“The St Louis Gate is only the tip of the iceberg…

Interview: Ragen Valayden

Will the government disclose what happened on theGasturbine project or investigate on CWA and Huawei?”

 ‘We cannot repair the foundations of our economy by some superficial adjustments. If the diagnosis is wrong, the treatment prescribed can never be effective’


Rajen Valayden, Chief Editor of Capital Media, environmental and social activist, opines that the country’s dire situation can be traced back to poor governance, as well as corruption which is endemic in both the public and private sectors. For him, the problems we are facing date back to well before the pandemic, and the latter should not have been used to foist on the population ultraliberal measures that are to the detriment of the population and especially the workers.


 

Mauritius Times: As a social activist often seen raising issues of public interest how do you view the CEB’s St Louis scandal?

Rajen Valayden: I am glad you still call it a scandal, because our government believes there is none. Nonetheless let’s play the game and plunge into facts made public. The Independent Review Panel ruling (22/15) clearly indicates the second tender, launched in 2015, does offer an advantage to Burmeister and Wain Scandinavian Contractor (BWSC), given the deviations listed in Tender 1 have been inbuilt in Tender 2. So there is no ambiguity as to which contract is being referred to in the scandal.

My concern rests on the eligibility of BWSC to participate in the exercise. This is what precisely caused a stir in Malta when former Leader of Opposition Joseph Muscat revealed a similar collusion between BWSC and senior government officials. The primary question of the people and media was how come the government could offer a contract to a company already tainted by corruption.

But the most outrageous part would be the modus operandi to activate the St Louis redevelopment phase 2. The Mott Macdonald report which is the basis of our energy strategy clearly underlines there would not have been any need for the installation of the additional engines, as proposed under Phase 2, should the power plant at Pointes aux caves gone live. Which implies CT Power was an obstacle to the St louis project and had to be cast away. The way CT Power was ousted and propaganda carried out to justify an emergency procurement is a master class every aspiring criminal should learn from.

I have been the first to stand up against CT Power. My claim rested on environmental concerns and the need to create the right conditions to attract investments in clean energy projects. The battle against CT Power was fierce, and I absolutely wanted to win. Yet today I feel uneasy given the unfairness and cowardly manner in which the government has acted against CT Power. Even more scandalous when MPs bang on the table when such admission of guilt is proffered at the National Assembly.

* In the meantime however, the Acting General Manager has been suspended, and the Board of the CEB summarily revoked by the Prime Minister. The ICAC has stepped in with an investigation into the matter. What’s your take on that?

It’s a tragedy of errors. Why did the board suspend the acting General Manager if they believe he has acted fairly? Why did the Prime Minister sack the Board if there were no reasons to believe an offence had been committed? Now that Pravind Jugnauth has been seemingly convinced by Ivan Collendavelloo, would he reinstate the board members? There is much more to unfold in this scandal.

While he was busy with his theatrics at the National Assembly, an adviser to the government was giving instructions to ‘collaborators’ in the newsrooms of mainstream media on how to take the Deputy Prime Minister down. Hours later these media which usually had a bias towards the government, turned hostile. Journalists always sitting on the fence started posting hard hitting opinions on social media.

These omens never lie. Sooner or later Ivan Collendavelloo will have to walk the plank. And it’s going to be through the St Louis gate. As for ICAC, I wouldn’t be surprised if they even tow the St Louis engines to their compound, with the MBC making a whole 7-meal course out of it.

* The long list of pending inquiries at the level of ICAC, which is doing the round on social media, highlights the absence of a credible investigative agency capable of handling white collar crime independently of political proximity. It has thus been argued that the alternative to sending the case to ICAC is the setting up of a commission of enquiry. What do you think?

Honestly, I believe we would deliver more justice to the people of this country by closing down ICAC and saving hundreds of millions annually. ICAC is a white elephant headed by a mahout trying to teach his pet somersaults. Let alone its posture in the Medpoint case but the presence of its director general at the Privy Council is a total disgrace.

ICAC keeps saying we should differentiate between “Corruption” and “Perception of Corruption” yet billions are continuously disappearing. Maybe in the case of St Louis they would conclude it’s the Ghost of Hamlet which benefited from kickbacks. Seriously, nothing would surprise me. But to be fair, we should also recognise that the dysfunctionality of ICAC has been inbuilt. The genius who designed the framework came up with a brilliant invention which satisfies everybody. It’s like a “beware of Dog” signage which even barks, but in fact there is no dog.

