Plummeting standard of ethics and governance

There is a pervasive feeling that government rhetoric on key matters of governance is in essence a lot of hot air

By Mrinal Roy

The writing has been deeply carved on the wall since donkey’s years. It has been blatantly evident for years that the ingrained culture of successive governments to nominate political appointees to key posts of the government Establishment and at the head of important government institutions and state owned companies was bound to backfire and crumble under the weight of patent incompetence.

It is also glaringly obvious that the current government has nurtured cronyism and nepotism to an extent never witnessed in the country before. The upshot is that it has basically created a protective safety net for the party faithful at enormous public expense. Cushy posts paid from public funds assure that there are no losers among the coterie. The cohort of political appointees are all guaranteed winners.

Thus, party candidates who were rejected by the people or did not obtain tickets to contest the elections have been appointed as ambassadors or reinstated to the key posts they were occupying before the elections. The coterie and the party faithful have been nominated to important constitutional posts such as that of the Speaker or at the head of key government institutions and state owned companies. This decried system of political patronage results in a galling and shameful situation which defies the sovereign will of the people as it allows those that are rejected by the people at the polls to be appointed to fat cat jobs at public expense. To crown it all, the retired faithful are re-employed on handsome terms at the expense of public funds, as if they were indispensable.

The result is that the merit based promotion prospects of the able, qualified and competent members of the hierarchy within the government Establishment and its institutions are systematically thwarted by nepotism and favouritism. The new list of ambassadors shows that most of our diplomatic outposts are headed by political appointees. For those of us who have actively participated in international trade negotiations with the EU, at the WTO or at regional level, it is obvious that the choice of politicians or the dilettante instead of seasoned career diplomats who master their brief as ambassadors for a country so dependent on export trade and economic diplomacy is tantamount to shooting ourselves in the foot. Are the interests of the country and its economic actors subordinated to political short-termism and the parochial interests of the governing party or alliance?

The recent call by the Bank of Mauritius to the State Commercial Bank of Mauritius to change members of its board in the wake of yet another case of an unsecured loan of allegedly over a billion Rupees approved by the Bank is yet another example of the long list of botched and costly decisions taken under the watch and oversight of political appointees of every ilk.

Defying popular will

Such an abject system of governance is anathema to the multitude. The verdict and choice of the people at the polls should be the final and definitive arbiter of those eligible to serve the country. The appointment of candidates disavowed and rejected by the electorate to key posts at the head of state institutions or companies is contrary to elementary standards of ethics as well as basic rules of propriety and norms of decency.

The upshot is that the standard of ethics and governance in the country has plummeted to depths never experienced in the chequered history of the country. The galore of scandals uncovered recently in the country keeps piling up at the doorstep of government. These inter alia include the case of corruption established by independent investigations carried out by the contractor, Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor (BWSC) and the funding agency, the African Development Bank (AfDB), in the Rs 4.3 billion contract allocated by the Central Electricity Board for the redevelopment of the St Louis power plant, the order of Rs1.5 billion of medical supplies during the Covid-19 lockdown through emergency procurement procedures from unproven suppliers and the alleged allocation of prime state lands valued at billions of Rupees. The lack of transparency of the rules governing the manner in which the Rs 140 billion advanced by the Bank of Mauritius to government and the Mauritius Investment Corporation Ltd (MIC) will be used and the unchecked depreciation of the Rupee causing terrible hardships to large swathes of mainstream Mauritians are also some of the burning questions being raised by the people. Rising prices of essential consumer goods fuelled by the depreciation of the Rupee obviously boost up government revenue through VAT.

Lot of hot air

The people expect straight and credible answers and cogent actions from government to urgently and satisfactorily address these important issues germane to the repute of Mauritius and standards of governance in the country and the people’s well-being. We should recall that the investigations into serious allegations of wrongdoings which caused the resignation of some 10 ministers under the previous mandate of the government are yet to be concluded. Despite the government declared intent to quash drug trafficking, the investigations relating to the most important hauls of drugs intercepted are yet to lead to prosecution of the kingpins and exemplary sanction. There is therefore a pervasive feeling that government rhetoric on such key matters of governance is in essence a lot of hot air.

It has been more than a month since the AfDB’s Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption concluded in a press communiqué released on 8 June 2020 ‘that Burmeister & Wain, on a balance of probabilities, financially rewarded members of the Mauritian administration and others, through the intermediary of third parties.’ The government must realize that every bank including the African Development Bank is governed by strict rules of prudence and caution to avoid any risk of litigation. By the same token, one could assume that whatever they have revealed in the summary shared confidentially with government including the names purportedly mentioned in the summary would have been checked and validated by the AfDB.

Why on earth has the government therefore not officially asked and obtained a copy of the findings of the BWSC investigation (which is the primary source of information in the case of corruption and bribery in the St Louis power plant contract ) as yet? Mauritius has various levers to obtain a full copy of the independent investigation carried out by a law firm mandated by BWSC in order to identify and nab ‘members of the Mauritian administration and others who were financially rewarded.’ This is therefore an acid test for the government to walk the talk to restore the repute and standing of the country sullied by the allegations of corruption and wrongdoing in the case of the CEB power plant contract.

Unjustifiable licence

In the case of the order of Rs 1.5 billion of medical supplies during the Covid-19 lockdown, the government is at pains to justify the unjustifiable. People refuse to be anaesthetized by tall claims. Emergency procurement is not a licence to government to do whatever it wants especially as the order relates to key medical supplies including treatment drugs, personal protective equipment and ventilators, etc., which must comply with strict quality norms certified by competent authorities.

Anyone savvy about commercial matters knows that every import is not identical. The documentation and the precautions regarding independent quality verification and attestation of such items as life saving medical supplies and equipment by accredited quality surveyors prior to shipment are essential if we do not want to receive substandard products and put the safety of patients and the medical personnel at risk. The people therefore expect a prompt and transparent audit of these ‘emergency’ orders to ascertain inter alia whether prices were fair and market based and whether every order has been satisfactorily delivered and that quality norms have been rigorously adhered to.

The current appalling culture of governance is highly detrimental to the interests and prospects of the country. Covid-19 has exposed the stark and widening inequalities devolving from fundamental flaws of our economic model. At a time when swathes of Mauritians are living in conditions of precarity in a context of unchecked and rising prices of basic commodities affecting their existential needs, those who earn more Rs 3 million annually are protesting against a solidarity levy imposed in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. This deplorable situation epitomizes the intrinsic divide and decried failings of the current socio-economic order.

Wake up clamour

The street protests in Port-Louis over the weekend are a wakeup call for the government and the private sector to urgently change tack. They must satisfactorily respond to the growing clamour from the multitude for fundamental reforms to establish a new socio-economic order and a new radically changed culture of altruistic good governance aligned on the ethos and ideals the independence of the country was fought and won on and which puts the continuous improvement of the well-being of the people and equality at the centre of government action.

* Published in print edition on 17 June 2020

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