again, back to the old days, and the airline will have to go back to government with its begging bowl. I further understand that the little investments that we built up during my time had to be liquidated to meet expenses, and the airline didn’t even have the cash on hand to pay my settlement.
There were talks that you’ll be reinstated as MD of Air Namibia, following intervention by the current minister of works. Can you shed light on whether you’ve completely parted ways with Air Namibia, or whether you’d get your job back?
My reinstatement or otherwise is the prerogative of the new board and the line minister. Like many Namibians I remain available to serve my country and contribute in whatever way I can. Yes, I believe I can still add a lot of value to Air Namibia if required to serve – not because I am special – but because of the insights and exposure I have had with Air Namibia since 2004.
And finally, what are your views, and perhaps suggestions, on the often-rocky relationship between boards and CEOs and the length of suspension periods for CEOs?
The relationship between the board and CEO is a formal relationship, and – provided everyone fulfils their roles within the corporate governance framework and with the required courtesy and respect – it really doesn’t have to be that rocky.
And even when trust is broken and you are no longer able to work together, there are civilised ways to part company without all the drama and injury to the company and reputations. We can learn a lot from the private sector in this regard.
The media only reports when things go wrong, but there are many functional boards and CEOs enjoying healthy relationships. I had the opportunity as Acting MD for two years before my substantive appointment, to work with the previous board, chaired by Ambassador Asheeke.
Ambassador Asheeke was an exemplary leader, a good listener, who valued the opinions of others, whilst he remained focused on the goals to be achieved.