“Sir, you are confusing staff. They look at me as the boss and at you as the bigger boss. You are undermining me as the CEO.”
Maria Machailo-Ellis has absolutely no regrets about saying those fateful words to Alex Monchusi but they are the ones that put her on a collision course with the Botswana Confederation of Commerce, Industry and Manpower president. When it happened, the collision was not a pretty sight and it may have forever shattered the impression that BOCCIM is an oasis of peace and stability.
By Machailo-Ellis’ account, Monchusi was in the habit of bypassing her and giving instructions to senior staff members. There came a point when she could take it no more and she officialised her grievances to the man who supervises. On hearing these words, Monchusi is said to have become “very angry” and from there on his attitude to the BOCCIM CEO changed completely.
“He started being very hostile to me at board meetings, – even in front of other Council members,” she says.
Machailo-Ellis compares the relationship between a BOCCIM CEO and president to that of the state president and the permanent secretary to the president who have on the same page at meetings that they attend together. However, away from BOCCIM, CEO and president did not present a united front in meetings with external stakeholders. On occasion, they would come out on opposing sides of an issue.
The relationship between the two reached its lowest point last year when BOCCIM was preparing some report that Machailo-Ellis would not reveal any details about. This report was being prepared for the government and, according to the latter, Monchusi “tempered” with it without consulting neither her as the CEO nor the Council. The president would come to the BOCCIM head office in Gaborone and work on the report, often outside office hours, she says. When she got her hands on that report and got to peruse it, Machailo-Ellis says that she was horrified to find that it reflected Monchusi’s own “personal interest”. She declines to elaborate lest she compromises the identity of the report but reveals though that she reported the matter to the Finance and Management Committee (FMC) which Monchusi is chairperson of. What she remembers about this particular episode is that her actions “came as a shock” to Monchusi. Discussion on the matter was deferred and Machailo-Ellis says that she was made to promise not to take the matter up with the Council. The Committee determined that it could resolve it on its own and Machailo-Ellis acquiesced.
“Next I get a 13-page letter saying that I am not performing, poor conduct blah blah – all being allegations that beg a lot of questions,” she says.
One question that she formed in her mind then was, why now? This was because some of the allegations made against her referred to things that had happened some five months ago. She says that she asked herself why Monchusi had not raised his displeasure at the time of such wrongdoing.
To buttress her point that charges against her were trumped up, Machailo-Ellis states that she had had an excellent working relationship with the past two presidents (Iqbal Ibrahim and Modiri Mbaakanyi) who were very pleased with her performance.
Machailo-Ellis says she was shocked to get the 13-page letter and that when she tabled the issue at the next FMC meeting, its discussion was disallowed. As this and related matters unfolded, the deputy president, Daisy Molefhi, resigned. Machailo-Ellis says that she did not get the resignation letter but that Molefhe came to her office to tell her that she did not agree with Monchusi’s way of doing things. One she (Machailo-Ellis) immediately cites outside of Molefhi’s story but in service of her larger point is that “he wanted to chair meetings as well as write minutes”.
It is unclear what Molefhi’s resignation letter said but after she jumped ship, the Council is said to have asked Monchusi to explain some things related to her resignation. Out of the blue, Machailo-Ellis says, Monchusi revealed plans to press disciplinary charges against her. Conversely, the Council felt that the matter boiled down to personal differences between the two and resolved that a mediator be appointed to reconcile them.
The following day, however, Machailo-Ellis says that she got a letter informing her about the disciplinary hearing. She telephoned a few Council members to ask them about the letter but they expressed shock because they had recommended something entirely different.
The rift runs deeper than this particular case. Monchusi is said to have refused to sign minutes of Council meetings because they were submitted to him late. Machailo-Ellis’ explanation is that it can take up to three months to submit such minutes because the process of their preparation is necessarily lengthy and tortuous. When they are ready and are submitted to Monchusi, he allegedly refuses to sign them on grounds that they are “stale”
Machailo-Ellis says that as a result of this, BOCCIM has not been able to get the accreditation of the Botswana Training Authority and has thus been unable to provide training it normally undertakes. She explains that the signed minutes are a corporate-governance requirement that BOTA insists on.
Her experience of Monchusi is that he habitually disregards corporate governance and she cites his proclivity to micromanage the organisation. Part of that attitude manifested itself in him bypassing her and dealing directly with staff members. Reaching her tolerance with that she was led to make the fateful “Sir-you-are-confusing-staff” statement.
As this fall-out became public and ugly, some media commentary placed Machailo-Ellis’ name alongside that of Botswana Democratic Party operatives who are hell-bent on ousting Monchusi. In her defence, she says that she has no political affiliation and that she works for an organisation that is supposed to be apolitical.
In one delicious bit of irony, this interview took place on Friday and Machailo-Ellis was to attend BOCCIM Golf Day immediately thereafter. Not too long ago, there were press reports about Monchusi saying that Machailo-Ellis, who is a golfer, spends way too much on the golf course. On Friday she certainly did spend a lot of time at the golf course and said she was looking forward to meeting other Council members there.
There has also been an issue of her pay which is said to have skyrocketed by some P20 000 a month. The implication is that she gave herself that raise. Not true, she says, and explains that the FMC would be responsible for interrogating all financial proposals that the secretariat makes.
“I was shocked – even the staff was shocked – when I saw that in newspapers. And since Monchusi became president, my salary hasn’t changed. We have very robust governance structures and internal control systems that even he himself is part of,” she says.
The level of rivalry at BOCCIM is enough to make one think that the organisation has been brought to its knees but Machailo-Ellis tells a different story. Given the nature of its core business, the organisation maintains a very close working relationship with the ministries of Trade and Industry as well as Labour and Home Affairs. The BOCCIM CEO says that nothing about her organisation’s relationship with these ministries has changed. She also states that they are still hosting foreign trade delegations.
“The differences between the president and myself shouldn’t affect our delivery to our members in any way because we should always uphold the BOCCIM mandate,” she says.
Be that as it may, the organisation’s image has been tarnished and, on the other side of the current impasse, there will be need to rehabilitate it. Machailo-Ellis concedes this point and reveals that both the Council and management have agreed on the need to reassure members and stakeholders that BOCCIM is still intact.
“They need to have confidence in our ability to deliver and as CEO I am committed to making sure that BOCCIM moves forward and is not affected by [personal] differences. The leadership is confident that this can be done within the organisation’s structures.”
Such conviction notwithstanding, she adds that there is no running away from the fact that staff has been badly affected by the in-fighting. To undo this damage, Machailo-Ellis says that BOCCIM plans to counsel staff members as well as reassure them that their jobs are safe. As regards members (especially those far away from Gaborone and not well-informed about the recent fracas) the secretariat plans to go on a road show and reassure them that the storm is over and that it did not cause too much damage.
“This is a transition period for us. The Council made it clear that there is need to focus on operations, rebuild confidence and prepare for the AGM,” she says.
The AGM is on September 19, meaning therefore that there are a few more weeks during which the rivalry between her and Monchusi might re-emerge. Highly unlikely, she says.
“He has apologised and acknowledged that he may not have done things in a way that members and the Council approve,” she adds.