Change has to be deep, credible and sustainable if we want to fight back the alarming dereliction of values and the gangrenous effects that are rocking all sections of society
Back in July 2015 the Government, acting on one of its electoral campaign pledges, instituted the Commission of Inquiry into drug trafficking, whose terms of reference were sufficiently broad to encompass all relevant aspects while guaranteeing that extended time might be required for such an extensive inquiry. Included in the terms of reference, were the two last but noteworthy items:
XIII – whether there is any evidence of political influence in the drug trafficking trade;
XIV – make recommendations as appropriate… for such action as is deemed necessary
a) to fight the problem of importation, distribution and consumption of illicit drugs…
b) any statutory amendments as may be necessary to better safeguard the interests of the public at large.
Headed by former Supreme Court Judge Lam Shang Leen, assisted by Sam Lauthan, former Minister of Social Security and Reform Institutions and Dr Ravin Kumar Domun, Director of Health Services at the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life, there were high expectations, confirmed over three years of (mostly) public hearings, some suspenseful and drama-filled, several site visits to sensitive hotspots and a mission to Rodrigues, that the Commissioners’ unflinchingly courageous work and report would not fail the country.
The report has been tendered and made public almost two weeks ago and takes indeed a broad sweep in its more than 20 chapters of all the often decried, feebly empowered, routine-tied, hierarchy-constrained, turf-war trapped, inadequately equipped or grossly neglectful, when not infiltrated by rotten apples, running from the Police force, the Customs anti-narcotics unit, the NCG, the Fisheries, the Prisons, the pharmacies, the money-changers, the gambling regulators, the money-laundering watchdogs, the port and airport authorities, all intimately associated with one aspect or another of drug entry, proliferation and the control of its multifarious ramifications.
The honourable legal profession was not spared, with the Commission highlighting and requesting further investigations concerning the dubious role of a bevy of barristers, some with a sulfurous reputation, others turning visits to imprisoned drug barons a quasi-industrial enterprise, some clearly within government’s own rank and file.
In such a comprehensive sweep, the Commission might be forgiven for some missing elements and the occasional inconsistencies, although some may be intriguing. I have not perused the Report in detail and will abstain from further comments. Nonetheless, the greatest haul by Reunionese authorities of drugs plying their way to Mauritius, their unwillingness to share sensitive info with high-level local counterparts, the slow pace of police, ICAC, Customs or MRA enquiries around this and other mediatised cases, the alleged involvement of some now-notorious Sun Trust frequent visitors in the drug business, the despatch of a top secret service official to meet a fugitive drug comparse before his being brought home, the sudden “suicide” under high-security police custody of a police officer who allegedly threatened to spill some beans, the recent shocking case of vanishing 17 kgs of drugs under police guard, might all have deserved the probing attention of the Commissioners.
One may also regret that despite its clear mandate (XIII), the Commission rather studiously and perhaps for good internal or logistical reasons, seems to have soft-pedalled when it came to analysing the complex but vital issues of the nexus between the political world, drug barons and money-laundering, beyond examination of a Rodrigues case that warrants further investigation. As a recent press article in l’express pointed out, since 1983, those nefarious intimacies between drug barons, war-lords and secret war-chests playing for alleged high-level political patronage and protection through a variety of services and occult fundings, have dogged our system, every election cycle probably raising the stakes to new heights. The country might have gained from the Commissioners’ insights into the legislative and other mechanisms to redress or consolidate our democratic set-up to prevent such potential for abuse and derailment.
Nevertheless, in the light of the damning situation, the central recommendation of the Commissioners of an apex body with a resolutely independent magisterial structure, regrouping competing investigators like ADSU and Customs anti-narcotics, with a strengthened authority and mandate to investigate, arrest, prevent illicit entry at all points, track and freeze assets of suspects and otherwise coordinate all drug-related activities and programs, is a ground-breaking proposal that still deserves the full attention of the authorities.
The time has come for action. The Report highlights many serious shortcomings and provides concrete guidance to the authorities for determined remedial action. In all reports of this nature, there are undoubtedly numerous “low-lying fruits” that can and should be acted upon with a sense of urgency, while government departments are asked to provide their sectoral views and suggestions on the findings to the inter-ministerial committee which the Opposition already says is a convenient burying tactic.
One could remark in this context, that sometime in September 2015, that is, barely three months after the setting up of the Drug Commission, government decided to commission separately and simultaneously a UNODC expert, Dr Reychad Abdool, to formulate a National Drug Control Master Plan for Mauritius. The exact reasoning behind the double action, one with its broad mandate and public hearings which captured media interest, while the other could only rely on input, views and suggestions from a variety of stakeholders including the PM, is not known. After due hearings, the 50-odd stakeholders were corralled for a work-week around end May 2017 to write up their combined input into a final Report which is in government’s possession since.
One year later, in a May 2018 answer to a PQ, the PM reported that “A draft [Master-Plan]…has been submitted to my Office. The draft is being considered. I have, myself, personally chaired a Committee and there are technical committees which are looking into a number of issues that have been raised by the expert.” Although little is known about its contents, the PM’s answer indicates that the UNODC expert also concurred on the necessity of a high-level apex body, although unsurprisingly perhaps, under the aegis of the PM’s office, that is, squarely under political supervision. That should be a non-starter.
Whether government is embarrassed to be so over-infused with a Drug trafficking Report and a Master-Plan prepared from two widely differing perspectives, inquisitive or consensual, the urgency to take matters further cannot be sidestepped. One need only recall the study conducted in late 2014 on a representative sample of 1000 youths, revealing that an extraordinarily alarming 25-30% were regular, life-time users of health-damaging substances, to underscore the importance of the scourge and its ravages in Mauritian society. The inter-religious council has added its voice to the general expectancy in the country. Change has to be deep, credible and sustainable if we want to fight back the alarming dereliction of values and the gangrenous effects that are rocking all sections of society. The body politic has to show the way forward.
* Published in print edition on 10 August 2018