“Once the Star and the Key of the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is a mere shadow of its former self”

Interview: Kugan Parapen

‘only a Prime Minister can set up a Commission of Enquiry. How absurd is that?
Is that a feature of a fully vibrant democracy? Or rather remnants of monarchy?’

‘ICAC has little credibility in the eyes of the population, especially after its U-turn in the Medpoint case’

Kugan Parapen is an economist by profession and also a member of Resitans ek Alternativ. In this interview he shares his views on problems currently hitting the country hard, such as corruption and the feeble-minded efforts to combat it by the national anti-corruption agency. He also comments on the degradation of the polity as well as the citizenry and the lack of opportunities for the present generation who see no hope for their future in this country. He also makes some observations on the global business sector. Nevertheless, he sees in the concurrent crises that the country is undergoing an opportunity to bounce back to our untapped potential provided there is the right leadership and will to do so.

Mauritius Times: Things at times get messier before they get neater, but that does not seem to be the case here if we go by the list of events and scandals that have been unfolding since some time now: blacklisting by the European Union and termination of DTA agreement by Zambia, crashing of profit at SBM, crash of Air Mauritius. The latest: the ADB’s Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption report concerning the St Louis redevelopment project, which led to the sacking of ML leader Ivan Collendavelloo. Do you see a common denominator in all of these cases?

Kugan Parapen: When it rains, it pours! Some will have us believe that the common denominator is the Covid-19 but given the cascade of events we’ve witnessed so far in 2020, it is obvious that there is more to it than what they will have us believe.

In so many ways, we are witnessing the slow demise of a socio-economic monster. A monster that nourished itself on the flames of deceit, cronyism, corruption, nepotism, opacity and blatant lies. While we have had some eminent upstanding politicians gracing our parliament over time, the general perception is that most governments since Independence have engaged in corrupt practices at some point or the other, be it in a legal or an illegal manner. This perception has become so prevalent that corruption is even tolerated by a significant segment of the population, if not the majority of it.

You ask about the common denominator of our recent tragedies: while the accusing finger will automatically be pointed at the traditional political class, we cannot make abstraction of the guilty status of the electorate. Or even of those who stand for right values and principles but are unable to federate into a meaningful political force.

Beyond the common perpetrators, there are unfortunately the usual victims and the usual suspects…

* Let’s consider the St Louis affair. The Prime Minister said he acted on the ADB’s Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption summary report, the contents of which he will not disclose because of a confidentiality agreement with the ADB. The plot however gets thicker when he discloses that the name of Paul Berenger, amongst others, has also been mentioned in that report. What is he playing at?

The Prime Minister has clearly dropped the ball there. The Leader of the Opposition is right in pointing out that by providing crucial information to his deputy Prime Minister, he has potentially weakened any potential criminal case which could be brought up against Collendavelloo in the future. The same applies for Paul Berenger.

Time will tell whether the Prime Minister is bluffing or not by bringing the leader of the MMM in this quagmire. However, his argument that he was obliged to communicate with his deputy Prime Minister about the content of the summary report is flimsy to say the least and probably hints at the lack of seriousness given to this blatant alleged act of corruption.

In most previous cases of alleged corruption in the allocation of public tenders, the protagonists were given the benefit of the doubt on account of the absence of a court ruling or a guilty plea. Should the ICAC determine that the case be closed and that there are no grounds for criminal charges, it would in effect mean that our local authorities are dismissing the findings of an important supranational body like the African Development Bank and also exonerating the employees at the Danish company – the same employees who, if we recall correctly, have already pleaded guilty to corrupt practices and have parted ways with the company! That would be ‘farfelu’, wouldn’t it?

It will be interesting to know who takes the bullet in Mauritius and for whom! 

* Politicians are as usual playing politics with the so-called St Louis affair, hurling accusations and counter accusations at each other. But isn’t there a case for a commission of inquiry for a broader and more extensive examination of the public procurement process down the years? 

The tentacles of corruption can never be established without a proper independent investigation. In the St Louis affair, who can establish the boundaries of the corruption practices? Can one be certain that the Ministers are not involved? Can one exonerate them completely too? Such claims can only be made after a fully independent enquiry has established the truth.

The ICAC has little credibility in the eyes of the population, especially after its U-turn in the Medpoint case. It is perceived as a political instrument used to whitewash wrongdoings of members of the government, irrespective of the government.

Given that it is the Prime Minister who plays a crucial role in nominating the Director of the ICAC, how on earth can we expect the Director of the ICAC to enquire about the Prime Minister? Isn’t there a compelling case of conflict of interest here?

Mauritius suffers from a crucial lack of separation of powers. For example, only a Prime Minister can set up a Commission of Enquiry. How absurd is that! In effect, this implies that a Commission of Enquiry can never be set up to enquire about any possible wrongdoing of a Prime Minister. Is that a feature of a fully vibrant democracy? Or rather remnants of monarchy?

