The Year That Was

2017 has proved to be a tumultuous year. It succeeded in spinning off more negatives than positives — By M.K.

2017 has proved to be a tumultuous year. It succeeded in spinning off more negatives than positives. Yet, given the numerous tensions coming up at the international level, one would have wished that we had worked with greater composure to find our way in the thicket of emerging global complications.

True to ourselves, politics and the doings of political actors seized the stage. Not always for good reasons. The 2017 Budget and its major propositions were thus completely drowned, while those in charge of the political establishment kept themselves busy extinguishing fires lighted up by their own people a number of times.

Political priority assumed centre-stage. At the very start of the year, Sir Anerood Jugnauth decided to step down as Prime Minister. He was succeeded in the post by his son, Pravind Jugnauth, while himself becoming what came to be called Minister Mentor. His plea was that he did not feel he had the health and stamina to continue assuming the responsibilities of PM at his age.

But this sparked a controversy when insinuations were made by certain observers and politicians that this transfer of power constituted, in fact, a dynastic succession plan, notwithstanding SAJ’s protests that it was for the President of the Republic to call on the party, the MSM, commanding the majority in the House to fill in the vacancy. The government is still coloured by this kind of perception.

As if that were not enough, the new Prime Minister had to deal with a succession of troubles and scandals all through the year. Dissatisfied perhaps by the ministerial appointments made in the wake of this takeover of the levers of government, one minister resigned and provoked a by-election in his constituency, No 18. The result of this by-election was proclaimed on Monday last, giving the Labour candidate, Arvin Boolell as winner.

A disunited opposition confronting each other in the by-election – quite bitterly on occasion — showed that it was also deeply entangled in the quest for power, diluting the impact of the new faces which came on the scene from the different parties in the wake of the election.

Given that the government side chose not to field a candidate in this by-election, there are interpretations galore of the electoral outcome, some seeing the government discomfited faced with this victory of the MSM’s arch-rival, Labour. This kind of inference is fed no doubt by the performance – or rather the mis-performance – of several government protagonists in the course of the year.

Notwithstanding the MSM’s calculated absence from the by-election and the high rate of abstention, the results of this electoral contest have brought about the much needed clarification about the weight of the several political outfits which have been punching much above their weight for too long. It has also shown the MMM with its pants down, and what happens next will depend to some extent on whether Paul Bérenger again goes back to his political drawing board for working out another of his now famous “winning formulas”. The Labour Party on its part, bolstered by the by-election result, appears to be on a winning streak, and the feeling within the Party, it seems, is that 2019 is for the taking.

Scandals took a heavy toll from the government side. Early in the year, former Attorney-General, Ravi Yerrigadoo, had to resign, having been caught up in a public denunciation that he would allegedly have used his position to favour certain persons involved in money laundering. Already, the government’s image had been tarnished when Raj Dayal, another minister, had to depart in the preceding year for an alleged case of corruption. The series appeared to keep rolling out.

As if that was not enough, another minister, Showkutally Soodhun, who had been becoming the fountainhead of several controversies from the past, including his threat of physical violence against the leader of the PMSD, Xavier Duval, sparked off yet one more controversy. A video was circulated on social media picturing him as willing to discriminate among communities when awarding publicly constructed flats falling within the responsibility of his ministry. That proved to be the tipping point, forcing the government to do away with him as minister.

It wasn’t necessary for the government therefore to fight against the adversary from outside. There were enough of such adversaries within to rein in, what to say about adversaries from outside! On this chapter, another scandal of misbehaviour by a government PPS, Kalyan Tarolah, soon caught the headlines. While attending a Parliamentary session, he allegedly sent out by smartphone, to a contact of his, indecent images of himself; a police case was filed by the victim. The opposition was also part of those who brought shame on the House. PMSD member Mahmad Kodabaccus spewed out despicable language against the Speaker of the House, totally unbecoming of an honourable member. Standards of behaviour suffered seriously.

A good amount of the government’s time and efforts were also deployed to defuse perceptions of wrong-doing involving financial dealings by a controversial businessman and politically exposed international figure, Alvaro Sobrinho, of Angola. The latter had been royally received on several occasions by the top brass of the government and by the President of the Republic herself, during his frequent trips to Mauritius in connection with business allegedly tainted by money laundering. Licences were given to his concerns in Mauritius by the authorities, only to be suspended subsequently, carrying the risk of exposing in a bad light our international financial services sector.

Some in the private sector did their own lot to put the regulatory authorities in embarrassment. We have the highly suspect case, for example, of potential insider dealing involving manipulating the prices of shares of the New Mauritius Hotels by certain top companies of Mauritius to acquire controlling interest. Air Mauritius did its own part to help the country swim into the tide of unnecessary controversy: an internal fight for influence – though there may be more to it than meets the eyes — brought the company on a collision course with its pilots. Flights had to be grounded due to this fruitless confrontation of inflated egos. The situation remains fragile to this day.

It is difficult to properly govern a country in which scandals erupt at any time from unsuspected quarters to undermine whatever is being undertaken in some compartments of public life. We had the introduction of the 9-Year schooling program initiated this year as a way out of the CPE system, though it remains to be seen whether this will indeed bring relief to the kids who were heretofore exposed at a tender age to an outrageously competitive education system, or will instead accentuate the competition and stress within the new system. We also had the initiative to introduce, at long last, an alternative public rail transport system, the Metro Express, in the face of persistent road congestion spanning over dozens of years and showing no sign of easing.

To no avail, it seems, to clear the fog of mis-governance, past and ongoing. Cases like the BAI and Betamax had been fudged up when dealing with them, resulting in the government finding itself in embarrassment instead of being the one to point an accusing finger against those who had abused power, political influence and position during numerous years in the past.

Once the government was faced with claims in damages for having mishandled those cases, the impact of whatever good work it was doing elsewhere was drowned in the sea of recriminations for causing possible defaulters to turn the tide against it. The police cases against the former Prime Minister and consequent misplaced charges had to be dropped in court. With only two of these charges remaining, the scales have tilted now against the accusers themselves.

We narrowly escaped being deprived of essential oil supplies in December, because of legal action instituted in India by Betamax against its defaulting debtor, the State Trading Corporation, having the effect of blocking a shipment of oil destined for Mauritius from Mangalore, India. The grinding halt to which this action would have led us was avoided in the nick of time. The year has been characterised by firefighting of this sort. It has taken the focus away from serious tasks we should have been attending to in a global context of uncertainty.

Right wing governments elsewhere are threatening to wreck the stability of an international system which is and has been the lifeblood of their countries. Instead of developing and implementing strategies to face the unwelcome tide sweeping from this source, we’ve been indulging in trivial displays of misbehaviours of all sorts. Already our sugar export quota and price guarantee from the EU are gone. We should have identified new moorings to sustain our economy. Not in our case, it seems. We can afford the luxury of perpetuating a power-sharing model that has brought us to this grievous situation. Yet, given the various challenges, it could have been a turning point for the better by a careful redesign of the model we’ve been working on. We might have missed the boat again.

 

*  Published in print edition on 22 December 2017

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