‘A sitting government, no matter how incompetent, doesn’t give up without a fight. That’s just not cricket!’

Interview: Manou Bheenick

“The silent majority is slowly coming out of its shell. This trend will snowball… and will hopefully trigger a tsunami”

An open three-cornered fight will be a veritable nightmare for the various party machines. Some last-minute cobbling together of pre-electoral alliances is definitely on the cards’

Manou Bheenick, former minister and governor of the Central Bank, is our guest interviewee this week. With his expertise as well as insider knowledge and insights about the functioning of government, he gives us his frank and incisive views on a number of topical issues, commending our performance at the recent inter-island games to start with, before he tears down the mismanagement in our public affairs over the past five years. Yet he is hopeful that things can still be turned around with a new team taking over at the next election, pruned and with fresh dynamism and determined to change course.

Mauritius Times: The Mauritius Team has done the country proud with its overall performance at the Indian Ocean Games, and this has provided opportunities for public rejoicings – and a good measure of political appropriation. Although we might pale in comparison with the big shots on the African continent, what does it tell you about the potential of this country and its people?

Manou Bheenick: There is little doubt that these games are one of the rare occasions when you see our rainbow nation on display in all its splendour as all shades of the population, rich and poor, young and not so young, bury their day-to-day differences and rally round the flag in an outburst of patriotism which I fervently wish we could see in evidence much more often – and in all walks of life, in the schoolyard, in the streets, in the workplace, and in our very being, and not just on special occasions in the sports arena. Sadly, in some disciplines, the rainbow element was noticeably lacking…

As for our performance, hats off to our national team and all their coaches, trainers, and other supporters and, beyond them, to all those who work patiently behind the scenes to spot talent and nurture it to the level of excellence that makes us so proud today of our youth with their rich harvest of gold medals. Keep up the good work!

But once the euphoria dies down, and to avoid the temptation of resting on our laurels, can we reflect soberly on some questions that these games also prompt? Performance is honed by competition, isn’t it? Was the level of competition which we faced in some disciplines worthy of a regional event? Was our performance across disciplines anywhere near the prevailing international record? When can we expect to qualify again for the bigger and much more visible African regional event, the CAN Africa Cup of Nations where, if memory serves, we were last seen as far back as 1974, or nearly half a century ago? And, as Indian Ocean islanders, can we not take even more pride in the excellent performance of the Malagasy team in the CAN, an event taking place more or less simultaneously? After all, the Indian Ocean Games are also supposed to reinforce solidarity among the islands, aren’t they? I should know as I was there at the founding of the Indian Ocean Commission in 1982.

But what they are certainly not meant to do is to drive the host nations into bankruptcy or to enable fading bumbling politicians to relaunch themselves. The shameless political appropriation of the Indian Ocean Games goes beyond the norms of diplomacy and decency. At international events, apart from opening and closing ceremonies, one would normally not expect the head of government of the hosting nation to be present at any further event unless the President of a competitor country is attending that specific event. Heads of Government are busy people but not, it would seem, in our country, not even when he is also the Minister of Finance!

The trebling of the capital cost — rising from an already high budgeted cost of Rs 2 billion to an astronomical Rs 6 billion — of the sports infrastructure specially put up for the occasion in the very constituency of the Prime Minister, with reportedly complete opacity surrounding the contracting of subcontractors and susubcontractors, reflects very poorly indeed on our capacity to conceive and implement projects. And, indeed, on our approach to identify, prepare, approve, finance, and supervise capital projects of this nature where fast-approaching deadlines often serve as a pretext to take shortcuts, encourage financial mismanagement as they spawn opportunities for corruption and questionable transactions, away from the prying eyes of regular watchdogs and auditors.

Isn’t it time we introduced concurrent audits for this type of public expenditure? The regular ex-post audit doesn’t help to instil any measure of financial control and discipline to contain such runaway expenditure.

As regards the potential of this country and its people, yes, the potential is certainly there but it clearly needs better nurturing and adequate management before Mauritian athletes can begin to assert themselves in big ticket international competitions with fiercer competition the way they have just done on their home turf in a subregional event. In the meantime, let’s keep our feet on the ground and remind ourselves that we did make headlines at the last Commonwealth Games, not with our haul of medals, but with charges of sexual harassment by one of our athletes against a manager of Team Mauritius in the Games Village. We have some way to go.

