Getting our priorities right

A truly popular movement should not pander to vested agendas or allow itself to be hijacked by politicians or other lobbies bent on pushing their own parochial interests or by those who want to turn back the clock

By Mrinal Roy

Too many things are amiss in the country. The root causes of the current mess stem from the fact that in the wake of independence the promises made to the people to correct the systemic wrongs of the colonial regime through fundamental reforms and the establishment of a new socio-economic order which puts the continuous improvement of the well-being of the people at the centre of government actions have been thwarted and supplanted by the blind pursuit of political power by all means by political leaders entrusted to honour these promises.

Once in power, the political leaders seem eons distanced from the lofty ideals, ethos and commitment of service to the people which underpinned the unswerving battle as from 1937 of the stalwarts who mobilized the workers of the sugar industry and fought for their fundamental rights and improved working conditions for their diligent hard work and for the freedom of the people and the country from colonial rule and the yoke of exploitation to usher a better socio-economic and political order.

In their relentless pursuit of absolute power, political leaders have extended their control over various levers of power. They basically ‘own’ their respective political parties through the unconditional support of a coterie of apparatchiks bent on perpetuating the leader’s stranglehold over the party or assuring the future of dynasts. The national TV has been press ganged by the governments in power into an abject instrument of daily partisan propaganda at public expense.  Government interference, nepotism and the nomination of a cohort of political appointees at the head of or on the board of key government institutions and state companies have undermined the management acumen and efficiency of the country’s administrative machinery and key institutions. All leaders of political parties adopt a similar template of governance.

The upshot after 52 years of independence is that inequality has widened. Large swathes of Mauritians are still battling to meet their basic existential needs. Unchecked rising prices of essential consumer goods in the context of Covid-19 have worsened their situation. The cost of residential land fuelled by the sale of upmarket villas and high priced properties in real estate and smart city projects to wealthy foreigners has been priced out of reach of mainstream Mauritians. The biggest wealth are concentrated in fewer hands. In 2019, some 69 % or more than 251,000 employees of the private sector earned up to Rs 15,000.

This decried economic model and appalling mode of governance in the country was bound to backfire and blow up on the government’s face. The Wakashio shipwreck and its disastrous oil spill causing dire ecological fallouts, the death of dolphins and seamen has exposed the systemic flaws, risks and pitfalls of such an inept and deplorable system of governance. It has detonated the existential angst and ire of the people. 

All stand guilty

The situation has now come to a head. The public anger and the clamour from the streets are not only directed against the ineptitude of government, its decried mode of governance and its disastrous crisis management acumen but also against the whole political class. They all stand guilty. It is obvious from their political shenanigans that the various leaders of opposition political parties are jockeying to derive a political capital from the public outcry against the ruling regime.

Other lobbies are also joining the bandwagon of public anger with their own vested agendas. Some are conjuring past hangovers. The media is having a field day. Why is the Contribution Sociale Generalisée which benefits small income earners brandished as a cause of angst to the people? The upshot is a hotch-potch of inchoate objectives which risk derail the process of an urgent paradigm shift in governance in the country and a salubrious political big bang to free the country from the shackles of incompetence and mediocrity.

There is therefore an urgent need for clarity and the need to focus on essential issues instead of being distracted by controversial matters such as voting rights for the diaspora which certainly do not muster consensus. A truly popular movement should not pander to vested agendas or allow itself to be hijacked by politicians or other lobbies bent on pushing their own parochial interests or by those who want to turn back the clock. We cannot muddle things up. We above all need to get our priorities right. We certainly do not want to replace the current mess by chaos.

It is obvious from the spontaneous mobilization of the people to help mitigate the dire impact of the Wakashio oil spill that the protection of the marine ecosystem, our pristine lagoon, the livelihoods of those dependent on the sea, the blue economy, our biodiversity and the environment are high up in the priorities of the nation. People are also alive to the fact that for too long successive governments have pandered to the lucrative interests of coal lobbies despite the impending risk of a climate change catastrophe which would have dire consequences on a small island developing state like Mauritius and the livelihoods of coastal communities. Coal emits about twice more CO2 than natural gas. The urgent replacement of highly polluting coal and other fossil fuels by clean and green energy sources like solar and wind farms, wave energy, geothermal power and eventually low cost hydrogen fuel cells, etc., and renewable sources such as from plant biomass to produce electricity must also be a top priority for the country.

Dented legitimacy

The government must realize that its mode of governance and ineptitude are pilloried and its legitimacy dented. The status quo is not an option. It will heighten the revolt of the people. The leaders of opposition parties must also realize that the anger of the people is directed at the whole political class, their banana republic culture of subservience to omnipotent leaders rooted to their posts, dynastic politics and the absence of a democratic changing of the guards at the helm of parties in the wake of defeats and disavowal at the polls. Will the government and the opposition political parties draw lessons from the people’s exasperation and take immediate corrective steps to set things, right?

Concrete actions

This should include a whole set of concrete actions.

– Will the government start by ensuring that all appointments and promotions in the government Establishment are merit based and in accordance with transparent procedures and that the experience, strategic thinking and management acumen of the top brass of the civil service are geared to provide wise counsel and institutional memory and competently manage the problems and challenges faced by the country?
– Will government replace all the defeated candidates and the party faithful appointed as ambassadors and advisors or at the head of key government institutions and state companies by serving career diplomats and competent professionals having the track record, experience and credentials required through a transparent recruiting process?
– Will it put an end to nepotism and the decried policy of appointing the coterie to fat cat jobs at public expense?
– Will the government demonstrate through concrete actions, stricter laws and cogent evidence that the scourge of drug trafficking in the country is being quashed?
– Will it take the required steps to ensure that the many outstanding investigations such as in the alleged case of corruption and bribery in the Rs 4.3 billion CEB St Louis power plant contract and scandals regarding various wrongdoings by Ministers and MPs be expedited and the culprits brought to book in a bid to build public confidence?

The people are eagerly awaiting the findings of the investigation into the Wakashio catastrophe to know what went wrong and how such disasters can be prevented in future.

– Will all those responsible for the Wakashio disaster resign?
– Will government revisit the laws encroaching on some of the fundamental rights of people which enable arbitrary arrests?

The list is long. Unless these fundamental issues are addressed promptly, the clamour from the streets and the ire of the people are not likely to subside.

Similarly, will the political leaders of the main political parties step down and take urgent steps to democratize their parties to enable the induction of a new generation of young talented and able Mauritians driven by an ethos of altruistic service to the people? Young men and women who would cut loose from the shenanigans of the past to up democratic standards and the benchmarks of governance in the country.

Will arrogance in a context of prevailing disarray test the patience of the people?

New contract of trust

The people must also realize that protests cannot be carried in limbo. There is a need for a credible alternative. This means the imperative need of a new breed of young talented and competent Mauritians driven by a commitment of altruistic service to the people and having the intellect, professional track record, experience and sense of purpose to mobilize the people. They would team up to propose in consultation with the people and diverse stakeholders innovative pathways for a better socio-economic order which rally the multitude. This cannot be done from their drawing room. They have to work hard, be on the field, connect with the people, listen to them and build trust to establish a far better socio-economic and political order which takes on board the concerns and aspirations of the people whilst consolidating the ideals and driving principles on which the independence of the country was fought and won.

People have too often been short changed by politicians who have repeatedly failed them over the last 52 years. More than anything else, there is above all a paramount need to build and diligently honour a new contract of trust between the people and a new political class committed to set right the wrongs of the past decades.

* Published in print edition on 18 September 2020

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