St Louis Gate Affair: “We know how much time it takes for ICAC to complete an investigation (if it decides to complete it)”

Interview: Vasantt Jogoo, Environmental safeguard Consultants & former Ag Secretary General – AfDB

* Wakashio: ‘The truth is that the country was totally unprepared, and as long as we do not mend the broken system, we’ll continue to deal with disasters’

* “Our image as the “poster-boy” of Africa has been shattered, and Wakashio is a wake-up call”

Dr Vasantt Jogoo is an environmental safeguards consultant with the World Bank. He has previously worked with the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Commonwealth Secretariat. In the course of his career at the AfDB, he was given the opportunity to work in the Bank’s General Secretariat and was then called upon to fill in the post of Secretary-General for a period of time after the installation of a new President in 2005. He worked closely with the President and advised him on many Board-related matters. He understands how the Bank works. He shares some thoughts on the debate surrounding the “document” received from the Bank in connection with the St Louis Power Station redevelopment project, and what it implies.

Mauritius Times: You had earlier in your professional career been Ag Secretary General of the African Development Bank (AfDB), which made the headlines a few weeks back following the investigation made by its Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption into what came to be known as the St Louis Gate Affair. For having known the institution and the system at work therein, will you tell us how the system works, who is privy to confidential information and how and in what circumstances are such information shared within and outside the institution?

Vasantt Jogoo: The African Development Bank (AfDB), as a regional multilateral development bank (MDB), aims to promote sustainable economic development and social progress in its regional member countries, thus contributing to poverty reduction. Together with the other MDBs (like the World Bank and the European Investment Bank), it subscribes to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, ranging from ending poverty in all its forms, ensuring healthy lives, promoting inclusive economic growth, to sustainably managing use of the oceans, seas and marine resources. Its shareholders are made up of 54 African countries (regional member countries) and 27 non-African countries (non-regional member countries). The AfDB commenced its operations on July 1, 1966. It has, since then, grown into a very strong and committed financial institution, garnering a strong vote of confidence from the international community which, in 2019, agreed to inject a historic USD 115 Billion into the Bank’s capital.

The highest decision-making organ of the AfDB is the Board of Governors, which is composed of one Governor and one Alternate Governor appointed by each Member Country. This means that Mauritius, as a shareholder of AfDB, has a Governor representing our country and exercising a voting power proportionate to its capital subscription. Our Governor is the Minister of Finance (the Financial Secretary is the alternate governor). The Governors meet once a year (normally in May) to review the Bank’s operations, make major policy decisions and provide strategic guidance.

The institution’s general operations are, however, under the responsibility of a resident Board of Directors, exercising powers provided in the Articles of Agreement or other powers delegated to them by the Board of Governors. The Board of Directors comprises 20 members, 13 of whom are elected by the governors of regional countries and seven by the governors of non-regional member countries, for a three-year term. These Directors are the ones who take decisions on loans and grants approval and on policies that should guide the AfDB’s work. Mauritius, being a small shareholder, teams up with three other countries to occupy one of the Director’s chairs, and the directorship rotates every three years among them.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Bank is its President who is elected by the Board of Governors for a once renewable term of 5 years. He or she conducts the day-to-day business of the Bank. Interestingly, the President of the AfDB is the only elected president among all the MDBs. Dr Akinwumi A. Adesina, from Nigeria, became the eighth elected President of the Bank Group, on 1 September 2015.

This long introduction was necessary to contextualise the intricate, and at times conflictual, relationship among the various decision-making organs on the one hand, and the constant tug-of war between the mainly developed (and donor) non-regional members and the less developed (and mostly former colonies) on the other. The donor community wants to keep the Bank on a tight leash, much to the chagrin of the regionals who had dreamt of a development bank for Africa run by Africans. To minimise the cost of doing business and ensuring efficiency, it has obtained the assurance that the Bank harmonise its policies and procedures with all sister MDBs.