 * On a different note, we are still a long way to becoming the ‘Tiger of the Indian Ocean’ – an ambition which was being bandied about in the late 1980s. We even seem to have lost touch with that ambition, having had to attend to other pressing issues down the years. Would you say we still have the potential to become that tiger, or have the circumstances changed?

We had serious pretensions to graduate as the tiger of this ocean. On the back of our successful reforms of the 1980s, we developed the habit of punching above our weight. Faint traces of that are still visible in some areas of activity but we have long been dislodged from any leadership role in African conclaves on policy matters. We should have pressed on with our reform agenda, kept rowing and not rested on our oars, which is what we have been doing since the populist temptation proved irresistible to the bunch of neophytes we are pleased to call our government.

Time and tide wait for no man, the saying goes. And for no nation either, we might add. As our reforming zeal has waned and we have shied away from the needed reforms, other countries on the continent, gifted with better leadership than what we have been saddled with, have closed the gap with us and some have romped ahead, in the process dislodging us from our coveted pedestal as the poster boy on the continent in everything that makes for a good and just society such as good policies, robust political processes, prudent economic and financial management, and a sustainable development path.

Lost opportunities do not come back. We may have missed the boat on many things as, excuse the mixed metaphors, we’ve been blown off-course as we embarked enthusiastically on one wild-goose chase after another looking for Ponzis where there were none, undoing our petroleum supply security, and doing such unprecedented things as locking up the former Prime Minister, to say nothing of the former Cenbank governor. I did declare my interest, right?

Things look bleak for most sectors of economic activity. And this despite the plethora of incentives that have come thick and thin with every budget of this regime. The result is that, instead of growth and development in the targeted areas, we now have a thicket of reforms and incentive regimes that seem to have as their primary purpose, to maximize the scope for ministerial and administrative discretion. We are slowly but surely erecting a License Raj ! Does that improve our Corruption Perception index?

The latest budget is par for this government: some incentives are available only for projects to be submitted within a specified and near deadline whereas the area which these incentives target is such that a new player, developing a project from scratch to benefit from this latest udder which the taxpayer is generously putting out, will be hard put to meet this particular deadline; others are backdated to a specific past date to provide ex post tax inducements to projects already under way! This smacks of Ad Hominem policy-making for favourites of the regime, doesn’t it?

Our fiscal trajectory is clearly unsustainable. The creative accounting which has been resorted to in the past few years with Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) and off-budget accounting, which enabled some large projects to be flagged through without parliamentary scrutiny, cannot paper over this reality.

The regime did succeed temporarily in pulling the wool over the eyes of the IMF in previous Article IV consultations. The Fund has also been totally oblivious to the corrosive nomination policies of the regime in key appointments to supposedly independent regulators and to government-linked companies, including those which have harboured the dubious SPVs.

And now, with the last budget, when the game is up and the reality of the debt hurdle and, by implication, the sheer fiscal irresponsibility of this government during its entire term of office can no longer be masked, they are resorting to the mother of desperate measures: a hold-up of the Central Bank to appropriate part of its reserves to camouflage their own past financial mismanagement. And we haven’t heard even a cat’s whimper of protest from those entrusted with the stewardship of this Cenbank.

But all is not lost. Nations do recover from wars and economic catastrophes. In the developing world, this takes the form of calling in the equivalent of the receivers for sovereign nations, the IMF, with their austerity prescription. But we can avoid such an outcome if we want. There is hope to stop the rot and get ourselves back on track. The longer we wait, however, the steeper and harder the climb back will be. To get back, there are no two ways about it: We absolutely must reboot. And the sooner we do that, the better.

* As for the here and now, opposition parties’ contention is that we are stuck in a hole with the current political dispensation and that only political change will help improve matters. However there is precedent to think we might remain in that hole for political change might end up being much the same, don’t you think?

Let me clarify slightly here. We are not just stuck in a hole, bad as that is, especially after nearly five years of a regime that came to power promising the people to clean what it called the Augean stables and perform miracles. No, it’s much worse than that: we are digging ourselves deeper in that hole! And, as they say, the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. We must do exactly that.

Political change, meaning change in the make-up of the political parties now at the helm of government, may well be part of the solution. But you would expect the opposition, any opposition, anywhere, to say that, wouldn’t you?

If more or less the same tired old cast of players get together in a self-serving alliance, with the same sort of timorous policies and rigorously avoid the type of reforms the occasion calls for, we would only have swapped one set of the porcine species for another set of the same, with their snouts in the feeding trough and battening on public gullibility, while the economy continues on its collision course.

