Chronicle and Lessons of a Crisis Foretold

Why was the President whose role is to represent the country and safeguard the Constitution been allowed by government to overstep her role by acting on behalf of Alvaro Sobrinho’s PEI, accept and use a PEI Platinum credit card put at her disposal?

Good sense and wisdom have finally prevailed. After more than two weeks of high drama, the unprecedented crisis at the head of the State petered out with the scripted resignation of the President to the relief of all. Calm has returned after the storm. However, the whole appalling episode begs so many burning questions and exposes the patent inability of the political class embroiled in bitter clan wars to transcend endless petty politicking and act in unison at a time when the foundations and constitutional anchors of our democracy were being threatened by ill-advised recklessness. In contrast, mainstream Mauritians and patriots from all walks of life stood as one to bring the full weight of public opinion towards a swift end to the crisis. The crisis has also taught the country a host of crying lessons and requires that the necessary corrective steps are urgently taken to prevent any risk of its recurrence in future.

The crisis has also potently showcased the unity and maturity of the people and the nation to gauge the situation and conclude from the outset that the test of rectitude was not met. It is more and more evident that years of poor governance and lack of rigour in upholding basic ethics and standards of propriety have watered down standards and bred licence. This is evidenced by the number of scandals involving Ministers and MPs who have had to step down under the present government.

How can Alvaro Sobrinho, a controversial investor accused of various wrongdoings in Angola and Switzerland, benefit from the involvement of the President’s office and be granted permits and the authority by government, the Financial Services Commission’s (FSC) and the BOI to operate in the financial services sector and acquire 12 upmarket villas in a residential property scheme venture subject to validation of the sources of funds? Who facilitated his controversial entry as an investor and operator in the country?”

Good sense and wisdom have finally prevailed. After more than two weeks of high drama, the unprecedented crisis at the head of the State petered out with the scripted resignation of the President to the relief of all. Calm has returned after the storm. However, the whole appalling episode begs so many burning questions and exposes the patent inability of the political class embroiled in bitter clan wars to transcend endless petty politicking and act in unison at a time when the foundations and constitutional anchors of our democracy were being threatened by ill-advised recklessness. In contrast, mainstream Mauritians and patriots from all walks of life stood as one to bring the full weight of public opinion towards a swift end to the crisis. The crisis has also taught the country a host of crying lessons and requires that the necessary corrective steps are urgently taken to prevent any risk of its recurrence in future.

The crisis has also potently showcased the unity and maturity of the people and the nation to gauge the situation and conclude from the outset that the test of rectitude was not met. It is more and more evident that years of poor governance and lack of rigour in upholding basic ethics and standards of propriety have watered down standards of probity and bred licence. This is evidenced by the number of scandals involving Ministers and MPs who have had to step down under the present government.

At a time when the image and standing of the country among trading partners and investors were being dented by reports on the crisis by the international press present to cover the jubilee celebrations of our independence, the people had expected the whole political class to stand united as true patriots and speak with one voice to speedily bring an end to the crisis. Instead, several political leaders displayed ambivalence as they jockeyed to draw political capital from the crisis. Never ending politicking and a culture of concocting political shenanigans of every kind to outplay each other have been the bane of the country for decades. True to form, the endless and acrimonious turf wars between the leaders of the MMM and the PMSD or the leaders of the Labour Party and the MSM continued unabated. The crisis was therefore a major test of statesmanship for the political class. The manner each rose up to the occasion as patriots or failed to do so will define their future.

When in doubt don’t!

In the aftermath of the crisis many burning questions remain. How can Alvaro Sobrinho, a controversial investor accused of various wrongdoings in Angola and Switzerland, benefit from the involvement of the President’s office and be granted permits and the authority by government, the Financial Services Commission (FSC) and the Board of Investment to operate in the financial services sector and acquire 12 upmarket villas in a residential property scheme venture subject to validation of the sources of funds? Who facilitated his controversial entry as an investor and operator in the country?

