“If Mauritius is not yet a police state, the Police Force’s brutal actions give a totally negative perception of the state of our democracy”

Interview: Cassam Uteem – Former President of the Republic

* ‘Today almost everybody in high office serve at the pleasure of Pravind Jugnauth
They know that they will continue to serve only as long as he is there’

* Navin Ramgoolam & Paul Berenger:  ‘To me, this is not a winning formula…
… the ideal would be for both to henceforth assume the role of mentors’


The current volatile context is fuelled by a number of factors. Some relate to the increasing autocratic nature and operations of State machineries to ensure a functional democracy, others to the inability of various institutions to ensure due processes of law and still others to the controversies raging around fair policing and the alleged “planting” of drugs, targeting known Opponents, where the end justifies the means. The downward slide in international assessments was written on the walls but what are the political implications and alternatives? We have sought the views of former President Cassam Utteem on these and other related issues.

Mauritius Times: Keen observers of happenings locally, especially those from outside Mauritius, say they are surprised that this country has fallen down the league tables of democratic countries and are awaiting the next Ibrahim Index of African Governance to see whether the slide on governance indicators is confirmed. We could see this happening sooner or later since the writing has been on the wall for quite some time, isn’t it?

Cassam Uteem: As you rightly say, the writing has been on the wall for quite some time and I therefore can’t understand why observers, political and otherwise, should today be surprised that the country’s democratic credentials are being challenged at the global level.

The Mo Ibrahim Index, that you referred to, has always been favourably inclined, some would say biased, towards Mauritius, even after its inclusion on the EU’s blacklist due to money laundering, and is known to be very pro-establishment and its assessment of a country’s state of democracy should be taken with a pinch of salt.

But, on the other hand, V-Dem, the Swedish body, whose reputation for rigour is undeniable, has in its 2022 report classified Mauritius among the African countries that have declined democratically in 2021 as compared to what it was ten years ago, while countries like Madagascar and Seychelles have made democratic progress. As if rubbing salt in the wound, the report went on to rank Mauritius among the top five autocracies “where the process of autocratization has been ongoing for a long while and continues in the present”.

As if to put a final nail to the coffin, the International IDEA, a world reference in the field of democracy measurement, of which incidentally I was a Board member for two successive terms between 2003 and 2009, noted, as recently as last month, that Mauritius was one of the 8 countries in Africa that have experienced a significant democratic decline over the last five years.

There are actually several factors that have given rise to this decline. Not the least is the way our National Assembly has come to operate with a Speaker and a Leader of the House, who is none other than the Prime Minister, conspiring to stifle the Opposition and flouting all principles of fairness and equity with total impunity, turning, in the process, the temple of democracy into a dictatorship of the majority, in front of a bemused population following the live TV transmission of the National Assembly’s proceedings.

Another grave concern and source of public frustration that has made a dent in our democracy, is nepotism and cronyism practised in total defiance of meritocracy and sense of justice, as never before, and despite laws and institutions set up to fight corruption such as the Prevention of Corruption Act (POCA) and the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The number of so-called high-profile cases – especially those involving politicians close to the ruling parties – that are still under investigation by the ICAC, months if not years after they have been revealed, have contributed to a climate of mistrust towards the Institution.

A last example that can be quoted is Police abuses that continue to be reported without any action being seen to be taken. Political interference in the work of the police is quite blatant despite the fact that the independence of the Office of the Commissioner of Police is guaranteed by the Constitution. If Mauritius is not yet a police state, the Police Force’s brutal actions, especially targeting critics of the government, give a totally negative perception of  the state of our democracy.

* Why is it that despite the criticisms levelled by the Opposition, political observers, the media, those active on social media platforms, etc., the authorities whether at the level of the National Assembly, ICAC, the Police Force do not seem to care and the government remains unperturbed?

The simple answer to your question would be that today almost everybody in high office, in all the institutions, serve at the pleasure of Pravind Jugnauth, the Prime Minister of Mauritius, and they know that they will continue to serve only as long as he is there.

