Lindsay Rivière: “Government is buying its way through the crisis and throwing money at problems, with the BoM funds”

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This week, we talk to Lindsay Rivière, journalist and political analyst, about the issues making the headlines as well as the political and economic situation in general. He sheds light on the situation, fearlessly talks about his state of mind as he observes the events unfolding in the country and expresses his amazement, anxiety and even horror at the way the country is being run. A bold and informative interview to be read without moderation.

There has been a lot of commotion in the country since the last general election. What has been your state of mind following the events unfolding, particularly on the political and economic fronts?
I have been following events since 2019 with increasing anxiety and, at times, total amazement at the sight of the country’s slide into political division and polarisation, institutional crisis, scandals and economic and social tension. I am, at present, quite worried and often horrified at the mismanagement of the country in many crucial areas.

Are things likely to getter better this year?
I fear that there is still far worse to come. In fact, 2021 may be a more difficult year than 2020, with all the related social consequences, including possibly a greater communal divide. In my judgement, we are gradually losing the battle to rise again as a prosperous high-income nation and eroding our ability to recover from Covid’s huge damage.

What did we get wrong? Or as someone said, “kot noun foter”?
During the lock-down, I wrote an article in l’express – Steeling ourselves – calling on the nation to brace itself for tremendous future difficulties, a long and deep world recession, a dramatic  increase in joblessness, reduced export opportunities, a substantially higher cost of living. My message last year was that Mauritius needed greater national unity, political appeasement, economic imagination, greater social solidarity with the have-nots, a spirit of greater sacrifice, a reduction in communal tension and, even more importantly, constant structured dialogue at all levels of society in the search for solutions. Absolutely nothing has been done in most of these crucial areas. On the contrary, the situation is quickly deteriorating on all these fronts. It’s disheartening!

Who should have done what?
The government is the one able to come up with most answers. Yet, it won’t budge on anything, neither structural reform like a revised constitution, electoral reform, institutional improvement, better governance etc. nor new efficient management methods. Instead, it has become growingly authoritarian and governs as if it had a huge popular majority – which it has not. Dialogue is non-existent with the private sector, special-interest groups, NGOs and trade unions.

Some dialogue seems to have started with the private sector. Don’t you see that?
No. What I see is that instead of establishing more relaxed relationships, government is constantly sharpening the edges, bullying all opponents  and the media and neutralising  parliament. The MSM is more clanique than ever, appointing its party members to all available positions, supporting its own in all controversial situations.  The opposition is ostracised everywhere.

Are you satisfied with the performance of the opposition?
No. The opposition is performing poorly too. It is choosing press conferences over popular public meetings.

You were among those who gave the government and the prime minister a chance to prove themselves when it comes to policy. How do you feel today?
I feel that economic populism is the order of the day and that government is buying its way through the crisis and throwing money at problems, with the Bank of Mauritius funds. Scandals are almost weekly events. So, to me, globally the government is doing exactly the opposite of what needs to be done to get out of this mess.

One of the ways of getting out of the “mess” was the show of force in Port Louis for the court appearance of Minister of Commerce Yogida Sawmynaden. How does that compare with similar events you might have seen during your long journalistic career?

I have known heavy police action in times of trouble but this show of force in Port Louis was absolutely out of proportion with the events and has sent a bad message worldwide. What does that say about our democracy? Are we going to see such deployment of force every time a government official appears before a magistrate? There could be dozens of such appearances as the number of controversies increases. So what happens next?

Couldn’t all this have been avoided just by having the minister resign until the case has been closed?
I agree. The broad principle here is that ministers should step aside once they face prosecution in court, and they get reintegrated if and when they have cleared their reputation.  Such controversies won’t just go away and ministers who hang on to their seats in the face of charges will increasingly embarrass their colleagues in the current national atmosphere of deep suspicion towards all forms of public authority.

The trigger of this whole episode may be the allocation of contracts and possibly the conduct of the last general election. How do you feel about the allocation of contracts during the lockdown?
Let’s be reasonable. Additional medical resources were badly needed in the lockdown and obviously had to be ordered. They may well be needed again, should there be a ‘Covid second wave’ in Mauritius. The real question is the transparency of the process of tenders. Most ministries and Parastatals issue hundreds of Invitations to Tender all year round. There has to be some mechanism to follow up on these. There should be an electronic “Central Public Register for Tender Requests” by ministries and public bodies which can be freely consulted by anyone, since it’s public money, and the legally-enforced obligation of all public bodies to publish freely-available information on all contracts awarded, to whom, for what amount etc.?

