By Assad Bhuglah
The first time I met Mahmood Cheeroo was in 1988 when I was the desk officer at the then Ministry of Trade for trade-related projects in the context of the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC). I had to enlist his collaboration on a regional initiative for bulk purchase of rice and petroleum products, for which he had wide experience as a senior officer of the State Trading Corporation. But it was as from 1996 that we started to get to know each other in the context of the negotiations for the SADC Trade Protocol. I was leading the Mauritian delegation in all the meetings of the SADC Trade Negotiating Forum (TNF) and he was representing the Mauritius Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Since then we had developed a very excellent working relation; we met almost every three days in consultative meetings between the International Trade Division which I was heading and the MCCI for which he was the General Secretary. For almost two decades, we together attended almost all the major international regional trade meetings across the world. His last travel together with me was in September 2011 when we attended the bilateral meeting in Ankara between the trade ministers Mauritius and Turkey in the context of the signing of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Just prior to his retirement in 2013, he started getting health problem. Nonetheless, we continued to interact at social level, given that both of us became Board members of the Islamic Cultural Centre as from 2015.
At the outset, our friendship was very timid, formal and more professional. One night when we were having dinner in Dar es Salam after a full day of hectic negotiations, we exchanged few conversations about our respective family background. To the pleasant surprise of Mahmood, I had more information about the original village of his father than he had. In 1947, his dad Mahamood Hossen Cheeroo had become member of a Jama’at (a rural society for mutual assistance) for which my dad was secretary. Even when his dad had migrated from Pointe aux Piments to Port Louis, he maintained his membership. Each time he came to Triolet, he visited our house to settle his monthly contribution. Mahmood Cheeroo could not believe his eyes when later on I showed him the profile of his father including names and date of birth his mum and all his brothers and sisters recorded in an old book of the association in custody of my dad. Since then, we developed a special bond of friendship that helped both of us in our professional and social life. Very often, when we were in the midst of meetings, he would receive phone calls from the highest leadership in Mauritius. At times, he would be solicited with an offer for a post of ambassador in Paris or Islamabad, at other times he would be consulted for ticket in election. Mahmood shared and discussed these matters with me and he always declined these offers politely. He was a man of principle: he thought that he would be more useful to the society by keeping his independence and be respected by all tendencies than by locking himself in political partisanship.
The trade negotiations at SADC level were very tough and protracted. It took us about a dozens of rounds of negotiations, span over four years to broker a deal. Mahmood played a critical role in defending the interests of Mauritius. As leader of the delegation, it was my role to table the Mauritian proposals and canvass the support of other member states. Then, when all the delegates had expressed their views, it was a systematic practice of Mahmood to take the floor and make a synthesis of the discussions from Mauritian perspective. He indeed had the art and mastery to do such summing up. This was a smart way of getting our points reflected in the summary and recommendations of the Chairperson of the meeting. Mahmood commanded high respect and his views were well appreciated by foreign delegates.
Our various missions to Africa were full of risks, challenges and thrills. In June 1998, we travelled to Angola to attend a TNF meeting. It was the first event of SADC in the post-civil war country. Our first surprise was when our plane, which landed at the airport of Luanda, went out of the tarmac in a frightful manner and ended up on a bare land. We just looked at each other without uttering a word until were out of danger. But the height of surprise was when we reached the hotel for check-in. We were told that there was not a single room available to us despite our advance booking. Tivoli hotel was the only convenient accommodation in a dilapidated Angola. President Jacques Chirac and his delegation who were on official visit to Angola had occupied the entire hotel. The Mauritian delegation had to stay for four days at a place which was worse than a barrack. No television, no air con and no restaurant. I knew Mahmood’s choice of hotel; he would never stay in any establishment rating below 4 star. Mahmood was really depressed as he felt like a prisoner deprived of the basic amenities. He, who was a great amateur of football and good films, had no access to such facilities.
We also had some memorable moments during our various missions. We had the opportunity to meet and talk to some heads of state and prominent personalities in the corridors of the meetings. We once happened to be in a closed session of the SADC Summit and witnessed the SADC Heads of States verbally pounding on President Robert Mugabe, a kind of “brosse-la- tête”, for his land grab policy in Zimbabwe.
Mahmood was a man of refined taste. It was a practice for the Mauritian delegation to meet over a dinner on the last day of the meetings. Most of the time, it was Mahmood who would make the selection of the restaurant and menu. In view of the dietary restrictions, the inclination was to go for seafood. Mahmood excelled himself like a connoisseur of fish varieties. He could appreciate and compare the difference in taste of fish of the Atlantic in Cape Town, of the Indian Ocean in Dar es Salam and of the Red Sea in Sharm el Sheik. In Karachi, he relished the pomfret fish though it was spicy. He suffered from stomach burn, but in his talks with the Pakistani businessmen he observed that this fish would be liked by tourists in Mauritius. I had little idea of the mystery behind his stomach pain.
The last time we talked was on 3rd November 2017. In fact, he phoned me to apologise that he would be unable to attend the Round Table on my book on Dr Idrice Goumany as he had a chemotherapy session for which his doctor strictly advised him not to postpone the appointment. I told him that I would be travelling abroad immediately after the launch of my book and I promised to visit him and personally hand over a copy to him on my return. But I did not expect that he would leave us so soon. He passed away on 17 November 2017. May his soul rest in peace.