TIP OF THE ICEBERG: THE WAKASHIO OIL SPILL AND MAURITIAN GOVERNMENT OPPOSITION – MADISON MOULTON

Image: Xavier Coiffic (Unsplash)

Mauritius is one of Africa’s proudest success stories. The island nation ranked first in good governance in the 2015 Ibrahim Index of African Governance. It remains Africa’s only full democracy on the Democracy Index and is touted as an economic success story. 

That shining record, however, appears to be fading fast. From accusations of election irregularities in 2019, to corruption allegations and a potential EU (European Union) blacklisting, the Mauritian government is facing negative press from its citizens and from the international community.

The recent Wakashio oil spill brought these issues to the fore as the catalyst for massive protests in the streets against the government. Mauritian citizens used the opportunity to express the past year’s concerns and call for the Prime Minister to step down. The environmental protests are the largest Mauritius has seen in 40 years and they join a chorus of growing environmental activism across the world. 

These compounding issues, with the oil spill as the tip of the iceberg, indicate the country’s pristine image as an African leader may be coming to an end.

The 2019 Snap Election

In the most recent Mauritian election on 7 November 2019, the Militant Socialist Movement (MSM) won with a comfortable majority, allowing Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth to retain his seat. He first became Prime Minister in 2017 when his father Sir Anerood Jugnauth, who held the position for 18 years prior, stepped down as Prime Minister and Party Leader. 

Pravind Jugnauth became the Prime Minister as the MSM’s new party leader this was possible as no laws prevent the transition of power from father to son. His continued position raised concerns about dynastic politics and the true standard of democracy in the country. Jugnauth is likely to remain the uncontested leader for years, consolidating power further in one family.

The election was plagued by irregularity accusations from opposition parties and civil society organisations. Thousands of registered voters complained they were unable to cast their votes as they did not appear on the voter’s roll. Marked ballots were discovered outside testing centres weeks after the results were announced and citizens complained that electoral staff were inexperienced. 

The election contestation and opposition to the Prime Minister is a first for Mauritian democracy and the government’s refusal to acknowledge the concerns sets a dangerous precedent for future elections.

Economic Woes

The Mauritian government has maintained a reputation as a resilient financial centre. Like other countries across the world, the pandemic has threatened that reputation. Their economy is outward-focused, relying on exports and tourism as central pillars. The declining international markets and the halting of international tourism has hit the economy hard, with a predicted GDP (Gross Domestic Product) contraction of up to 6%. 

Unfortunately, the problems do not stop there. The government was hit by two economic scandals in the middle of the year – tainting the reputation of clean governance. On 7 May 2020, Mauritius was announced as one of the 22 countries on the EU blacklist, for potential money laundering and terrorist financing. When confirmed, the decision will severely impact the financial sector, which accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP. The impact is likely to spill over into other industries and damage the international economic ties the country has built. 

Only a month after the announcement, the government was hit by corruption allegations from the African Development Bank (AFD). The AFD funded an energy project for a new power station in 2014 and a later investigation found evidence of procurement corruption. This prompted the resignation of the heads of the Central Electricity Board (CEB) and resulted in the Prime Minister dismissing his deputy, Ivan Collendavelloo. The scandal has further damaged the reputation of the government and resulted in an air of mistrust from the electorate.

The Wakashio Oil Spill: A Breaking Point in Government Opposition

Growing government opposition after the election and economic scandals came to a head on 25 July when the Japanese-owned ship MV Wakashio spilled 1 000 tons of oil off the coast of Mauritius. The Prime Minister announced a state of emergency and began cleanup operations which are expected to take up to a year to complete.

The environmental disaster resulted in a wave of demonstrations by an estimated 75 000 angered citizens, who took to the streets to demand accountability from the government. Their chief concerns were the handling of the cleanup, government secrecy surrounding the disaster and operations, damage to the ocean environment and the impact on livelihoods that rely on the ocean economy. 

The previous year’s mounting issues all made an appearance in protest signs and speeches, signalling that the spill was merely the final straw for an increasingly disillusioned electorate. Signs and t-shirts sent a strong message – “they are killing our democracy” and “I love my country. I’m ashamed of my government.” – and protestors used the occasion to call for the government to step down. Protest leaders demanded a revision of the constitution and complete overhaul of the political system. 

The Power of Environmental Activism

These demonstrations join a growing trend of environmental activism and demands for greater government accountability in protecting the planet. Global climate strikes with high youth participation are on the rise – with no signs of slowing down.

The increasing prevalence of environmental activism has the potential to majorly impact policymaking and political change in the affected countries. In their demonstrations, Mauritian citizens called for a progressive development – the rights of nature to be enshrined in the constitution. Global demands include reliance on renewable energy, environmental justice, sustainable agriculture and the protecting of indigenous and biodiverse lands. 

These demands are directed at political figures. Those who fail to respond are at risk of greater political opposition and potential removal, as young activists gain the right to vote and constitute the majority of the electorate. Environmental activism, policy and political change are becoming inextricably linked. As environmental disasters rise, the links will only get stronger.

Government opposition in Mauritius is set to continue, with another large protest planned in November. The refusal of the government to acknowledge and tackle election irregularities, economic concerns, government corruption and environmental disaster effectively and transparently spell disaster for their image among Mauritian citizens and the international community. This is likely to potentially end their reign as an African success story.

Madison Moulton is a freelance writer and editor with a degree in Political Science and History from the University of Pretoria. She covers the environment, food, current events and politics with a historical angle. Her work can be found on her website madisonmoulton.com

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