8 March 2018

Mauritius: Mauritian President Facing the Sack Over Expenses Furor

Photo: Voice Of America
President of Mauritius Ameenah Firdaus Gurib.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, president of Mauritius, has led the country into a constitutional crisis that is likely to plague the 50th anniversary of our independence. While Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth is keen to see the back of the divisive president, she has refused to resign so far. More than a week after the revelations made by l'express, Gurib-Fakim is holding on to the presidency by a thread.

When Ameenah Gurib-Fakim became president of Mauritius back in 2015, there were a lot of plaudits that came in our way from the international press. As the first woman to become president of the island and coupled with her previous career as a scientist, Gurib-Fakim was believed to be the change dreamed of by the proletariat. However, once her connections to the controversial billionaire Alvaro Sobrinho were brought to the fore, the whole fairy tale started to crumble.

Gurib-Fakim and Sobrinho had initially joined forces to offer scholarships to Mauritian students via the Planet Earth Institute (PEI). Within months, Sobrinho was vilified for his alleged role in a number of corrupt dealings. As a matter of fact, a recent article by Mediapart suggested that he had embezzled $600 million from the Banco Espirito Santo Angola. Last year, Gurib-Fakim got caught into that storm but immediately sought to distance herself from Sobrinho. In a public statement, she even claimed that she did not receive any remuneration from the PEI.

Except that this was not the complete story. Last week, on Wednesday 28 February, l'express published the shocking details of a platinum card account she had received from the PEI while she was still attached to the NGO, with a Rs 1 million limit. The expenses showed that she had spent more than half a million rupees at the Dubai Duty Free and Rs 480,000 at Shiv Jewels Impex. The documents also showed the purchase of other ostentatious goods with the credit card.

By the next day, on 1 March, the pressure increased significantly on Gurib-Fakim even though some within the government ranks did not seem to understand the gravity of the situation. MP Shakeel Mohamed filed a motion of no confidence against Gurib-Fakim with the likely support of most opposition parties. Yet, that was far from the end of the president's troubles for the day. As luck would have it, on the same day, there was an official ceremony to celebrate the performance of the Higher School Certificate (HSC) laureates. The ceremony was held at the State House in the presence of the president and the prime minister.

The tension was rather evident between the two even though neither sought to address the issue at that point in time. The voice of reason eventually came from one of the laureates, Bénédicte Anthony, who called out the president for an unethical use of her position. On the other hand, Ivan Collendavelloo, deputy prime minister and the person who proposed Gurib-Fakim as a presidential candidate, continued to offer his full support. He argued that he could not tell people how they should spend their money. By the end of the day, reactions were coming in from left and right except from the main protagonist herself.

Gurib-Fakim eventually chose a private radio to launch a full frontal attack on l'express on Friday 2 March. In a statement that could eventually come back to haunt her, she argued that l'express had to authenticate those documents before making a comment on the subject matter. She hinted that the banking records published were not "authentic" and gave the newspaper an ultimatum of 24hrs to prove otherwise. Nad Sivaramen, director of publications at La Sentinelle, refused to indulge and stated that the onus was on her to disprove the documentary evidence brought forward by l'express.

On the same day, the president of the majority party, the Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM), Showkutally Soodhun, commented on the events by having a go at the president. He averred that everybody should take their own responsibilities when making mistakes rather than try to cause trouble for the government.

Once the ultimatum was over and that l'express decided not reveal its sources, the president's line of defence quickly changed. In a statement to the press on Saturday 3 march, she argued that the focus of this story should be on how banking records made its way to the public domain and the infringement of the Banking Act. Anerood Jugnauth, mentor minister, went even further when speaking to another media outlet and stated that the president had admitted to the expenses but had already reimbursed them. It was a clear dismissal of the argumentative process used by Gurib-Fakim on the eve where she dishonestly sought to suggest that the documentary evidence was fake.

In an interview given to Sunday Times and published on Sunday 4 March, Sivaramen explained the position of l'express on the accusation that it had infringed the Banking Act when revealing that scandal. He described the state of affairs as being necessary for the greater good of the country and democracy, regardless of the consequences.

A couple of days later, on Tuesday 6 March, the scandal that started out as so many others that we have seen in the political sphere in recent years became a major constitutional crisis. Earlier during the day, some of the opposition parties argued that they would not be involved in the 50th Independence Day celebrations if the president held on to her position. The prime minister and deputy prime minister met with Gurib-Fakim in the afternoon with the hope to find a solution to the issue. The attempt failed miserably.

As the official celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the independence were launched, Gurib-Fakim failed to show up. Following the event, Jugnauth revealed that he did not agree with the president's take on the whole scandal. The government and opposition both seemed to unite in wanting to see the president gone for using the platinum card offered by the PEI to buy luxury goods. Except that the president did not see it that way.

On Wednesday 7 March, during the launch of a new book at the State House, she responded to the scandal once again by saying that she was not to blame for this turn of events and questioned the timing of it all. Even though she dismissed the documents by l'express a few days earlier, she admitted once again to the expenses and that she had reimbursed the money. In the absence of Minister Nando Bodha and Minister Pradeep Roopun, both from the MSM and who were on the guest list for the book launch, it was the presence of Collendavelloo that made the headlines. The leader of the Muvman Liberater (ML) seemed to stand by the president as opposed to the position taken by the prime minister the day before. With that stance, the future of the ruling coalition has been left in limbo while Jugnauth remains stuck with a president he wants out of the door.

According to our constitution, it would take a motion in parliament to start the impeachment process against the president. For that to happen, the prime minister would have to call parliament in early from their holidays. Once that is done and even if the motion goes through in parliament, a tribunal would have to be set up to look into the matter. Based on the recommendations of the tribunal, another motion would need to be brought up in parliament again to complete the impeachment process and have Gurib-Fakim removed from the State House.

However, the historical Independence Day celebrations is likely to delay that process. It is possible that the government will have to do with the controversial president for a few more days until the celebrations are over and the limelight is taken off the political sphere.

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