Professor Sheila Bunwaree

Allow me at the very outset to reiterate our gratitude and wholehearted thanks to each and everyone working round the clock, to minimize the devastation that Covid-19 brings in its wake. Hats off to you all! However, no matter the amount of sacrifices made, risks taken, resilience shown, solidarity expressed, decisions made by the authorities to assist the poor and vulnerable; the trauma, scars, pains and wounds resulting from this pandemic, will run deep for a very long time to come.

In ‘The Pandemic is a portal’, featuring in a recent issue of the Financial Times, Arundhati Roy notes: ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, it is a gateway between one world and the next’. The latter resonates with the multiple views expressed around the argument that the world will never be the same again. A ‘new normal’ would emerge. But the questions that arise include: what will this new normal look like? Will leaders across the globe be humbled enough by this tiny, indiscriminate killer virus to realize that deep paradigm shifts will be required for any kind of meaningful renewal whatsoever? Will powerful nations, although badly hit as well, be able to exercise global solidarity in responding to this global calamity? Poorer heavily indebted nations are way much more fragile than the richer world and call for important forms of global humanity if we are to truly save the world. All of this requires delicate balancing acts involving difficult choices with significant trade offs. And transparency and accountability are key to all steps taken if we are serious about saving the world.

How can Mauritius prepare as it goes through the gateway/portal that Arundhati Roy refers to. Searching for new directions and renewal demands Competence, Coherence and Collegiality with unity of purpose. Can we shrug off our ‘inflated egos’, put an end to environmental destruction and resource depletion, let go of our insatiable wants, prestigious projects and desire for profit maximization at all cost? More importantly, would leaders be willing to relinquish their constant focus on power grab, election campaign mode of operation, revisit their leadership styles, and develop programmes infused by humanist ideologies and solidarity economics? And can they stop thinking that they are the only ones who have solutions to the emerging problems. No one has the monopoly of knowledge. More than ever before, we need the collective intelligence of the nation.

Sadly, transparency and accountability, 2 inextricably linked dimensions of governance, have been largely absent for many years now, so much so that people’s TRUST in government has rapidly declined as highlighted by the 2018 AfroBarometer study. The latter shows that there is less popular satisfaction with the way democracy is working, less trust in major institutions, and mediocre performance ratings for elected leaders. Lack of trust emanates largely from the unavailability of clear and accurate information. Compounding the mistrust is the rapid expansion of fake news. Thus, transparency in terms of both information disclosure, dissemination of information based on facts and access to decision making are very important as we prepare for the post-Covid era.

Citizens have the right to know exactly what is happening, where are the scant resources going to, what legal frameworks are we operating under, what new regulations are being made, for what purpose and in whose interests? Are the poor and vulnerable being sufficiently protected, who are those falling out of the safety nets? How to sustain livelihoods and ensure food distribution to prevent people from starving, are important questions that remain unanswered.

Narratives of soaring food prices, the digital divide further marginalising the downtrodden, the appalling conditions in certain quarantine centres, double standards in testing and treatment, inefficiency in tracing exercise, the lack of protective equipment for some category of frontline workers add to greater confusion and uncertainty. With such a backdrop and inevitable new forms of poverty and inequality arising, the bigger question is how can we ensure that the glue that holds our society together will remain sticky enough, thus preventing important cracks?

Building walls of opacity against the people by those holding power seems to be a well-ingrained feature of some people. One wonders whether it is the fear of exposing their incompetence, their cronyism and patronage networks, their dealings to protect their vested interests and those of their allies that encouraged the current regime to conveniently leave out the ‘Freedom of Information Act’ in their manifesto and government programme this time round. How can we possibly enhance participatory democracy and a fairer, safer and more inclusive society in these very trying times without critical, expert voices being given the opportunity to express themselves and make constructive proposals? Drawing the contours of post-Covid-19 Mauritius requires above all transparent governance. When key questions remain unanswered and citizens observe a tilt towards some form of disguised authoritarianism, there is cause for worry and concern.

The recent 2-day suspension of Top FM by the ‘Independent’ Broadcasting Authority, and the former being yet again taken to task by the same Authority, regarding some statement made by a regular political commentator in February 2020, are very telling. The latter coupled with the closureof parliament ‘sine die’, show how adept some people are at squeezing out information flow, censoring press freedom, and preventing critical debates. In so doing, the search for solutions, is impacted upon negatively. What was most revolting was to see a political nominee from the IBA, on the plateau of the MBC, stating how ‘independent’ the IBA is, as an institution. Perhaps he felt ‘legitimized’ to do so, just because Top FM’s request for an’ injunction was’ rejected.

Courts’ pronouncements are unfortunately not always aligned on democratic norms and values nor do they engage sufficiently in judicial activism. The law needs to be responsive to the felt necessities of changing times but sadly, this is rarely the case in Mauritius. Perhaps we can draw some lessons from elsewhere although context and issues are not quite the same.

The celebrated case of Gupta v/s Union of India (1982), wherein Justice Bhagwati in addition to giving a general description of open government, emphasized the need for increased disclosure in matters relating to public affairs. Highlighting that open government means ‘information available to the public with greater exposure of the functioning of government which would help assure the people a better and more efficient administration’, Justice Bhagwati went on to describe Open Government in India to be ‘the new democratic culture of an open society towards which every liberal democracy is moving and our country (India) should be no exception.’

In Ministry of Information and Broadcasting v Cricket Association of Bengal,(1995) the court held: ‘…True democracy cannot exist unless all citizens have a right to participate in the affairs of the polity of the country….The right to participate …is meaningless unless the citizens are well informed on all sides of the issues, in respect of which they are called upon to express their views….’

India, like many other democratic countries, now have a Right to Information or a Freedom of Information Act. As we rebuild Mauritius, a ‘Freedom of Information Act’ becomes paramount. Meanwhile, citizens should rally around all media outlets which provide factual and truthful information. We need clarity and knowledge of what is going on especially at a time when decisions with potentially life altering ramifications are made. It is therefore our responsibility as citizens to prevent occult forces from clamping down on professional media outlets.

Openness of government and being well informed can go a long way in consolidating transparency. The latter needs to be rooted in the essentiality of governance. A good place to start is to urgently resume parliamentary work through visio conferencing. Closing down for ‘Sanitary reason’ can be perceived as a rather lame excuse especially in a country which prides itself to be technologically sophisticated.

It is perhaps appropriate to end this article with the following quote from James Madison, former US President in 1822.

“A popular government without popular information , or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives”.