It is in this complicated environment that I found myself involved as Manager of Board Operations in the Office of the Secretary-General in 2004, under President Kabbaj. Then in 2005, I was called upon to assume the duties of Secretary-General, albeit in an acting capacity, to ensure the smooth installation of the Bank’s new President (Dr Kaberuka) and guide him through the Board’s operations. As such, I was entrusted with the responsibility of managing highly diverse stakeholders, strengthening institutional governance, and driving accountability. I was the first point of call for all Executive Directors wanting access to the President.

* What about access to information about the bank’s operations, loans to member-states, etc?

One of the harmonised policies that the Bank has adopted is a public disclosure policy to increase transparency in its operations. This is in recognition of the fact that many institutions, civil groups, and individuals have come to understand and appreciate the Bank’s work and want to be involved in promoting the effectiveness of its operations. However, while there is a growing appreciation of the necessity of increased public consultation, the policy also recognises the need to maintain confidentiality on certain aspects, all specified in the disclosure policy.

Information that cannot be shared, except under certain strict conditions, include health data on staff, proprietary information and trade secrets submitted by prospective bidders during pre-qualification exercises, etc. Of specific significance is the provision that privileged information such as “legal advice and matters in dispute or under negotiation including, disciplinary and investigatory information generated in or for the Bank”, should be excluded from the general provisions of the policy. The investigations of the Integrity and Anti-Corruption Department (IACD) fall under this restrictive rule.

* Does this mean that only the governments of member-states can have access to the findings of the Office’s investigations, not their anti-corruption agencies – and that’s why ICAC’s request for the full report about the CEB-Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor (BWSC) contract was turned down?

Member-states do not automatically gain access to IACD’s findings. To appreciate this, we must understand what the IACD stands for and how it operates. Established in November 2005 as an independent body, the IACD is staffed by seasoned professionals. Its aim is to deter sanctionable practices in internal corporate procurement issues and operations financed by the Bank Group. It adheres to the highest standards of corporate governance practice and integrity principles. It carries out independent investigations into allegations of corruption, fraud and other sanctionable practices in Bank Group Financed Operations, which are defined as “internal corporate procurement issues and operations financed by the Bank Group”.

Once IACD receives an allegation of “sanctionable practice”, it investigates, and its report is forwarded to the relevant authority under the Bank’s sanctions process. Where the allegations relate to staff, the report is transmitted to the President. In other cases, it is the Sanctions Commissioner who receives the report. The IACD itself does not make sanction decisions, but the findings of its investigations help the Bank in furthering its anti-corruption agenda and promoting ethical business practices and good governance consistent with international standards as part of their lending and investment decisions. Strictly speaking, these findings are not disclosed to third parties in conformity with IACD’s mandate and principles.

* How come our Prime Minister obtained access to the Executive Summary of the IACD’s report?

There is an exception. Under IADC’s guiding principles, when the need to refer information relating to an investigation to the appropriate national authority is warranted, it is only the President who has the discretion to grant such access.

For the President to entertain a request for exception, the Government (the Bank’s shareholder) puts in a request justifying the need to be made aware of the findings of an investigation involving national interest through its Governor (Ministry of Finance). The Governor will then transmit the Government’s request to its resident Executive Director. The resident Executive Director has almost immediate access to the President (I know this for a fact) and receives the President’s assent (if he is satisfied that such disclosure will help in furthering the Bank’s anti-corruption drive).

The President would be inclined to accede to the Government of Mauritius’s request, and I assume the Prime Minster did receive what appears to be an Executive Summary of the full report. This Executive Summary, which the Prime Minister brandished in the Assembly, apparently provided enough information of a nature that brought about the revocation of the Deputy Prime Minister. ICAC, any other agency or individual, would not, therefore, have obtained direct access to any of the findings of IACD. They will have to go through the proper channels to get the President’s attention. In no case, however, will a full report be shared.

Hon Mohamed also committed the mistake of addressing his request to Mr Bacarese, IACD’s director, who responded strictly by the book. He is not mandated to share any report. To use the response of Mr Bacarese to insinuate that the “paper” brandished by the PM during an assembly session as fake, was a big blunder on the part of Hon Mohamed.

* It would seem the AfDB’s Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption has very solid credentials given that the Bank is acting on its findings, and even going to the length of debarring companies engaged in fraudulent and collusive practices. Is that correct?

