Interview: Cassam Uteem – Former President of the Republic
* ‘The only glitter of hope lies with the DPP and the Judiciary.
The independence of these two institutions and the integrity of the judges constitute the cornerstone of the rule of law and of our flawed democracy’
* ‘The President of the Republic is duty-bound to take up the law & order issues first with the PM and, if necessary, with the Commissioner of Police’
With his long experience in politics, former President of the Republic Cassam Uteem is well-placed to share his views and observations on the events that are shaking up the country. To him, although the Prime Minster is in control of his troops because he still has a comfortable majority in spite of the resignation of Minister Nando Bodha, he is losing ground in the governance of the country despite some successes such as control of the pandemic and fulfilling some electoral pledges. He urges the Prime Minister to start taking remedial measures that are needed, and feels that the sitting President has the moral authority if not the constitutional powers to draw the attention of the PM to the ills the country is facing and to advise him accordingly.
Mauritius Times: Political leaders generally, but mostly Prime Ministers, usually want to remain in control of the political agenda in the country or of the government they are heading; they have to anyway if they want to remain at the top. Do you get the impression that the current Prime Minister is gradually losing his grip on his own government and on power, or is he still very much in command?
Cassam Uteem: In most, if not all countries with political systems similar to ours, Prime Ministers are also party leaders – party leaders are actually made Prime Ministers after winning the general elections – and, in their dual capacities, they cannot afford not to exercise control both on the political agenda of the country and the government they are heading.
Otherwise they run the risk, on the one hand of having to submit to external diktats and pressure, inside and outside Parliament, of those allowed to set the political agenda, leading eventually to a weakening of their parties and losing power when comes the day of reckoning or even earlier, if outvoted in Parliament as a result of the phenomenon – albeit a rare one in Mauritius — of rats abandoning the sinking ship. On the other hand, losing control on the government can only lead to its implosion, with Prime Ministers left with no option but to resign and call for early elections.
We are not there yet. Prime Minister Jugnauth is still very much in control of his troop. Even after losing Nando Bodha, the Secretary General of his party, the MSM, and one of the rare efficient ministers of his cabinet, who unceremoniously slammed the door in his face and in spite of being lumbered with the cumbersome and shady figure of Yogida Sawmynaden even if he steps down as minister, he still commands a comfortable majority in Parliament. And in our Westminster model of democracy it’s the only factor that matters for the Prime Minister and his party to stay in power, especially that the Executive here has complete grip on the Legislature. It decides and the latter acquiesces!
* Would you say, based on your long years of political experience, that we might be reaching an inflection point in local politics where, sooner or later, things are likely to change at the level of the political leadership of the country?
The new trend that we have been observing, for some time now, especially after the running aground of the bulk carrier Wakashio and the oil spill that polluted our lagoons followed by what is perceived as a clumsy and revolting attempt of cover-up in criminal cases involving political pundits, is that the political agenda, that we have just discussed, has gone out of the Prime Minister’s control.
It is the civil society, through political activists, and to a lesser extent, the Opposition parties that are dictating terms, taking the initiatives of convening the population to mass demonstrations against the government. The latter’s reaction has so far been very lukewarm, with the Prime Minister visibly on the defensive and giving the impression of being mired in self-doubt, cornered as he is on the Angus Road saga!
The protest march calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation, if successful, could well be a defining moment in our political history.
* Many people, especially those in the opposition, have seen a “glimmer of hope” in Nando Bodha’s resignation – the first breach in the citadel’s wall, it would appear. But that could turn out to be a mere flash in the pan event, and the government’s parliamentary majority will see it through anyway, whether it has the support of a majority of the people or not. What do you think?
Nando Bodha’s resignation has been vastly acclaimed, especially by a population that could not thus far find in the Opposition a viable alternative to the government. More importantly, the people were desperate for a credible prime ministerial candidate that could garner sufficient popular support to outmanoeuvre the current Prime Minister.
Bodha’s resignation was, for them, manna from heaven since Bodha is seen as stuff of which Prime Ministers are made. Be that as it may, as long as the Prime Minister can command a majority in the House, the Opposition will perforce have to keep Bodha on the back-burner for a while.
* What is wrong with this government anyway? It has demonstrated it can and does deliver on its electoral promises, whether in relation to old-age pensions, minimum wages, infrastructure and housing. It also handled the Covid-19 situation reasonably well…
Some of the electoral promises made have indeed been kept and the Covid-19 pandemic has been, on the whole, reasonably well-managed. While it is much too early to make a fair assessment of government record, it can be safely affirmed that “le pays va mal!”
There is however a lot of complaint and recrimination against the newly-elected government which has failed the people especially during the confinement period when the procurement of essential medical and sanitary supplies has been a real disgrace and shame, with public coffers being looted by those close to power.
Government seems to be impervious to the people’s cries of despair, stubbornly refusing to answer to their legitimate demands for, among others, equal treatment for all and an end to flagrant discrimination, transparency in State affairs and less interference in administrative matters, the institution of meritocracy and a stop to cronyism, nepotism and corruption, real crackdown on the drug traffickers and improved law and order situation in the country by allowing the Commissioner of Police, with a proven track record, to have a free hand in the daily operations of his forces.
