A Price for Political Clientelism


Last Sunday, there was the good news that our two kick-boxers from Rodrigues Island, James Agathe and Facson Perrine, had secured gold medals in their respective categories during the World Cup championships held in Hungary.

They were received with due honours and warm accolades on their arrival at the airport on Wednesday last. Not only do they deserve to be warmly congratulated for maintaining their supremacy in the sport and shining up the country’s name, but they also need to be seen as reaping the fruits of a lot of hard and patient work. It must not be forgotten that, behind the physical prowess, the victory goes actually to the one with the most concentrated mind during the moment of greatest effort. As the wise African saying emphasizing the mental aspect goes, “it has more to do with the fight in the dog than the dog in the fight”.

From the broader perspective of the country, one would have thought that doing well in one discipline would be blazing the trail of well doing in a number of other domains as well. There is unfortunately no such consistent performance across board.

The Vanessa Lagesse murder case was reopened this week at the current DPP’s request and Bernard Maigrot was put under arrest again. This murder case, it may be recalled, dates back to a little more than 10 years. The chief suspect at that time was Bernard Maigrot himself. He was kept in custody for quite some time awaiting trial on the basis of his own confession of the crime but, when presented in court, he denied all of it and claimed that his statements had been obtained under duress by the police. Sometime later in 2003, the then DPP decided to release him from the charges altogether. Nothing had come out from samples obtained from the scene of crime by our local forensic services to support and substantiate independently the accusation against Maigrot. The reopening of the case now and Maigrot’s current arrest are based on the results of tests of samples picked up at the time of the crime but carried out in France but obtained only now. These tests would confirm his DNA in the samples picked up for testing at the scene of crime. This incident shows that 10 years have been lost because our domestic forensic expertise was not up to the mark. We dare not ask what other consequences this kind of shortcoming might have had on other cases. 

There are several other domains which bring out quite clearly a pattern of failure when it comes to the application of local expertise. In the area of the recurring problem of road congestion, we are turning towards external expertise from Singapore to try to solve the problem. Our indigenous experts, who have been trying their hand at the matter for years since this problem started compounding, have not delivered an enduring solution. Quite the contrary, the problem has aggravated hopelessly down the years. Yet, one might have expected, naively perhaps, that nothing could have beaten local hands-on experience solving this problem.

Consider the water scarcity problem. We have again turned to experts from Singapore very recently to help us solve this problem. What is even more disconcerting in this case is the fact that we are seeking help when the problem is already looking starkly into our eyes with possible grave consequences for the population and the entire economy. Globally, our available water supply has plummeted to very low levels at this moment. Consequently, severe water rationing which was being resorted to part of last year has been resumed lately. Even more severe rationing of water is currently contemplated to make do with the leftovers from available supply despite some localised flooding having taken place in certain parts of the country not more than a couple of months past.

What the above examples show is that we have been forced to outsource some sorts of expertise because our local resources have proved to be not of the level required of them in ordinary circumstances. We have been managing with our own ingenuity our water, for instance, for hundreds of years in the face of changing demands. There have been periods of dearth and drought before but we have not landed in such bleak conditions as the current state of water supply at our major reservoir of the Mare aux Vacoas portrays and has been doing so for the past so many months. One need not stop at this problem alone. There are several others.

The fault lines which have surfaced up in our public administration do not augur well for the future. People do not deliver on the work commissioned to them out of sheer incompetence or due to invisible constraints which affect them in the delivery of work. Due to clientelist politics based on a specific affiliation, which started some decades ago, square pegs came to be fitted into round holes in ministries and parastatals. Political clientelism dictated sub-optimal choices of individuals put in charge of running the machinery of public administration. It is well known that, in order not to be outsmarted by subordinates, incompetent seniors in the service will fudge it up all and take political cover when the damage done becomes real. This surely does not help the country in the long run; in fact, we cannot even vie successfully against competitors in the global economy at this pace.

The problem is that once you have placed an underperformer in a place, it becomes well nigh impossible to unseat him/her so that the damage continues. This kind of structural flaw is sought to be made good by outsourcing to foreigners. One can understand the pressure under which successive governments have been put to make the wrong decisions under the pressure of demagogy from the opposition. Successive governments have failed to distribute water at the right price, for instance, because they might risk losing at the next elections out of sheer demagogy. In the meantime, the undercapitalised water distribution network has for decades been leaking out almost half the treated water it has been charged to deliver to consumers. Fear of demagogy however will not free us from the tangles of non-performance bristling up in several key components of the national enterprise from time to time. Our image takes a blow each time an enduring problem of the sort crops up.

It will require a lot of courage for a government to reverse all the wrong decisions taken in this context and to get the first team, and the first team alone, to play at the top of the public service. The alternative is to go on outsourcing as and when serious problems bristle up. We would then be losing even the small glory that our sportsmen will bring to us from time to time on the international stage.

* Published in print edition on 27 May 2011

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