The IACD cannot be faulted for lack of credible credentials. It is presently led by a British national, Alan Bacarese, who is a veteran of the British Crown Prosecution Service, a former Senior Crown Prosecutor and former technical advisor to the UK’s delegation to the OECD’s Working Group on Bribery. It even actioned an investigation into President Adesina’s governance, human resources, deals and management (the independent investigation cleared the President ultimately).

The IACD itself does not take sanctions. Its reports are sent to the Sanctions Commissioner who decides on next steps. As we all know, the seriousness of the allegations of malpractice against Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor was so overwhelming that sanctions had to be applied. BSWC, being such a major contractor working closely with the MDBs and operating from an EU country, agreed to the 21-month suspension from all procurement exercises launched by AfDB. This sanction is automatically applied by all MDBs for their projects as well. To agree to debarment from big MDBs like the World Bank reflects the level of malpractice that must have occurred. The agreement on debarment included, most probably, a non-disclosure clause.

* AfDB’s investigation was initiated after BWSC had self-reported to the Bank upon concluding its own investigation, conducted by the external law firm Poul Schmidt. The suspects were identified, action has been taken by both parties – debarment of BWSC by AfDB, BWSC’s employees fired… It shouldn’t take much time for ICAC to go to the bottom of the matter, isn’t it?

As I said before, the Bank conducts investigations to help it further its own anti-corruption agenda. ICAC, though denied direct access to full the investigative report, is aware of the contents of the Executive Summary obtained by the Prime Minister. If ICAC wants to investigate further, it will have to conduct its own due diligence as provided for by the laws of the country. A report prepared under a different set of rules for a specific purpose would help to some extent but would not be admissible in a Mauritian court of law. But we know how much time it takes for ICAC to complete an investigation (if it decides to complete it).

Yes, we all believe that ICAC can conclude such an investigation in no time, but reality is otherwise. ICAC does not have access to the same elements and witnesses as IACD. It will have to establish a proper protocol with the Danish authorities to be able to access the main protagonists in the case. Not much has transpired from ICAC’s side. This is not the first case where the main protagonists are nationals of other countries.

* Even if ICAC has been denied access to the full report of the investigation conducted by the Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption, it could still have made a formal request to BWSC for its law firm’s report. That should have helped to expedite the investigation?

This is best answered by our legal experts. I am certain there are some means to agree with BWSC or the Danish authorities to share information, but to what end? Shall we be able to get the main characters in the saga to testify in some way or other before our courts? ICAC already has some information and it will have to carry its own full diligence and investigation to be able to formulate accusations that will stand in court. BWSC has already agreed to sanctions. It may feel that it has already been punished enough and may not be in a mood to suffer more pain.

Mauritius is a small market and it does not stand to lose much even if the Government retaliates for non-cooperation (which won’t happen because, according to the findings, members of government administration were the main beneficiaries of corrupt practices).

* A Deputy Prime Minister has been forced to step down, the leader of the MMM has been named, and the AfDB’s Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption has pointed an accusing finger towards unnamed “members of the Mauritian administration” who would have been financially rewarded through the intermediary of third parties. ICAC’s investigation is underway. What do you think will happen at the end of the day?

Government is underestimating the capacity of the Mauritian population to feel outrage. We are already feeling the rumblings of this outrage across all sections of the population. Frankly, at the end of the day, nothing will happen on the official side. ICAC will investigate at its own pace. The population (at least a large section of it) is conscious of the deliberate delaying tactics used by government and its agencies. So, at the end of the day, it’s the people of the country who will decide on the fate of those “members of the Mauritian administration”.

The Deputy PM was revoked after he refused to step down. The PM justified the revocation based on the seriousness of the allegations he found in the AfDB’s summary findings. He was even shown a copy of the document. However, in case of Hon Bérenger, the only thing we know is that his name appears in the same document. He was denied access to a copy of the document and he was denied a basic right to defend himself.

We’ll recall that, soon after his revocation, the DPM made an appearance before the media and insinuated a parallel with the PM’s MedPoint case. What these insinuations are we do not know. But immediately after, the PM stopped alluding to the seriousness of the findings against his DPM, and Hon Collendavelloo found himself cosily ensconced in a backbencher’s seat (much to the dismay of those believing in a breakup of the MSM-ML entente).

