Freedom of Information


Scandals usually come to the surface following whistleblower tip-offs – which in the case of the St Louis Gate scandal led to the investigation by Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor (BWSC) into allegations of misconduct; 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. The St Louis Gate scandal might never have surfaced, had it not been for the African Development Bank’s communiqué of 8 June 2020, wherein its Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption concluded that BWSC had financially rewarded members of the Mauritian administration and others, for providing access to confidential tender-related information. The responsible Minister was made to step down even before ICAC could start its own enquiry. 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, local or international.

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 and taxpayers. 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 actions 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.

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. As if the frailty of our public procurement processes was not bad enough, the pandemic and its associated emergency procurements particularly for in-sourcing ventilators, vaccines and various medical materials and pharmaceuticals have been rife with allegations of impropriety yet no inquiry has been completed yet.

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.

We have been promised a Freedom of Information Act by successive electoral alliances, which could have acted as an important deterrent against abuse. True, there may well be good reasons (e.g., commercial, national security or other) where disclosure may actually hamper the public sector, but surely there has been ample time to reflect and formulate a Bill that deters corrupt practices without endangering government workings on sensitive issues. Why then is it not materialising? In a reply to the PQ by the Honourable Second Member for Stanley and Rose Hill (Mr Nagalingum), on 23rd May, the PM repeated essentially his previous stance since 2021 in Parliament that “I did in fact bring out the far-reaching implications of such a piece of legislation, especially its negative impact on public service delivery and on our public finance, particularly at this juncture, and the apprehended unintended negative consequences of such a piece of legislation” adding further that “the provisions [of such an Act] would inevitably have huge impact not only on Government recurrent budget but also on public service delivery.”

We fail to understand the argument of the PM about the prohibitive cost of an FOI Bill while public monies are currently being spent on a variety of less worthy projects and the Minister of Finance is painting at the same time a rosy picture of our economy. As a parallel thought, government makes use of public funds to commission reports, studies or fact-findings of clear public interest that are then kept away from the public sphere. That can only breed a culture of impunity and demoralise honest staff in all institutions. The time has perhaps come for all body politic to stop kicking the can down the road.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 26 May 2023

An Appeal

Dear Reader

65 years ago Mauritius Times was founded with a resolve to fight for justice and fairness and the advancement of the public good. It has never deviated from this principle no matter how daunting the challenges and how costly the price it has had to pay at different times of our history.

With print journalism struggling to keep afloat due to falling advertising revenues and the wide availability of free sources of information, it is crucially important for the Mauritius Times to survive and prosper. We can only continue doing it with the support of our readers.

The best way you can support our efforts is to take a subscription or by making a recurring donation through a Standing Order to our non-profit Foundation.
Thank you.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *