“When we vote for someone, it looks like we are also voting for his/her sons and daughters, mistresses, uncles…”

Interview: Dr Vasantt Jogoo — 

* ‘The MSM still needs the ML to maintain the pretence of a stable and legitimate government, and the ML is conscious that it will cease to exist outside government’

 * ‘Are we doomed and condemned to bring back Navin Ramgoolam back to power just because LEPEP has let us down?’

 * ‘Why should a handful of people decide what is best in the national interest? Just because we voted them into power doesn’t give them absolute power’

Do we need a reorientation of the way we’ve been going along? How do we get out of the ruts? We spoke to Dr Vasantt Jogoo to find a way out of the repetitive but unproductive patterns we see from time to time. Dr Vasantt Jogoo is currently serving as an environmental safeguards consultant for the World Bank. He has held a number of positions locally and internationally. He has worked at the African Development Bank as its Lead Environmentalist, and as its acting Secretary General.

He also worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat, London, where he held the position of Adviser and Head of the Small States, Environment and Economic Management Section. Earlier on, he was employed as an urban planner with the Ministry of Housing. He had the privilege of serving (and being revoked) as Chairman of the Maurice Ile Durable (MID) Fund Committee, and the Mauritius Oceanography Institute for short periods of time.

 

Mauritius Times: A first in the history of this country: our opposition parties jointly addressing an open letter to the President of the Republic, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, inviting her to submit her resignation “in the interest of our nation” in the wake of the Alvaro Sobrinho affair for having in their view “transgressed your prerogatives and duties as a Head of State… shown lack of discernment in associating yourself with persons of such doubtful reputation”. What’s your take on that?

Dr Vasantt Jogoo: It’s also a first in the annals of this country that a President has, to my mind, brought down the Presidency to such disrepute. She is being described in very unflattering terms (novice, naïve, etc.) that seriously dent her reputation as a scientist that she had cultivated until she assumed the role of President.

Yes, we know that she had made it known she would not be content with a role of “vase à fleur”. Apart from a few dissenting voices that thought her lack of principled stand did not qualify her for such a role (she had claimed before the EOC that the University of Mauritius had discriminated against her because of her religion during the recruitment exercise for the Vice Chancellor’s post, but she found it acceptable to be nominated for the Presidency when that same religious belonging was advanced to appoint her), the population by and far, and of all faiths, welcomed her as a suitable apolitical person to act as the supreme representative of the Nation. Someone who would be above petty politics and uphold the democratic values that we all cherish.

The perception today is that she has in so short a time forgotten how a scientific mind works, and started acting like any run of the mill politician.

* Except for excerpts of emails addressed by different parties, including the State House, in relation to the application for banking and other licences by the Sobrinho’s companies, no commission of inquiry is in the pipeline to dig out evidence of any wrongdoing by whomsoever including Mrs Gurib-Fakim, and questions relating to any advantage, pecuniary or otherwise, that might have benefited those parties will therefore remain unanswered. The opposition appears to be jumping the gun in the absence of compelling evidence against the President of the Republic. What do you think?

It’s more than just excerpts of emails. Her frequent travels, allegedly often paid for by third parties, her involvement with Sobrinho, and so on, are well documented. The State House stands discredited, and we know that so long as she has the support of the government, the chances of her “impeachment” and removal from office are next to nil.

The MSM still needs the ML to maintain the pretence of a stable and legitimate government, and the ML is conscious that it will cease to exist outside government. Any motion tabled before the Assembly requesting for the setting up of a special tribunal, as provided for, would have been rejected. The opposition, therefore, had no choice but to make it known by way of a petition that the President no longer enjoyed the unanimous support of the National Assembly, hence of the entire population. The message must have been received very loud and clear.

* The view has been expressed that codes of conduct are ineffective, and that it might be time to hold everybody, from the Head of State to Cabinet ministers down to government functionaries, etc., liable for their acts and omissions – retroactively if deemed necessary. Nobody should be placed above the law and enjoy immunity from prosecution – not even the President of the Republic. You wouldn’t expect politicians to shoot themselves in the foot, would you?

Sooner or later, we shall have to adopt codes, values, principles, and whatever it is that defines a “developed” country. We are aspiring to graduate from middle-income to high-income status, but such status is not achieved only on the basis of wealth.

Yes, the crop of politicians we have at present do not augur well for an effective transition to developed status any time soon. But this is the aspirational goal of thousands of Mauritians. We are all hoping that a new generation of politicians will emerge from the present morass and set higher standards of public life.

* Whatever the political motivations which might have guided the setting up of the commission of inquiry to inquire into the sale of Britam Kenya, the fact of the matter is that there has indeed been a shortfall of Rs 1.9bn with the shares of the BAI going to Plum LLP for Rs 2.4bn instead of MMI Holdings, which had made an offer of Rs 4.3bn. There may be numerous such instances in different sectors where our national interest might not have prevailed above that of others, isn’t it?

What is national interest? Who decides what is in the national interest? What is the process that determines national interest? We have to acknowledge that national interest is a vague concept; it has no legal basis. National interest is invoked to justify policy decisions of the government in place, but we are not very certain if it’s really national interest or just vested interest.

Take the case of the metro express project. National interest has been invoked to justify the massive spending and the amendment of the act to exempt the project from the statutory requirement of an Environmental Impact Assessment. It must be recalled that the necessity of a mass transit system was raised in the context of the National Physical Development Plan in 1974. Since then, successive governments have toyed with the idea and spent millions of rupees evaluating mass transit options (busway, bus rapid transit, and light rail).

After nearly four decades, the government decides to go for a metro express system, the exact nature of which is still obscure. How was this decision taken? Doesn’t the population have a right to participate in the decision-making process? How do we know that it is the best option that has been retained? Why should a handful of people decide what is best in the national interest? Just because we voted them into power doesn’t give them absolute power to decide unilaterally on matters of national interest. Such decisions should be made in total transparency.

Parties that have been voted into power owe it to the public to open decision-making processes on major issues to all stakeholders. This is how a “developed” society functions. The government has to dispel perceptions that vested interests are always determining the national interest, and that decisions made within the confines of obscure boardrooms (and even kitchens apparently) are more important than those coming out of transparent public consultations and healthy debates.

I dare the ministers to repeat the arguments they voiced during the debate on the metro express EIA “exemption” in their interventions at the United Nations or any of the international fora they so relish attending!

* For having been in the government service for a long number of years, would you say that there are systemic causes that allow these things to keep happening and defaulters go unpunished?

Not just keep happening, but getting worse and worse! We have an armada of institutions, laws, and regulations that are supposedly in place to guard against abuses, but unfortunately, the government and “defaulters” are getting bolder and more sophisticated, and they always seem to find the right loopholes that allow them to continue operating. Public opinion does not seem to weigh in too much.

When we vote for someone, it looks like we are also voting for his/her sons and daughters, mistresses, uncles, and whoever is part of “la cuisine”. Just read the arguments put forward by Gérard Sanspeur to justify his remuneration and you get an idea of the low that we’ve hit. Does the fact you were being paid x amount of rupees elsewhere give you a right to abnormally high remunerations in the public sector?

No one is indispensable. Moving from one job to another is a choice, the system cannot be bent to suit one particular person. When this happens, the system gets distorted and opens to all types of abuses. That’s why we find many bureaucrats doubling their pay packets at the end of the month, despite the fact that PRB has determined what a normal day’s work is worth at every level of government.

Why change a system that seems to be working well for some key players? This can only get worse, and million-rupee monthly pay packets will soon be the norm for some in the government. So, if we want things to change and ensure that abuses are checked, the whole system has to be overhauled.

* At the end of the day, what do all these not-so-nice things inform you about the true nature of governments and those at the helm? Could it also be a case of bad apples replacing bad apples?

Shall we repeat what others have stated: that we get the government that we deserve? I don’t think it’s that simple. Why do we keep replacing bad apples with worse? Absence of credible alternatives is one explanation.

But repeating the same mistakes over and over again is not limited to Mauritians. In fact, cognitive science (the study of thought, learning, and mental organization) studies have shown that our brains don’t learn from our past mistakes to the extent we might hope. It would appear that it is in human nature to keep repeating the same mistakes!

Are we therefore doomed and condemned to bring back Navin Chandra Ramgoolam back to power just because LEPEP has let us down? What the studies suggest is that we need to think about the future, and not dwell on the past, if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes.

Sounds strange, but a clear vision of the future we want can help choose who are best suited to govern. A few think tanks and political groupings are doing a good job in trying to educate the population and helping them shape that vision, in the hope that a new political class would emerge and help the country transition to a developed country status.

* One is at a loss to understand the reasons as to why government persists with the promotion and facilitation of smart city as well as IRS/RES/HIS projects, which benefit from billions of rupees’ worth of exemptions from land related taxes and duties, when this policy is clearly hiking real estate values and making it even more inaccessible for the common man and young Mauritians in particular to buy a plot of land for housing purposes. What could explain that?

I have earlier explained that once a government is in place, vested interests take over. The lofty rhetoric that constituted the political manifesto is quickly forgotten. Short term gains are favoured.

What is easier and more profitable than property development? In the absence of any long-term vision and strategy, Government chose the easy route. Property development was packaged as smart cities for public consumption, and dangled as the new Mauritius. Sure, figures would show an increase in FDI inflow and a thriving construction sector with significant employment opportunities. But these investments are only one-off and quickly stop generating benefits. It’s not the same as an investor building a hotel or a setting up a manufacturing company which would continue generating revenues and jobs for many years.

The IRS/RES and other PDS are not for the average Mauritian and they are benefiting the big landowners more than anyone else. I’ve said it before: many of our problems (road congestion for example) are a consequence of bad land-use planning decisions. But we’ve agreed that we get addicted to bad decision making, haven’t we?

* There have also lately surfaced up disapproving comments made in the wake of replies furnished to PQs relating to Advisers and other political appointees, the more so when it is known that some 325,000 employees in the country are still earning up to Rs 15,000 per month in spite of the progress that has been achieved on the economic front and the visible wealth that we see all around. Is that acceptable?

Everyone will agree that it is unacceptable. If we are really that rich, then it’s most probably something to do with unequal distribution of wealth. But this wealth that seems “visible” around the tourist resorts, property development schemes, etc., contrasts very sorely with much of the “visible” poverty by way of lack of amenities, poor planning and infrastructure in much of our urban and rural areas.

The “développement à deux vitesses” is more visible than generalised wealth. We just have to drive off the motorways to realise that we are still very much a developing country. We saw how students at the UTM had to go on strike to demand basic services such as water and toilets.

Yes, there is growing resentment among the population as evidence of abuse piles up. Our politicians have the bad habit of seeing the world the way they want it rather than the way it is. They are much more concerned about their Mercedes and BMWs than correcting the distortions in the system. Unfortunately.

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