We also need not forget that the much-hyped Freedom of Information Act, promised under the 2014 government never materialised. This is tangible proof of the reluctance of the public sector to operate under the scrutiny of the public. The day we see a few high-profile ministers or officers behind bars on corruption charges will be the day we can start believing that corruption is on the decline in our society. Until then, je veux y croire mais j’y crois pas… 

* In view of the all the preceding cases we have just talked about and that have uncovered major lacunae at all levels in different sectors, one wonders what foreign ambassadors posted here, especially those of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the US, are reporting back home on the issue of governance and accountability prevailing in Mauritius. Any guess?

Mauritius has throughout history been of geopolitical interest to some of the world’s most powerful nations. While the importance of the country might have receded after the opening of the Suez Canal, the emergence of a new world order in the East has somewhat aroused the interest of foreign nations in Mauritius again but for different reasons.

With its vast maritime territory and numerous islets, the country could play a key role in the global balance of power. We can be sure that foreign ambassadors along with the staff of embassies are compiling reports on the degrading local economic and social conditions.

Mauritius is on the ropes. Once the star and the key of the Indian Ocean, it is a mere shadow of its former self. For many unscrupulous states, such a sad reality represents an opportunity for them to leverage on their influence in the region. The poor quality of governance and high prevalence of corruption offer a mouth watering window of opportunity to push one’s geopolitical agenda at the expense of the local population.

We’ve increasingly witnessed such interference over the last decennial and should unfortunately expect more to come our way in the current toxic environment. 

* Do you think the irregularities that have been surfacing in relation to the functioning of public bodies, including regulators, which point to dereliction of duties by functionaries, boards and top management as well as heavy-handed politicization under every government in terms of appointments and interference in decision-making could also be contributing to lay the ground for the blacklisting of the country by the European Union?

I am no expert in the matter, but I believe that such a perception could have been part and parcel of the motivation to sanction the Mauritius jurisdiction. Fortunately, not all public bodies are dysfunctional. Our public sector does have within its rank some very capable individuals of the highest professionalism who can get the job done. They must be allowed to get on with their role. No State can function properly with constant political interference.

* As regards the European Union’s decision to blacklist the Mauritius jurisdiction, is this really a bad thing for our Global Business sector and the country?

The Global Business sector has developed over the years to become one of the most important economic sectors in our economy. As such, the decision to blacklist the jurisdiction comes as a major blow to the whole sector, including the banking sector. One cannot begin to imagine the economic carnage which would unravel should the Global Business sector collapse.

Hopefully the EU blacklisting can act as a wake-up call and ensure that remedial action is taken to address the core issues. What some term as Global Business, others call fiscal paradise. And the blacklisting unfortunately adds credential to this perception. Until and unless we are able to forge a reputation as a respected, diligent and serious jurisdiction, we will repeatedly face the same hurdles.

Paradoxically, the EU blacklist could prove to be a silver lining for the sector. By getting our house in order and showing the commitment and resolve to adhere to strict regulations, our credibility as a financial centre could be restored over time. Time is of the essence though. We cannot afford any more mistakes. 

* At the end of the day, one is tempted to be discouraged or sceptical about making politics work for development and progress in Mauritius. It’s no doubt much worse in many other places, but Mauritius has the potential to make it big, isn’t it?

The thing about potential is that if it is not realised, it tends to wane. A young boy has potential while an old man can only reflect on whether he has achieved his potential or not.

While the life cycles of countries are different from that of human beings, there can be little discussion that Mauritius has unfortunately not fully realised its potential. Many countries which used to lag behind the country in terms of both economic and social indicators have leapfrogged Mauritius and are not looking back. Once a reference for the African continent, the island nation is now perceived suspiciously by many as exposed by the ending of DTA agreements.

The worst is that we do not get the impression that we are on the rise. Every time we thought we hit rock bottom, we somehow managed to reach new lows. With the Mauritian Rupee in a tailspin and impacting adversely the cost of living, many are thinking about emigrating – to join the cohorts who have left before.

The Mauritian dream has been shattered. Members of the government are parading the recent inclusion of Mauritius as a High Income country all over social media as a supposed award of success. They forget to mention that half of the Mauritian working population earn less than Rs. 18,000 per month in a country where inflation is rampant. Have we forgotten that the island has been recently included in the list of the Top 50 most expensive places to live on earth?

We talk of Singapore as the ultimate model. Do we know that the middle class and lower classes barely get through the month over there, even though their average salary is relatively very high in absolute terms?

Different sets of people have a very disparate idea of what success means. Hence the ideological divide that exists between the right and the left. Some believe in the survival of the fittest while others are more nuanced and tend to think more collectively.

From a collective perspective, there is no doubt that Mauritius still has a long way to go. But change, while being permanent, is unpredictable. As Lenin puts it, ‘there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen’. 

* Published in print edition on 3 July 2020

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