The MSM-led government has a clear advantage when it comes to communication. In the 2019 election they ran rings around their opponents with a superior electoral strategy and the importance the government attaches to communication is obvious when you look at the well-oiled machine at the Prime Minister’s Office staffed by former press and PR people. But communicating is not governing and when the gap between the two grows too wide, the government’s credibility slips through the crack.
The Wakashio, an unprecedented ecological disaster, hit the reef just outside the Mahébourg coast on 25 July. No government boat went near it for four whole days and when 12 days later residents began noticing oil in the water, the minister of Fisheries, Sudheer Maudhoo, hastily launched a communiqué last Wednesday stating that according to his “expert team”, the Wakashio is stable, “the vessel is not sinking and will not sink,” Maudhoo’s ministry declared. Pictures of the oil spill appearing online were dismissed as “manipulated” fake news. With Maudhoo declaring that “all measures are being taken by the salvage team to re-equilibrate the vessel”. PR 101: when faced with criticism, discredit the accuser.
Managing public opinion would, presumably, come naturally to Maudhoo who lists ‘managing’ as one the hobbies on his parliamentary profile. That and swimming and fishing which, alas, is out of the question these days. His partner, Environment Minister Kavy Ramano took a similar line. That is, until a day later when the government could no longer keep up its denial, admitted the disaster (reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl moment) and the prime minister, Pravind Jugnauth, said the government had neither the equipment (how was Maudhoo ‘re-equilibrating’ the ship?) nor the expertise (clearly not referring to Maudhoo’s ‘experts’) to handle the disaster. Ramano, a lawyer by training, is obviously out of his depth. All this is to say that contrary to the government’s conviction, communication alone solves nothing.
Wakashio is of course just the latest proof of this. Back in 2018, the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-money Laundering Group (ESAAMLG) came out with a damning report on money-laundering in Mauritius. The government’s first instinct? Try to get the then-financial services minister, Sudhir Sesungkur, to convince African states to bury the report. When that did not work, the government slammed the report as “biased”. That same report eventually led to the FATF grey listing and eventually the EU blacklisting this year. Now the government is rushing in laws to plug loopholes identified by the ESAAMLG, the BoM governor even boasting last week at a workshop of how much progress has been made on that score. Now of course no one asked why the government was rushing to enact the recommendations of a report it had previously criticised as “biased”, or why after the PMO had accused the EU of acting unfairly and dishonestly with Mauritius, he wants to bring about as many laws as possible to butter them up?
Or take the St. Louis and medical procurement scandals of late. St. Louis could not be ignored because it was highlighted by a major donor like the African Development Bank (AfDB) and simply dismissing the AfDB’s conclusions of corruption is not an option where the economy has essentially become a one-trick pony dependent upon major infrastructure spending (the kind financed by people like the AfDB) to keep the lights on. Two tricks, if you count real estate sales. So Collendavelloo has to lick his wounds as a government backbencher. However, in the entirely ‘local’ medical procurement scandal, the prime minister says the ICAC is investigating the matter while in the next breath saying that everything is above board. Communication not governance. Damage control not solutions.
The trouble with self-deception is that there is always only one victim.