Two hundred years of fortitude

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It would have been rather funny had it not been so tragic. Had the country not been bleeding like a stuck pig.

Beyond the usual International Monetary Fund sugar-coating, two statements were unambiguous. First, our debt is out of control and “is likely to exceed 90 percent of GDP”. You will have noted that the 90% does not include all the debts surreptitiously hidden in various Special Purpose Vehicles and other subterfuges. Economists estimate our real debt today to hover around, if not exceed, 100% of our GDP! Remember the days we used to start sounding the alarm bell when we were slightly over the 50% ceiling? That was before the government simply decided to strike out the ceiling in the Public Debt Management Act, giving itself free hand to ruin the country, no questions asked.

Secondly, the IMF’s ‘recommendation’ to the Bank of Mauritius to “relinquish ownership of the Mauritius Investment Corporation” and that the latter should be “financed through budgetary measures” should be a wakeup call! I don’t mean to rub it in but haven’t economists, opposition and citizens alike been saying just that until they turned hoarse? That the Bank of Mauritius has no business spending the precious forex reserves of the country on bailing out private companies? Instead, if it’s the policy to assist ailing private companies, this should be financed from Government budget in a transparent manner.

So how did the government and the BoM react to this humiliating indictment by the IMF? Radio silence! Except for a communiqué which crept into the Bank of Mauritius website, attempting some damage control through even more creative accounting: trying to account for the Rs60 billion given to the government by writing off Rs32 billion from the BoM balance sheet and considering the remaining Rs28 billion as an advance – some sort of loan – repayable through future profits distributable to government by the Bank! As the leader of the opposition explained in a letter to the IMF, considering that over the last seven years, the central bank has been paying an average of Rs70 million per year as dividends to Government, it will take up to 200 years for this Rs28 billion advance to be repaid! Tragicomical, isn’t it?

While we are buried in debt up to the neck, those close to power are feasting on our carcass. Every institution you look at is having a field day.

This week, l’express* zoomed in on the very discreet Integrity Reporting Services Agency, an institution that has achieved so little in its declared mission of combatting unexplained wealth that few even remember that it exists. In fact, it has been sleeping soundly through all the acquisitions of luxury cars, houses, boats etc. by drug traffickers, corrupt officials and bent businessmen. And the latter could equally sleep in peace for as long as they are close to power.

But the cost of this agency to the taxpayer is far from being a joke. Its chairman, Lord Phillips and its CEO Paul Keyton walked away with Rs15.5 million in 2019 alone. Add to that the Rs800,000 spent on a conference in Cambridge and other small details that are equally inexpensive and let that sink in. Those close to power are not left out either. A position on the board for the brother of the speaker here, a messenger post for a lucky man there, a driver, a tea lady gainfully employed brewing tea full-time for the four other employees. Money is never in short supply.

Multiply this by the number of institutions we have and do the math.

So while Government is squandering our money and our debt is ballooning to the point that the IMF can no longer look the other way, let’s pray for the fortitude necessary to keep turning the other cheek. There are 200 more years to go.

*See l’express, May 12.

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