But one thing is certain: The Bank’s President (and some of the major non regional member-countries) are not amused with the way our PM has used privileged information provided. As I pointed out earlier, the Bank was expecting Mauritius to use such information to promote the Bank’s anti-corruption agenda, not to obtain political mileage out of it!

* Another issue that has hit the headlines recently is the MV Wakashio shipwreck and oil spill, the level of preparedness of our institutions, political leadership, etc. But all this appears to be still very foggy. Could it be that the Government had been misled by the administration and the technicians?

Government has been misled by its own short-sightedness, and total disrespect for good governance. The governance system is broken, and it is not clear how and where decisions are made. The Wakashio incident should have never happened in the first place. In fact, in recognition of the risks posed by our location with respect to a major shipping route linking Asia and South America, a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan was prepared with donor support in 1990. Numerous incidents occur each year in which oil or chemicals are released into the environment, the most common of which relate to vessels that run aground on or near the shoreline, breaking and in the process releasing their own fuel or their oil cargo.

Over the years, the country has benefited significantly from the largesse of the donor community in developing preparedness. What caught everyone by surprise was not the wreck but the realisation that we were functioning (at the public sector level) in a broken system and no one appeared to be in charge. Though the oil spill contingency plan was activated from day 1, we never heard of any concrete action being initiated.

Prof Christian Bueger from Copenhagen, in a recent article that was reproduced in this paper, said that officials from Ministries of Environment and Fisheries attended a UNEP-sponsored workshop on ‘Cooperation in preparedness and response to marine pollution incidents’ in Zanzibar in March this year. During the workshop, our representatives asserted, with full confidence, that “the country has a range of sophisticated planning, response and disaster assessment tools”.

It has become common knowledge among the international environmental community that Mauritius is quick at signing conventions and protocols, seeking large funds for their implementation and enthusiastically attending workshops and meetings around the world (very often by administrative cadres who have absolutely nothing to do with technical meetings). The truth is that the country was totally unprepared, and as long as we do not mend the broken system and improve governance, we’ll continue to deal with disasters (especially as they become more common due to climate change) in an amateurish way.

* If we want to come out of this stronger, it might be necessary to have an independent inquiry into the shipwreck and oil spill, which will also allow us to be better prepared to deal with such accidents in the future, isn’t it?

 Yes, the perception of “government inertia” has to be corrected and our government will have to demonstrate that it is ready to learn from the Wakashio lesson and is willing to take necessary corrective measures. This is going to be the bigger challenge. A full post-mortem, or audit or whatever one wishes to call it, needs to be undertaken immediately. Such an exercise should be undertaken by an international team of experts to ensure that it is an independent assessment.

Action by the government to implement corrective measures should reassure the local population and the international community, in the hope that the “poster boy” image may be reclaimed. In parallel, the government should implement much-needed reforms in its civil service and bring back the locus of power and decision-making to the Government House. Public participation in the public decision-making process should be encouraged.

* A workshop organised by the Ministry of Housing and Land Use Planning, which is headed by Steven Obeegadoo, was held recently, and it addressed among other things “l’aménagement du territoire” with a view to making best use of our limited land resources. What’s your take on that?

Another workshop will not add any value. We need to remember that land use management is the foundation stone for effective sustainable development. But like all other aspects of sustainable development, talk about transitioning to a greener economy have largely remained in the realm of intentions. Our understanding of sustainable development has been centred around three aspects: economic, social and environmental. However, we have largely underestimated the significance of the political aspect.

Without meaningful political leadership, political survival will largely dictate policy. So long as political leadership is lacking, not much progress will be achieved in promoting a rational use of land resources. When faced with the need to arbitrate between the economy and the environment, leaders invariably opt for growth. And who decides where to invest? The one bringing the money, of course. The “assises de l’environnement” has brought what concretely? Our image as the “poster-boy” of Africa has been shattered, and Wakashio, therefore, is a wake-up call. Our political leaders had better take note. They should clearly recognise the capacity of people to be outraged and to mobilise.

* Published in print edition on 25 August 2020

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