Why was the President whose role is to represent the country and safeguard the Constitution been allowed by government to overstep her role by acting on behalf of Alvaro Sobrinho’s Planet Earth Institute (PEI), accept and use a PEI Platinum credit card put at her disposal?

From the time of independence, the country has witnessed the arrival of dubious investors and entrepreneurs in different sectors who like a flash in the pan made tall promises and bamboozled everyone before leaving the country. It has sometimes been a tough learning curve but we have matured with hard earned business savviness and leant to sort the wheat from the chaff. One of the cardinal principles of business savviness is ‘When in doubt don’t’. This key principle which underpins financial prudence and should determine whether permits are to be granted to investors by regulatory institutions to operate in the financial services sector seems to have been flouted in recent years. The references to Mauritius in the Panama and Paradise Papers and the alleged links between Alexandre Djouhri, a key person in the ongoing inquiry on the Libyan financing of the presidential campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, with Mauritius are obviously not good for the country.

Why have operating permits, which were denied by the Bank of Mauritius which has an established experience in financial matters, been granted to Alvaro Sobrinho by the FSC authorized to do so following amendments made to the Finance Bill by government in August 2016? Why was a company owned by Alvaro Sobrinho allowed to acquire 12 upmarket villas for some Rs 355 million despite the advice of caution recommended in the Reputational Review Report of Kroll and a private sector Senior Counsel not to allow the investment in order to safeguard the standing and repute of the jurisdiction governing our financial services sector? Such questionable decisions are not comforting. We must all ensure that the interests of Mauritius and its growing financial services sector remain paramount at all times.

Crying lessons

Many crying lessons are to be learnt from the crisis. The first lesson is that the current standard of governance and ethics is no longer sustainable. Party candidates, Ministers and MPs should adhere to the highest code of ethics and probity in public life. Those who do not should be promptly sanctioned. The government must assure that MPs, Ministers, the President and all those entrusted to serve the country have an unimpeachable conduct at all times. The culture of ‘Everything goes’ must be quashed. The biggest obstacle to such a sea change is the operational template adopted by all political parties. This template comprises an omnipotent leader whose overbearing hegemony over government, the party and the government machinery and institutions is assured by the coterie and subservient apparatchiks. Such a model of governance does not serve the people and hobbles the prospects of the country. Above all, unless it is urgently scuttled such a flawed and decried system risks spawn more crises and scandals.

The second crying lesson is that good governance, transparency and accountability cannot just be empty rhetoric. It is pointless to have a plethora of manuals of good governance or corporate good governance, laws to define and sanction impropriety and anti-corruption institutions if rules and principles of probity are repeatedly flouted with impunity. Ministers, MPs and the government Establishment must be guided by the highest code of ethics and by an independent and competent civil service top brass to ensure that all government decisions meet the highest standards of good governance and scrupulously meet the test of public scrutiny and accountability. Robust checks and balances must help beef up benchmarks and the system of good governance.

The role and conflicting views of barristers have also come into the limelight during the crisis. The events have once again helped sort out the men from the boys. A plethora of studied opinions spouted as in a Tower of Babel. Some of the opinions expressed on the Constitution during the crisis have even baffled the layman. How could the terms of the Commission of Inquiry be drafted and made public despite it being in stark violation of the Constitution? The upshot is that this flawed decision backfired and made matters worse. In the aftermath of the crisis, the principal protagonists have been at pains to explain their exact role and legal stances during the crisis to the public.

Office of President

The crisis has also brought into focus the office of the President in the Republic. Collective wisdom requires that it must be non partisan, above politics and distanced from narrow communal considerations or arbitrage. The resignation of the President has already raised speculations regarding those likely to be nominated to the post. Instead of restricting our choice, isn’t it high time to cut loose from such parochial mindsets and choose the President of the country purely on merit, erudition and credentials to be a wise guardian of the Constitution?  Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and APJ Abdul Kalam were unanimously elected President of secular India on pure merit and their sterling achievements and qualities. It is therefore time to anchor the narrative and ethos of our democracy on loftier ideals and values. Our democracy will be the better for it.

 

* Published in print edition on 23 March 2018

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