Some reminiscences of 2017

The year that was
It is that period again when festive and season’s wishes are the order of the day to all faithful Mauritius Times readers, editor, contributors and well-wishers. — By S. Callikan

It is that period again when festive and season’s wishes are the order of the day to all faithful Mauritius Times readers, editor, contributors and well-wishers. During what can only be described as a topsy-turvy year on all fronts, the paper’s sharp editorials, enlightening interviews and numerous wise contributions from a panel of opinion writers have continued to shine some light on many issues of topical relevance, while helping to fathom the future from an understanding of our past and the road travelled thus far. It is indeed a pleasure and privilege to share season’s best wishes to all and express my personal gratitude to the selfless dedicated staff who make each issue possible and an event to look forward to before indulging in some reminiscences of 2017.

Such a long series of events have unfolded in the running of the country’s affairs that everyone will have his own take on the year that was. For my part, I will restrict myself to five salient events with undoubted symbolic significance and whose social or political magnitude remain etched in an otherwise tumultuous period marked by a succession of “affairs”.

The father-son transition

It was only late last year that rumblings of a seismic power shift within the highest spheres of the MSM led to the resignation of the legitimately elected Prime Minister, SAJ, and the swearing in January 2017 of his son, Pravind Jugnauth as step-in PM for the remaining part of the Lepep mandate. Quoting the difficulties of age and health for such heavy responsibilities, SAJ nonetheless stayed on in the innovative post of Minister Mentor in Cabinet and Parliament. The PM-in-waiting, also leader of the majority party in the Lepep alliance, once annointed, took over the full reins both as PM and Minister of Finance, benefiting from the help of a small, tightly linked group of advisors and nominees in key strategic postings.

If some had batted for that generational handing-over on grounds of improved decision-making between different Lepep power centres, the move has remained controversial in an island where the population is accustomed to electing its chosen PM, rather than through a perceived subterfuge, however Westminsterian the appearances. The usually sober VOA noted “Mauritius is a model of political stability in Africa, however the father-son handover has created an uproar on the Indian Ocean island…”

Some voices, including that of former President Cassam Utteem, suggested Hon Pravind Jugnauth might be well-advised to legitimise his accession by calling for general elections within a reasonable time-frame. Such calls were ignored and although the uproar, led by a somewhat disunited political Opposition, was ineffective, it was an unexpected thunderbolt from the most vociferous Lepep agent, Minister Roshi Bhadain, that was to steal the show and through his intempestive resignation, bring about ultimately this week’s ground-breaking by-election results.

The office of the DPP

Another parallel and disturbing event early on in January 2017, equally unsold in any Lepep manifesto, was to hog the limelight in what many observers considered a paroxysm of intemperate urgency and priority. The question of subordinating all decisions of the DPP and his Office to an administrative Commission erupted onto center-stage out of the blue. With the unexplainable proviso of a 3-year retroactive ambit, it fuelled impassioned opposition from respected legal and constitutional voices and a political uproar raising the most appalling spectre of a banana republic in the making.

It must be remembered that Alliance Lepep artificers had from the start of office in 2015 openly fired an unrelenting stream of salvos against the DPP and his constitutional independence, something most renowned legists have cherished, particularly when the current incumbent goes to some lengths to substantiate the legal stance of his Office, comprising more than 60 jurists. Regardless, the DPP was termed a “political monster” by one newbie Minister, another deplored his alluded unwillingness to be invitingly “kicked upstairs” while one even called into question his personal or “social DNA”.

Lepep was officially alleging that the holder of a constitutionally independent post at the interface of Executive and Judiciary being the brother of LP stalwart Dr Arvin Boolell, might not exercise his authority with full independence. A strange attitude when it quickly transpired that Lepep was not averse to openly pushing family and close friends to high places! By mid-2015, Lepep went much further than the proverbial mile when a complaint filed by Ministers Soodhun and Bhadain, led Police to a dawn raid at the DPP’s house against a judge’s order, another rumbustious attempt to browbeat the DPP that has fortunately petered out.

In an atmosphere charged by a large number of cases against former PM Navin Ramgoolam or other LP political opponents being dropped as legally untenable or void of legal substance, and the possibility of an appeal in the MedPoint saga against the newly appointed PM Pravind Jugnauth, the urgency and priority of the matter of a Prosecution Commission came under intense scrutiny and opposition from most quarters. Many independent analysts felt that enough tweaking and twisting of the Constitution had already taken place since 2015 and this further precipitously pushed-for amendment was taking matters too far down the road of short-term political expediency, while opening the door to future legal quagmires, a situation dangerous for the very fabric of our democratic functionings.