Their loyalty is therefore not to the State, to the institution or to the people, in whatever post they find themselves, but to the political head of the country to whom they are indebted.

I am afraid it’s all now a question of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. I am there only to keep the boss happy! Who cares about the public good, ethics, morality or even accountability?

* On the other hand, the public response to the hunger strike started by citizen Nishal Joyram, now running into its 22nd day as we speak, would suggest that the general public, even the intellectuals, show an unusual level of apathy. Is it a generational change or an implicit reckoning that no amount of street lobbying will change matters?

As we are about to start this interview, Nishal Joyram is reported to have been transferred to the Port Louis City Clinic as his condition has alarmingly deteriorated. I pray he recovers without any after-effects.

On Saturday the 3rd, that is four days ago, I paid him a visit, as he was lying in his make-do tent at Cathedral Square and I advised him to put an end to his hunger strike as he has already made his point, people recognize in him a man of conviction and are grateful to him and, above all, he should not expect any positive response from those in authority as they have remained so far unmoved after nearly 20 days that had lasted his hunger strike. I stopped short of telling him that only humanist leaders take ethical decisions based on reason, empathy and a concern for other human beings.

As regards the reaction of the public, we have to perforce admit that, except for an infinitely small number of concerned citizens, the vast majority has abstained from publicly showing the slightest feeling of empathy towards Nishal Joyram with the exception of those who regularly make their voices heard on the social media.

* Have the people grown blasé or wary of a spiteful government, do they not trust the body politic or do they not care anymore about the way the affairs of the State are being run so long as their personal needs are addressed? Had it been otherwise, the government would not have let the matter drag on and its popularity taking a beating in the process, isn’t it?

I tend to think that it is a combination of all that you have mentioned.

Our society has evolved in such a way that people have become more and more egoistic and even expect others to pull their coals from the fire as their reluctance to express solidarity for a hunger striker who put his life at stake for them shows.

One other important factor is the fear that the regime has succeeded in instilling in people. Those tagged or identified as anti-regime or pro-opposition are invariably ostracized and even their close ones denied their legitimate rights.

* The latest we hear about the Bruneau Laurette case is that his ADN apparently has not been found on the drug packages seized and examined by the Forensic Science Laboratory. Now if the perceived doings and misdoings of the Police and its Striking Team continue at the current rate, the Police would be well on the way to becoming the best agent of the opposition. What do you think?

Unfortunately, greater credence is now being given to what until recently was considered as rumour mongering and when it concerns Police alleged involvement in framing people, innocent or inoffensive or openly anti-government, it becomes extremely worrying and even dangerous, if proven to be true.

The police job is to provide protection to the population and to fight drug traffickers within the framework of the law – not by means of so-called ‘planting of drugs’. Bruneau Laurette is a case in point. He has been one of the fiercest critics of the government and when the Police’s new Striking Team raided his house, they seized two guns, powder believed to be synthetic drugs and a huge amount of illegal drugs thought to be cannabis in his car boots. The Forensic Science Laboratory has now revealed that the powder seized was actually toukmaria, the guns mere relics while Laurette’s ADN was nowhere to be found on the drug packages. This means what it means!

It’s not for me but for the court to decide and make its pronouncement.

A similar incident a couple of weeks before and involving the same Police Striking Team and a lawyer, critic of the government allegedly found with illegal drugs at his girlfriend’s place and which he claimed to have been ‘planted’, is also being challenged in court, as no trace of his ADN has been found.

Such occurrences leave doubt in the mind of the ordinary citizen and create mistrust in our police force as they give the impression, so often denounced by the opposition, to be at the beck and call of the regime for those dirty tricks. 

* Speaking of the Opposition, especially those constituting the mainstream parties, it must be very frustrating for them as the bell is yet to be sounded for the elections. But do you think the ‘rapport de forces’ in either local politics or on the ground has reached an inflection point which could signal the beginning the reversal of the political fortunes of the MSM-led alliance?