These are only a few of the people’s demands, which unmet will widen the chasm between the political leaders and their constituents.
* If governance is the main point of contention, why is it that the checks and balances that should operate in our constitutional set-up appear unable to block any abuses?
Institutions meant to act as checks and balances have all been perverted by political interference. Meritocracy has been blithely flouted as never before. Cronyism, which is the appointment of political agents, friends, close associates to positions of authority in those institutions, without regard to their qualifications, training or competence, has literally killed those institutions.
Most of the nominees are square pegs in round holes that feel they are answerable only to their political masters and not to the State or to the people of Mauritius. Good governance has given way to poor governance and in certain cases to absence of governance. Hence the widespread presence, with impunity, of abuses, fraud, corruption and what amounts to theft in broad daylight.
* The DPP can do his bit, and so can the judiciary, but that does not seem to go far enough to reign in an overbearing government, isn’t it?
The only glitter of hope lies with the DPP and the Judiciary. The independence of these two institutions and the integrity of the judges constitute the cornerstone of the rule of law and of our flawed democracy, the Executive having, since long, encroached on the Legislature. If the DPP succeeds in shaking up the Police, the safety and security of the people would be ensured.
Moreover, in the face of the mockery that is being made of Parliament, with a Speaker resolutely on the majority’s side, always ready to run to the rescue of Ministers when cornered by the Opposition, or when caught red-handed flouting Parliament’s Standing Orders, the outcome of the case of Hon S Mohamed against the Hon Speaker will show to what extent our Judiciary is prepared go to protect and defend our democracy.
* One would have expected that the electoral petitions lodged since early last year would have been fast-tracked despite delaying tactics, if any. Isn’t that an instance of the checks and balances in our system not operating as they should?
Right from the start, it was clear to everybody that the defence lawyers of those members whose election was being challenged were splitting hairs and looking for all possible loopholes in the law, often raising futile objections in a bid to delay the electoral petitions against their clients being examined by the Court.
It stands to reason though that electoral petitions need to be addressed within a reasonable delay, if not fast-tracked. I haven’t yet heard any admonition from the Court and am therefore extremely puzzled at the situation.
* The same could be said as regards those in the legal profession who had been hauled up by the Drug Commission for appropriate judicial scrutiny. We have not heard much about this matter from the Courts for quite some time. Isn’t the system failing us?
I would hate to be seen passing judgment on the administration of justice, but I must confess that I have no explanation for the exceptional delay in obtaining justice through our Courts in Mauritius and that also applies to the judicial scrutiny you referred to. Our several Courts must be overburdened with cases and hopelessly undermanned! Who said that justice delayed is justice denied!
* Law and order has become one of the most contentious issues these last months. The police force is, strictly speaking, and by virtue of its constitutional protection accountable only to the courts, but that is a long process. Could the President of the Republic, who is recognised by the Constitution as the “Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Republic of Mauritius” have sought explanations from the relevant authorities as to why police inquiries in recent crimes are not being expedited, or why Safe City recordings appear to have been lost or would be non-existent?
Your question is both interesting and complex. It raises issues related to powers conferred on the President of the Republic by the Constitution.
The powers of the President as Head of State are clearly defined in the Constitution as are the ways and the circumstances in which they should to be exercised. So far, and to the best of my knowledge, however, the powers and responsibilities of the President as Commander-in-Chief have never been spelled out or interpreted except to aver that the President holds discretionary powers, for instance, in times of crisis.
This is not the appropriate forum to discuss such sensitive Constitutional matters, but a short answer to your question would be yes, in the given situation, the President is entitled and is even duty-bound, I would say, to take up the different issues raised in your question, first with the Prime Minister and, if necessary, with the Commissioner of Police and other relevant authorities.
The Constitution provides that the President should be kept informed of all matters pertaining to the State. This is one of the reasons why a weekly meeting is invariably held between the President and the Prime Minister. When the need is felt, the President uses the authority, if not the powers, moral or otherwise, that he holds to influence policy decisions.
* Numerous commentators have been saying lately that if the rules go on being flouted and the culprits remain unpunished and institutions do not deliver according to their mandate, the streets will sooner or later take over. Whether this can happen in a place like Mauritius or not remains to be seen, but wouldn’t this create a dangerous precedent?
I share the views of the commentators and wish to sound a word of caution to the political leaders of the country, in particular to the Prime Minister, to urgently bring about the necessary remedy to a dangerous situation that might any time get out of hands.
The police must be seen to be impartial and able to ensure that law and order are respected. Criminals and culprits, whoever they may be, should not be seen enjoying impunity and be allowed to go scot-free. There should no longer be any political interference in the various institutions that should go strictly by the book.
These are some of the urgent measures that need to be taken to prevent the frustration of the population to spill over into street violence.
* Published in print edition on 12 February 2021