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Signal Risk on Mauritius – Dictatorial drift?

PUBLISHED: Thu, 03 Jun 2021 10:16:27 GMT

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*This analysis was produced by the team at Signal Risk 

Officers from the Central Criminal Investigation Division (CCID) arrested former attorney general Jayarama Valayden from his Les Pailles residence shortly before 02:00 local time on 17 May. Valayden was subsequently questioned at the CCID’s Port Louis headquarters before being released at approximately 09:00 the same day.

According to CCID investigators, Valayden was arrested on two provisional charges related to unlawful assembly and violating the Quarantine Act 2020 (which currently prohibits public gatherings of more than ten people).

These provisional charges stem from a peaceful rally attended by approximately 100 people on 16 May outside the local municipality offices in Port Louis. The gathering had been organised by a local civic organisation, of which Valayden is the spokesperson, to express support for the Palestinian people and to call for peace in the current Middle East conflict. Several other activists, including local lawyer Shahzaad Mungroo, were also temporarily detained in connection with the march.

Dubious detention

Valayden’s detention prompted an immediate backlash from several sectors of society. In a 17 May communique entitled “Objectionable Police Practice”, the Mauritius Bar Association (MBA) criticised the arrest, stating that it saw no urgency or necessity in arresting Valayden at his residence. Instead, the MBA argued that it would have been more appropriate to have called the former attorney general in for questioning during business hours.

Opposition parties have gone further in their criticism, expressing concern that the arrests are indicative of Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth’s allegedly growing tendency to constrain opposition activity and dissent. On the morning of 17 May, Patrick Assirvaden, president of the Labour Party (to which Valayden belongs), stated that the CCID had acted as “the gestapo of Pravind Jugnauth”.

In a somewhat less incendiary tone, leader of the opposition in parliament, Xavier-Luc Duval, wrote to the Commissioner of Police requesting that he seek legal advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) prior to formalising the provisional charges against Valayden. As per Duval, this was necessary due to the “political nature of the arrests”, which could have “ramifications on national unity and law and order”.

For its part, the government has yet to respond directly to these allegations. However, in an 18 May media interview, Prime Minister Jugnauth did condemn the “irresponsible behaviour” of certain individuals who had violated public health regulations. The CCID summoned Valayden for a second round of questioning on 18 May and subsequently announced that it would drop the provisional charges against him and instead refer the matter to the DPP.

Social media suspicion

Valayden’s arrest is the most recent example of what government critics argue is the Jugnauth administration’s inclination to exercise greater control over the domestic political arena.

By way of example, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) were two of 60 organisations to sign on 12 May an open letter seeking to prevent amendments from being made to the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act or ICT Act.

The proposed amendments were published by the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (ICTA) in a consultation paper issued in April, and are touted as being critical in addressing the “abuse and misuse” of social media in Mauritius. In this regard, the draft legislation proposes the creation of two central government bodies: The National Digital Ethics Committee (NDEC) – to identify illegal and harmful content – and the Technical Enforcement Unit – to implement the technical enforcement measures as directed by the NDEC.

Despite the intended goals of the amendments, activists are concerned that the vague wording of the changes and the broad mandate ascribed to the proposed state agencies would represent a vast

expansion of the government’s control over domestic internet use. Consequently, the signatories of the open letter argue that the ICT Act represents a substantive threat to both privacy and freedom of expression in Mauritius.

Assessment

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The administration of Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth has in recent years attempted to expand its executive authority beyond constitutionally established parameters. This has manifested most clearly in diminishing tolerance towards criticism, as well as a growing inclination towards controlling sources of dissent (namely: opposition parties, civil society groups, and independent media organisations). Jugnauth’s more hard-line approach to governance has infringed on political rights and individual freedoms (particularly those of opponents and government critics). By way of example, the 2020 Ibrahim African Governance (IIAG) report found that – although Mauritius still ranks at the top of its list – measures of human rights had deteriorated somewhat over the reporting period. Despite Jugnauth’s apparent attempts to exert greater control over the domestic political arena, the country’s democratic structures remain intact. As such, Mauritius’ typically strong governance institutions (such as an independent judiciary, an active civil society, and a free media landscape) are expected to prevent a more substantive deterioration of the country’s democracy. It is therefore likely to retain its position as one of the region’s most robust democracies for the foreseeable future.

Anti-government sentiment is nevertheless likely to escalate over the short-to-medium term. Historically, Mauritius has experienced few, if any, political protests. This changed following the grounding of an oil tanker off the coast of Mahebourg in 2020. Protests held in the capital, Port Louis, against the government’s handling of the crisis were among the most well-attended in the country’s history. While the oil spill triggered the demonstrations, they were buoyed by wider disaffection with the Jugnauth administration, including concerns over corruption and the dynastic nature of the local political system. Significantly, the shift from a relatively passive to a more active civil society appears to have maintained momentum since the 2020 protests. This is evident in the creation of new civic organisations – such as En Avant Moris, or Ideal Democrate – that focus on both local and national political issues. This reflects a build-up of disaffection with the Jugnauth administration that could result in a significant public backlash if the government is perceived as radically overstepping its democratic mandate (by for example, pushing the current ICT Act through parliament). At present however, indications suggest that Mauritius’ political landscape will remain stable over the short-to-medium term. Accordingly, following his re-election in 2019, Jugnauth and the ruling Alliance Mauricien are not expected to face any substantive political challenges until the next general elections in 2024.

The country will remain constrained in its ability to foster a strong economic rebound in 2021. This much was highlighted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its end-of-mission statement on 07 May, following the completion of its 2021 Article IV Consultation mission with Mauritius. As per the IMF, ongoing pandemic-related headwinds pose a substantial risk to the state’s well-regarded recovery efforts, while growth of roughly 5 percent of GDP is forecast for 2021. This is lower than the 7.9 percent improvement projected by the Bank of Mauritius (BoM) in February, prior to the imposition of the national lockdown and the second wave of coronavirus infections.

Ongoing efforts to support the recovery are likely to add pressure to the state’s fiscal position. As noted by the IMF, a more accommodative fiscal policy will be required to facilitate a recovery amid current economic headwinds. To this end, authorities are expected to continue with current stimulus and social protection measures (including wage guarantees, and income support for the informal sector and self-employed individuals) at least over the short term. The government is also expected to prioritise more forward-looking programmes to uphold broader structural transformation towards a more knowledge-intensive economy. Such programmes would require greater investment in local education and technology capabilities. However, the combination of increased spending and slowing public revenue is likely to lead to increased fiscal pressure over the medium term. Specifically, public debt – currently at 88 percent of GDP in 2021 – is forecast to increase to 92 percent by 2024. Accordingly, the IMF notes that, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, a return to a more conservative fiscal approach will be required to shore up the necessary buffers to ensure long-term budgetary stability. Outside of the above-mentioned fiscal and macroeconomic concerns, an additional policy focus will relate to the Jugnauth administration’s ongoing efforts to remove itself from the European Union’s so-called “grey-list” of countries whose financial systems could be utilised for money laundering and financing of terrorism.