The issue of the independence of public institutions is always one of grave concern to all citizens who want their country to be reckoned in the higher leagues on the global stage. We are no exception, and looking back we have not done too badly – until some while ago. That is, ever since disturbing questions have been raised about the mis-governance of the country, marked by a series of scandals involving members of the government and their protégés. Whether it was about the “emergency procurement” of medical supplies and equipment to the St Louis Gate affair which led to the revocation of the former Deputy Prime minister, they all added up to convey the message that our public institutions are failing the country.
The latest event that has come to cast doubt on the independence of our institutions relates to the Safe City surveillance system in the wake of the alleged absence of records, which appears quite suspect when the indications are that the cameras have been functional. They are of crucial interest in assisting the judicial inquiry into the death of an MSM activist in mysterious circumstances.
These incidents recall to us that Mauritius has depended on two key factors to break new ground: a solid public institutional set-up and a committed political establishment. While the persons in charge of the political establishment have changed from time to time, public institutions have ensured continuity, no matter which political parties came to power.
When things do not work out as expected at the level of public institutions, fingers are pointed to political interferences which would have distorted the proper working of the institutions. It is equally true that public institutions are as good — and will be seen to be so — as the individuals who head them. But a country determined to forge ahead will not allow a perception to be created that its public institutions can be “kidnapped” by politicians when and as it suits their convenience.
Undue political inroads made into the proper working of public institutions have weakened the perception of political neutrality numerous institutions were originally vested with. Some assume that one just has to stand on the correct side of politics to get away with inappropriate behaviour or, alternatively, to be taken in into a web of complications for not being on the right side of politics. Responsible citizens have kept asking that interferences of this sort should cease. It goes without saying that this situation would impact negatively on the country’s international image as a rule-of-law jurisdiction as well.
What about the public institutions themselves? If they are headed by persons abiding by strong principles of good governance, they would not allow themselves to be devalued the way they sometimes are. If those who have been appointed to lead them bend backward to accommodate unjustified political demands upon them – for reasons best known to themselves — they end up eroding the public trust in the institutions they’ve been put in charge of. In that case, they don’t pay attention enough to the institutions’ good standing in public after they are gone. Yet, those who pioneered the institutions in the first place were disciplined, rigorous and allowed no external interference in their operations.
As the cases of a few public institutions are showing, it is not only the public trust that is eroded in their ability to make a fair delivery on their missions. They also end up with significant financial deficits but most importantly a trust deficit in terms of their credibility. It may be noted that unwarranted intrusions, once made, have gone on amplifying from one government to the other, much to the detriment of the good working of concerned public institutions.
The tendency for politics to undermine the efficient and objective working of public institutions does the country no good. It has never done. It is when politicians objectively stayed away from the working of public institutions that the country gained the trust of investors and the international community. There were politicians who were capable of identifying the limits they should not cross and acted instead to keep up the good standing of public institutions in their portfolio. The element of trust in public institutions cannot be bought and sold at will.
For this reason, there is a duty on civil society, the media and dedicated organisations to arrest any tendency for politics to sap the confidence that should always hold for our public institutions. The heads of these institutions should be asked to abide by the rules whenever they are seen to be embarking on the path of accommodating political tendencies incompatible with the country’s framework of good governance. This is important. One can realize the importance of this factor by recalling the number of other countries which have travelled down the other path and found it very difficult to climb the hill afresh once they’ve gone down the slopes.
* Published in print edition on 18 December 2020