The three-day state visit of new Seychelles president Wavel Ramkalawan to Mauritius, his first foreign visit as head of state since winning the elections in October, ended on Wednesday. So, what spin-offs Mauritius could secure from this visit?
1 The choice of Mauritius
It is significant that the new president of Seychelles, Wavel Ramkalawan, chose Mauritius, with a ten-member delegation, for his first official visit overseas after winning the elections in Seychelles back in October leading to the first transfer of power in Seychelles since 1977. “His choice demonstrates his willingness to push for more regional integration and cooperation; that’s the signal that Ramkalawan is sending,” former foreign secretary Vijay Makhan tells l’express.
Even before his visit, Ramkalawan has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Indian Ocean region for Seychelles. “He is convinced that Seychelles needs the other countries in the Indian Ocean,” argues consultant and a close observer of Seychelles Richard Ramasawmy. During his trip, the Seychelles president emphasized the links he has with Mauritius – his grandparents originally came to the Seychelles from Mauritius; he graduated from theological school in 1985 in Mauritius; and both countries were administered by the UK as a single colony until 1903.
Although he has faced opposition criticism at home for this official visit to Mauritius in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, “he has deemed it important enough to take that step, and we must consider this a profound token of friendship that Ramkalawan is extending to Mauritius,” argues Ramasawmy. According to Seychelles-based journalist Vidya Gappy, “the choice seems natural, there is an affinity between the two countries in terms of language and many Seychellois come to Mauritius to shop and to study.”
2 Business and investment
There is a more practical side to the visit as well. Covid-19 and the global halt to tourism have left the economy of Seychelles bruised, with the country depending on the 400,000 tourists coming in each year for close to 70 percent of its foreign earnings. What Covid-19 has done has turned off that spigot with 10,000 mostly young people left unemployed in a country with a population of less than 100,000. “The biggest issue in Seychelles is that they want to see the economy moving again, and that’s Ramkalawan’s biggest challenge at the moment,” outlines Gappy. And Ramkalawan’s answer to this is emphasizing in- vestments and diversifying the economy of Seychelles away from its heavy reliance on tourism. One of the sectors that Ramkalawan is keen to develop is the fisheries sector.
Just how much importance Ramkalawan’s new government is giving to this project can be seen from the fact that in his new 13-member cabinet, he named his old political ally Jean-François Ferrari as the country’s new fisheries minister and also named him ‘designated’ minister. Under the Seychelles constitution, the designated minister takes over decision-ma- king in the country, should the president and vice-president be unable to, effectively making the position the third-most powerful one in government. “This shows how much he is putting developing a fisheries sector at the top of his agenda; this comes on top of his earlier statements about renegotiating fishing agreements signed with the EU and I wouldn’t be surprised if soon he wants to sign a fisheries agreement with Mauritius,” says Ramasawmy. During his vi- sit, the Seychelles president also made it a point to visit dry docks in Mauritius where two Seychellois coastguard boats are undergoing repairs and he has announced his intention to develop similar facilities in the Seychelles.
It is not just fisheries that Ramkalawan is keen to develop. “He has also called for boosting regional trade by turning to cheaper imports from Madagascar and other neighbouring states to help reduce the cost of living in Seychelles,” says Gappy. In some ways, Mauritius is well poised to fulfil these plans. While only 2.2 percent of land in Seychelles is arable, 38.4 percent of land in Mauritius is cultivable. “In many ways, the economies of Mauritius and Seychelles are complementary,” argues Makhan; and boosting trade between the two countries, with Mauritius having potential for greater agricultural development, could fit the bill in Ramkalawan’s plans for getting cheaper regional imports to help with Seychelles’ food security concerns.
Aside from that, Gappy maintains, “Ramkalawan has said that he wants to build things like Mauritius’ cybercity in Seychelles too.” It makes sense for Ramkalawan to court investment and trade from Mauritius to fuel his plans for economic diversification. “The problem in Seychelles is that there isn’t that critical mass of capital available to make major investments; so all governments in Seychelles, and Ramkalawan in particular, who even in the opposition was very conducive to encouraging private overseas investments, have known that they have to look for investments abroad,” says Ramasawmy. And private Mauri- tian firms are already major players in Seychelles’ economy. “There are major investments from Mauritian hotel groups in Seychelles, not just in hotels but in developing boatyards and marinas for yacht visits and tourism by high-net-worth individuals,” insists former tourism minister José Arunasalom.
Not just limited to tourism, Mauritian companies have also set up banks, audit firms, surveyors, and construction contracting companies in Seychelles, with no less than 12 Mauritian conglomerates operating the archipelago. In recent years, Mauritian investments into Seychelles have only grown, according to the Bank of Mauritius, reaching Rs 615 million in 2019.
3 Government-to-government projects
The biggest problem in Mauritius-Seychelles ties is that they have been traditionally lop-sided. “The two countries have always had excellent people-to-people relations and private companies from Mauritius have been major investors in Seychelles, but you don’t really need the government for that kind of cooperation,” says Arunasalom. Plenty of Mauritians work in Seychelles as teachers and in healthcare. However, the weak point in bilateral ties has always been following up on bilateral projects between the two governments.
