The Agalega project continues apace under a heavy shroud of secrecy. So how did Agalega become the worst enigma in the Indian Ocean? What does a comparison with a similar deal with Seychelles for a base on Assumption Island tell us?
The Soviets and Agalega
The great irony about Agalega is that it shot into prominence in the mid-1970s with speculation over another military base project. In April 1975, a prominent businessman in Seychelles, Paul Moulinie, told US diplomats that he was under pressure from the Soviets to sell them Agalega to make a military base there.
The US diplomats were confused by the report. For good reason: until then Agalega was managed as a private lease by a company based in Seychelles - Chagos-Agalega Ltd. (that formerly ran the Chagos as well) that employed the population of Agalega and was managed by a Seychellois national as resident manager. The island was used to manufacture copra, the entirety of which was then sold to a conglomerate in Mauritius, which in turn supplied Agalega with food and supplies.
The reports were soon transmitted to Mauritius, which denied receiving any offers from Moscow to build a base on Agalega. The concern from Washington sufficiently rattled Mauritius. During the oil crisis in the 1970s when the price of oil jumped by 400 percent, Mauritius secured a deal with Iran to get oil that was only 40 percent more expensive. In Port Louis, the deal was credited to a US diplomat previously posted in Port Louis who was then posted as a political counsellor in Tehran.
So, there was plenty of reason for Mauritius to prevent such confusions to linger in Washington. A compulsory acquisition later by October 1975, Mauritius took direct control of Agalega and set up a corporation to manage it - which would morph into the Outer Islands Development Corporation (OIDC) - in 1983.
The question now was: what would Mauritius do with Agalega? Aside from continuing coconut cultivation, Mauritius tried to move Chagossians kicked out of the Chagos to Agalega instead. The plan had the enthusiastic backing of US President Gerald Ford.
In this way, Mauritius would reassure Washington by helping solve the Chagossian issue while at the same time deflecting criticism from within Mauritius that the Labour government was spending resettlement funds from the UK adequately. Out of the 421 families that were expelled from Chagos and ended up in Mauritius, only eight wanted to go to Agalega. So that was the end of that.
Until the end of the cold war, Agalega remained forgotten. It was in the 1990s that it came back into the picture. For more than a decade, India wanted a presence on Agalega. According to Indian strategist Bharat Karnad in his 2015 book "Why India is not a Great Power (Yet)", Mauritius and India tussled over the issue, including the proposal to mask this project by spinning it as a tourism development spearheaded by an Indian hotel group owned by the Tata's or the Oberoi's. The result was a deal in 1996 allowing the Indians to set up a radar station in Agalega. In the meantime, Mauritius explored setting up a genuine tourism industry there.
One such proposal came from the Mauritian conglomerate IBL. "IBL showed some interest to fly people to Agalega and other islands for regional tourism," explains ex-foreign minister and ex-leader of the opposition, Arvin Boolell. This was after 2003 and under the tenure of Paul Bérenger as prime minister in a power-sharing deal with the MSM that lasted till 2005.
The IBL proposal was met with fierce resistance from the opposition Labour Party. "Bérenger took a big beating on that politically," says Vijay Makhan, former foreign secretary, and former deputy secretary-general of the African Union, "that project to develop Agalega as a tourism spot was shelved because of opposition from the Labour Party."
Mixed signals and evasive replies
It is not just the parameters of the project or the missteps from the OIDC that have given short shrift to Mauritian denialism about Agalega. It is also the unwillingness of the Mauritian government itself to answer the question head-on. Sometimes comically so.
In 2017, prime minister Pravind Jugnauth told parliament that Indian military staff would have to "ask for permission from Mauritian authorities" before going to Agalega. Consider this exchange on October 23, 2018 in parliament involving then vice-prime minister Fazila Jeewa-Daureeawoo (whose brief included Agalega and whose ministry was representing Mauritius on the joint project monitoring committee overseeing the project on Agalega - according to prime minister Pravind Jugnauth in parliament on 16 June 2017).
