Agalega: Infrastructure, no military base


Mauritius Times has since its inception taken a principled stand with regard to the sovereignty of the country. It has canvassed for long years in favour of the denuclearisation of the Indian Ocean before and after Mauritius acceded to an independent status. Readers would remember the power game that was engaged in by the then two dominant superpowers, the USA and the then USSR, in the context of the Cold War, with both countries investing billions of dollars in military bases in and around the Indian Ocean.

Beyond the columns of this paper, the founder-editor of the Mauritius Times raised in his capacity as Labour MP the issue of the US base in Diego Garcia in November 1964 – that is, a year before the holding of the Lancaster Conference in the UK about the constitutional changes that would pave the way to Mauritius’ Independence in 1968. He was the first parliamentarian to draw attention to and query the then government about the echoes that were reaching Mauritius about the US-UK secret plans to put up a base on part of Mauritian territory at Diego Garcia.

We have not departed from that principled stand, but we have to pragmatically acknowledge the new circumstances that have developed in the region. There are new players, an endemic hostile environment north of the Gulf states, and a geopolitical/geomilitary thrust by large powers, along with the constant threat of piracy from the African coast.

As regards Agalega, questions have been raised in Parliament and in the local media about a supposed secret Mauritius-India agreement to allow the setting up of an Indian military base in the island. Ventilated at a time when Mauritius has undertaken a spirited international campaign and legal battle with respect to our country’s sovereignty over Diego Gargia before the United Nations, culminating in the hearings before the International Court of Justice, the Agalega bogey is bound to gather some credence. More so in quarters with alternative vested interests.

It’s better to leave them to their own wild imaginings, and to rely on concrete facts that emerged during the joint press conference held by the Mauritian PM and the Indian High Commissioner on May 29, 2017, following Pravind Jugnauth’s state visit in India and that focus on the development of infrastructural projects at Agalega.

The official communiqué stated that the vision of the Government of Mauritius was to further develop the economic potentials of Agalega, for which basic infrastructural facilities are indispensable. In this context, a runway and a jetty along with associated amenities would be constructed in Agalega by the Government of India at its own cost, an announcement that was made by the Prime Minister, Mr Pravind Jugnauth, during the joint press conference.

Further, speaking about the difficulties encountered to communicate with Agalega and to convey food items, goods, medicines, and emergency repatriations during medical urgencies, the Prime Minister had stated that the proposal of India to provide such facilities at Agalega was praiseworthy. He had added that we should thank the Government of India for helping us develop these facilities at no cost to the people of Mauritius, while great benefits would accrue to the inhabitants of Agalega. An Agreement with the Indian Government for the development of infrastructural projects at Agalega was signed during his State visit to India.

For his part, the Indian High Commissioner had stated that Mauritius and India have agreed to further strengthen their wide-ranging cooperation in hydrography for a secure and peaceful maritime domain. India is supporting the National Coast Guard of Mauritius in augmenting its capacity through Project Trident and also taken a decision to renew the life of the Coast Guard Ship Guardian, that was provided to Mauritius, under a grant assistance programme.

The Indian assistance towards the development of infrastructural projects at Agalega is indeed far removed from what would qualify as the development of a military base – unlike what obtains in the case of US/Chinese/French engagement when they set up their military bases in the region and elsewhere. Whereas in the case of Diego Garcia, the USA exercises full control over its military base (the Americans have even gone public about not recognising Mauritius’ sovereignty over Diego Garcia) – much like the Chinese over their own bases in and around the Indian Ocean – and the French only conceding to a ‘co-gestion’ arrangement with Mauritius over Tromelin, the question of an Indian military base at Agalega simply does not even arise.

From what we understand, there will be no stockpile of weapons or armed military personnel at Agalega; therefore it will not be a launch pad for war as there is no aggressive intent. All Mauritians will have freedom of movement in Agalega as it is Mauritian sovereignty that will prevail. With Indian government assistance in capacity building there will result increased connectivity between Mauritius and Agalega, with construction of a jetty and airstrip. This will not only bring jobs to the locals there, but it will also facilitate exchange of local produce, besides an upgrade of health facilities as well as provision of potable water through desalination plants.

Further, the greater oversight of extended economic zones of Mauritius will only bring economic benefits to Mauritius – there is no need, nor should there be any contradiction between greater maritime security and infrastructure development; both can go hand in hand. In due course, the possibility of hotel implantation is a possibility, and this will further expand economic opportunities to the benefit of the local population.

People must be wary about the nasty habit of throwing suspicions around whenever the issue of Agalega comes up, especially at a time when concrete help is coming our way to further the interests and meet the needs of the population there. In this perspective, it would certainly help to clear doubts and speculations about intentions if the Mauritian and Indian authorities were more proactive in communicating to the public at large, even if that means repeating a few times the provisions of the Agreement signed, which after all have been openly highlighted by the PM earlier. But, unfortunately, public memory is short and rumour mongers are only too happy to tumble into that lapse with fake news.

* * *

 Democracy Singapore style

Last week we referred to an article in the New York Times which expressed grave concern about its own diagnosis that democracy was in crisis in America – the birthplace of modern democracy! If that is the case, what can we say about our version of it! And of that of other countries where it also does not live up fully to the expectations of the people? Even, for that matter, in the countries which are held up as models of mature democracies – UK, France, Germany, Spain amongst others.

