Mauritius: Yousuf Mohamed - "If there is belief and stamina, there CAN be change sooner than expected."

10 September 2020
interview

This week, Weekly sits with heavy-weight Senior Counsel Yousuf Mohamed to talk about the protest march held in Port Louis on Saturday. We also took the opportunity to ask him about the outcome and the way this is likely to go.

We saw on Saturday what according to many analysists is the biggest protest march held in the country since 1982. As a senior former politician, how do you rate this march?

Over the years, we have witnessed many public rallies. They were either organised by trade unionists or political parties. What makes this particular march different is the fact that it was called for by a citizen. It had nothing to do with a political party. It was not organised for the glory of any political leader. I have been connected to public life for many years. I was touched by the passion, honesty of purpose and patriotism. It was unique.

What was so unique about it?

It was a march that united the people of Mauritius. It did not matter what your political background or ideology was. It did not matter whether you came from the villages or the towns. It was a march that brought people of all social backgrounds together. It united the people around the Mauritian flag. There were no promises made in exchange for votes. There was no political clientelism. There was a call from the heart and soul for a better government and better governance. There was a call for a new beginning. The birth of a "Mauritian Dream". A strong message was sent to those in government as well as those in the opposition.

"The opposition resigning could lead the MSM to amend laws reducing fundamental freedoms, cancelling elections and giving national assets to friends of the MSM/ML."

What do you attribute the historic success of the protest to in particular?

The people of Mauritius have not been happy with successive governments for many years now. It is important to listen to the people. It is important to understand the root cause of this widespread discontent. The citizens of Mauritius have chosen to express themselves only at the time of general elections. They have shown their discontent in 2014 by voting out the government. Many promises were made. The people thought that there would be no more corruption. They were told the economy would flourish and that the quality of life would be better. They were promised that our institutions would be independent and stronger. The people were promised a drug free society. They were promised meritocracy. The freedom of information Act was used to attract voters. Just words. The people were lied to. Politicians have lost credibility. A large majority of people do not trust the government. They are angry and impatient. The impatience has finally boiled over and this will surely lead to a new era of massive protests. The citizens have focussed on the commonalities that unite them as opposed to the issues that divide them. The Mauritian flag is central to this success. The sense of patriotism is well and alive.

From the posters brandished at the protest, there are dozens of reasons motivating the people to take to the streets. Which of these do you think pushed the majority of protesters to take to take to the streets?

All of the above and much more. I also see in that march a country ready and willing to free itself of all things that make it "little". Every day that passes people are witnessing the destruction of our institutions. The people of this country no longer believe that we have a strong independent police force. It is needless to comment on institutions like the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the Information and Communication Technologies Authority... Even institutions like the Bank of Mauritius and the Financial Services Commission are no longer respected and efficient institutions. The people are disgusted with the fact that relatives of members of government are being appointed by government and meritocracy is dead. A commission of enquiry on drugs that has not seen its major recommendations implemented while the number of drug users continues to rise. The shocking ease with which tax payers money was used and abused by this government when purchasing medical equipment and medicines from friends of this government. And recently, the incompetence of this government in dealing with the MV Wakashio before it crashed into our coral reefs, the complacency and negligence with which they dealt with the high risk of oil spillage and their slow response after the oil spill. They have failed all the way and the people have had enough of them. The oil spill has hurt a majority of us. The sea forms part of our DNA.

Some analysts said that the protesters were not from all communities and that there was a large representation of Franco-Mauritians and Catholics while the Hindus - particularly from the rural areas - and the Muslims were underrepresented. Do you agree with that?

I beg to differ. I was there. I saw a massive presence of people from all walks of life and from all communities. I witnessed a great number of youngsters who were there first and foremost as Mauritian Citizens. All present were dressed in black. In spite of the sick and Machiavellian ploy used by those in power such as organising the sale of alcohol and tobacco at the SVICC on the day of the march, the heinous communal campaign on social media by those close to members of government to the effect that this march was an anti-Hindu march, a false and ridiculous accusation against Bruno Laurette by members of government that Mr. Laurette was an agent of the MOSSDF in order to discourage the Muslim community, none of all that worked. The silence in the government ranks following that massive march is ample proof that they are afraid of where this may lead to.

"The silence in the government ranks following that massive march is ample proof that they are afraid of where this may lead to."

What do you expect the government to say or do?

