For when – the Freedom of Information Act?

Editorial

What is today known as the St Louis Gate scandal might not have surfaced at all, if it had not been for the African Development Bank’s communiqué of 8 June 2020, wherein its Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption concluded that Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor (BWSC had financially rewarded members of the Mauritian administration and others, for providing access to confidential tender-related information. As a result of which BWSC had won the Rs 4.3 billion contract for the CEB’s St Louis power plant redevelopment project.

Scandals usually come to the surface following whistleblower tip-offs – which in this case led to the investigation by BWSC into allegations of misconduct in some of its projects, including the ST Louis power plant; or following government splits in the wake of which the public will be gratified with a volley of mutual insults and accusations by the two sides which have parted company. Potential scandals would otherwise be swept under the carpet, and the public kept in the dark. Ultimately it is the same public which has in the long term to pay the price for questionable decisions and corruptive practices in the public sector in connivance with private sector operators.

If we go by the long list of scandals that have hogged the headlines over the last few years, it would seem that we are well on our way to touch the bottom. Among others are the Dufry scandal, the Alvaro Sobrinho scandal, the Yerrigadoo/Bet 365 and Glen Agliotti affairs, later the purchase by Government of a private hospital which was revalued barely weeks after it had known an initial valuation which went on to swell up disproportionately the acquisition price for the government. There was also the earlier Bel Air Sugar Estate IRS affair which came to the forefront on a suspected case of bribe taking. All these are blatant examples of questionable practices usually resulting from departures from pre-established norms – such departures being shielded from public scrutiny or made possible thanks to the absence of public information on sensitive public matters and decision-taking.

It should have been the normal practice, in all such cases generally, for departures from pre-established norms to be duly documented in files in such a manner as to make them tamper-proof. This would allow for subsequent inquiries to gather sufficient corroborative evidence to successfully indict one or more persons for acting contrary to law. For long, it has been suspected that ministers or some top bosses in the public sector give verbal instructions so as not to record embarrassing facts. Where public servants act on such verbal instructions, they do so at their own risk and peril. The lessons leant from the many cases in the past should have made them alive to the dangers of acting outside an established order just to please so-and-so who are usually not available to give support when investigators or auditors close in on actions taken contrary to establishment rules.

Let’s consider the CEB- BWSC affair. The public and media attention has focused on the names of politicians and intermediaries that are allegedly cited in the report of the investigation undertaken by the ADB’s Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption. It would appear that we also have some serious problems with the public procurement process. There are allegations of irregularities having been unearthed at the level of the Central Procurement Board with the discovery of fake bid securities repeatedly submitted in the past by some bidders in relation to the construction of schools and infrastructure works at the airport, etc. What is unknown to this day is what police inquiries would have established in these cases. There are also the pending cases before the ICAC. The outcome of many of its inquiries therein remain unknown to this day.

Such aberrations as are evident in these cases have been going on most probably because of arbitrary discretion exerted by certain persons who are in a position to take or influence decisions. In most cases where questionable dealings are suspected, there is one common factor: the absence of transparency. This is a practice that successive governments have been bequeathing to each other for a long enough time without redressing the situation.

For a long time we have been promised a Freedom of Information Act, which could have acted as an important deterrent against abuse. Why is it not materialising? The answer perhaps lies in the question itself – and the public will surely draw its own conclusion.


* Published in print edition on 3 July 2020

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