When asked whether the Indian military was on Agalega, she answered: "Whether there are military workers there, I don't know." (sic). When it was pointed out she had just returned from a visit to Agalega, Jeewa-Daureeawoo simply replied, "When I visited Agalega, I did not see military there." When asked whether the facilities being built on Agalega would be for civilian purposes only, she responded, "It will be for both."
The mixed signals were not only coming from the Mauritian government being evasive in its replies but from the Indian side too. On December 22, 2018, outgoing Indian High Commissioner Abhay Thakur, in an interview with l'express, stated, "any statement that the Government of India is willing to disclose bilateral agreements on GoI-assisted projects, whereas the Government of Mauritius is not willing to do so, is factually incorrect".
A statement in total contradiction with a statement in August that same year from India's former foreign minister Sushma Swaraj who said that a confidentiality clause in the agreement on Agalega was insisted on by the Mauritian side.
The result of all this evasiveness? "In India, they are much better informed about what's happening in Agalega than we are here in Mauritius," laments Makhan, "all of this needs to come into the open since it has effects, for example, if you have an issue where Mauritian foreign policy diverges with that of India, this will create a problem which is why we need to know the details of what it is we are getting into." Within India, Agalega is routinely referred to as a base. Boolell is similarly forthright, "they need to make all of this public."
Mauritius' democracy differs from that of Seychelles
In many ways, what is happening in Agalega is also an indictment of the way that Mauritius' democracy differs from that of Seychelles. In the case of Assumption island, secrecy could not be maintained for long because, in their democratic set-up, the project on Assumption Island had to be ratified by their parliament. Sooner or later, it would have been forced out into the public. It was under the public gaze that the Assumption island project floundered.
Within the democracy in Mauritius, the Agalega deal could be concluded by the executive without releasing anything in parliament or to the public. "What strikes me is the hue and cry that was raised when a Mauritian company wanted to do a project on Mauritian territory (the IBL project). But now ,when a foreign state is getting some rights over Agalega no one seems to be reacting, that's quite shocking," says our source, "and that too at a time when there is the total inconsistency of Mauritius wanting to get the Chagos back at the ICJ and the UN while signing such a deal over Agalega".
The Agalega 'facility'
In 2015, however, as part of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's tour of Indian Ocean states, including Seychelles and Mauritius, Port Louis finally approved the Agalega project. Work officially started in 2018 when New Delhi gave the contract to an Indian company AFCONS (one of the companies in the running for the Metro Express project as well).
In both states, Modi signed agreements to set up facilities in Agalega as well as on Assumption Island in Seychelles, both islands close to the Mozambique choke point. The policy was hailed as part of Modi's vision for the Indian Ocean that was crystallized in a 2016 policy dubbed Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), in truth, a reiteration of India's maritime doctrine since 2004. Mauritius agreeing to that was a complete reversal of its foreign policy.
"It's a complete U-turn," says a source, "Mauritius always had an officially neutralist posture; for the first time Mauritius is willingly giving another state right over its sovereign territory. This is a dramatic shift. Taking sides in big power competition always has consequences."
In an article by Samuel Bashfield last month in The Interpreter, India has already built its 3,000-meter-long runway capable of hosting its P-81 surveillance aircraft, which India has already been using to patrol the region since 2001 from French facilities in Reunion.
The Mauritian government keeps insisting that Agalega is just about infrastructure development, justified in terms of previous failures to upgrade infrastructure there: in 2003, the consulting firm GIBB (Mauritius) Ltd said that upgrading the then 1,300-meter runway would cost Rs 54 million. Nothing was done because the then-government did not cough up the money in the 2004-2005 budget.
Another attempt in 2011 was shelved, this time because GIBB estimated the costs to be Rs 120 million and Gamma Civic offered to do it for no less than Rs 350 million.
The changed parameters of the project, however, are not convincing that this is just about infrastructure. On 16 June 2017, the then-leader of the opposition Xavier-Luc Duval asked in parliament: "What is the reason for having such a huge landing strip on such a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean with 300 people living there?"
