All is not well

What on earth is happening in the country? The nation has never witnessed so many galling events before, in the near 50 years of independence

Matters of The Moment

What on earth is happening in the country? The nation has never witnessed so many galling events before, in the near 50 years of independence. Three ex-Ministers, MPs and politicians who are expected to be role models and set standards of rectitude by example are being investigated for diverse alleged wrongdoings. To crown it all, the latest incidents seem to be drawn straight from some seedy Chicago based mobster movie during Prohibition.

A key witness in a case against an ex-Minister was allegedly lured from home last week and coerced through a mixture of veiled threats and bribe offers to change the statement he gave to the police and incriminate the leader of the Opposition. The details surrounding this incident and the alleged parties involved as detailed in an affidavit sworn by the victim are quite damning. It raises so many legitimate questions. Do some people feel that they can get away with anything with impunity? How can such coercion of witnesses in any way change or mask the deplorable tenor and evidence of the derogatory and insulting remarks made which have been captured on video and aired on social media? Have the police initiated an investigation on what is evidently a serious alleged case of perverting the course of justice? It is also comforting to note that so many citizens of mainstream Mauritius are ready to stand up for principles and truth against such sordid ploys.

There have also been similar allegations in the context of the hearings of the Commission of Enquiry on Drug Trafficking of instances where arm-twisting and bribes have been used by a few of those defending drug kingpins to make key witnesses turn hostile in court. Is that all part of a standard game plan to save those incriminated from sanction?

Connectivity let down

The unending saga of the Boskalis case dating as far back as 2008 is another case in point. The repeated inability of the responsible authorities to provide, owing to recurrent technical glitches, a high quality internet connection with the Court in Rotterdam to allow the two key Dutch witnesses in the case to give crucial evidence and be cross-examined through video conference is a blemish on Mauritius and a considerable source of embarrassment for the country. Irritated by the repeated postponements of the audition of the witnesses due to systemic connectivity failures, the Court of Rotterdam has for the second time in the space of more than a year again decided to end its collaboration with Mauritius in the case. This was announced in the Intermediate Court last week.

In the light of the protagonists involved, the country is obviously abuzz with the wildest speculations. Is there not flagrant conflict of interest? The multitude is on alert. How can a country which takes pride in its Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector, its high connectivity and its avowed strategy of converting the sector into a major pillar of the economy be incapable of organising a simple internet connection for a video deposition of key witnesses in an unending case of alleged corruption and bribery? How is that possible in a country where tens of thousands of people connect and communicate daily with their foreign suppliers, buyers, associates, family or friends including in conference calls across the world through Skype or WhatsApp? Shouldn’t the Court summon and instruct Mauritius Telecom to provide a high quality internet connection with the Court of Rotterdam to enable the Dutch witnesses to give evidence at the earliest. It must be recalled that the two witnesses have already admitted giving bribes and been found guilty and fined by the Intermediate Court.

Empty rhetoric

The people are fed up with the empty rhetoric to fight and end corruption in the country. They are also fed up with shameful shenanigans of every kind to subvert the course of justice and demand that the authorities do what it takes to ensure that the Dutch witnesses depone freely via video conference and that justice is not only done but seen to be done in this long overdue case. This will further strengthen public faith in the judicial system.

In the midst of all these disconcerting events, the Prime Minister appears more and more like a poorly equipped firefighter out of his depths as to how to douse so many weekly conflagrations of every kind. There is a pervasive perception of indecision and procrastination when dealing with political hot potatoes. Fundamental principles are throttled with untenable justifications on the altar of political expediency. Sweeping contested decisions under the carpet can boomerang with disastrous fallout.

How can the government’s questionable decision to allow Alvaro Sobrinho to invest in the country despite the many controversies surrounding him or the patent smugness of the regulatory bodies despite the references to Mauritius in the Paradise papers after those in the Panama papers be good for the country? How can there be inaction in respect of the alleged links between MPs and party members with drug traffickers and kingpins despite the government’s proclaimed determination to eliminate drug trafficking in the country? The list of such expedient decisions is long.

Saving our litchis

Any problem faced by the country should automatically trigger cogent and well thought out actions to resolve it efficiently. Let us take two topical examples: the 70% drop in litchi production this year and the many shortcomings exposed in respect of fire prevention measures in the country in the wake of the recent tragic fire in the stores of Shoprite. The nation hopes that in both cases urgent steps are being taken to address them in a comprehensive manner to prevent their recurrence in future.

In the case of litchis, taking refuge behind adverse climatic conditions this year after culling 38,318 bats in 2015-2016 won’t do. We expect the Ministry to urgently examine the real causes of this dramatic fall in production and come forward with a series of measures to improve production through better cultural practices, a wider varietal range (including litchis varieties which fruit in higher altitude such as in Dehra Dun in India or from Chiang Mai in Thailand) and incentives to encourage more planters to invest in more litchi orchards. There are for example 12-13 litchi cultivars and some 20 varieties which are commercially cultivated in India and China respectively.

In short, production must be boosted through more scientific cultural practices of a wider range of varieties of litchis over larger areas in the most suitable locations. Let us ensure through a range of appropriate measures that the country never again harvests such a poor crop of litchis. I must confess that I am quite partial to litchis. Every year in season I indulge in eating them profusely and unreservedly. I am therefore quite peeved at missing out on litchis on my annual indulgence this year!

Benchmarking fire prevention

Similarly, fire prevention must be benchmarked in what prevails abroad. Fire prevention in commercial, industrial, storeyed residential and public buildings, etc., is anchored on a range of devices and safeguards such as fire, smoke, heat and gas detectors, fire alarms, fire sprinkler systems, fire doors, fire exits, fire extinguishers as well as regular fire drills. These drills create awareness and educate people on the procedures of evacuation in case of fire.

Health and safety officers also have a key role to play in fire prevention. The map of the fire prevention system and devices of all buildings is on record and easily accessible to firefighters. The fire prevention system in place is regularly verified and validated by inspectors every year in accordance with a comprehensive check list. Residential houses need to have smoke and gas (including carbon monoxide) detectors. More and more houses in England are also equipped with fire alarms, heat detectors and other fire prevention devices.

It is therefore important that the tragic fire at Shoprite trigger a sea change in approach and mind set and put in place a really efficient fire prevention system encompassing all buildings at risk in the country based on the above key elements. It is equally important that the training and the equipment of the firefighting corps is beefed up to the best norms prevailing. Annual increases in the budget of the fire services cannot be an end in itself. It must be matched by operational efficiency and a holistic approach to fire prevention and firefighting in the country in accordance with a comprehensive and well codified and rehearsed protocol. Above all fire prevention systems must eliminate the risks of disastrous and tragic fires in the country.

* * *

All is certainly not well in the country. Running the affairs of the country is a job which more and more requires proven intellect and skills. Without the right qualities, the government is necessarily out of its depths in a world requiring more talent and well honed managerial acumen to address more and more difficult challenges and problems. The upshot is that the prospects of both the people and the country cannot be as bright. As can be seen in the chequered history of the world, it is not a job for the dilettante.

Decision making must also be guided by fundamental principles, a high code of ethics, ideals and a commitment of service to the people and the country. Those who do not subscribe to these core values and ideals should be jettisoned without any compunction as every nation and country deserve far better. The world would be so much better for all.

 

* Published in print edition on 1 December 2017

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