That just won’t do, will it? We need courageous policies from a renewed cast of characters on the political stage, under the baton of experienced leaders with a bold vision for the country and its people. Navin Ramgoolam has certainly been making the right noises: he’s definitely on course to deliver on the renewal front: just look at the dozens of hopefuls orbiting around him and jostling for selection in the various constituencies. And he has been ceaselessly repeating his mantra of rupture or a break with past gradualist policies. Now, thinking aloud, would it not be super-duper if he could just add to the equation a firm commitment to step down from the leadership of the party, after first restructuring it, before his term expires, and handing over the reins of power to a successor to be chosen by a clear democratic process and not by a papa-piti type family deal, which has brought shame on the country and tarnished our spotless democratic credentials!

The political dispensation has a wider connotation and takes us straight to our constitution. It is clear that the Constitution is showing its age and some of its provisions no longer work well: see, for example, the population size of various constituencies which in effect end up giving different weights to the voter depending on where he votes.

In the same vein, the declaration of ethnic appurtenance must be abolished, and here we tip our hat to Rezistans ek Alternativ, more in the nature of a single-issue party than anything else, for its determination to see this issue through and thus render a great service to the nation. The declaration of electoral expenses filed by all candidates after elections belong more in the domain of fiction as the limits on expenditure are completely unrealistic.

At the risk of repeating myself, let me reiterate some of my earlier propositions in your own columns for, amongst others, single-member constituencies, a second chamber, and a Constitutional Court. And here, I must add that the three-quarters majority required for any constitutional change succeeds in making change quasi-impossible. Yes, there can be little doubt that our Constitution has served us well, but it was a creature of its times, forged in the crucible of racial tension when the ethnic divide was sharp and tense. Aren’t we lucky that we can speak of these matters in the past tense? But our venerable constitution has not weathered well: it is now creaking and crying out for reform in so many areas.

These are, however, all quite complex issues which can confound the electorate. Rather like the Brexit referendum in the UK, constitutional reform is not a suitable subject to confront the electorate with in a general election. The current government alliance made capital of the proposed Bérenger/Ramgoolam constitutional reform unveiled by this duo as part of their platform for the last general election and it was soundly rejected by the electorate. But the principle of a reform should definitely be presented to the electorate, along with a mechanism for working out alternative proposals on the subject for future specific and separate consultations. We cannot allow our Constitution to fall into greater decrepitude.

* In a contribution to The Conversation academic platform, Jess Auerbach, Visiting Researcher at the Open University of Mauritius, says that although the challenges Mauritius faces are significant (“worrying levels of both personal and national debt, decimated international sugar markets, fluctuating tourism and an ocean imperilled by the climate crisis”, “there is precedent to think it can succeed… (for) it has been remarkable at reinvention”. What Mauritius needs, she says, is stewardship (in politics, the economy, civil society, and even sports), not leadership, to keep global respect. What do you think?

I have commented on this article a week ago privately to a friend, who had sought my views on it. I can only repeat what I had replied, after a cursory reading.

She’s of course spot on in so many areas, I had said… But I do not subscribe to her restrictive definition of “leadership”, which would remove “stewardship” from its ambit.

I know that it has become fashionable to speak of stewardship of resources, etc., as a separate discipline at least since the 1972 UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm. I remember that clearly since, with a staff colleague from the US Tennessee Valley Authority, we were responsible for drafting the submission of our then employer, UNIDO, to the conference on its stewardship role in industrial development.

Stewardship is all about planning and management for today and tomorrow and the day after, the year after, the decade after…A good leader does that, doesn’t he? I don’t know about large countries but, in a small state like ours, a good leader definitely does that, or creates conditions for it to be done under his watchful eyes.

Speaking of the quality of our stewardship, only the other day another friend of mine sent me a hit parade of pesticide-using countries across the world. We score very high on this table. At 26 kgs of pesticides per hectare of arable land over the reference period, we are the silver medallist, with the gold going to The Bahamas at around 60 kgs. Countries like New Zealand, Malaysia, etc., clock in at less than 10 kgs. Imagine the pollution load we are imposing on our waterways and lagoons and the extra disease burden on our population. You must have your head in the clouds if you believe an environment whizz kid is what we need to grapple with this unacceptable situation.

