“In the Safe City project, things are being done on the sly, deliberately avoiding giving information”

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Before parliament went on yet another recess, Labour Party MP Osman Mahomed tabled a question regarding the details of the Safe City project. Weekly asks him what the rationale behind such a question was and why it was important who answered. We also take the opportunity to discuss the opposition to the proposed nominations to the Electoral Supervisory Commission and the Electoral Boundaries Commission and gauge his take on the LGBT march.

The Safe City project is something that you seem very concerned about, judging from the question you tabled in the National Assembly. What aspects of it don’t you agree with?

First, I wanted more clarification of the terms and conditions of the guarantee that the government of Mauritius has given for a loan of several billions contracted by Mauritius Telecom (MT) with the EXIM Bank of China for the implementation of the Safe City Project of the Mauritius Police Force.

What exactly were you hoping your question would shed light on?

I wanted to understand the structure of the project and why MT, which is always claimed to be a private company, could have its loan guaranteed by government! And in so far as procurement is concerned, where is the evidence that a competitive approach has been used?  Could other licensed operators like MTML and Emtel, not have been candidates if they have the required network to provide the national connectivity? These were the questions I was hoping to get an answer for from the prime minister and minister of finance, not from the minister mentor.

Why not? As long as you get the answer?

Because the minister mentor is not in charge of the finances, though a question for him could be: How is it that a public body like the Police Force can enter into an agreement with a private body for the purpose of surveillance?

What’s irregular about that?

I’m not too sure whether irregular is the right word, but still I have the following questions: Which process has the government followed in choosing MT? Secondly, is MT going to provide its network only or is it going to manage the system? If the latter is the case, a further question would be – Do they have the necessary competence? If we take the example of the UK, the police have their own in-house engineers to manage the system, which as you know, generates information of a very sensitive nature.

Can you explain to us the finances of it?

Well, a project of the sort will need massive capital investment and also substantial operating expenditure. We must be talking about several billions of rupees here if I base myself on the cabinet decision of 15 December 2017. Now, we know that MT has borrowed all this money and from details given by the minister mentor to MP Kavi Ramano in parliament the week before, I was given to understand that the government will have to reimburse the loan (rumour has it that it is around Rs3 billion) that it has itself guaranteed through MT via the payment of a yearly operating lease that will cost taxpayers some Rs15 billion over the next 20 years. This seems to be a very good deal for MT, a cash cow indeed! But is that all there is to it? I am also wondering whether this sizeable project (Metro Express Rs18+ billion, Safe City Rs15 billion over 20 years) has passed a feasibility study.

What exactly are you worried about?

Well, our national debt has reached an all-time high level of over Rs377 billion and we have already exceeded our allowable ceiling as per the Public Debt Management Act. Our public finances are already in the red. My question is simple. If we are already in the red, is this expensive project a priority?

But people would like to be able to feel safer in their towns and villages. What other solutions are there other than cameras?

I have no doubt that these cameras will reinforce security but can they not also be used as a political weapon – for example for the surveillance of political activities come election time?  There was so much noise and even court cases about privacy issues when the modern national ID card project was being implemented by the previous government. I wonder how people will feel when there are 4,000 cameras constantly watching them.

What do honest citizens have to worry about if that’s the case?

For positive reasons, Safe City intrudes on the privacy of citizens. To avoid concerns about privacy negatively impacting on achieving the best Safe City result, governments should be open and honest about the nature of the intrusion. This will include capturing and storing data about citizens as they go about their daily lives. In the UK, for example, when the Safe City project was under way in 2010 in London, a citizen survey was first conducted to gauge the views and opinions of the citizens, prior to investing in technology etc. Over here, from what we can see, it seems that things are being done on the sly, deliberately avoiding giving information to the citizens who are the most concerned by the project, imposing surveillance on citizens without their consent or engagement. This is wrong!

If the question is so important, why did you withdraw it?

My question was first on the agenda in Prime Minister’s Question Time but when the time came for debate, the speaker told the House that the question will be answered by the minister mentor, ‘time permitting’! So, from first position, it suddenly became last on the list of questions with no chance at all for debate given that I will only get a written answer. Secondly, my question had to do with the finance part of the project and not the technical part, thus my belief that the minster mentor is not the right person to reply to the question.  If I had not withdrawn the question, I, or any other member, would not have been able to ask it again for another three months, as per the Standing Orders. So, I withdrew the question and have re-submitted it, this time requesting more details on the finance part, hoping that the issue will not be sidestepped once again and that the prime minister and minister of finance will answer this time around. 

Earlier, you asked whether the police have the technical knowhow to handle such sophisticated tools. Do they, in your opinion?

I don’t know but even if they did, do we have a totally independent police and National Intelligence Unit (NIU)? We know that Huawei is the main contractor/supplier but who are the other sub-contractors? These are questions that the taxpayers would want to have answers to, don’t you think?

The nomination of Shamila Sonah-Ori at the Electoral Supervisory Commission and the Electoral Boundaries Commission has been making the headlines. Why was there such an outcry about it?

Because of the different positions she has assumed over and above her reported family ties with the Jugnauth family; that is her having been the attorney of Pravind Jugnauth, her having been a municipal councillor for the Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM) in the past and her having been nominated on certain boards by the government. This has created the perception that the independence of the Electoral Supervisory Commission and the Electoral Boundaries Commission could have been jeopardised had this nomination materialised. So, I believe her turning down the nomination is a good turn of events.

The opposition has been disjointed and therefore ineffective. Isn’t it time you got your act together?

On the contrary, the opposition shared a common point of view on this subject and the outcome was a positive one for democracy.  I do not want to be personal on this matter. Our stand on this is on a matter of principle. Perception is extremely important for the functioning of democracy – the more so in a small country like ours. Institutions should not only be independent but should also be seen to be independent.

You are one of the representative of Port Louis. Are you saddened by the turn the events that took on Saturday during the Gay Pride March that wasn’t allowed to take place?

We should do all that we can to preserve social harmony in Mauritius! This is vital. As far as I know, this march has been taking place in Mauritius every year, for more than 10 years without any major hiccups. But this time around, there was a twist. One person had reportedly, irresponsibly shared a Facebook post in which Allah had been associated with homosexuality. And this has happened in the fasting month of Ramadan, which made the whole issue even more sensitive.  The matter has been reported to the Central Criminal Investigation Division and the Cybercrime Unit during the week preceding Saturday’s march. Even your colleagues from Radio Plus have filed police reports on this same issue. On the day of the march, there was no indication that the authorities had taken action. Comparatively, in much less serious cases of similar nature in the past, the police arrested offenders.  I am given to understand that this is what made the march problematical this year – the provocations prior to the event! Not the event itself.

For more views and in-depth analysis of current issues, Weekly magazine (Price: Rs 25) or subscribe to Weekly for Rs110 a month. (Free delivery to your doorstep). Email us on: [email protected]

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