I can understand the frustration of the mainstream political parties as they come to realise now, probably more than they ever did before, that the Prime Minister holds the trump card and is the one to call the shots. The opposition can in no way influence the timeline of the electoral process. Why the hell then should they keep procrastinating, waiting and watching for the date of the elections when they know full well there is no way they could oust the present government if they don’t present a united front, now or any time in the future?

A united opposition is the sine qua non condition for winning either the municipal elections or the general elections. I personally have serious doubts about the leader of the MSM holding municipal elections before the general elections as it would be too big a risk for his party that would likely receive a thrashing from a united opposition in all five urban areas. It could ultimately lead to the consolidation of the opposition posing a real threat to the MSM and its allies in government.

* It however remains to be seen whether any future LP-MMM-PMSD alliance would be able to convince the electorate that theirs is a credible alternative?

As of now, the ‘hypothetic’ alliance does in no way represent a credible alternative to the current regime. Further prevarication and quibble will not help convincing the electorate to change their mind. Unless the Opposition comes up, now and not wait for the eve of the general elections, with a sound alternate manifesto with a clear vision and a renewed leadership, with people with clean sheets and proven integrity, there’s no hope for a change of regime, however autocratic or despotic it might appear to be.

* Navin Ramgoolam, prime ministerial candidate and head of government for its full mandate, and with Paul Berenger by his side, albeit in an as-yet undefined role… does that seem saleable to the electorate, both urban and rural, according to your reading?

I am afraid to say that this is, to me, not a winning formula. The ideal would be for both to henceforth assume the role of mentors, in which capacity they could excel, and allow earlier generations of leaders to emerge and be at the helm of their respective parties and eventually of the country.

At most, and as quite a number of people believe, Navin Ramgoolam could be made to lead a transitory team for a set period — the shorter the better – and allow a new Labour figure to take over. This should be done now and in full transparency and on the setting up a united opposition front, not on the eve of the election.

* What is your reading of the long-running Resistans ek Alternativ case and its multiple disappointments in courts and politically? Is ethno-politics alive and fortified or are there some reasons to hope that our best brains do not desert a country mired in ethno and money politics?

I must say that I am of those who admire the determination of Resistans ek Alternativ to doggedly fight their case in spite of the political and legal obstacles that have been coming their way ever since they started their ‘crusade’ against the continued fragmentation of our society. Their cause is indeed a noble one and one would have wished for a more forward looking and modern Mauritian judiciary to thrash out once for all the issues related to a system that perpetuates the exercise of exclusion, communalism and ethno-politics.

This coupled with so called money politics is a real plague to our society as they corrupt the political system, prevent the emergence of a Mauritian identity and an inclusive democracy. They give rise to and encourage nepotism to the detriment of meritocracy, with the result that some of what you call our best brains are looking elsewhere – where the grass looks greener to them.

* Is it time for an in-depth review of certain aspects of our Constitution to ensure that democracy is not abused through the loopholes evidenced lately? And what would be the best way forward in that case?

I am given to understand that a small group of interested citizens, including a couple of constitutional lawyers, have for some time now been working to update our Constitution and that would of course imply an in-depth review of certain aspects of the existing Constitution.

As you know, unless the required majority is obtained in the National Assembly to vote in favour of the constitutional amendments brought up by a party or a coalition of parties, those amendments are automatically rejected. The first thing, and that before talking of the way forward, is therefore to obtain a consensus of all the political parties, especially the major ones, on the need to review our Constitution with a set of agreed objectives.

The way forward would then be the appointment of a Constituent Assembly, comprising all the stakeholders of the different sectors of the political, social and economic life of the country. That Constituent Assembly will within say a period of 12 to 18 months, come up with those amendments that it recommends to be debated in the National Assembly and approved with the required majority.

As matters stand, I doubt whether we would be able to jump the first hurdle of obtaining a large consensus for amending our Constitution among the major political parties.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 9 December 2022

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