Time to Stop the Rot

The Central Procurement Board is reported to have allocated 77 contracts valued at Rs 23 billion in 2020. Has the St Louis corruption and bribery case unveiled a much larger scam?

By Mrinal Roy

Finally, after years of patent procrastination by the authorities, some alleged culprits have been identified and nabbed in one of the many scandals involving serious wrongdoings which have plagued the government over recent years. There was already a mounting clamour at the inordinate delay in concluding the criminal investigations into allegations of corruption and bribery by members of the Mauritian administration and others’ made by the African Development Bank and the Danish contractor Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor A/S (BWSC) in June 2020 on the Rs 4.3 billion CEB Saint Louis Power Plant Redevelopment Project, more than a year ago.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Collendavelloo inaugurates Saint Louis Power Station Redevelopment project in March 2018. Pic – Platform Africa

There were also legitimate interrogations as to why the investigation remained stalled for so long despite the fact that the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) had since November 2020 obtained a copy of the report of the law firm Poul Schmith commissioned by Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor A/S (BWSC) to investigate the allegations of corruption and bribery in the St Louis power plant contract.

In an advertisement extolling its role as a power partner of Mauritius under the title ‘Our footprint in Mauritius’, BWSC states that it has a long-standing connection to Mauritius due ‘to our presence as a turnkey supplier of power plants over the last 20 years. During this period, BWSC has supplied 10 turnkey power plants to Mauritius and the state-owned utility company Central Electricity Board (CEB). We have also built CEB power plants in Rodrigues. The Mauritius contracts are a testament to the CEB’s confidence in BWSC, and we appreciate the number of times CEB has appointed BWSC as the preferred supplier of high-quality power stations’.

Slush funds

The arrests effected so far in the ongoing investigation raises a host of questions. How on earth could the Central Procurement Board (CPB) entrusted with the mission to assure a fair and transparent tender process for public procurement and ensure that Mauritius obtains value for money be party to alleged cases of corruption and bribery at the expense of public funds under the nose of the authorities? How could it collude with bidders it was charged to oversee? It transpires from the investigation that the tender process was allegedly tailored to favour the preferred bidder and that the deliberately inflated successful bid generated tens of millions of Rupees of slush funds at public expense used to bribe all and sundry to keep everyone on board.

What is particularly galling is that this system of corruption seems to have been repeatedly used over the years to secure contracts for other major government infrastructure projects. It is surmised in the press that slush funds of some Rs 300 million may have been raised over time through this modus operandi. The Central Procurement Board is reported to have allocated 77 contracts valued at Rs 23 billion in 2020. Has the St Louis corruption and bribery case unveiled a much larger scam?

It should also be recalled that scathing criticisms have been levelled against the process of emergency government procurement tenders to source medicines, protective equipment, medical supplies and equipment and laboratory supplies in 2020 to fight the Covid-19 pandemic at a cost of more than Rs 1 billion from a nondescript array of suppliers amidst allegations of wrongdoing. As a consequence, 50 ventilators purchased since 31 July 2020 at a cost of Rs 80 million lie distressed and uncommissioned by the suppliers. Such malpractices are costly for the public exchequer.

It is pointless to have institutions to assure the transparency of tender procedures without the authorities putting in place the required safeguards and exercising the oversight necessary to ensure that everything is above board and geared to ensure that Mauritius systematically obtains value for money.

In the light of the above, it is therefore imperative to review and audit all the public and CEB contracts involving the CPB, Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor A/S and the main protagonists of the Saint louis Power Plant Redevelopment Project over the years to ascertain that all government contracts were rigorously based on international best practices.

Repute on the line

It is evident that corrupt practices especially those effected in collusion with government institutions specially set up to prevent such illicit actions puts the reputation of Mauritius on the line at a time when the legislative and control measures and bulwarks put in place to comply with the 40 recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog are being assessed by FATF and the European Commission. These 40 FATF recommendations are the internationally endorsed global standards and tool kit against money laundering and terrorist financing. They increase transparency and enable countries to successfully take action against illicit use of their financial system.

This deplorable state of affairs must end. It stems from the decried government policy of nominating the coterie and political appointees to head key institutions of the country. Such an inane culture of governance has been the root cause of systemic failings of regulatory institutions and state companies and organizations. It has spawned and littered the history of the country. with so many costly blunders. It hobbles the prospects of the country and thwarts the legitimate aspirations of the young for a brighter future.

As a nation we need to urgently stop the rot.

More than ever before, we instead need qualified and seasoned professionals apt to man and head key institutions of the State and the government Establishment to build confidence in the integrity of the Mauritian jurisdiction and provide comfort to the world that the country adheres strictly to international best practices at all levels of its decision making process.

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 Air Mauritius : Assuring a new dawn

The country is reopening its borders to welcome fully vaccinated tourists with no restrictions as from 1 October. A concomitant and crucial decision is that Air Mauritius will once again rise like the Phoenix from the throes of voluntary administration. The revival of the tourism industry cannot be envisaged without the operational support of a more efficient national carrier. There cannot be any compromise on a matter of such importance to the country.

An important share of the near 1.4 million tourists who visited Mauritius in 2019 were carried by Air Mauritius. Air Mauritius must therefore improve its level of passenger and on board service and position itself to increase its share of this captive market over time.

It is also important that the government learns from past mistakes and ensures that the Board of Air Mauritius is not as before principally made up of government appointees with no experience or expertise to contribute to the specialized and pointed decision making required to define policies and successfully operate a national airline. It should be remembered that costly blunders of the past have caused Air Mauritius to lose billions of Rupees through inter alia ill advised hedging operations.

It is therefore high time for the Board of Air Mauritius to include members with the professional expertise, experience and business acumen of seasoned professionals from the commercial airline sector to enable it to define in conjunction with the management innovative strategies for a successful and commercially profitable future.

It is equally high time to ensure that the top brass of Air Mauritius and its CEO are experienced professionals of the airline sector and include on the basis of merit the top cadres of Air Mauritius at the time it was put in voluntary administration last year.

Air Mauritius has over the years developed a vibrant ecosystem encompassing a range of support services and professional skills relating to the airline sector, the leasing of planes, the management of airports and private jets, etc. These valuable skills should be harnessed to give synergic impetus to Air Mauritius to realize a successful and bright new beginning and future.

In the light of press reports questioning the manner some important assets of Air Mauritius including six planes have been disposed of as well as the quantum of certain costs, it is imperative that an independent audit of Air Mauritius be carried out to provide an objective snapshot of the company before it takes its new flight as a streamlined, rejuvenated and efficient national airline.

* Published in print edition on 1 October 2021

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