The public statement by the Prime Minister justifying his decision not to set up a Commission of Inquiry merely because he believes it would fail to obtain a copy of the report from the African Development Bank, is devoid of any sense. It is the best piece of testimony you could have on the current weightage of the government.

BWSC has been involved in dozens of such questionable deals across the world and Mauritius will be the only country where it would have not faced any inquiry. Even if the ADB is tied through a non-disclosure agreement with BWSC, there are numerous ways of securing the key elements of the initial report.

The St Louis gate is only the tip of the iceberg. Will the government disclose what happened on the Gas turbine project or investigate on CWA and Huawei? I would be the happiest of all if I am proved wrong. But we all know how bad the situation is out there. It’s time to bell the cat

* Besides the politics of energy proper, it would seem the politics of big business with the IPPs and ‘blackout’ narratives in the background has come into play in the St Louis case with the assistance of party leaders. That would make an interesting case study starting from the travails of CT Power, isn’t it?

In 2006, after five years in office, out of which two years he served as Prime Minister, Paul Berenger set himself on a pilgrimage reciting the mantra “blackout”. Backed by a fanatic mainstream media which kept spinning dark stories of an imminent failure of our power supply. Bizarrely, the vociferous claims of the leader of the MMM coincided with the renewal period of contracts between the State & Independent Power Producers (IPPs), historical oligarchs who rule freely over 70% of the economy.

For 16 years Paul Berenger has been spinning the imminent “blackout” scare by flashing reports of World Bank (WB) and the Country Strategy Paper of the African Development Bank. A diligent fact checking by the media would have allowed to call the bluff. Every single report is based on specialized publications, interaction with operators, institutions and consultants. If they all convey the same message based on a common interest, then obviously the findings and recommendations contained in the reports would be strongly influenced.

For example, one of the grievances from the private sector made to the representatives of World Bank relates to “inadequate infrastructure” in the energy sector, which they observe as a problem for doing business in the country. An obvious recommendation from WB would be to remedy the situation, which in turn simply implies more contracts to the aggrieved operators. More so we do have the vivid evidence that most pharaonic projects splashed out in successive budget speeches are nothing but publicity stunts geared at renewing the annual hype. Which distorts the information and supposed facts submitted to international agencies.

Another interesting finding in the ADB report which is clearly deleted by those lobbying for fossil energy projects relates to the recommendations made on clean energy. Despite an increase in supply from (430) MW in 2012 to (525) MW in 2018, the scare of an imminent “blackout” still serves the purpose of some people. In an interview published on 19th March 2016, Ivan Collendavelloo states there is no risk of any “blackout”. Yet in the same interview he boasts of his decision to go for emergency procurement for the turbines.

* The St Louis scandal has quietly crowded out the budgetary measures from public debates. Worse, the Opposition also has been unable to go deep into the details as regards these measures at the level of the Committee of Supply in the National Assembly following their suspension by the Speaker, and the Budget has been voted. Why the hurry?

I have been saying it for a while now, this country has become a circus. If you need evidence, just look at the parliamentary debates. The conduct of last Tuesday’s session is a vivid proof on how matters are expedited. The Opposition parties are running out of steam and are committing strategic blunders which some backseat pilot on the government side is making the most of.

But the whole concept of this government boils down to the phenomena around Pravind Jugnauth – “Only his life matters”. So it all starts from there! While everything is done to shield or promote, real issues have been neglected. Institutions are left to rot, cronies are moving around like in a supermarket picking up freely whatever they want. We are in a total state of anarchy.

However there is a fundamental flaw in our country’s political model. The majority of the government MPs form part of both legislative and executive. We have 25 ministers, 10 PPS and a Deputy Speaker, which leaves out only a few who enjoy their role as cheer leaders. Let’s set aside the quality of the MPs; given there is no scope for separation of powers there can be no provision for checks and balances. So let’s not be surprised that not a single MP from the government wanted to get into details of the budgetary allocations.
* The view had been expressed prior to the Budget that if the Government does not come forward with wide ranging and drastic reforms in certain key sectors that are of critical importance to the country, then we would get back to business as usual. That seems to be the case, isn’t it?

First and foremost we should underline the fact that this budget would not have been possible without the Covid-19 act which entails a string of repressive measures impeding on both republican and human values. For years now, the budget presentation is merely an annual PR exercise for the government.