Instead, the prime minister was quick to defend Sawmynaden tooth and nail in spite of the evidence filed against him, particularly in the fictitious employment case. Some people see something rather sinister in that stand. Do you?
The prime minister must, first and foremost, defend his own image and that of his cabinet collectively. There is no need for him to selectively jump to the defence of ministers facing controversy: Ramano, Maudhoo, now Sawmynaden but not Collendavelloo. They are all big boys and can defend themselves with their lawyers.

When he does not offer a defence, Pravind Jugnauth just keeps quiet. Is that a wise policy?
No. It is, however, becoming part of the Jugnauth’s and MSM’s culture: “Say nothing, do nothing, let the storm pass. Tomorrow is another day.”  Public opinion does not work that way. Remember: “Perception! Perception is all there is.”

“Instead of establishing more relaxed relationships, government is constantly sharpening the edges, bullying all opponents and the media and neutralising parliament.”

How is the silence on serious issues interpreted?
It is widely interpreted as unacceptable arrogance and a challenge to public opinion. It can only cultivate suspicion. Additionally, with all the scandals and controversies popping up every month, Pravind Jugnauth, if he systematically adopts this posture, may well be in for a few surprises!

There have been many unexplained ‘suicides’ at least one of which so far has been found to be murder. Is this the Mauritius you have known or still know?
Clearly not. We may be going back to the 70s. But let’s see how the situation unfolds. I am confident that, with an independent Director of Public Prosecutions Office and the new brand of magistrates, the country will get to the bottom of all this.

What about the pro bono lawyers who call themselves “the Avengers”?
I respect and follow with great interest their action. They are doing great service to the nation. This is yet another important line of defence for human rights and democracy in these difficult times.

“I am very uncomfortable as to the use of our national reserves – Rs80 billion – put at the disposal of the Mauritius Investment Corporation, which is accountable only to the BOM and not to parliament, as it should, or to the country.”

Would you have joined them if you were a lawyer, which I understand you wanted to be in your youth?
I most likely would have offered support. I am, however, uncomfortable with two situations concerning them: Firstly, I do not favour their technique of encouraging crowds to gather around tribunals while magistrates are hearing cases. Courts, and parliament for that matter, must work with unquestionable dignity and the utmost serenity and should not be unduly influenced in any way by crowds shouting outside. Rama Valayden and his friends should uphold this principle. Second, the name ‘Avengers’ conveys elements which can be seen as contrary to the finality of justice. It also sounds as a bit of a teenager’s gimmick! Somewhat ridiculous!  Valayden, Bhadain and all these serious well-known and well-meaning lawyers are great lawyers. They should rise above such gimmicks and assume at all times a dignified, serious image.

A former advisor of Sawmynaden ran to a radio station to say that he is the owner of what came to be known as the ‘Kistnen papers’ and revealed that the electoral expenses  which were above the authorised limit are actually genuine. Is this likely to invalidate the election in No. 8?
Theoretically, it may but let us first look at the veracity and credibility of documents. Ultimately, this is for the Electoral Commission and Supreme Court judges hearing the electoral petitions to decide when the time comes. They all are honourable people. Let’s not prejudge their attitude.

You were talking earlier about the way the government is handling the economy. In concrete terms, are we really doing that poorly?
Yes! Numerous sectors were already under threat, with only Financial Services showing reasonable prospects. The GDP will in 2019-20 drop by 18% and in 2021 – 22, growth, even at 8-11%, will remain below the 2019 line. Exports are down, the Trade and Balance of payments deficit is ballooning to unsustainable levels. Prices will keep going up as the dollar rises against our currency and the scarcity of products on the world market will affect markets. Unemployment (now 63,000) will keep rising, slowing down further consumption and domestic trade. Our national reserves in 2020 grew unexpectedly by Rs9 billion but are melting due to the BOM’s generosity towards government (Rs 80 billion).

 “‘Say nothing, do nothing, let the storm pass. Tomorrow is another day’ is becoming part of the Jugnauth’s and MSM’s culture.”

As for tourism, the situation is disastrous, isn’t it?
Yes! The complete stop of tourism will deprive the country of some Rs40 to 50 billion in much-needed foreign exchange. So, there are many threats looming and one cannot see where a vigorous ‘relance’ will come from.

What about the private sector? How is it performing?
I am also worried that the large private sector is running out of breath, struggling to stay above the water level. The Small and Medium Enterprises are on their knees despite government promises to invite banks to take a more considerate attitude towards their difficulties. The private household debt is huge (some Rs 50 billion) and I fear that, after granting a six to nine month moratorium, the banks will move in and repossess properties, recall leases and start getting very tough. Thousands of families may thus soon lose their homes, cars, rent income and have to reduce their lifestyle or take their children out of good secondary level schools. The working class is very severely hit by the recession and is growing increasingly bitter and frustrated. All this is very sad and disquieting. Many problems have been pushed under the carpet in 2020 but have not gone away.

