“Those heading public institutions/parastatals must be seen to be doing their job free of economic and political influences”

Qs & As

Parastatal Boards and Executive Oversight

* ‘ If ICAC had complied with the law, why then should the Integrity Agency have entered a court action? Can you say what the agenda of ICAC is?’

By Lex

Lex addresses the seemingly unresolvable conundrum about the autonomy of heads of parastatal bodies at their intersection with civil servants who are entrenched in their rigid bureaucratic ways, or political appointees who feel they are at liberty to mess up with decisions taken on matters about which they have scant or no knowledge let alone experience. Unless bold and fearless individuals entrusted with high responsibilities call out the bluff, the country will continue to suffer from the inanities of those whose operative mode is genuflexion.

* Sanjeev Ghurburrun, chairman of the Mauritius Port Authority (MPA) has, in a recent interview to l’express, been highly critical of alleged “interference” and “slackness” of responsible officers in its parent ministry, namely those at the level of the External Communication Department du Prime Minister’s Office. Isn’t that a serious charge coming from a PM appointee?

It is not only a serious charge. It is a glaring proof of how some civil servants and many advisers, who are not even answerable to the electorate or to Parliament, pull the strings behind the scene allegedly with the connivance of ministers.

Sanjeev Ghurburrun has only laid bare an endemic situation that has set in as a rot in the maladministration of the country since a few years. It needed guts to do that, and he must be congratulated for having said openly what many dare not do for fear of political reprisal.

* The MPA’s chairman maintains that such sloth and interference would have resulted in the delayed implementation of his reform plan for the Authority. 85% of the MPA’s decisions, he said, have to obtain the clearance of the PMO, but isn’t that how corporate public bodies function in general?

Some civil servants, fortunately not the majority, are happy with the prevailing situation since a wide-ranging reform, they fear, would threaten the cushy position they occupy thanks to their political allegiance and not necessarily by virtue of their competence and ability to deliver. Why should they bother as long as they have the blessings and protection of their political patrons who mostly do not have any clue of what proper administration means?

* Mr Ghurburrun also added that the ‘Parent Ministry ena plis pouvvar, get desizion, blok desizion, sanz desizion e a lextrem rod inpoz so desizion’. That’s pretty serious, if true. Aren’t the boards of parastatal bodies supposed to be independent by virtue of the legislations governing them?

You have used the key word ‘supposed’. But are they really independent? If some of these chaps owe their position at the helm of some public institutions or parastatal bodies to political patronage, would you expect them to be independent? We may have any number of institutions in a country, but the bottom-line is that the independence and integrity of these institutions are enhanced when those heading them are seen to be doing their job free of economic and political influences.

* The MPA’s chairman also made the point that when matters go wrong, like when three fishing vessels were grounded in the Port waters on 23 February 2022, it’s the MPA which bears the brunt of criticisms – unjustly, he emphasised -, for decisions which remain in abeyance at the level of the supervisory cadre at the PMO. In other words, those civil servants and advisers are shielded by virtue of their anonymity. Shouldn’t they be made accountable as well?

 There are two ways of looking at the situation.

First, Mr. Ghurburrun could have stayed quiet and borne the brunt of criticisms as many who head institutions do. But he is of a different mettle. Of course, the MPA has a parent ministry over its head and under the Ports Act decisions have to be ratified or approved by the parent ministry. Unfortunately, the word reform is anathema to many civil servants and the so-called advisers.

Second, when you appoint competent people who do not care about the directives coming from politicians, they are simply removed. Look at what happened at Air Mauritius. The government got rid of Megh Pillay with the results that we know.

* There could however be good reasons for parent ministries to exercise the kind of oversight that’s prevalent given the civil servant’s duty to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent judiciously – the more so since Mr Ghurburrun seems to favour collaboration with the private sector to ‘accélérer les choses’. How do you react to that?

If only parent ministries were guided by this philosophy, I would agree. But remember what the famous poet John Milton said in Paradise Lost: ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’ Who would know what goes in the mind of those few civil servants and advisers who are averse to real reform?

It would take a competent and public-spirited minister with knowledge and guts to take the cudgels and get things reformed or changed. Do we have that kind of minister today?

* It has been said that how the board is constituted will determine in a large measure the future of the organisation. But they have since decades become the dumping ground for political activists and unreturned election candidates usually willing to do the bidding of the ministers. There is not much one can do about that, isn’t it?

On 20 December 1993 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the ‘Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions’, known as the Paris Principles, which states, amongst other guidelines, that “the composition of the national institution and the appointment of its members, whether by means of an election or otherwise, shall be established in accordance with a procedure which affords all necessary guarantees…”

What do we find in Mauritius? Just take the example of the State Tading Corporation: what happened during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic? contracts involving millions of rupees, our money, were awarded to cronies and pals. This is just but one example and there are many others, but it illustrates what happens when soon after elections political activists are appointed to head public institutions and parastatal bodies.

* Few parastatals have gone public to denounce another such public body. To its credit, the Integrity Reporting Services Agency (IRSA) has taken the unusual route of dragging another State institution – the ICAC – to court for allegedly failing to fulfil its statutory obligations, as prescribed by the law, to submit detailed reports instead of summary notes on suspected cases of unexplained wealth. What does it take to do that, and why can’t parastatals stand up to interference from whichever quarters?

There are two institutions that are mandated to combat financial crimes. The Integrity Reporting Services Agency established under the Good Governance and Integrity Reporting Act that is mandated to inquire into cases where a person holds property disproportionate to his income and the ownership of which cannot be satisfactorily explained. Then there is the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) established under the Prevention of Corruption Act that is empowered to investigate corruption offences, money laundering and related matters.

If it’s true that the Integrity Reporting Services Agency is exhibiting some independence in fulfilling its functions under the law, can the same be said of ICAC? If ICAC had complied with the law, why then should the Integrity Agency have entered a court action? Can you say what the agenda of ICAC is?

 


* Published in print edition on 11 March 2022

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