This is totally new territory that the government had not seen coming at all. There are only two ways for the government to react. First the government can come out in public and state that it has taken note of the call of civil society that was clearly expressed on the 29th of August 2020 and that it would engage with the various groups in order to chart out a new course in the superior interest of the nation. That would be constructive and would be something that the country at large would applaud. The other way which the government would most probably choose to follow would be that of minimising the impact and effect of that event. Basing myself on the manner in which government has acted ever since 2015 and the way it has reacted when confronted with views different to their own brings me to the following conclusion namely that the government will ignore what has happened. I am convinced that the arrogance which is now the calling card of this government will persist. I also believe that many regret not having come to the match on 29th August 2020. There will undoubtedly be new events and demonstrations and gatherings which should accentuate the pressure upon government. As it is, it must be very hard for members of government to walk the streets of Mauritius without added security.

What do you expect to happen now? People exteriorised their anger and they go back to business as usual for another four and a half years?

I do not believe that people will go back to business as usual. There is a huge possibility that after 52 years of independence that we are soon to embark if not we have maybe already embarked upon the third phase of our development. The first being that of independence, the second being the phase of "industrialisation and modernisation" and the third one could very well be about a change in the way leaders are chosen, the values and governance ideals. I am of the view that the days when Mauritius would remain behind their computer screens on social media to criticise is coming to an end. The battle has now moved to the streets where people who never used to go to political meetings are going to such events full of enthusiasm and passion. This is a good sign.

"The people are disgusted with the fact that relatives of members of government are being appointed by government and meritocracy is dead."

The unifying slogan at the march was "Get him [Pravind Jugnauth] out", which the protesters started chanting in polite terms, which became less and less polite as they heated up. Others simply wanted him to change his ways. How realistic is changing his ways likely to be?

The government will continue its path living in an ivory tower and totally disconnected with the people on the streets. As we speak, there are people within the ranks of government who are even contemplating leaving the sinking ship. I would however hasten to add that the effect to be analysed is not only that upon government but what should also be analysed is the effect of the march upon the opposition. There was a clear and unequivocal call within the rings of civil society on 29th August 2020 that they want new blood at the head of political parties and that they want this new blood to be in charge of the destiny of our country. There was a strong call for a change in the system of government. There is a clear message that meritocracy should prevail even in the choice of leaders as opposed to the old ways of choosing based on religion and caste. The people are crying out for meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty. The only reason that this has not been offered to the people is because of vested interests.

What do you think the next step should be?

The main objective of the organisers should be to keep the momentum. They should remind themselves that their aim is more important. They should unite with all those who think alike including people from the opposition. One march will not change our destiny. There should be more demonstrations and it should become a regular feature that should culminate into sit-ins. A change is possible. If there is belief and stamina, there can be change sooner than expected.

Some people are suggesting that the opposition resign in one block and that the population keeps the pressure to push for a general election rather than 24 odd by-elections. Do you agree with that?

Before embarking upon any battle plan, it is important to know your adversary. The MSM have glued themselves to their ministerial seats. The opposition resigning could lead the MSM to amend laws reducing fundamental freedoms, cancelling elections and giving national assets to friends of the MSM/ML.

Talking about cancelling elections, aren't surprised by the time processing the electoral petitions is taking? In some African countries, it took no more than nine months for a court to declare the elections null and void and for a fresh election to be held. What is wrong with our system?

I am of the view that the chief justice has a role to play to remove all bugs from the system. He has the knowledge and ability together with the judges and magistrates of this country assisted by members of the legal profession to come up with constructive and viable solutions to achieve swift justice. I humbly suggest that there should be a marshal plan for reform of the judicial system in Mauritius. In the case of the electoral petitions, the respondents will buy time. It is in their interest to protract the process.

How optimistic are you for the future of this country?

I was not very hopeful for the future of this country. How can one contemplate a brighter future in a country where meritocracy does not exist? How could I ever have thought that Mauritius had a bright future when the rule has become that ability is not important but your closeness to people in power is all that matters. The August 29 March has changed my outlook on the future. It took a lot of courage to prepare for this march and to walk with all those thousands of people. Each participant deserves our heartfelt congratulations. The organisers also deserve our encouragement. If they continue on this path, a new Mauritius is in the offing. The strength passion of civil society must continue. The time for change is now and that time will not come back before another 50 years.

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