Although during this visit Ramkalawan has signed two memoranda of understanding with Mauritius, one on police cooperation, and another on ICT training and cybercrime, previous agreements have amounted to precious little. “This is a point he was keen to emphasize during his visit, that he did not want MoUs to just end up in drawers; Seychelles has always looked to Mauritius and now he is sending the message that he wants to seriously work with Mauritius and it’s up to the Mauritian side to seriously reciprocate,” argues Arunasalom.
Ramkalawan is in a uniquely strong political position to push through any bilateral projects. Unlike the last government that, since losing control over Seychelles’ parliament in 2016, was left hobbled to push through public projects, the October elections not only saw Ramkalawan wrest power as the first president of Seychelles since 1977 not to belong to the old party of Albert René but also gave his party, Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS) 25 out of 35 seats in Seychelles’ National Assembly, a big enough majority for Ramkalawan and his LDS to effect constitutional changes. “What Ramkalawan’s visit has shown is that there is a political will and a sense of seriousness,” says Ramasawmy. The ball, as they say, is now in the court of Mauritius.
4 The UN and foreign policy
One of the announcements made by Ramkalawan was that Seychelles would back Mauritius’ bid for a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). If successful, this would be the third time that Mauritius has got a seat on the UNSC, the first time being between 1977 and 1978 and the second between 2001 and 2002. “The way it works is that Africa has a set number of seats on the UNSC, which rotates regionally,” explains Makhan, “this time it is East Africa’s turn to field its candidate.” With both Seychelles and Mauritius falling within East Africa, Victoria’s endorsement of Port-Louis is important.
For Seychelles, Mauritius would provide a voice to the needs of island states on the UNSC, while for Mauritius the UNSC platform would come just as it is in the middle of a diplomatic offensive against the UK throughout the UN system – after securing a favourable verdict at the International Court of Justice and a resolution at the UN General Assembly in 2019 – concerning the Chagos. “I would like to think that the Chagos is not the only consideration at play here, but Mauritius getting a UNSC seat is a powerful platform and would help to keep the issue alive at the UN and have an impact,” says Makhan. Aside from the UNSC, Ramkalawan also announced that he would back Mauritius getting two commissioners on the African Union – Mauritius currently looking to field candidates for commissioners of economic affairs and education.
Seychelles’ backing of Mauritius is important, given that it has been one of the most consistent diplomatic allies of Mauritius over the Chagos issue at the UN and houses its own Chagossian community. It is also uniquely placed to help Mauritius push for an agreement over the Chagos. During debates at the UN General Assembly in 2019, for example, Seychelles pointed out the fact that when it gained its independence in 1976, the outer islands of Aldabra, Farquhar, and Desroches in the Chagos archipelago, that were previously excised from Seychelles’ territory, were returned to it leading Seychelles’ representative to argue, “it would stand to reason that the same precedent be applied in the case of Mauritius,” arguing for the outer islands in the Chagos to be returned to Mauritius.
5 The oil angle
Although not much was said publicly during Ramkalawan’s visit about the 396,000 km2 maritime zone jointly managed by Seychelles and Mauritius and oil exploration activities there, this is also an area of strategic importance for both Mauritius and Seychelles.
A number of significant hydrocarbon finds in the region recently – 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas found in Mozambique turning it into potentially the world’s third-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, offshore deposits potentially reaching 100 billion barrels off the coast of Somalia, and suspected deposits off the coast of Comoros leading to first Japanese and then Australian prospectors exploring its waters – have made the Indian Ocean region one of the hotspots for looking for hydrocarbons. Similar prospecting in two drills took place by the US firm Texaco in Mauritian waters in 1975 but they found nothing. However, a study in 1981 analysing its results did not discount the possibility of oil elsewhere in the territory.
Since at least 2002, both Mauritius and Seychelles are eager to strike oil in the Mascarene plateau and secure the rights to jointly manage a 396,000 km2 stretch of ocean abutting both their exclusive economic zones; in 2012 they signed a treaty to jointly manage and share any resources found there. A joint commission of the two countries then divided this area into 49 exploration blocks, each extending over 12,000 km2, launching bids to oil-prospecting companies starting in 2016. The Mauritian-Seychellois joint commission got bids from seven oil-prospecting companies and in 2018 awarded a contract to UK-based firm Spectrum Geo (a subsidiary of Spectrum ASA in Norway) to explore a 20,970 km stretch of that zone. Neil Hodgson, executive vice-president at Spectrum, stated in 2018 that their preliminary studies put the area “into the oil window” with “a live working hydrocarbon system lying unexplored below the basalt across this whole area clearly demonstrated.” However, in early 2020, Spectrum Geo pulled out of the exploration deal citing “technical reasons”.
The joint commission of the two countries – which has met 16 times between 2011 and March 2019 – will now have to work out how and when to give out a new contract for oil exploration in their jointly managed zone. Besides, even though in principle both countries have agreed to an equal division of any revenue from oil found in the area, both states still have to work out a common legal framework for each of their countries to regulate any oil found there. “The desire to find oil is always very tempting, so the oil dossier will still be there,” says Ramasawmy. So far, nothing has come of this joint project. “I think Seychelles will be eager to get that kickstarted again, this is a major project for Victoria,” concludes Arunasalom. For Mauritius, this will be one of the most important bilateral dossiers to work on with Ramkalawan’s new government in Victoria.