The Pulse of the Nation

From time to time it is salutary to step back and take a ‘panoramic’ view of one’s country, so as to have a more realistic perspective of the direction in which it is going

Thousands of Mauritians live abroad, out of choice or necessity. In bigger countries there are no doubt more and better opportunities for jobs and higher earnings than is possible here. The money factor is likely to be the major driver in most cases, but for other categories professional satisfaction is equally important. However, the many who have not left our shores and prefer to live in their vaunted ‘paradise’ island’ – again out of choice or necessity (family reasons, no means to go abroad, etc.) – adapt and adjust accordingly.

The daily experience of living in the island is perhaps no better or worse than obtains elsewhere, as people in all countries face broadly similar issues such as: road congestion in commuting to work, varying levels of job satisfaction, discrimination at the workplace, issues of promotion, schooling of children and care of the younger ones while both parents are at work, responsibility for the elderly, and so on and so forth. In general, in their day to day life people are not conscious of how the broader political, social and economic forces at play impact on their lives. And yet they do, perhaps in a more fundamental way than the people themselves realize, because many of the decisions that affect them arise out of a complex interplay among these very forces. A recent example is the implementation of the minimum wage which will affect not only employees but also employers, and in both cases not always favourably. But it is a major step that the country has collectively agreed upon, and we now have to face the consequences, at individual and at national level.

That is why from time to time it is salutary to step back as it were and take a ‘panoramic’ view of one’s country, so as to have a more realistic perspective of the direction in which it is going, and use this input to then make course corrections wherever these are indicated. In that respect, the findings of the latest Afrobarometer survey that have been made public a few days ago should goad us into taking actions and measures which must be at all levels and in all spheres of national life if we are concerned about the future and image of our country. It may be noted that Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys in 34 African countries on a periodical basis.

For a start, it is no great deal that ‘The Ibrahim Index of African Governance vouches for the quality of Mauritius’ democracy by ranking the country as the best-governed country in Africa in its 2017 report (Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 2017)’. It did so during the mandate of the previous dispensation too, and although much has already been said about the brutality and legally questionable methods used to uncover some of the dysfunctions that allegedly prevailed then, the shenanigans of several members of the present regime who have had to step down may well be the tip of the iceberg as far as current dysfunction is/ dysfunctions are concerned. So how much credibility we should assign to this Index is a valid concern in the light of the local happenings. But also, benchmarking ourselves against regimes in Africa which are struggling for legitimacy is perhaps to set ourselves at a less than optimum level at the very outset, so being first among the not-too-good is not really a feather in the national cap isn’t it?

By the same token, while ‘Similarly, the efficiency of Mauritius’ institutions has long been credited as a major factor in the nation’s development success. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, trust in institutions is important for the success of many government policies, programmes, and regulations that depend on cooperation and compliance by citizens (OECD, 2017)’, the Afrobarometer survey unfortunately shows that things are not as rosy as the Mo Ibrahim Index would have us believe. Thus, the survey shows that ‘Mauritians are less satisfied with their democracy and have less trust in their institutions than they did just a few years ago’ (italics added).

That should surely be a cause for major concern? What is perhaps most significant, given that it concerns the apex constitutional post in the country, is that the president’s rating has fallen from 52% to 31% – meaning that less than one in three Mauritians trust their president. This is in contradiction to another finding of the survey that only 52% of Mauritians ‘approve’ the president’s job performance. It would be interesting for the benefit of the citizens to have more details about this ‘job performance.’

Because ‘trust deficit’ between the citizenry and those who govern has emerged as such a critical factor even in the established major democracies, especially in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, it is not surprising to learn from the Afrobarometer survey that, ‘popular trust in political institutions and leaders has declined sharply since 2014. Fewer than one in three Mauritians say they trust (“somewhat” or “a lot”) opposition political parties (23%), the ruling coalition parties (24%), the prime minister (27%), the National Assembly (27%), their local government councillors (29%), and the president (31%)’.

Our best hope and expectation is that these findings act as a wake-up call for all the institutions that have clearly been downgraded, and that they do all within their power to restore that lost trust so that the country can move forward confidently.

A related observation that deserves serious consideration on the part of the rulers is that ‘support for democracy has declined, and while citizens overwhelmingly endorse multiparty competition and insist on government accountability, they increasingly believe they have to be careful in discussing politics, and they give their political leaders decidedly mixed performance reviews’. This is despite the fact that ‘about three-fourths of Mauritians prefer democracy over any other system (77%), consider multiparty competition necessary to give voters a real choice (75%), and favour a two-term limit for the prime minister (72%)’. Further, ‘only half (51%) are satisfied with the way their democracy is working – a sharp decline from 66% in 2014’. The onus of responsibility on this count falls squarely on the shoulders of politicians, who are looked up to in the matter of making democracy work properly – that is, ensuring that transparency, accountability and efficiency prevail, and that there is equity as well.

It is no surprise, further, that ‘young Mauritians (two thirds of them) see unemployment as the most important problem facing the country’, with ‘the majority of youth (seeing) unemployment as their most important problem. Almost a third of both women and men stated the same’. The fact that ‘this opinion is being expressed despite the fact that the official unemployment rate is currently 7%’ makes it all the more concerning.

The central message that emerges is that, starting with the political class, all institutions have to put their act together and do their own mea culpa, and reflect on how to become more trustworthy, transparent, unafraid of accountability, and efficient. A stronger streak of patriotism should be cultivated so that we make of our country one to be truly proud of, for the sake of the future generations for whom opportunities elsewhere are set to diminish given the rising nationalisms globally.

 

* Published in print edition on 9 February 2018

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