But Singapore’s brand of democracy seems to be more functional – or, if we go by Winston Churchill’s definition of democracy as being ‘the worst form of government, except for the others’, to be least dysfunctional. Our leaders here have always wished for Mauritius to be the Singapore of the Indian Ocean, so perhaps it is appropriate that we draw their attention to a letter published in The Economist of October 6th, 2018. It is written by Foo Chi Hsia, High Commissioner for Singapore in London, and titled ‘Politics in Singapore’. It is worth reproducing in full:

‘Banyan (NB: columnist of The Economist) suggested that the government of Singapore wins elections because it hounds critics and denies public housing upgrades to opposition districts, and wondered why the People’s Action Party “holds on so tenaciously” to power (September 22nd). The PAP has been repeatedly re-elected because it has been honest with the voters, delivers on its promises, and provides long-term stability and progress. When it has not met fully voters’ expectations, and so lost votes, it has responded with appropriate policy adjustments. It has also consciously renewed its leadership, with a fourth generation since independence readying itself to take on the responsibility.

‘The alternative – a constant merry-go-round of contending parties – does not necessarily produce better outcomes. Politicians fail to keep the promises they make, the people become disillusioned, and eventually lose faith in democracy. Witness the low voter turnout in many Western democracies.’

For example, 55% in the 2016 presidential elections in the world’s reputedly greatest democracy, the USA.

The points to retain in the above letter are: first and foremost, constant renewal of leadership and a fourth generation in line to assume power, then – honesty with voters, delivery on promises, long-term stability and progress, and policy adjustments.

There is no political correctness, nor the dangling of carrots to appease selected constituencies.

To say that we are a long way off is to put it mildly, even with our Westminster model of separation of powers, checks and balances and the rest. Instead of aping, why don’t we learn, adapt, and apply?

That could be the game changer for the 2019 electoral bout.

* * *

PNQ: Issues related to prison services

The PNQ on last Tuesday 23rd October 2018 was as follow as:

‘To ask the Honourable Minister Mentor, Minister of Defence, Minister for Rodrigues –

Whether, in view of the very serious issues with regard to the prison services identified by the Commission on Inquiry of Drug Trafficking in Mauritius, he will state if he will consider the setting up, as recommended in paragraph 7.13.14 of the Report of the Commission, an in-depth inquiry into the prison administration, including, to probe into the corrupt prison officers and also dealing with –

  • control of drug trade from inside prisons;
  • rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners; and
  • prison infrastructures?’

The Minister Mentor gave a comprehensive reply, at the outset highlighting that ‘well before the publication of the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on drugs, I had instructed the Commissioner of Prisons to initiate a series of measures to control the entry of individuals in our prisons, including visitors and lawyers, as well as the entry of prohibited items such as mobile phones and illicit substances.’

He then detailed these measures, among others such as:

– Every detainee or any person entering the prison is subjected to a body search at the Search Room and security devices are used to detect any intrusion of prohibited articles;

– Officers are being lectured regularly on their prime duty which is to keep detainees in safe custody;

– The prison personnel continues to carry out strip searches upon detainees prior to allowing them in and out of the prison;

– Selected Officers are posted at Watch Towers to control and monitor the movement of persons walking on the road side of the security walls to detect the pelting of prohibited articles over the walls of the prison;

– An application form was specifically designed and implemented to control the access of legal advisers into our prisons, had received the consent of the Bar Council, and that as a result visits by legal representatives to the prisons have reduced considerably; and

– Amendment has been brought to the Reform Institutions Act to criminalise the possession of prohibited articles inside prisons and for such contraveners to serve sentence consecutively when found guilty of an offence under the Reforms Institutions Act. The Ministry of Housing and Lands is currently conducting a survey of all prisons for the delimitation of zones, to allow the use of mobile phones in certain specific areas, for example in residential quarters.

– Following the publication of the Commission of Inquiry on Drug Trafficking Report in Mauritius, the Commissioner of Prisons set up a special committee to look into the findings and recommendations.

– The Prisons Department has also established a close collaboration with Police for sharing of information and effecting wide searches in different prisons.

– Regular vehicular patrols are being carried out to reinforce security along the walls both inside and outside the prison.

– Relocation of some CCTV cameras to deter pelting and a new CCTV surveillance system has been installed.

All these and the other measures implemented already and those in the process of being implemented following the recommendations of the Lam Shang Leen Commission, given in the statement by the Prime Minister in his reply to PQ B/804 in last week’s session of Parliament, will no doubt address many of the issues raised.

However, to fundamentally deal with the drug problem, we humbly suggest, as has been done by other stakeholders too, that there must be a dispassionate rethink about the recreational use of cannabis with a view to decriminalization – which will reduce the prison population – through the well thought-through and appropriate policy readjustment. We genuinely feel that such a radical measure deserves serious consideration, based on the successful outcomes it has produced in several jurisdictions, which can serve to guide us along similar lines. This will consolidate the existing measures.

* Published in print edition on 26 October 2018

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