Nor does it make sense from contradictory moves from the OIDC that, in November 2020, asked visitors to Agalega to cough up a bank guarantee of Rs 403,000 to go there. The government justified the move as to cover costs in cases of medical emergencies requiring evacuation back to Mauritius. In the face of mounting outrage over the move, and perhaps recognizing the contradiction of imposing such a bank guarantee on Mauritians for the possibility of chartering medical flights precisely at a time when the Indians are there ostensibly to build facilities to make such flights easier, the government quickly backtracked. "The proposed measure is being put on hold," Prime minister Pravind Jugnauth told parliament on December 15 last year.
Delhi starts showing interest
Just as the IBL proposal crumbled, India once again stepped into the picture. "It was after the start of the Labour Party government in 2005 that Indian interest in Agalega began in earnest," says Makhan. That was due to the confluence of two developments; firstly, in 2004 India came up with its maritime doctrine that guides its security policy in the Indian Ocean to this day.
The doctrine states that "major powers of this century will seek a toehold in the Indian Ocean" and emphasizes control over narrow, but heavily-used sea lanes ('choke points') such as the Mozambique Channel, a narrow strip of ocean between Madagascar and Mozambique that sees the passage of 30 percent of global tanker traffic.
The doctrine further adds: "control of the choke points could be useful as a bargaining chip in the international power game, where the currency of military power remains a stark reality."
In 2009 the doctrine was updated to combating terrorism and piracy, but in all essentials remained the same. In 2015, India's Maritime Security Strategy document listed the Mozambique Channel as a "primary area of interest".
Since then, Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean - such as its facilities in Gwadar and Djibouti - have only deepened India's security ambitions in the region. "Mauritius has always bowed to India's geopolitical interests, whether it's over nuclear testing or permanent membership for India at the UN Security Council," Boolell argues, "now it's a race between India and China over control of what India considers to be its backyard." Agalega, closer to the northern tip of Madagascar than it is to Mauritius, once again was looking like prime strategic real estate.
Mauritius' lowered ability to brush off its ambitions
The second major development was Mauritius' lowered ability to brush off such ambitions. 2005 saw the EU collapse sugar prices by 36 percent and end textile quotas for Mauritius, plunging Mauritius into economic uncertainty. At the same time, Mauritius was facing challenges over its Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) with India, which Port Louis considered vital for its financial services sector.
The loss of Europe as a crutch for its sugar and textile exports deepened economic reliance on India, who during this time pumped money into infrastructure projects such as the Swami Vivekananda Conference Centre and the Cybertower in Ebene. In 2005, the Indians started once again bringing up Agalega with then-Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam.
Within Mauritius, these talks were labelled as simply proposals for India to develop infrastructure and the coconut, fisheries, and agricultural diversification of Agalega. "The Indians approached Navin Ramgoolam many times between 2006 and 2013, and these proposals for Agalega always had a military component to them," says a source familiar with the issue.
"We always handled such things carefully and treaded cautiously when it came to Agalega," says Boolell. Matters reached a head in 2012 when Boolell (then foreign minister) visited Delhi for talks on the DTAA. Indian media reported that the Labour government had offered Agalega in a quid pro quo deal to keep the DTAA in place. Asked whether such an offer was made, Boolell says, "I was questioned by a journalist during my visit there and what I said was distorted in the Indian press."
While the Mauritian government was dealing with Indian proposals over Agalega, it was also courting a project proposal from a South African company, ARCON. In December 2005, ARCON proposed a $450 million deal to develop a tourism development project that would include a wind energy plant, a sewage plant, bungalows, a marina, restaurants, shops, and even a project to grow hydroponic vegetables.
ARCON promised to create 560 jobs for servicing its project on Agalega. By 2008, the ARCON proposal was dashed because the Mauritian government said that ARCON was asking for 400 hectares of state land - covering the whole eastern side of both North and South islands of Agalega - too much to cede. So, while India continued to ply the government about Agalega, alternative proposals for Agalega seemed to be going nowhere either.