Following three weeks of office politics which left the AFM without a commander, the government has promoted Clinton O’ Neill, the former deputy, to the position of commander, with O’ Neill’s vacant deputy slot being filled by newly-minted Colonel Edric Zahra.
Since 2013, the AFM’s chain of command has seen multiple mass promotions described by the Ombudsman as a “tailor-made process” meant “to achieve a pre-ordained result”.
From 2013 to 2022, the AFM was under the command of Jeffrey Curmi and his deputy, Mark Mallia. Following Mallia’s unannounced departure from his post, Curmi also retired – both moving to head government agencies within the span of a few months earlier this year.
The new deputy commander is politically well-connected and was actively pushed forward by Mallia, according to informed sources consulted by The Shift. In spite of his departure, Mallia remains highly influential within the AFM, and holds great sway over Prime Minister Robert Abela.
Multiple sources confirmed that Mallia was formerly the aide-de-camp of then-President of Malta George Abela, the father of the current prime minister. Zahra and Mallia have also been close for a long time, with one source pointing out that the two are even studying law at university together at the moment.
This link with Mallia, sources believe, was a significant advantage Zahra bore over three other individuals whose names were mentioned as potential successors in the lead-up to the final decision announced earlier this week.
In fact, all three other officials promoted to Colonel the day before the change in leadership was made official are of more senior rank than Zahra, ruffling a considerable amount of feathers among the rank-and-file of the AFM who believed they deserved the position based on experience.
Since then, Mallia and Curmi have moved on to plum postings at Identity Malta and Transport Malta, respectively. In spite of their lack of expertise and relevant knowledge in matters of citizenship and civilian and commercial transportation, both were made CEOs of the Authorities.
The way in which O’ Neill and Zahra were appointed, with Zahra, in particular, being given two promotions on the same day, mirrors the same method used to promote their predecessors under Joseph Muscat. Both Mallia and Curmi had received four promotions in as many months in the very early stages of the Labour Party’s rise to power in 2013.
“This is very much a repetition of 2013 – at the time, they had left Brigadier Xuereb in the post and had placed Curmi as his deputy. Xuereb jumped… he had gotten frustrated and left,” one source explained, describing how Xuereb had left the AFM shortly after mass promotions began.
Sources had previously indicated that Michael Cardona and Etienne Scicluna were the favourites for the top spot. However, sources said the office of the prime minister was not happy with Scicluna’s family link with disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat. His wife is the cousin of Muscat’s wife, Michelle Muscat, and Scicluna himself is the cousin of Foreign Affairs Minister Ian Borg.
Scicluna was still one of four people promoted to Colonel on 27 June, a mere day before the announcement was made, with one source describing the move as “a consolation prize”. As for Cardona, sources said he lacked political mileage to make it to the top.
Apart from Scicluna and Zahra, two other people were promoted to Colonel on the same day – James Louis Grech and Mark Anthony Borg.