Trust Fund for Specialised Care, Sobrinho and the country’s image

The times are such that the people are no longer willing to tolerate even the slightest whiff of scandal or controversy on the part of any public official

 Ms Vijaya Sumputh, heretofore Executive Director of the Trust Fund for Specialised Care, stepped down last week. In answer to a PQ Tuesday 29th March, the new Minister of Health disclosed that a substantial salary increase had of late been granted to her by the Trust Fund Board despite his objection to it. The new Prime Minister replied, in answer to a journalist’s question, that he was “shocked”. It is the context in which Ms Sumputh decided to step down.

Pressure has also been building up against the questionable association, through Planet Earth Institute (PEI), between the President of the Republic and one Angolan businessman, Mr Alvaro Sobrinho. This is because the latter is suspected of involvement in dubious financial transactions and there are risks that the Presidency may find itself seriously embarrassed if material evidence pertaining to any misdealing he may have been involved in were to come out in public.

The times are such that the people are no longer willing to tolerate even the slightest whiff of scandal or controversy on the part of any public official, especially those who are at the apex of their country. And it is particularly severe times for Presidents, who have had to be removed, arrested, jailed and tried. Ben Ali of Tunisia was the first victim of the Arab Spring that set the revolution going in our African region, and Hosni Mubarak did not escape the wrath of his people despite over three decades of rule which had begun in glory.

Bribery charges have just forced South Korean President, Ms Park Park Geun-hye, out of office; she has been arrested and jailed and faces at least ten years in prison if found guilty of complicity of influence peddling in a matter of bribes being reproached to a close associate of hers. For that matter, even in the USA, a Democratic senator has said that an impeachment of President Trump – barely months into his Presidency – is imminent! Just to show how sensitive this issue of the behaviour of high office holders, including Presidents and Prime Ministers, has become for peoples across a broad swathe of jurisdictions.

Shortly after Mrs Gurib-Fakim was nominated for the post of President of the Republic, former President Cassam Uteem was asked in an interview he gave to Le Mauricien whether he had any advice to give to the Mrs Gurib-Fakim. He replied that he felt that the latter was intelligent enough in her own right to know what to do, and therefore he did not feel that he had any advice to give her.

In retrospect, perhaps he should have tendered some advice, at least about the crucial importance of upholding the Constitution – which certain eminent jurists have opined that she has not, in the specific instance of holding the post of Vice-president of the Planet Earth Institute – which, if proved to be at variance with the Presidency, may sully the image of the country.

The ‘image’ of the country aspect is particularly important at this juncture because of the troubling developments that are taking place in the USA and the European Union. In the case of the EU, the question now is ‘Who’s nexit’? – which country is going to be the next one to ‘divorce’ after the UK? If Marine Le Pen is elected President, France is almost likely to be the ‘nexit’. All this forebodes a risk of disintegration of this economic and political bloc, putting at risk global economic growth.

This troubling economic environment is not at all a good one for investors, and the situation for tiny Mauritius is even more critical. A leading industrialist expressed an opinion that the Presidency-Sobrinho connection has tarnished the image of the country, and that this augurs badly for investments in the country despite the reassuring noises from the authorities.

And from the replies to the PNQ of several questions posed by the Leader of the Opposition to the Prime Minister in Parliament last Tuesday, it is quite evident that there are still many unanswered questions about this affair. One person who is currently completing a Master’s in Finance at the Imperial College, London, informed me that he was asked to read ‘Looting Africa’ by investigative journalist, Patrick Bond, of the Financial Times as part of an assignment, and it seems the book has plenty of focus on Angola and particularly on Mr Alvaro Sobrinho.

If our regulatory authorities have done the required due diligence before issuing licences to Mr Sobrinho, how come they are not aware of the contents of this publication which is cited by several other reputed investigators – and, which, even a post-graduate student has had to probe into? All it requires is to google ‘Looting Africa’ and download the PDF version of the book.

And, as this column has queried earlier, how come Mr Sobrinho is so interested to invest in Mauritius, a middle income country, when his own people in Angola are mired in extreme poverty after the chronic warring and looting that has been going on over there? Who will answer this question? Did it occur to the President of the Republic to consider this aspect of the matter when deciding to join the PEI along with him?

Enter Mr D. K. A.

This is the PNQ posed to the Prime Minister about the Secretary to the President:

‘Whether, in regard to each of the overseas missions, including to Rodrigues Island, undertaken by Mr D. K. A. , since June 2015 to date, he will give a list thereof, indicating in each case (a) the country visited and duration thereof (b) the purpose thereof (c) the names of the other delegates thereof (d) the total cost incurred in terms of air tickets, per diem and/or any other allowances and (e) if any of the said missions was sponsored and, if so, indicate the (i) sponsoring organization and (ii) costs involved?’

In his reply, the Prime Minister said that ‘I am informed by the Office of the President that from June 2015 up to 03 November 2016, Mr D.K.A. undertook overseas mission on 21 occasions to the following countries’ – followed by a detailed list. That is, 21 travels in 16 months, coming a close second to his boss the President with her 29 travels in her tenure till the Sobrinho affair came up. Further, ‘the total cost incurred by Government in respect of the overseas missions undertaken by Mr D.K.A. amounted to Rs 2,057,653.84’. Including sponsorship on 2 occasions by the Planet Earth Institute, itself an even more dubious entity!

 The substantive question is, however, whether and what have been the returns to the taxpayer from these ‘missions’? In what way has the people of this country benefited?

One thing is sure, as the industrialist mentioned, the image of the country hasn’t improved as a consequence all these negative developments, and the hope is that, given all this, the economic aspect, which is of great concern in the immediate term, will not have to pay a price.

TP Saran

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