Government’s bungled response to the July Wakashio oil spill ignited the biggest protest action since independence.
Mauritius, long perceived as an oasis of political stability in Africa, has recently made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Blacklisting by the European Union (EU) due to anti-money laundering legislation gaps, rising corruption concerns, and the poor handling of the MV Wakashio oil spill have damaged the country's reputation as a model for good governance.
The island is now experiencing its most acute political and economic pressures in decades, and investors, tourists and citizens are questioning how this might impact its future. The cause of the public outcry - which manifested in the most significant protest action since independence - was government's mismanagement of the 25 July oil spill. It's been touted as the worst in the island nation's recorded history.
On 12 September, more than 25 000 Mauritians protested in the coastal town of Mahebourg. Two weeks earlier, an even larger demonstration in the capital, Port Louis, drew 100 000 people. This was remarkable, not only for the size of the crowds (considering the country has only 1.3 million people) but also because protest action is uncommon in Mauritius.
It took government nearly two weeks to formulate an effective response to the grounding of the Wakashio
Activists including Bruneau Laurette, Ashok Subron and the broad public raised two key criticisms of the government's response to the oil spill. First, it was too slow. It took the government nearly two weeks to formulate an effective response to the grounding of the Wakashio.
Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth only declared an environmental state of emergency on 8 August - a necessary step for mobilising maximum disaster management resources and asking for help from international partners. By that time, 1 000 tonnes of oil had spilt, leaving an oil slick along 11.5 km of Mauritius's south-eastern coastline.
The second criticism pertains to the veracity of the government's version of events surrounding the sinking of the Wakashio, the spill and the salvage operation. Laurette says the government's account for how and why the Wakashio ran aground is inconsistent.
Initially the incident was attributed to adverse weather conditions, which forced the tanker to veer off course on 25 July and collide with the reef. However, recently published satellite images indicate that the tanker veered off course on 21 July and had been on a collision course with the reef since.
The mismanagement of the oil spill threatens to unsettle Mauritius's political stability
Activists have demanded answers as to why the National Coast Guard - which purportedly has early warning systems - or other institutions that monitor maritime activity, couldn't detect the Wakashio's change in course. The salvage operation was also taken to task after it was disclosed that a large portion of the Wakashio's hull would be sunk. Conservationists say this could have negative repercussions for the delicate ecosystem.
The most telling criticism centres on the government's failure to disclose impact assessments of the oil spill, and the lack of accountability for individuals and institutions tasked with dealing with such disasters. This includes the ministries of environment and fisheries, and the National Coast Guard.
Adding to the public outrage is the death of three sailors - and the missing status of another - in the salvage operation and as many as 50 dolphins and whales which are mainstay attractions of the marine protected area. The government-operated Albion Fisheries Research Centre claimed that autopsies didn't indicate that the oil spill was responsible for the deaths. This account was contested by both local and international scientists.
Growing public anger over the mishandling of the crisis has seen the calls for accountability escalate to demands for Jugnauth's resignation, the dissolution of the national assembly and new elections.
Interestingly, the country's opposition has been relatively silent on what is largely seen as an opportune moment to weaken Jugnauth and his governing coalition. Local reports suggest that opposition parties have endorsed the recent demonstrations; however their support has been relatively discreet.
Demands have been made for Jugnauth's resignation, the dissolution of parliament and new elections
Amid mounting public pressure, the Jugnauth administration has responded to some of the concerns. Although he has rejected calls for his resignation, he has pledged to initiate a commission of inquiry, as demanded by the activists. Individuals and communities adversely affected by the spill will receive various forms of support, including a monthly solidarity grant of MUR10 200 for fishermen.
This may be enough to quell some of the pressure, but the government remains on a fragile footing. It faces three equally important issues.
First, the reputational damage for Mauritius has been severe. The oil spill mismanagement is contrary to the transparent and overall sound governance the country is known for. Along with ongoing compliance issues in the offshore sector and rising concerns over corruption, this will hurt investor sentiment and undermine confidence in the country.
In addition to the EU blacklisting, external perceptions of its principled governance have been compromised by corruption scandals involving Jugnauth. Most recently, he was accused of contentiously procuring property in Vacoas six years ago under the name of his daughter, who was underage at the time.
Second, the financial cost of the spill compounds the country's economic woes. The Mauritian economy has been battered by COVID-19, and tourism now faces the double blow of that and the oil spill.
Third, and most importantly, the mismanagement of the spill threatens to unsettle the country's political stability. Any residual goodwill from last November's general election victory or the sound handling of the domestic coronavirus outbreak now seems like a distant memory.
Indeed, disenchantment with the Mauritian political establishment has been growing. Jugnauth is seen as a lightning rod for wider grievances in a dynastic political system that recycles leadership positions among a close circle of elites, resulting in policy stasis.
The country finds itself in a delicate political and economic moment. For now, the political leadership will probably withstand the pressure for change. Corrective action and a more transparent commission of inquiry into the oil spill response could soften public sentiment.
Amid the global surge in identity politics, there's also the latent danger that Hindu nationalism is invoked to regain political capital lost due to myriad scandals. For a country that's long prided itself as a melting pot of diverse cultures and religions, a resurgence in such religious tensions would be a severe regression.
Over the long term, the government's reactionary stance won't suffice. As citizens' demands for greater reform, accountability and efficiency grow, the country's political elite may quite literally have to shape up or ship out.
Menzi Ndhlovu, Senior Analyst, Signal Risk and Ronak Gopaldas, ISS Consultant, Director, Signal Risk and Co-Founder at Mindflux Training