What the country needed was a multipronged strategy. The first to revamp our obsolete model. The second to repair the structural damage done since 2015 and thirdly to deal with contemporary challenges. Instead we have been fed with stale measures. Some even going back to MMM manifesto of 1976. We cannot repair the foundations of our economy by some superficial adjustments. It’s like treating a patient. If the diagnosis is wrong, the treatment prescribed can never be effective. Most of the issues are prior to Covid-19 and by shifting all responsibilities onto the pandemic, we are deliberately turning a blind eye to the true reasons which have led to the deterioration of our economy.

Getting funds by hook or by crook is not the issue. But it is how and for what purpose these funds will be used which matters. There is an interesting saying by American engineer and author Edward Deming which goes – “It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best”. Minister Padayachy’s admiration for Macron will prove to be very expensive.

* We presume that Business Mauritius would not want to be perceived as dictating economic policy, but when you hear noises from that organisation against some particular budgetary measures, that usually would suggest that those measures might indeed be in the public interest…

These are not noises, but the mews of the fat cats who only enjoy been cuddled and hate getting pinched. Prior to the budget, the advisers leaked out information on possible increase in VAT or immediate abolition of old-age pension. They created a mass hysteria which ended up creating a catapult effect in their favour.

Lobbying has always existed and is absolutely legitimate. While most people believe power rests within our National Assembly, in reality it is wielded on the other side of the street, at the Plantation House and MCB. The show is only meant to fool the masses.

* Whilst there are big challenges facing the country, we find the government amending labour laws that will facilitate redundancy and lead to greater commotion. What’s your take on that?

While the Covid-19 should have been a moment of self-assessment and realisation of what matters most to human life, it is been churned into a perfect alibi to commit the most insane crimes. One of the fundamental questions which Covid-19 raises relates to relation of humans and the economy. Do we exist for the benefit of the economy, or shouldn’t it be vice-versa?

The advocates of ultra-liberalism have used the opportunity to reset the clock and send back the working class to the dark ages. In simple terms we have been told: ‘To save jobs we need to have layoffs’. With our people losing their smile, our hospitality sector has experienced a steep decline. Instead of giving billions to owners, we should rather invest in sustaining employees and embarking them on capacity-building programs. This would yield an improved workforce in the months to come.

However our biggest challenge remains lack of governance and high prevalence of corruption. Though members of our parliament relentlessly hammer that corruption is invasive in various sectors, management of public affairs has only worsened. The widespread corruption is to an extent that we tend to believe it is deeply rooted in our culture, preventing honest countrymen from quenching their thirst for trust, better livelihood and equality.

Let me tell you a story. Last year nor far away from St Louis Station at Pailles, a 17-year old boy died in an accident because of a pothole in a road that had cost hundreds of millions. This is the result of corruption which many fail to see. The use of substandard materials by phony contractors is rampant. Despite billions invested in public health service, we still cannot draw satisfaction. You name any sector, corruption is omnipresent. Can you imagine a government contracts billions in loans and can’t explain where the money has gone?

* How do you view the billions coming from the Bank of Mauritius to fix the economy and keep everybody happy?

That sounds like kids playing monopoly. The Bank of Mauritius is one of the front runners dashing straight into the storm. Its decision to turn into policy the fantasy classroom exercise of Milton Friedman is a clear hint of a government running out of ideas on how to jumpstart the economy and tow it out of the deep slump. Let’s cast aside the futile terminological debate on what’s helicopter money or how does it differ from quantitative easing. Let’s rather remain on the unchallengeable statement by the very same Milton Friedman – There is no such thing as a free lunch.

The malicious amendments slipped into Covid-19 Act allowing the BOM to depart from traditional policy, not only undermines the independence of the central bank but also entails both governance as well as compliance issues. With whistleblowers drawing attention to financial concerns and an incestuous political relationship between the government & BOM, a diligent focus should be laid on consequences of these decisions on other key aspects within the BOM. The distribution of unrealized gains and its impact on accounting practices, audit standards and fiduciary duties of BOM directors are issues of extreme concern.

The shady moves of creating Special Purpose vehicles or distributing unrealized gains can be interpreted by any sane person as a violation of the BOM act, given the role of directors is to “ensure the security, liquidity and return of the foreign reserves”. Though the BOM Act does cater for the protection from liability of directors, the blatant offences and consequences thereof giving rise to popular unrest, should reasonably trigger reaction from the directors. In any case they will be remembered for decades to come.


* Published in print edition on 19 June 2020

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