“There isn’t a coherent and fully competent team in government”

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This week, Weekly speaks to Amédée Darga, political observer, chairperson of Enterprise Mauritius and managing partner of StraConsult, a management and economic development consulting firm. He gives his take on the performance of the government so far and on the projects lined up such as Heritage City.

As a political observer, you have been rather quiet for quite a while. Is your silence a statement in itself or are there other reasons behind it?
Obviously one has to observe how things are unfolding during the first year of office of a new government. Sixteen months down the mandate, I am quite dumbfounded at the turn of events, particularly the fact that Mauritians who had such high expectations in December 2014 have been sliding into a feeling of despair, of despondency, a feeling of fatality about where the future lies.

Isn’t the population, as the prime minister said, rather impatient? The government has been in office for barely one-and-a-half years.
It is not a question of time. It is a question of the expectations created by the ruling alliance itself through their electoral campaign and in the immediate weeks after they assumed power and which the government has not been able to deliver. There is a dominant and wide-spread feeling that members of the government have quickly gone into the practice of being more focused on self-interest and of patronage than on anything else. Mauritian voted to reject such practices and they are shocked to see the same back with a vengeance. The Mauritian people have moved a long way into a constantly improving quality of life, a better Mauritius, a gradual but sustained improvement of their well-being and level of affluence. So, it is legitimate that they, particularly the youth and the emerging middle class expect that the wheel does not stop turning.

Has the wheel stopped turning?
Yes, people cannot see where we are going anymore. 

Where do we want to go?
Mauritians want to go into a future where there are more opportunities for our people to earn more – not just by claiming a salary increase but because the economy is doing better and there is a higher level of wealth creation. We want to go where there are more opportunities for us to improve our well-being and that of our children. And we want to have a country where there are better opportunities for the youth to have jobs, opportunities to do business and, for those already in business, to do more business and improve their lifestyle. With respect to all this, we are not moving and people do not see how we can get there. 

Why aren’t we moving?
Well, firstly, people in the political class and the bureaucratic elite have forgotten the notion of the permanence of the state, which means that what is important is not politicians’ ego and whether they like or don’t like a particular project. It is about whether or not the project is necessary and good for the country. Whether it was conceived under a different government or not is irrelevant. You cannot have a situation where every five years a new government comes in, pushes aside a project just because it is not their baby and determines other projects out of the blue, without any coherent strategy. 

How about Heritage City? Isn’t that a viable project?
The model and the factors that have brought our development success have faded and can no longer give us that level of growth in a sustainable manner. New conditions and new factors are required. I do not see how the Heritage City project fits where in what new strategy. Coming with what I call adhoc or stargazing strategies and projects won’t do it. One of the big dramas that we have lived in the past few years has been a total fascination of many in government and certain government institutions with real-estate to drive growth. But we all know this is short-lived and besides, real estate cannot be the only driver of the economy.

Can it be one of the drivers of the economy?
A vision is made up of a collection of coherent related projects that drive the economy. One project called Heritage City or whatever doesn’t do it. This debate about Heritage City is a false debate. What do we want to achieve by erecting buildings. Why? 

Because there will be some ministries there and the Prime Minister’s Office and parliament. 

I don’t know, you tell me. 
I don’t know. I still don’t know. There are two problems here. We need more space to accommodate ministries and government services and resolve the problem of the movement of people and traffic. Can’t we do that in Port Louis? Can’t we do that by looking rather at how we can revamp and give a new socio economic dynamics to the capital of Mauritius? We renovate Port Louis and we make the capital of Mauritius a real attraction. How can you achieve that if you move 10,000 or 15,000 people who normally come down to and shop in Port Louis? There is a contradiction. 

These 10,000-15,000 people are not leaving the country. They are just going to be shifted elsewhere. 
Port Louis has space where one can build government offices. Right opposite the municipality of Port Louis, there are almost three quarters of an acre belonging to the municipality, opposite Anquetil Building. It would be much more appropriate to build a 10-storey building similar to Newton Tower and parking. Make Port Louis a vast renovation programme, a real site, a capital city where you reengineer the demographic profile. This can create thousands of jobs for years. Whether it’s in terms of creating space for government or in terms of renovating the heritage of Port Louis, of creating new service activities in Port Louis. 