Considering the scenario you are describing, do you think the government will re-open our borders to allow the country to pull in some much-needed foreign currency?
I have very strong reasons to believe that it will not reopen our frontiers until at least June and even then it will impose very harsh conditions which will severely limit the capacity of the country to welcome overseas visitors. We may well have to wait another year to get tourism really restarted, especially as the incredible rise in cases in the western world – 300,000 daily Covid cases in the USA, 40,000 every day in the U.K... This issue is poisoning the government-private sector relationship. The PM won’t budge and is very unhappy with the private sector pushing constantly for this. Have you noticed how he never meets private sector CEOs these days and only refers them to his minister of finance?

Are you personally in favour or the re-opening of our borders?
That’s a direct question. My direct answer is: no, at least not yet! Reopening the country when there is an explosion of new cases, now with variants, overseas, 20 million cases so far, tens of thousands every day with deaths reaching 2 million worldwide, would be most unwise and irresponsible. This will certainly trigger a second wave in Mauritius and start a panic. “Better safe than sorry!” has never been more appropriate.

When do you think we should reopen to the world?
We must wait for the vaccine to be very widely used before even considering opening up and, then, only accepting duly-vaccinated travelers.  Keeping the country Covid-safe has been the major accomplishment of this government and, excluding the contracts fiasco, they should get high marks for this. Jugnauth has chosen sanitary considerations over economic considerations. I honestly believe that, in so doing, he has done the right thing. Nothing, repeat nothing, is as precious as human life. Avoiding the unnecessary loss of life is a fundamental human duty and, I believe, an essential dimension of our humanity.  To tackle economic problems, we still have technical solutions: asset disposal, loans, diversification of activities but, in my opinion, nothing replaces the absolute obligation for all of us to preserve the sanctity of human life. And let me say that again: all lives matter! I hated last year’s position by some, telling us that “Most will survive, some will die. So be it!” I cannot accept that scores of our innocent fellow countrymen and women could die for uncertain material gains. Very few tourists would have come anyway, due to non-availability of planes. Even today, people won’t come because of limits on travelling, the fear of being stuck overseas in a strange land or plain old terror at being contaminated in under-equipped medical systems. I think this is the majority view in Mauritius. And I am part of that.

So, what will all this lead to?
All things considered, we must brace ourselves for another very tough year. More than ever, there is a need for dialogue, solidarity, imagination. Let’s start by the easy way out: getting the government/private sector dialogue going and clearing the air.

Talking about the private sector, there has been a lot of criticism about the amount of public money put in a private company, the MIC, and the lack of transparency when it comes to the allocation of funds. Are you worried, as the rest of us about that?
Certainly! I am very uncomfortable as to the use of our national reserves – Rs80 billion – put at the disposal of the Mauritius Investment Corporation, which is accountable only to the BOM and not to parliament, as it should, or to the country. There is a total lack of transparency in the affairs of this organisation, which is dishing out billions to selected companies. This adds to the growing tendency by respective governments to place parastatals or public bodies and companies outside the purview of parliament, the media and anybody. SMEs are also totally excluded from MIC attention while they are the ones providing half the jobs in Mauritius.

In spite of all this, isn’t the government doing well politically?
I think that government is on a slide but the opposition is not filling in the vacuum, due to its inability to offer a credible, united alternative. The favoured opposition is now an extra-parliamentary current which carries out mobilisation on the streets. I am quite surprised at Pravind Jugnauth’s ‘mutation’ from pre-election PM to post-election PM. He started off as projecting a modern, reformist image, reaching out for everyone but, since his win at the election, he has drifted towards very conservative positions on most issues. He is slowly moving from the centre to a more radical, uncompromising base, getting ever-closer to socio-cultural groups. The B…. li dehors campaign has deeply hurt him and accelerated this political movement as he feels growingly insecure and frustrated. His greater arrogance and assurance stem from his belief that, as things stand, he still has four years to go (an eternity!), he is the new champion of rural areas and will defeat Navin Ramgoolam anytime, anywhere in 2024 when he is 62 and Navin 78. Many people think that Pravind is a rising sun and Navin a setting sun. Labour’s inability to come back as rural areas champion is explained by the party’s difficulty in getting a new credible leader, as Navin Ramgoolam refuses to go, Arvind Boolell is constantly cut down to size and no alternative figure is emerging. The MMM is trying to raise from the ashes, with an ageing but seemingly irreplaceable leader. Its main hope for the future is yet another alliance with Labour, replacing the PMSD at its side but with a new leader who is not emerging. Finally, as for the PMSD, it is uneasy outside power. I do not believe for one second that the decision not to proceed with Shawkutally Soodhun’s court case  while the latter is in a tight corner is an expression of old, virtuous “Forgive and forget” philosophy. So, guess what is being cooked? Mauritian politics is so predictable!

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