Breaking away from the trap

Nothing short of a change of leadership is needed

Defining a new future for the country has to start with a radical change in the present leadership and its methods of governing


“President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde was awarded the 2011 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, for transforming his country into ‘a model of democracy, stability, and increased prosperity.’ Pires retired from office without even a house to his name; he worked for the people, not to amass personal wealth.”

— Ngaire Woods, Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government and
Director of the Global Economic Governance Program, University of Oxford


A striking feature of the Mauritius story as an independent nation is how we seem adept at attracting some of the worst defects of developing nations while we struggle to break away from a middle income trap.

Take three telling examples. According to all available indications, we are the champions in terms of most of the health problems which are usually associated with the bad habits and customs prevalent in rich nations. As regards economic growth, the emerging and developing nation category has performed pretty well since the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 with Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, posting an average growth rate of nearly 6% over the 2010-2015 period. Mauritius been lagging behind with about half that rate and much nearer to the kind of anaemic growth witnessed in developed nations.

Finally the traditional political establishment in Mauritius has managed to discredit itself in the eyes of voters just as those of the developed nations. Witness the Brexit referendum and the Presidential campaign in the United States, among other less-well-known but as cynical events happening in some other European countries in which far-right (sometimes neo-Nazi) parties are solidly gaining ground in mainstream politics.

Fortunately we have not (yet?) seen similar political phenomena locally. But everything seems to indicate though that voters are increasingly getting tired of the status quo. Failure to provide a credible political alternative may very well lead to a burst of extremisms of the worst sorts.

This leads to the obvious if not savoury conclusion that in order to resolve developed country-like challenges we shall have to acquire means, resources and maturity similar to theirs. Failure to secure those would therefore bode worse for the country.

As of now the prevailing situation of huge distress in the wake of the numerous political scandals which have seriously shaken the faith of people in the political elites, coupled with the persistent economic stagnation, constitutes a toxic combination. It favours a generalized breakdown of moral standards and trust in institutions. The shockingly high incidence of intra-family crimes is a striking feature of daily news which reflects a degenerating social environment that is worsened by a perception of breakdown of law and order in the country. This is a state of affairs which is closely linked to the toxic combination referred to above.

In the midst of this doom and gloom scenario, one wonders whether and how the country will finally manage to emerge from a seemingly inexorable decline. The only optimistic and not so farfetched scenario is to consider that the country is presently going through an inevitable transition resulting from its forcible adjustment to the new economic global order after almost 30 years (1968-2000) of being essentially an economic dependency thriving in what was admittedly a rather favourable post-colonial, not to say neo-colonial regime. We can therefore construe the present dysfunctionalities – both economic and political — as constituting both the end of a dying regime and a transition to a new one.

A transition, it has been said, is a time when “the acceptable ideas are competent no more and the competent ideas are not yet acceptable.” A description which surely fits our present dilemma. We are therefore sitting on the edge of what could be a new era although there is absolutely no guarantee that the cross-over will happen at all, or if it does whether it will be in the “right direction.”

The country has been struggling to find its footing in the new fiercely competitive global order since roughly around the turn of the present century. Under the circumstances the successive governments of different hues since 2000 have indeed introduced some internal reforms, mostly of the liberal variety prompted by the IMF and World Bank recommendations. The bulk and most significant of those have been the “ease of doing business” or increased business facilitation regimes introduced by Rama Sithanen as Minister of Finance during the Navin Ramgoolam-led government of 2005, including the hugely controversial “flat tax.”

These measures have surely contributed to build some resilience into the economic performance of the country in the face of the increasingly harsh global environment, especially since the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. However they have manifestly fallen short of producing the kind of economic growth which would sustain constant improvement of the socio-economic welfare of the country. Tweaking the system at the edge is simply not going to work, and in the absence of a strategic approach based on a clear vision for the future, the risks of continued economic stagnation and a resulting social explosion become dangerously probable.

The causes having led to our present plight are numerous and complex. Our purpose here, however, is to conclude with a discussion of the huge responsibility of political leadership as a part of the solution. Needless to say that the absence of the kind of leadership needed in the tumultuous times of a transition has been a considerable factor contributing to a worsening scenario. A bemused population watched as those in office demonstrated a distinct inclination to use official power to benefit themselves, their families, or their cultural identity group and offered special access and protection to friends and funders. Politics through the prism of caste and community as a means to stay in power was the new game in town; simultaneously, meritocracy and due regard for competence were all but relegated to the bin.

The fundamental question which arises therefore is whether the same men and women who have indulged in the above practices and built their political career on those premises are apt to lead this country successfully out of the present transition towards a radically different model. History would indicate that this is a most improbable proposition.

Defining a new future for the country has to start with a radical change in the present leadership and its methods of governing.

Rajiv Servansingh

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