No, what we need is not just stewardship of this, or that, or that other specific resource. We need stewardship of all the limited resources under our purview in an integrated and forward-looking manner – you might very well say that I am just relabeling our former Economic Planning Unit which then transformed into the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development before it was abolished by a Jugnauth government. I served in the engine room of both institutions.

And the reinvention for which she deservedly credits the country was, more often than not, spearheaded by precisely that agency which was never averse to rocking the boat in a self-defeating search for political correctness.

What we sorely need today is political leadership of the highest order to lead and inspire and drive change as we try to steer the country forward and avoid the shoals closing in on us from all sides, not just technical wizards in different disciplines though we do need those too. Show me a country run successfully by boffins and I am quite prepared to change my mind on this score!

* But isn’t our problem political – the process starting from the way people are coaxed into voting X or Y candidate who might have bought his/her way to the party’s list or chosen along questionable lines down to how parties are financed and run, and how ultimately, they run the affairs of the country – and the solution can only be political?

I couldn’t agree more. As in many countries, party financing is a murky area. Cynics say it doesn’t matter which party/parties are in power as it is the same crowd that financed them, or their candidates, and it is the same crowd that will continue to influence/control the policy agenda irrespective of election results. There may be a grain of truth in this for all I know.

All the more reason for us to put political party financing at the top of our reform agenda, along with the introduction of greater democracy and transparency within political parties aspiring for such financing. With accompanying measures to combat the nefarious role of money politics at source, with the threat of disqualification of successful candidates for transgressions, and suspension of the civic rights of all those involved in shady electoral deals, by a quick-acting watchdog such as the proposed Constitutional Court, we should be able to clean up our act.

Our psephological behaviour is completely out of sync with our reported level of national literacy. A mature and politically aware electorate is expected to look closely at the electoral platform of the various contenders and not vote on ethnic, or sub-ethnic, lines, or for political personalities no matter how often they have been tumbling in and out of bed with different political partners. An enlightened voter is not swayed by the purveyors of fake news on social media in the run up to elections. Nor by the promise of still more handouts from the dilapidated state coffers. Do we even teach civics, citizenship, or whatever discipline it is, to convey the value of the individual vote in a democracy to our children so that we may have some reasonable hope of changing our electoral behaviour when they reach voting age?

Of course, these are all eminently political issues: idealists and reformers, like most in my circle of friends, wish for faster reforms. The proponents of vote bank politics and the different party electoral machines are more cagey and understandably reluctant to give up the certainty of the block vote in return for wooing the electorate on merits.

There is little doubt that a more transparent approach to political party financing, greater democracy and renewal within parties, and a more mature voting behaviour will not just deepen our democracy, badly shaken as it is under the current regime by the papa-piti deal, but also lead to much better policy-making as it will loosen the invisible shackles tying successive governments which make them shy away from certain areas of concern for fear of alienating their financiers.

* Overcoming that huge political bottleneck may not be forthcoming any time soon. That’s a “vaste chantier”, isn’t it?

Indeed it is. We should be clear that our democratic framework has developed many shortcomings over the years and we are no longer best in class in Africa. These shortcomings, exploited by party political machines, lead to undesirable outcomes, corrode the body politic and society generally, affect the quality of governance, and impact the lives of future generations. Should we not be prepared to grasp this particular nettle to leave a better world to our offspring? Or should we just keep away because these are hot potatoes?

* Most economists who have come out publicly about the state of the economy have been saying that it’s going to get rough in the years ahead and whichever team gets elected to power will have a lot on its plate. But they have been saying the same thing for years now, and we have seen none of that happening. Could they be right this time round?

Despite the spurious precision of their increasingly sophisticated models, economists are not known for their predictive ability. On the eve of the Great Depression, noted economists forecast continued prosperity reaching ever higher plateaus. Instead, we had the Great Crash, followed by the even greater catastrophe of World War II.

Nearer our times, despite the hundredfold or so increase in computing capacity, few mainstream economists, if any, saw the global financial crisis caused by financial deregulation coming. So, we shouldn’t set much store by what economists, business ones in particular, say as a class.

But one exception that I make to my healthy disrespect of forecasts by economists concerns IMF staff and their periodic country diagnoses, better known as Article IV Consultations. I have interacted with such country teams for nearly four decades now and I should know what I am talking about.

The Fund throws more and better resources in the larger member-countries and in program countries but as we are in neither of these country groups, the Fund may have skimped on resources directed to Mauritius in the recent past.

