31 May 2019

Mauritius: Ram Seegobin - "Safe City is like having the NIU posted on every street with a notebook"

This week, Weekly speaks to Ram Seegobin, political observer and member of Lalit, for his take on the number and types of laws passed by the current government. He shares his concern about a "surveillance society" and gives his opinion on a range of issues from the polemic surrounding the police commissioner to the Chagos issue.

A number of laws have been enacted during this government's tenure. What is the proportion of the good, the bad and ugly in your opinion?

We do have a government that believes in repression, from the death penalty downwards. They see repression as a solution to all the problems even when it's not. They have used the police to somehow silence the opposition as in the case of members of Rezistans ek Alternativ, for example, and in many cases of provisional charges.

Are all the laws they have enacted repressive?

Some are directly repressive and others are indirectly repressive. For example, their attempt to control the function of the director of public prosecutions (DPP) was indirectly repressive. Fortunately, they did not succeed. That would have been a major step forward for repression if the Executive controlled the office of the DPP. Luckily, that did not pass. Then we had other things like the ID card that we campaigned against because we saw that the biometric ID card could be used as a tool for repression.

You cannot blame them for that. The ID card is the doing of the previous government, isn't it?

They were supposed to set it right, but they didn't. They are using it instead. The dangers of the biometric ID card are now becoming obvious, with Safe City (in other words, 4,000 cameras) all over the place. In my little village in Bambous, there are cameras everywhere. This has created a surveillance society.

Do you think that's the aim?

Maybe not the aim, but it's the intended consequence. If you've got cameras everywhere filming everything and centrally collected and then you have the ID card database they're supposed to have destroyed but they did not destroy, then you are in a surveillance society.

How does that bother you as an honest citizen?

Surveillance is surveillance. Once you have this kind of system in place, the temptation for a government to use it for political purposes is just too much. They are not angels; they are politicians. So now that we have a central command for all those cameras, and a central database for all those photographs and we know that there are facial recognition instruments, can you imagine the potential for surveillance we will be under? It's quite frightening and constitutes political repression on a large scale. They can see where you go, when you go and who you go with. It's like having the National Intelligence Unit (NIU) posted on every street with a little notebook. That's what we've got now. Then there is the Immigration Act. If you look at the sequence of events, there is an ex-Air Mauritius pilot who was heading a union and there was what looked like some sort of industrial action and that caused some inconvenience for Air Mauritius...

Not 'some inconvenience' but a big loss to the airline...

That's up to the boss of Air Mauritius to negotiate. Those pilots did not actually go on strike but presented medical certificates. Now, if Air Mauritius did not want to lose money (let's face it, it is losing money even without people going on strike) there were ways of dealing with the situation. Instead, they decided to victimise the president of the union! Three pilots were suspended, two were reintegrated after supposedly sending letters of apology. Can you imagine? We don't have a monarch here for the population to beg to be excused! Now [Patrick] Hofman also sent a similar letter but it wasn't taken into account. Somehow they dug up something that was on a private blog to use against him - once again the surveillance - where he was supposed to have called Pravind Jugnauth 'fou'. Well, I think that's being kind to Pravind Jugnauth frankly. So what do they do? Hofman was living with somebody for 10 years, then they apply to get married. The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) says no because you are only getting married to get a residence permit.

The question is then, why now?

Because his divorce had not come through. Then it came through at the end of last year and they decided to get married. The PMO says it's a fake marriage and then straightaway they bring an amendment to the law as a matter of urgency. We still don't know what the urgency was. First, second and third reading and law was promulgated the next day. Then once they have the law, it's no longer a fake marriage so the PMO says, 'okay you can get married'. Once they are married, Hoffman is then served with a paper saying that he is now a 'prohibited immigrant'! This is such a petty government! A responsible government just does not act like that.

It does not enact laws against one person.

Exactly! All this nonsense about terrorism, drug traffickers and so on just does not make sense. There are very strong, repressive laws against drug traffickers, terrorists, etc. Where it becomes indecent is when this government presents that kind of argument to deny Hofman the right to live with his wife in her own country. What is even more indecent is that this is the same government that was offering passports for sale and giving away residence permits to anyone who has got half a million euros.

As long as you don't call the prime minister 'fou'...

(Laughs) Yes, that might cost you a little bit more.

Are you telling me this law was enacted just for one person?

There is talk about something to do with jockeys as well. The reasons they gave for that law does not stand up to reason. There are already laws against offences they say they want to deal with. So what we are left with is personal victimisation.

What about the laws on their electoral manifesto?

The Freedom of Information Act, which is essential in any democracy, we don't even hear about it. But any legislation that gives them more tools for repression, they are very keen to rush.

