19 February 2018

Mauritius: Africa's Little Miracle Nation Turns Fifty

Photo: Simisa/wikimedia.
(file photo)
analysis

From apparently hopeless beginnings, Mauritius has become one of Africa's most celebrated countries. But tough challenges are on the horizon.

The story of how Mauritius defied the gloomy predictions of its fate is well told. A few years before independence in 1968, Nobel-prize-winning economist James Meade wrote the little island in the Indian Ocean off as a basket case. A few years after independence, writer V. S. Naipaul dismissed the nation as an "overcrowded barracoon".

Yet Mauritius proved them wrong and went on to become one of Africa's most lauded nations. It regularly tops indices for political freedoms, rule of law and human development on the continent. It has had ten competitive elections and seven peaceful transfers of power. And it is frequently held up as an exemplar of political stability and cohesion, containing within it several ethnic groups - including Hindus, Muslims, Afro-Creoles, and Sino- and Franco-Mauritius - all living together in relative harmony.

In 2011, the island's various successes even led Joseph Stiglitz to wax lyrical about what he called "The Mauritius Miracle". The Nobel laureate called on the US and other advanced economies to emulate the country and learn from its approach to free education, healthcare and strong social security net.

As it prepares to turn 50 years old on 12 March, the current government is understandably keen to build on this reputation and legacy. Among other things, the ruling coalition, led by the 56-year-old Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, has said it wants Mauritius to go from being an upper-middle-income country to a high-income one in the coming years.

As a plucky outsider that has always exceeded expectation, this may seem like a viable goal for the island. However, as it settles into its fifth decade of independence, Mauritius may find that it has to come up with some new ways of thinking if it is to continue to develop - both economically and politically - rather than stumble into a mid-life crisis.

Betting on blue

Economically, Mauritius' growth over the last five years has been in the range of a modest 3-4%. The Bank of Mauritius has forecast growth of 4.2% for 2018. This would be enviable for many countries, but is a significant slowdown compared to the heady years of 1980s and 1990s when the economy expanded mostly on the back of the sugar industry, tourism, textiles and financial services.

The big hope of the current government is that a similar boost could now come from the ocean economy. The idea is that activities such as fishing, the extraction of hydrocarbons and minerals, marine biotechnology, and the generation of renewable energy will supercharge GDP for years to come.

So far the most significant development on this front has come from fish farming, with some products now being exported to Europe and the US. Overall, however, it is evident that significant financial and technical expertise from overseas will be required if other more capital-intensive businesses are going to take off. As a 2017 World Bank report warned, doubling Mauritius' ocean economy "is possible and worthwhile, but it will take time".

In trying to attract foreign direct investment, Mauritius certainly has an advantage in the fact that global institutions have long heaped praise on the island for its stable governance, democratic norms and openness to business. It also has the benefit of having a reputation for having shown vision and flexibility to new economic challenges in the past. As the Bertelsmann Stiftungs' Transformation Index (BTI) 2018 country report puts it: "Mauritius' governments have shown their creativity in the past at adapting to new geopolitical and geo-economic circumstances".

Mauritius' dynastic politics

Socially, Mauritius has been praised for how its several different ethnic groups co-exist cooperatively. One dynamic contributing to this stability may be the fact that the island has no indigenous population, meaning no single group has any greater claim to the island than any other. Another factor that may add to good relations is the high population density; 1.3 million citizens squeezed onto 2,040 square km enhances the need for cordial interchanges.

However, a third important factor is the unspoken division of political power. For example, Franco- and Sino-Mauritians do not seek political office by and large, leaving the field open to aspiring Hindus, Muslims and Afro-Creoles.

This avoids certain tensions and rivalry, though it has also contributed to the fact that Mauritius' political system has always been dominated by middle-class men from the Hindu community, a group that makes up just over half the population. In fact, despite having enjoyed seven transfers of power, the very top of Mauritius' politics has been even more exclusive. For 48 of the past 50 years, the country has been led by either Seewoosagur Ramgoolam or Anerood Jugnauth, or more recently by their respective sons Navin and Pravind.

Although this has occurred against a backdrop of impressive democratic engagement and vibrancy, there are signs the Mauritian people are getting tired after half a century in which the premiership has been almost completely controlled by just two families. In January 2017, Anerood Jugnauth passed power to his son without the say-so of the electorate. Knowing how much this move contributed to its unpopularity and deepened its reputation for corruption and cronyism, the main party in the ruling coalition, the Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM), decided to avoid contesting a recent by-election.

The Chagos question

Whatever their political differences, there is one cause that currently unites all mainstream Mauritian politicians: the Chagos islands.

This archipelago had been an integral part of Mauritian territory since 1814. But a few years before Mauritius gained independence from the UK, the islands were carved off to become the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The UK lent the archipelago's largest island, Diego Garcia, to the US to use as a strategic military base. In the process, around 1,500 islanders were forcibly removed and abandoned in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital, and, to a lesser extent, the Seychelles.

Without questioning the continued operation of the US base, Mauritian policy in recent years has been to dispute the UK's claim to BIOT and its appalling treatment of the exiled islanders. A Mauritian resolution at the UN to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the Chagos' sovereignty was passed in June 2017 by 94 to 15. Interestingly, most European countries - including France, Germany and Italy - as well as China abstained, despite considerable pressure from the UK and US. The Court in The Hague is due to give its verdict later this year or in 2019.

New challenges

As the Chagos issue, together with the country's economic progress and resilience illustrates, Mauritius has come a long way in establishing its independence. However, the Jugnauth father-to-son transfer of power last year along with the alleged involvement of political elites in corruption and drug scandals casts a shadow on the country's positive prospects.

Among other things, it clearly shows the increasingly urgent need for Mauritius reconfigure its political leadership. As the forthcoming BTI report 2018 puts it: "New and younger politicians, not strongly affiliated with the ruling elite, can help to further the country's image as a post-colonial success story, which is highly likely to continue."

As Mauritius reaches the 50th anniversary of its independence, Meade's and Naipaul's predictions have been proved decisively wrong. However, building on this and becoming a high-income country may be more challenging than the current government is prepared to admit.

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