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Friday, 01 February 2013 09:45

Revolution for Transparency

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In its latest edition, Le Défi Plus revealed the names of a few big companies of the country that have contributed millions of rupees to the coffers of the main political parties during the past fiscal year.
Back in May 2012, Le Défi Plus reported that seven groups or companies had contributed an amount of Rs 30 million to finance the main political parties during the 2010 legislative elections.

We had then commented: "Of course, we are far, very far from the real figure; because these are but official figures that have been released voluntarily by a handful of companies listed on the Stock Exchange. No doubt they believe they have to sport a minimum of transparency towards their shareholders. Or maybe they just want people to know how much they have to pay to do business ... "(Read the whole analysis, entitled ‘L’argent de la politique’, which is still available on our website: http://www.defimedia.info/ blog/item/11900-l%E2%80%99argent-de-la-politique.html)

The latest figures published by Le Défi Plus tend to demonstrate that political funding has decreased in some cases. Is this due to the absence of major issues like parliamentary elections, for example? These figures gleaned from the annual accounts of these large firms are however alarming.

For two reasons at least - First, the figures suggest that, elections or not, some business groups are forced to pay or contribute money to political parties. Second, though the amounts and the donor names have been published since last May, none of the recipients have so far dared to reveal how much they received from these big firms; still less is known of the favours granted to these companies in return for such a generosity. By comparison, Nandanee Soornack would appear like a ‘marchand bajias’ if it was discovered that subsequent deals might be to the tune of hundreds of millions, not to say billions of rupees.

After the notorious ‘caisses noires’ - like that of Air Mauritius and of other shell companies, whose aim is to "write off" sums, in favour of protected ones to get contracts and other benefits - the private sector is increasingly playing the transparency card. Not with a light heart, but constrained by volumes of laws and regulations- from the Companies Act to the Stock Exchange Act, through enforcement agents, the MRA, the FIU and the Competition Commission.

In addition to this legal and institutional framework, the private sector is beginning to realise that it is in its own interest to be transparent if it wants to attract private foreign investors and expand its activities in the region and in other parts of the world. In any case, the fight against money laundering in the context of the global war on terror requires accountability and transparency. And the small island of Mauritius has no interest to play mischief with the world leaders in this field!

The irony is that the State, which is forcing the private sector to be more transparent, is itself becoming more and more opaque with regards to public money. For various … state reasons. An example is the Jinfei project. However, there are many other projects which are in the pipeline and where billions of rupees are involved: NeoTown, Light Rail Transit, Renewable Energy, Toll Roads... Will we be treated in the same manner as during negotiations with the Independent Power Producers? Worse! Even tendering procedures are allegedly a mere masquerade, according to the former Minister of Finance.

Existing legislation has eventually imposed a code of good governance, at least on companies listed on the Stock Exchange. Except that this code is not observed by a majority of state-owned companies and parastatal bodies. Why? Is this normal? It also appears that we do have an Office of Public Sector Governance in Mauritius. Has anyone ever heard its Directors explain to the nation what this organisation is all about? Rwanda, a landlocked African country, four times poorer than Mauritius, has a Rwanda Governance Board (RGB) that promotes itself on huge billboards across its capital, Kigali.

This is the first office that foreign investors visit in that country, that aspires to become the Singapore of Central Africa. This is no laughing matter! Kigali is four times cleaner than Port-Louis. The author of these lines has seen it de visu. An American even claims online that Kigali is the cleanest capital of the world. How come a poor country, without resources, victim of genocide in the 90s and with war-battering borders happens to make a difference in certain fields? Is this what we call political will?

Let us come back to our political parties! In view of the involvement of their leaders, members and other protected ones in scandals that have rocked the country from one government to another, it is clear that, as with the private sector and the State, there is a strong need to come forward with legislation to curb the trend. Blowing the whistle on scandals would simply be a myth of Sisyphus and, ultimately, an exercice in futility if the country does not adopt the necessary means to nip them in the bud. It’s time to develop a legal framework for fiscal policy, in order to get a better grip on the role and actions of politicians.

Solutions are known. We must begin by establishing a Right or Freedom of Information Act to allow, not only journalists, but also ordinary citizens access to information, especially that relating to public spending. There should be a law governing the financing of political parties, as well as a code of conduct for politicians.

We also need to limit the terms in office for certain key positions in Government and the state in order, firstly, to prevent rooting temptation for mafia networks and on the other, to promote the renewal of the political class. As Rajen Bablee, Executive Director of Transparency Mauritius puts it in Le Défi Plus, Saturday 26 January: “Laws should be amended. Who will do it? Of course, it is for the National Assembly to make these changes, but at the same time, we realise that all these cases involve politicians and their close ones. Will they really change things if people do not force them to do so?”…

On May 1st, the major political parties will hold rallies, with the help of money obtained from big bosses and from other occult sources, to ‘defend the interests of workers’ and promise mountains and marvels to the population. What if, in the meantime, a citizens’ platform (including consumer associations, trade unions, NGOs) emerges to impose some fundamental demands, articulated around four or five key points?

By the way, it is to be noted that after the Catholic Church, the Halkae Quadriac Ishaat-uI-Islam Association did not allow politicians to deliver speeches on the occasion of the religious festival Yaum-un-Nabi. Our political leaders are now 70 years old on average. They realise that they are not eternal. They can do better, thanks to their experience and probably their wisdom, by taking initiatives that will help the country move towards greater transparency that has become inevitable in politics. Of course, they have to bring down their ego politics which will help them grow in the eyes of the population!
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