(Laughs) Ironically, when you think that they passed a law to protect our flag, the Planet Earth Institute (PEI), which is an NGO run by Alvaro Sobrinho, had the Mauritian national seal on it! The government perhaps did not even notice that the PEI was using the Mauritian national crest on its website!

Isn't that because of the former president?

That may be, but I don't know whether the former president is entitled to walk around with the official crest with her.

How do you feel about the way the government handled the 'President Episode' by the way?

It's interesting. It's been more than a year since the president has gone and we still don't have a president. Just a replacement vice-president who, quite frankly, is not exactly brilliant as far as presidents go. The whole episode just shows that the government in fact used Ameenah Gurib-Fakim as a fuse.

Do you mean that she did not commit any faux pas and abuse of power?

Yes she did but everything was with the tacit approval of Anerood Jugnauth, Pravind Jugnauth and the whole government. She did not do anything behind anyone's back. The whole government was included in whatever Gurib-Fakim did. She was a convenient fuse and so she went and they washed their hands of it.

Why do you think the acting president is not good enough?

He is acting as part of the Executive, not as someone above the fray as a president should be.

There has been a lot of talk about electoral reform. Lalit did not weigh in on the debate. Why?

You know, we have been only marginally interested because electoral reform is not just about how to fill parliament. The problem is the total lack of equilibrium between the Legislative and Executive. Parliament certainly has a function of passing new laws, but should have a role of oversight. Recently, when we see what happens in the US, we see the US congress takes its role of oversight very seriously. They vet nominations and Executive actions. We also think that instead of spending a lot of effort in how to fill up parliament, should we not concentrate on establishing the role of parliament as the people's voice which it is not at the moment? There is no real oversight. There are parliamentary committees which do not function well. The only oversight that parliament has is through Parliamentary Questions (PQs), and the government does not seem to have time for that. If they want to reply, they reply. If they don't want to reply, they just say the answer will be tabled or something like that so that there are no follow-up questions. The latest thing is shifting questions from one minister to the other so that the question is shifted to the end of the queue and the PQ does not come up. Once you shift a PQ, it goes to the back and there is no time to bring it up. This is an abuse of parliamentary procedures.

Are you thinking about Adrien Duval's motion?

Yes, among others. It's a sensible motion on a sensitive issue and he is told it will come up at 3 am. Then at midnight, they withdraw it because he was not there and then our speaker says that because Duval is not in parliament, the motion falls. That's an abuse of parliamentary procedure.

Hasn't there been abuse with all governments?

With this government, there has been much more abuse.

Why?

I suppose partly because the government does not feel like a legitimate government. If you are not legitimate, you are insecure. They are insecure because it was the Alliance Lepep that won the election. The Parti Mauricien Social Democrate (PMSD) left. Many ministers have gone from the original team. Then of course there was the handing over of the prime ministership from Anerood to Pravind Jugnauth. All this makes it a very insecure government. So they have been abusing more to deal with that insecurity and lack of legitimacy. This also applies to the well-thought up scheme between the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and state companies like Air Mauritius and Mauritius Telecom. Through their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Mauritius Telecom finances a petange field in a village somewhere and then invites the prime minister to cut the ribbon and then the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) comes and you have to watch Pravind Jugnauth cutting a ribbon on a petange field somewhere and the MBC reminds everyone that the prime minister is called Pravind Kumar Jugnauth and that he is doing great things for the people. So long as you keep repeating that, enough people will believe it eventually.

Isn't everyone convinced now that things are happening in this country?

You have to convince the people in Fond du Sac, Cité La Cure etc. who drive through Rose Hill. Those people aren't convinced. I think the government is trying very hard to convince them but through mismanagement and pure corruption, they are not succeeding.

What about public sector nominations?

That's a miscalculation. Every time you name someone flouting the principles of meritocracy, 10 others get pissed off. How many people have they made angry like that? How many have they recruited from No. 13, 8, 19, 20. It's pretty horrible to look at and this makes people angry. Right from the beginning, after the 2014 election, in the first interview I gave I said that this government has won the election, but it's not one that can run the country because it does not have a coherent programme, so it ended up being one with a large number of people with personal ideas but no coherence and everybody is looking out for personal interest.

By personal interest, do you mean through corruption, kickbacks and so on?

Look at [Vishnu] Lutchmeenaraidoo as minister of finance. Can you imagine a minister of finance getting a loan from a state bank to speculate on gold or euros? How could that happen? It was only when it was exposed that he was transferred to another ministry. If you look at the number of ministers who have been involved in one form of corruption or another, that's a large number. That's because the team was set up, not around a programme, not with any political coherence, just as a group of individuals.

Such individuals may have been useless but they didn't have to be engaged in serious acts of mismanagement and corruption, did they?

These things go together. If a government is insecure, it will use repression. We see that all over the world.

Even the police commissioner does not seem to be any better. Do you think he should step down to allow for an inquiry to take place?