I say this because I have a bone to pick with the last few consultations as I found them overly complaisant vis-a-vis the fiscal and monetary stance of this regime. The widening fiscal deficit driven by an unsustainable explosion in social transfers against a background of tepid growth should have been of greater concern to the IMF. The approach to public investment was surely concerning. As was the SPV to massage public debt exposure. The satellisation of public companies as well as of independent regulators and oversight institutions in a proliferating web of cronyism should have drawn outright censure and prompted calls for public sector reform. I saw little sign of any such thing, not even the slightest rap on the knuckles.

With the last Article IV, of end-April this year, the Fund seems at last to be shaking off its slumber, with some mild reprovals here and there but still with little or no sense of urgency. I can think of nothing better than to quote selectively pêle-mêle without stopping for further comment just to give you some sense of the tenor and the flavour and to encourage you to read between the lines. The Fund says:

  1. the external balance continues to deteriorate…
  2. Without fiscal consolidation, the …debt target of 60 percent of GDP by FY 2020/21 is unlikely to be met…
  3. public debt is projected to stay elevated…
  4. the debt outlook [is] susceptible to a range of macroeconomic shocks…
  5. rising fiscal sector and external vulnerabilities…
  6. [The Fund directors] encouraged the authorities to pursue prudent policies to strengthen macroeconomic and financial resilience…
  7. to continue reforms to boost productivity and competitiveness…
  8. underscored the need for fiscal adjustment to enhance fiscal credibility, preserve debt sustainability, and reduce the external imbalance…
  9. the debt target of 60 percent of GDP [is] unlikely to be met without a significant policy adjustment…
  10. Directors urged a gradual fiscal consolidation beginning with the next budget for FY 2019/2020 to enhance fiscal credibility and to put public debt on a declining path…
  11. highlighted the widening external imbalance…
  12. [re: international reserves] given the large size of the offshore sector, foreign exchange intervention policy should continue to build reserves buffers (..) to strengthen resilience to shocks…[and]
  13. maintaining strong and independent institutions is essential to ensure the country remains an attractive investment and employment destination.

Let me return to your question after this instructive detour. How many of us who have some basic understanding of government processes can consider the diagnosis, that shines through the selective quotes which I have marshalled above, as being little cause for concern? To put it in layman’s terms, if your personal periodic medical tests yielded so many question marks, wouldn’t any reasonable person be extremely worried? And seek to know the causes? And look for remedies?

If you get such a report card from reputed global inspectors after five years of your financial management, which was so loudly applauded every single year by the government benches and by the beneficiaries of the distributive spending spree, wouldn’t you be well-advised to look for another job? Or will you have the cheek to seek a fresh mandate to run the country into the ground in such a spectacularly misguided way?

* The MSM-led government is hopeful and will do everything that’s in the book to get re-elected. The Labour Party is also hopeful that it will come back – with or without the PMSD and the others, and the MMM is enjoying the show. The “silent majority” is still… silent, and most people are saying that it’s going to be “des elections surprises”. What do you think?

A sitting government, no matter how incompetent, doesn’t give up without a fight. That’s just not cricket! They will fight tooth and nail, armed as they will be with a war chest of unequalled proportions. The opposition parties, all of them, are seriously disadvantaged on this score.

The opacity surrounding large public sector projects may have a direct incidence on party funding, especially when you factor in the fact that the main contractor for the largest, most opaque, and most expeditious project of this regime was actually blacklisted for reasons of corruption and barred from bidding for World Bank projects.

The MMM and Labour are both saying that they’ll be going it alone. They are both well-established parties with a long history. You will recall that there were three parties singing that tune some while back, but the PMSD has dropped its pretensions and is now canvassing support on the claim that it will be in the next government. It’s like knowing the winning ticket number in the next lotto! An open three-cornered fight has considerable appeal for many voters but it will be a veritable nightmare for the various party machines. Some last-minute cobbling together of pre-electoral alliances is definitely on the cards, in the view of knowledgeable observers.

The silent majority is slowly coming out of its shell. The fear factor that kept even dyed-in-the-wool party stalwarts from attending public party rallies because of the risk of severe reprisals against them, or their families, or their businesses, by the state machinery is rapidly dying out as increasing numbers turn out for the rallies of Labour, to give just this one example. This trend will snowball as the election is declared, which will not be long now, and will hopefully trigger a tsunami of support to sweep Labour in power on a reform agenda the likes of which the country is crying out for.

* Published in print edition on 2 August 2019

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