Let’s face it, we want to be justly rewarded for what we are and what we deserve. Imagine going through fifteen years of schooling, four years of university, and in some cases beyond, only to find out that your credentials lack something…something fundamental – either you were born at the wrong place, wrong gender, don’t bear the right name – will determine your destiny. Well, the opposite of equality of opportunity is called nepotism, that is, one is favoured because of family connection or association. If you belong to the wrong political group, things may not be too promising.
There are institutions or safeguards that in theory provide some hope for equality. For example, the Equal Opportunity Commission, ICAC, and the courts. Then, there is what we call “conflict of interest”. Except, in developing countries like Mauritius, these institutions or mechanisms exist in theory. (I still consider Mauritius a developing economy, applying different labels does not change the reality). Even within an organization, there are boards or administrative structures to ensure good governance. Why do laws and regulations exist if they are not followed? Or I should ask why having a ministry for good governance when it is not capable of fulfilling its functions?
In the developing world, it is desirable to talk about democracy, democratic values, good governance, etc. These look good on a report card or a loan application to the IMF or an international development agency. For example, India is often quoted as the “largest democracy on the planet”. But is it enough to have an election every five years to qualify for this title. This is not the place to examine the social and economic problems of India, they are well documented. Elsewhere, in Zimbabwe, for example, a president is “elected” for life and calls himself the guardian of democracy. Is such an explanation acceptable to justify a particular regime?
Good Governance
I have come across several cases where for the simplest infraction a person is fired or dismissed/demoted by the employer. An example. A university president travelled abroad promoting and representing the institution. After signing a protocol, the president received a gift, a gold watch, and failed to declare it upon return. As a consequence, this person got fired by the Board of Governors, and would probably never get a senior academic position again. Rules are made to be observed, and they ensure good governance. I cannot see such a thing happening in a developing country like Mauritius.
In the last six months, the papers in Mauritius have reported numerous cases involving government officials or appointees who have been involved in serious breach of conduct, conflict of interest and mismanagement. None of them has resigned, been dismissed, demoted or sentenced. On the contrary, fellow politicians and officials speak on their behalf often dismissing any misgiving. Recently, claims have been made that newspapers and reporters are to be held accountable for breaking such misgivings. So the focus ends up being on the messengers not the message. I would truly like to know how many politicians or their representatives have been sentenced and jailed on corruption charges since independence. People who have been charged are still hanging on their positions. An honourable thing to do is to leave office until the case is cleared and if proven not guilty the person can go back.
Well, this is not new. Most people are aware of what is going on, and the frustration by those who have been victimized, is known. Since 1968, what has changed to develop a culture that respects our institutions and promotes equality at all levels. I think this is where the problem originates. Instead, the country has gone in an opposite direction in the name of democracy and development. After 1968, there was a real opportunity to build a Mauritian nation based on common shared values. There was a glimmer of hope in the early 1970s that things could change for the better. Unfortunately, that sense of optimism that prevailed was short-lived as politicians divided the society on ethnic and communal lines.
Nepotism, Favoritism, Ethnic affiliation, and Party affiliation
Let me make a quick parallel with Singapore, a society many want to aspire. But my argument is not to become like Singapore, but learn from Singapore on how to build a modern nation. Singapore, an island, with little natural resources, with a multi-ethnic population and multi-lingual population was faced with a dilemma, when it became a separate independent nation. The dilemma was either to become subservient to the giant next door or to take destiny into its own hand and move forward as a united nation. Singapore chose to stand on its own and rely on the strength of its people. But it meant some sacrifice and lots of compromise: one national language, that is, English, English as the medium of instruction, a national code of conduct, build a disciplined public service, wipe out corruption, and a nation that respects all its citizens. Equality of opportunity became a creed, and a sense of nationalism emerged. Singaporeans are proud to be what they are. Nationalism does not prevent them for celebrating their cultures. Common values replaced ethnic affiliation. I hope Mauritians get the message.
Statements like, “we must protect our own kind”, or “vote for me and I will get you a job”, have caused a lot of harm to this fragile democracy. As politics become ethnic based, any hope for equality of opportunity is minimized. For the past fifty years, a culture has evolved. This culture that breeds nepotism, favoritism, ethnic affiliation, and party affiliation, has become a way of life, a part of the Mauritian psyche. The same parties that existed decades ago, with the same leaders, are voted in and out, as if, taking turn to govern. When one group is in power, its supporters benefit. When there is a change over, the new supporters get their chance to reap the rewards. Individuals who are in a position to bring about institutional changes, are co-opted into this culture.
Where do we go from here? Either, one can remain a critic in front of the TV, or speak out under the roof of a village shop, or develop a culture of discontentment, which challenges the abuses in the system. Discontentment has to take the form of a united national peaceful protest movement that demands institutional changes. In a democracy the most powerful instrument for change is the people itself. If there is national discontentment, people have the right to seek changes that would make their lives better. Let’s take one example. The number of deaths on our roads. There are several factors that are causing serious and deadly accidents. The causes have been examined in details. I am more concerned at a policy level. The Verdun highway is like a death trap, raising concerns and repairs have been going for long time to make it safer. Who is responsible for its planning and management? Is it a question of incompetence or mere politics that is causing people to die? The answer is obvious. One government introduces a demerit point system to penalize reckless drivers, another one removes it. The result: more deaths. Here, the population should rise and demand prompt and immediate action, and bring those responsible to be accountable. It should not be a political issue, but one of national concern and security. Another example, is the Nine-Year Schooling. One government introduced it and another is saying if it comes to power, Nine-Year Schooling will be eliminated. Is the schooling of our children a political joke? I hope not. On matters like education reforms, social services, health and housing, there has to be national consensus, and agreed by all parties.
A sophisticated political culture…
The sad thing is, referendum and national processes do not exist in the developing world. Those in power seek to remain there, and over the years, consolidate their power base. For fifty years Mauritians have been socialized into a “Third World” mentality and the institutions support this mentality. Had it been elsewhere, a leader who loses one election is gone from the political scene (for example, United Kingdom, Canada, France). In these countries, the day a politician or a government official is under scrutiny and accused of mismanagement, nepotism or conflict of interest, disappears from the scene. In some countries, the court system deliberately prolongs cases involving corrupt politicians for years and then they are never heard of again. In the developing world, politicians change laws or amend the constitution to stay in power and free from prosecution. This way they earn immunity, hoards the national wealth, while the population laments. The main menu in the developing world consists of corruption, nepotism, favoritism, and cover-ups, and the justice system making up the dessert.
In fifty years, Mauritians have failed to develop a political culture sophisticated enough to challenge the rule by an established political elite. Independence has not freed the people from political domination of one group. If Singapore can elect someone from any denomination to lead the country, why can’t Mauritius? Does the Constitution state who should or should not be the prime minister? Are people ready to embrace good/responsible government and not support ethnic affiliation? I hope it won’t take another fifty years to reach there. Think of the recent examples like Canada, United States, France, United Kingdom, South Korea and France, where people power counts. If Mauritius is giving the red carpet treatment to dictators and corrupt leaders, it is merely confirming its status.