Matters of The Moment
Mauritius can no longer manage its affairs in such a botched and costly manner. The political class cannot be more important than the interests of the people
By Mrinal Roy
The world has lived through an annus horribilis in 2020 owing to the Covid-19 pandemic and its dire socio-economic fallouts and heavy death toll. In Mauritius, the situation has been worsened by the Wakashio ecological catastrophe and its disastrous aftermath on the livelihoods of people and the marine and coastal environment in the affected regions.
However, what is equally of grave concern to the people of the country is the plummeting standard of governance, the increasing number of alleged wrongdoings by Ministers, MPs and the government coterie over time and the appalling state of democracy in the country. This deplorable state of affairs is aeons distanced from the lofty ideals, ethos and commitment of service to the people which underpinned the unswerving battle of the stalwarts who as from 1937 mobilized the downtrodden workers of the sugar industry and the people at large to fight for their fundamental rights and the freedom of the country from colonial rule and the yoke of exploitation to usher a better socio-economic and political order.
The seminal promises made during the battle for independence to put the people and their continuous well-being at the centre of government actions have been repeatedly thwarted by successive governments after independence. Far too often in the chequered history of the country since independence, the interests of the people have been subordinated to the parochial interests of the political class and their endless permutation of political alliances to keep or wrest power.
Is it not high time to teach the history of Mauritius in schools based on objective research instead of selective narratives spun by pliant court scribes? This will provide potent role models to the young and inspire them with the struggle, fortitude and resilience of their forebears as well as the founding ethos and values which drove the battle for freedom and the unalienable rights of the people.
The signs are disquieting. There is widely decried opacity surrounding the conditions public funds amounting to billions of Rupees are for example advanced by the Mauritius Investment Corporation Ltd (MIC) to distressed companies to bail them out or government procurement tenders and costly projects such as Safe City. Despite benefitting from a colossal Education budget of Rs 15 billion, the percentage of students leaving the reformed education system in place with the required qualifications and skills to man new high value added sectors in manufacturing and the services sector necessary to boost the prospects of the country is lamentably low.
In a true democracy, a rigorous oversight over the judicious use of public funds, independent institutions headed by competent professionals and an able and credible parliamentary opposition act as necessary checks and balances and a bulwark against excesses of those in power. The recent spate of questionable expulsions of opposition MPs and the leader of the opposition from the National Assembly with the complicit support of government MPs is a red line which distinguishes a banana republic from a true democracy.
Democracy cannot therefore mean a misuse of majority rule. An elected majority does not mean a mandate to flout and undermine the fundamental principles, rules and ethos of democracy. It is certainly not a licence for highhandedness and hegemony over government institutions, regulatory bodies, the government Establishment or parliamentary democracy. In essence, a true democracy cannot be unchecked majoritarianism.
The separation of powers into three individual branches of government, namely the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch is one of the cardinal cornerstones of vibrant democracies. The object is to provide for checks and balances and prevent the concentration of power which spawns highhandedness. A country cannot function efficiently and in a transparent mode without robust checks and balances.
Trappings of a banana republic
Mauritius holds the unique notoriety of having its prime time news on national TV and radio broadcasting services daily monopolized by large extracts of speeches of primarily the PM as well as Ministers. This is singularly galling as the same speeches are repeatedly broadcast during news time ad nauseam. This is a blatant misuse of the National TV and Radio at public expense. No citizen of any country wants to be daily afflicted with such longwinded and patently partisan speeches during news time.
This is in sharp contrast with the tenor and template of prime time news on the major news channels of the world which focus primarily on reporting and analysing the major news events of the day in the world and not kowtow to those in power. No wonder, more and more people are switching off and no longer watching local news on national TV which is a shame as they become dependent on the media to keep tabs on local news and events.
The role of government
Whenever things go wrong, it is the responsibility of government to draw lessons from its blunders and remedy them forthwith so that they do not recur in future. For example, there have been so many murders and crimes committed in many instances on women since 2001 including an Irish tourist on honeymoon in the country which have remained unresolved amidst allegations that the scene of crime and vital forensic evidence have not been properly secured despite the setting up of a Scene of Crime Office (SOCO). This reflects badly on the country.
In the light of this poor record, have the authorities codified, in line with best practices prevailing in the top investigating agencies of the world, a rigorous protocol to secure the scene of crime and forensic evidence as well as rigidly monitor investigative procedures to ensure that crimes are promptly resolved and the culprits brought to justice?
The judicial inquiry into the suspect death of a political activist recently has shown that the authorities have not taken the remedial actions necessary in the wake of past blunders to benchmark investigative procedures on best practice norms. The many alleged shortcomings of the investigative agencies and failings of the costly Safe City project have yet again been embarrassingly exposed.
What is the role of government when a distressed widow is seeking answers and justice on the suspect death of her husband in order to obtain emotional closure? Is it not to ensure that the failings exposed are urgently remedied so that her anguish is allayed and that those responsible are swiftly nabbed and brought to book? Instead, government Ministers held a press conference to give a political spin to the case. This is not the time for spin doctoring but for government and the authorities to help a distraught widow find peace of mind.
This case has also brought to light the questionable cost effectiveness and many failings of the Rs 19 billion Safe City project championed by the government. A project which was touted as a high tech security system which would assure the safety of the people but also provide crucial visual evidence to nab criminals, drug traffickers and other offenders has failed to do so. It is flabbergasting that key visual evidence of the final leg of the journey of the dead activist is unavailable. This has obviously triggered the wildest conjectures. What is the point of investing in such a costly project if it is incapable of providing key visual evidence to help elucidate criminal cases, which is among its most important deliverables?
It is equally disconcerting that there are contradictions as to who stores the camera recordings of the Safe City project and for how long. Against such a backdrop, the people once again expect government who steered the very costly Safe City project to come forward with some plausible answers on the culpable absence of such crucial evidence and urgently take the corrective steps required to ensure that such questionable setbacks do not recur in future.
In the same vein, the Wakashio shipwreck on our reefs and the resulting oil spill and extensive ecological and economic damage caused have exposed the failings of the authorities responsible to monitor and prevent such damaging intrusion into our waters as well as the lack of preparedness to cope with the wide spectrum of consequences of the oil spill. Have the lessons of the Wakashio ecological catastrophe been learnt? Has the government now put in place a tested protocol and the professional cadres required to ensure that Mauritius is securely protected against such mishaps in future? Have steps also been taken to beef up the real time satellite monitoring system of vessel traffic in our region and strengthen regional cooperation and resources in terms of equipment and expertise to swiftly deal with such disasters in future?
Likewise, there are so many examples in the country where those in power do not learn from their blunders nor take the corrective steps necessary to significantly improve governance and the decision making process of the government Establishment and its institutions. Despite being consistently rapped on the fingers by the SEBI or the EC or listed in Panama and other papers to no avail, it took the European Commission decision to include Mauritius in the revised list of high-risk countries with strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing frameworks to jolt the government to take urgent corrective steps to meet EC and Financial Action Task Force (FATF) norms.
The people cannot accept that the hardships of an annus horribillis are exacerbated through patent failings of governance and government institutions. 2021 will be as challenging. Mauritius can no longer manage its affairs in such a botched and costly manner. The political class cannot be more important than the interests of the people and the country. For the multitude who strongly believe that we can do far better as a nation, it is time to change tack and entrust the country to a new breed of talented and able young Mauritians more representative of the intellect, competence and professional expertise in our midst.
* Published in print edition on 25 December 2020