By Sada Reddi
It is remarkable how an act of corruption, which has remained buried for a long time, can suddenly burst into the open. The Saint Louis gate has shocked the nation and resulted in the revocation of the Deputy Prime Minister on an alleged act of corruption. Once again the reputation of our country has been tarnished.
At a time when the country is already suffering from repeated blows on the issue of corruption from various quarters, this is the last thing Mauritius needed in this hour of gloom. Equally serious and damaging is the damage it’s causing to our democratic system and its legitimacy. It also reveals a lot about the state we are in presently.
Just as easily overlooked is how long an act of corruption can be committed in the country and remain undetected by all our institutions given to tackling corruption. Consider the CEB-Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor: it was left to a foreign company and an international organisation to carry out the investigation and to reach the conclusion that has upset the nation. Were it not for them, we would not have known who were defrauding public money. Not surprising therefore that the general public holds some of our institutions in low, rather than high, esteem.
It is a fact that such kinds of transactions are committed in utmost secrecy, but it is hard to imagine that the many of our public officials were not aware of what was being hatched. In fact the culture of secrecy that pervades many of our institutions may explain why corruption has become so rampant in our institutions. That is why there is a crying need for a Freedom of Information Act which would certainly contribute towards putting a brake to the insidious designs of some of public officials and politicians. Unless there is a clearly expressed political will to change the situation and introduce a Freedom of Information Act right now and not simply on the eve of elections, we will not be able to prevent the pursuit of private interests in public office.
It is well known that corrupt practices at the top have dangerous ramifications and consequences at the lower levels. Businessmen and women who are well connected are suspected of providing large sums of money and gifts in return for contracts worth hundreds of millions of rupees, as in the present case, and as much or less for contracts in public and other state bodies. Such behaviour from the top reaches down to smaller businessmen, thereby creating a network of clientelism in the political system. That’s why a climate of suspicion, real or imaginary, always hangs over many procurement exercises, especially when tenders are cancelled, delayed or speeded up.
While foreign surveys on the prevalence of good governance in the country may give high marks to the authorities’ efforts to combat corruption, the Mauritian public is usually more sceptical. Foreign surveys can rarely grasp the nature of corruption as perceived by Mauritians themselves. It is true that corruption is such a phenomenon that defies precise definition, and that is why the buzzword ‘zero tolerance for corruption’ sounds hollow in the ears of the public for a number of reasons.
Anybody can point to a long and unending list of corrupt practices under investigation. But most have rarely resulted in condemnations; those that do have mostly to do with some small fish caught in the net for some petty offences. There is also the view that the separation of powers doctrine that undergirds our democratic system is very often flouted in practice. In a small country like ours, which is almost a face to face society, such separation should have been more vigorously maintained.
Unfortunately some public officials and questionable politicians easily cross the line and damage the legitimacy and trust that should inform the public relationship with the state and its institutions. Everybody realizes today the nefarious consequences of corruption, both in the present and in the long term, for our country, its economy and society as our reputation hits the bottom.
Mr Ivan Collendavelloo is presumed innocent, and the presumption of innocence implies a right to be treated in accordance with this principle. Many people however see the revocation of the Deputy Prime Minister as an opportunity to get rid of an irritant in the cabinet or simply to rid oneself of a partner who no longer has any political value. Whichever interpretation is valid, many see in the Saint Louis Gate and in the long list of corruption cases in recent years as the decline of the Mauritian state and its democratic deficit.
The absence of moral principles, the culture of secrecy and the pursuit of party and private interests at the expense of the national interest have reached unacceptable levels. We must also add that the politicisation of the civil service and of the disciplinary forces, poor scrutiny of legislations and the weakening of our parliamentary system are all forces which have may render the country dysfunctional.
Political scientists and economists have always tried to explain the success of post-independent Mauritius putting forward a number of factors such as political leadership, institutional strengths, the democratic set-up, political consensus and pragmatic economic policies amongst others. They must now probe the causes of our decline.
Whatever prognosis they reach, it is inescapable that a revitalized state will be part of the solution. We need a revitalized state, less secretive, more democratic, and accountable to the public. At the level of the discourse, we should no longer confuse the state with the government. The government is merely a temporary administrator of the state. The legitimacy of the state rests on the sovereignty of the people; the state and its institutions must act in the interests of the people as a whole.
The question remains: who will take the lead to revitalize the state and breathe new life into the body politic, foster a sense of purpose and revitalize our democratic system? Can the political leadership embark on this project? Can reasonable people come together to work out a new framework in which the national interest is not sacrificed on the altar of cupidity? Or must it be the people themselves, who together with other stakeholders, take the initiative and come up with a new political framework? In the end, whatever is envisaged, the solution will have to be a political one.
Finally a revitalized state must be administered by a slate of officials who have the skills, the competence and the honesty to drive the country forward in the national interest.
* Published in print edition on 7 July 2020