It took the brave stand of Hon Xavier-Luc Duval and the collective resignation from office and from Alliance Lepep of most PMSD Ministers to upset the apple-cart and deprive government of the required three-quarters majority that would have seen the Bill and its Constitutional retroactivity amendments enacted early this year. Nobody has heard of that top priority Bill since.

The Betamax award

In a complex affair still under judicial purview, it would not be wise to comment on the merits or whereabouts of the case in which Betamax, alleged to have been unduly favoured by the previous regime, found its commercial contract unilaterally rescinded by the Lepep government barely a month after taking office. Appeals were eventually heard at the Singapore International Arbitration Center, where Government and STC defended their decision but failed to convince and the Court ruled an Award of about 130m US$ plus interest and legal costs in favour of Betamax.

Since then the shock Award has been declared executory by our Supreme Court but this is being challenged by the STC and the case may yet drag out, despite the oddity of Mauritius trying to position itself as another reputable International Arbitration Center for years. In any event, should the Award ultimately stand, the population will have to foot the mammoth bill of political settling of scores by gung-ho politicians, but if we flag it here as one of the momentous events of 2017, it is simply because it might be an ominous harbinger of many upcoming legal cases, all direct consequences of Lepep‘s actions over its first years in office.

The Drug Commission hearings

To its credit, government in July 2015 did indeed set up the commission of enquiry headed by former judge Lam Shang Leen and his two assessors. The public hearings have more often than not captured interest throughout 2017 by revealing the modus operandi even from their prison cells of drug overlords, their local and international networks, their aiders and abetters, their specialised lawyers and their shadowy infiltration of police, ADSU, prison officers.

More worrisome is the extent of linkages being revealed regarding alleged fundings of political patrons, parties or campaigns. The questions regarding the role of some legal practitioners with high-level political connections who are regular or frequent drug baron visitors have yet to be answered. It is not necessary to mention the many names and if Raouf Gulbul, a close ally and legal advisor to the Hon PM Pravind Jugnauth has had to resign from two chairmanships amidst allegations of drug fundings during the 2014 elections, much remains to be uncovered.

The Leader of the Opposition in Parliament rightly suggested that some 30 months after the Commission started its hearings, a sort of interim or periodic report could have been expected but that necessity was downplayed by the PM, content to leave the Commission be judge of its own workings.

The by-election in No18

Last on my list and certainly not least, undoubtedly the by-election in Constituency No18, fully deserves its place among the marking events of 2017. An election which nobody really wanted when Minister Roshi Bhadain resigned from the National Assembly, creating his own party and boisterously claiming to be sent back there to fight a tramway project he had supported when in office! The alliance of MSM-ML and some transfuges decided, without much panache, to keep away from the opportunity to flex its muscles, test its proclaimed popularity and reclaim what was originally a Lepep seat.

In the event, Arvind Boolell was handsomely rewarded in the demanding and cosmopolitan Belle Rose-Quatre Bornes constituency for his personal and human qualities, a sober intelligent campaign keeping above the fray, and an undeniable Labour revival under the continued stewardship of former PM Navin Ramgoolam, against whom most parties, including the MSM-ML leaders, had aligned their artillery, clearly without success. Many take-aways therefore in the post-mortems that will undoubtedly be conducted in-depth by all major political parties including the MSM. The avenues for political renewal have been thrown wide open and the shock-waves may well be felt throughout 2018.

Meantime, the constituency can rejoice at the prospect of a strong LP personality to spearhead its interests, Arvind Boolell can absorb the relief, expectations and exhilaration of a commanding victory at the urns in this urban setting and former PM Navin Ramgoolam has secured for himself and the LP a memorable rehabilitation after the 2014 debacle.

In deciding to limit myself to five key events, I realise that some events and epi-phenomena have been forsaken, including the minimum wage or the negative income tax. Not that the forced resignations of the Attorney-General, of Minister Showkatally Soodhun, of Raouf Gulbul or the curious appointment of Rubina Jaunboccus or the sickly presence of Tarolah in the National Assembly or again the deboires of Air Mauritius, did not deserve mention. Not that the comatose state of the Equal Opportunities Commission or the Alvaro-ML links that extends to the latter’s nominee at the Reduit or the role of the FSC did not deserve comment. But when places in the most-deserving category are limited, and candidates have been so numerous at the doorways throughout 2017, choices and criteria are totally subjective!

Have a safe enjoyable time one and all.

 

*  Published in print edition on 22 December 2017

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