In a few interviews given by Yousuf Mohamed last week, he declared how much hurt he felt for his country and was scared about what is taking place. In one of the interviews, the oldest barrister still practising in Mauritius, and former government minister reminisced about the good old days when the then Prime Minister SSR set up a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of fraud and corruption laid upon two Labour ministers Daby and Badry; the latter eventually resigned from their posts. Yousuf Mohamed says he no longer recognises accountability of this kind happening. Although we could argue that his portrayal of a golden era in the 70s and 80s might be a little exaggerated, he is definitely not the only Mauritian to feel saddened or scared by recent events. Why? Well, a minister who is at the heart of serious allegations in the context of the Constituency Clerk Affair (Simla Kistnen) and following the suspicious death of political agent Soopramanien Kistnen is still in his seat. And the Prime Minister who said that he had done his own investigation and cleared Minister of Commerce Yogida Sawmynaden of any wrongdoing is also still in his seat. Yet the puzzle remains: why does this affair not seem – at least from my perspective – to infuriate the vast majority of the population apart from the small group of lawyers who style themselves The Avengers? Yes, it’s true that a few citizens openly support the men of law at court hearings, but their anger seems to be too short-lived to have any lasting effect.

Is it because people are used to hearing so many stories about MPs involved in scandals that they can no longer be shocked? If so, that’s because corruption among the powerful has a long history in Mauritius. It is, therefore, all too easy for people to become fatalists and develop a blasé attitude. Yet the desire to seek the truth about the death of Kistnen also affords a great opportunity for Mauritians to seriously think about corruption in their society.

‘Enn lamone dite’

The practice of taking advantage and lining one’s pockets has become, sadly, part of the Mauritian way of life. We have all heard of someone who knows someone who avoided a fine by giving ‘enn lamone dite’ – this is called bribery – or got a promotion not based on merit but on knowing the right people – this is called nepotism – or got a permit from a local authority even though the proper criteria have not been met – this is called favouritism. Those ways of doing things are so common that many don’t even recognise them as corruption as they don’t involve millions of rupees for obtaining juicy government contracts. As the anthropologist Gerald Mars writes in his book Cheats at Work and which he explains in an interview in the New Statesman in 2009, ‘one man’s fiddle is another man’s perk.’ Simply put, what one person calls corruption may have a totally different meaning to someone else in the same culture. Mars says that in some cultures, people simply take for granted advantages that will benefit their relatives, friends or others in the community. Mars goes on to explain that corruption is typically found ‘in advanced economies where the complex division of labour makes it possible for people to hide’ wrongful practices. By contrast, in small-scale societies, such as those based on agriculture, where the range of jobs is limited and where everybody knows who does what – Mauritius of yesteryear? – corruption is extremely rare.

Understanding the complexities of corruption, though, is of paramount importance if we truly want to get rid of it. I think we can all agree that corruption could potentially take place when contracts of millions and millions of rupees are granted to political agents of the regime in power. We can also agree that corruption occurs when a public servant receives a bribe to cancel a fine, be it Rs 200 or Rs 5,000. Let’s call a spade a spade. Every Mauritian citizen needs to learn what corruption is and how it affects the social fabric of society – in effect, how it prevents fairness in the allocation of resources and destroys or undermines democracy.

The most recent events have undoubtedly exposed a vulnerable Mauritius. Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the University of Sussex and former head of Transparency International UK, provides a list of indicators that can be employed to analyse the level of corruption in any country (2020, Mile End Blog). For example, is there self-enrichment by those who have accumulated political power? Are those in positions of power playing by transparent rules? Are key institutions and accountability mechanisms to detect corruption robustly in place? I think the answers to these questions are clear to everyone as regards Mauritius.  In the UK, currently ranked 12th least corrupt country in the world, one of the biggest political scandals that involved MPs goes back to 2009 when it was discovered that some had made false or exaggerated expenses claims related to various things including the costs of running their second homes. As a result of the inquiry that followed, a significant number of MPs were forced to resign and some even ended up in prison. More than a decade later, this scandal still makes the British public very angry. Now, I don’t want to minimise the seriousness of this British scandal, but I am just wondering which one is the lesser evil: having an MP make a false expense claim on household items, houses or cars, or having an MP allegedly involved in a murder case?

The Avengers’ initiative

People in Mauritius seem to have lost faith in the current government. And they have many valid reasons. The protest of August 2020 in Port Louis points in that direction. There are now too many scandals to ignore. Yet, it is difficult for the population to grin and bear it and wait until the next general election. That’s why The Avengers’ initiative to put their political differences aside and come together to seek justice is commendable. Because of their political affiliations, however, some may question their motives. But then what’s wrong if they use their popularity in the courtroom for their political aspirations outside it? That should not prevent people from offering them their strong support for the matter at hand. Indeed, the way forward is to continue the conversation about corruption. The Avengers make us think about the type of society we want to leave to our children. It’s for that reason that we should not limit our engagement to the current court case, the here and now. The conversation needs to engage everyone at the local and national level so that we clearly define what rules we want our politicians to abide by.

The Kistnen case has opened up a Pandora’s box which tends to reveal a potentially established corruption system linked to political power – a system where massive amounts of money may have been distributed to reward people at different levels within a multilayered structure. An obscure mechanism that many of us – certainly not those who have never rubbed shoulders with prominent political leaders – are unable to grasp.  It is simply beyond our depths. Political corruption now comes in all shapes and sizes and appears to have progressed really fast in Mauritius.  What Mauritians want is obvious: they want justice and transparency so that the country is cleansed of organised crime and corruption. The task is urgent.