I remember hearing him on the radio and I can still remember the words he said, "Mario Nobin is an exemplary policeman. Mario Nobin is doing a great job'. He must know as he said it himself. When you see the way that the Executive has manipulated the police, you are not very surprised when you have a police force that's rudderless. Even if Nobin was exemplary, he is still running a police force that's run by the Executive. Just before the May Day meeting, the government put up big billboards everywhere, even around corners where it was dangerous, but the police did not say anything about that. Eventually, when the scandal was exposed, they quietly went and took them down. Would the police have been able to do anything about it given the relationship between the Executive and police? Poor old Nobin is not an exceptional person, but given the way that the police is exploited by the Executive, he does not have an easy job. Now he has to explain why he got involved in getting a drug dealer a passport to travel to Reunion. That looks fishy. So, yes, I think Nobin should step down.

What if he doesn't?

If he doesn't, I don't see this government setting up a tribunal against him. But it is clear that he has disqualified himself as commissioner of police. Once a commissioner loses authority like that, it becomes a bit dangerous for him to stay in place.

Let's talk about something positive now. There has been the minimum salary and the negative income tax. Do you think people's lives have become better then?

People still have difficulty if you look at the price of food and other basic necessities. Vegetables in the market have gone through the roof where you now have trouble even buying a pound of tomatoes, which is at Rs100! That minimum salary doesn't last very long. I think people are still finding it difficult. The problem is the increasing insecurity of employment.

Unemployment has gone down, hasn't it?

The government is proudly announcing that but we know how it's done. For a start, the statistics which are based on the household survey don't mean that. We've inquired into it. You know, a person who has worked for one hour in the past week is counted as employed. One hour! That gives you an idea of what the statistics are. Besides, more than 40 per cent of people are employed in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and we know that 80% of SMEs close in the first few years in any case. And the minimum salary is bound to have helped towards the closure of some SMEs. Besides, in the construction industry, 90% of work is contract labour, not permanent employment. So the problem of insecurity is very, very serious.

Let's now move to your hobby horse, the Chagos issue, which is coming up in a few days. Where are we heading from here?

Yes, Lalit have been at the forefront asking for the Mauritian state to go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Many thought that it was a waste of time. But we have persisted and eventually the case did go to the ICJ. But the Chagos issue isn't going to be solved by one action. We first had the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which we won. Then we had the ICJ and now we are heading for the General Assembly. It will be an accumulation of things that will put political pressure. In international relations, laws mean nothing.

But the UNCLOS was binding, wasn't it?

So what? Have we reclaimed our fishing rights that UNCLOS says we have? That's a political issue. It's the same with the ICJ. But we shouldn't say that each action is useless. We have been working on the Chagos issue at the local and international level and we have built up a lot of support. We feel that it is this accumulation of things.

How will the accumulation of things work?

I will give you one example. We had a lot of difficulty to get the international media to take this up. Now, to some extent, we have succeeded in getting it in the British media through pure harassment. Now that the case has gone to the ICJ, it's coming back to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) next week. Three days ago, Al Jazeera, an international and highly respected channel, ran a half-an-hour fabulous programme on the Chagos. You can see how this builds up. Next week, when it comes to the UNGA, the whole world will be told that Britain does not respect the rule of law.

So what? That does not bring Chagos back, does it?

No, but what we think eventually it will boil down to, once we have the UNGA resolution, is to start working on getting a boat to go to Chagos.

An illegal action, you mean?

The UNCLOS gave us fishing rights in the Chagos so we should go on a fishing trip to Chagos: politicians, local and international press, Chagossians etc. Then we bring the catch home and see what happens. That is the next step in the buildup. If they arrest us and put us in jail, all the better!

As a retired medical practitioner, who set up a village community health centre, what do you think of the government's plan to introduce medical insurance for civil servants?

We think that what the government is proposing amounts to a privatisation of the health sector.

Wouldn't the civil servants benefit from this 'privatisation'?

How do they benefit?

Free insurance paid for by the taxpayer...

It's not free then and it's taking nearly 200,000 people away from the public service.

Wouldn't that ease pressure on the public service?

No. Even Rashid Imrith and Radhakrishna Sadien, who are public sector unionists, can see that this will bring a deterioration on the public health sector that we all pay for, whereas we should be putting in resources to improve it. In Mauritius, we should be proud that through thick and thin, we have managed to maintain our free healthcare.

That will still be there, won't it?

The free health public sector and the private sector are not separate. You get the same doctors working in both, so this is a conflict of interest of enormous proportions. A doctor who runs a private hospital stands to benefit if the public hospital does not work well as people go to the private sector. If you take away resources from the public health sector, standards will go down, doctors will go to the private sector and you will need five more clinics for a start. What is proposed is to enlarge the private health sector. That cannot but happen at the detriment of the public health sector that we now enjoy.

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