Won’t Port Louis become even more congested?
No. Addis Ababa in Ethiopia now has a light railway. Here, we’ve been bickering about the whole thing and going round and round in circles. 

Last time the government came up with the project, we said we could not afford it. Can we?
You know, history always teaches us something. In 1965, a stupid government then, a colonial one, with some Mauritian ministers, decided to scrap the railway. Before that, we had trains moving people from Curepipe to Port Louis, to Souillac, Mahebourg, the east... Can you imagine if that railway existed today what that would mean in terms of easing the movement of people?

But people said the country could not afford it.
That’s absolutely not true. It’s good that you have participation, it’s good that people express their views. In Mauritius, we have 1,260,000 experts. But at the end of the day, a government is meant to lead and take decisions.

This government cannot introduce the light rail transit system because it campaigned against it, can it?
They were stupid to campaign against it. That does not detract from the fact that the project is good and vital for the future development of the country. It would create jobs from Curepipe to Port Louis. It would redynamise a number of town centres and the traffic would ease up quickly. You can’t hold the country’s progress back for your own sake. The country cannot be held to ransom by politicians who are only focussed on a five-year prospective. Our children, the children of this country, the young professionals are looking at a 15-year perspective. The short-termism perspective of politicians is crippling this country.

Is the economy doing that much worse than it was doing a couple of years ago?
My definition of “worse” is different from the definition that ministers or other people would give. If you are not doing better, you are doing worse. Full stop. We are freewheeling. That’s all. We are not doing better. If we want to get out of the middle-income trap, we need to have growth of 5% at least. 

We know that that is not possible, don’t we? 
It’s not possible if we don’t do the right thing. I’m not only blaming this government. Even the previous government was sleeping too much.

You said there is a lot of despondency, anger, frustration and disappointment. Is it just the economy?
It’s more than the economy. It’s what I call le mal de vivre (social unease). People’s standards of living are not going up. 

This government started its mandate with a ‘cleaning’ frenzy. Are we today a cleaner country than we were before?
Ha Ha! I’ll tell you something. A very interesting incident happened on Tuesday [ed. – 26 April] in parliament, which illustrates perfectly the insidious situation that has been going on for a number of years. Honourable Reza Uteem tried to expose Honourable Showkutally Soodhun about a piece of a state land that Soodhun’s son had become owner of. Soodhun turned the tables on Uteem on the same basis and said well your son has also benefitted. Two things are exemplified in this incident? Number one is simply that one is telling the other, “Don’t point your finger at me. You have done as bad as me.” As if these two ‘bads’ nullify each other. This is the state we have come to. The second thing is that for a while now, people in the political class and in the bureaucratic elite have been direct or indirect beneficiaries of state dispensation that is not available to one and all. This is why, at every campaign, we hear one party blaming members of another party of a number of wrongdoings but, once in the government, they do not take action against each other because there was a tacit agreement: You don’t do anything against me and next time I’m in government, I won’t do anything against you. This tacit agreement was broken by the last government and particularly, one partner against the other. So, the floodgates have been opened. Now, on one hand, this is a good thing. At least, there is no total impunity. However, we may question the motivations behind what is happening. Now, is that cleaning Mauritius? Ha. Ha. Ha. 

What do you make of the conflict between two ministers in cabinet? 
Well, we are seeing things that we haven’t seen for a long time in Mauritius. Again, I am not really interested in what I call the episodes of telenovelas within government. Whoever wants to fight whoever is their problem and that of the leader of that government. Who cares about what fights there may be between shareholders and directors in a private company so long as I as client get the good service I deserve? It becomes the nation’s problem when it is about the delivery capacity of the government. Again, because there is no delivery, this conflict between key people in government is a problem. 

Why aren’t they delivering? 
Well partly, I think, is because the ruling alliance was not prepared to assume power. They wanted to win and they surely did everything to win and, I must say, the other side did everything to lose. However, they were not prepared to run the country. Besides, there isn’t a coherent and fully competent team in government. Thirdly, well, I must say that you need politics to win elections, but you need management capacity to govern. Management capacity means competent ministers, a competent and clear leadership, coherent programmes, clear projects and competent people around ministers and in key in stitutions. Not nou dimoune (our people). Competent people. 

How many of those elements do we have? 
I do not see many. 

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