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Is Mauritius at a tipping point in the fight against corruption?

Transparency Int'l

Many Africans have to pay bribes to police officers, utility providers and even teachers, but this isn’t the case in every part of the continent.

What Mauritian citizens think about corruption & bribery

According to the latest Global Corruption Barometer — Africa, very few Mauritians who accessed public services, like health care and education, had to pay a bribe for those services.

However, given recent scandals and issues with corruption, impunity and nepotism, Mauritians still see institutions and groups like parliamentarians, the police and the prime minister as corrupt.

Additionally, about 60 per cent of Mauritians think that corruption is on the rise and that the government is doing a bad job at tackling it.

How Mauritius compares to other African countries

Mauritians’ views about corruption are certainly not unique — our surveyshows that 55 per cent of Africans think that corruption is increasing and 59 per cent told us they believed government efforts to tackle it were inadequate or ineffective.

What is different, however, is how much bribe-free service delivery and institutional integrity Mauritius could lose compared to most of the African countries we surveyed.

Only five per cent of Mauritians have to pay bribes to access public services for things like education, healthcare, identification documents and safe water, compared to an average of 28 per cent across the 35 countries covered by our research.

So why is this island state unusually bribery-free for Africa and why might corruption be on the rise?

The state of corruption in Mauritius

While Mauritius has corruption problems — it scores 51 out of 100 on our Corruption Perceptions Index — it benefits from being stable, prosperous and largely democratic. It also has a mostly free press, robust laws and, crucially, a strong anti-corruption system in its institutions.

It combines one of Africa’s highest GDPs (although with increasing income-based inequality) with an open, multiparty democratic system in which free and fair elections consistently allow for the handover of power. This means that voters can hold corrupt politicians to account by punishing unethical behaviour at the ballot box.

It also has a strong legal framework to prevent corruption, although this can be enforced inefficiently and unevenly. The framework also has some significant gaps: there are no right to information or whistleblower protection laws, and a current bill on political party financing has weaknesses.

Strengthening institutions to fight corruption

Despite not having a high corruption prosecution and conviction rate, the Mauritius national anti-corruption agency has had a significant effect on corruption. From 2009 to 2016, the agency drove systemic change that drastically reduced bribery rates in government institutions through a bottom-up strategy to reduce opportunities for corruption.

This involved government institutions identifying their own, specific corruption risks, developing solutions and monitoring their implementation. The institutions took responsibility for their anti-corruption efforts and this gave a sense of ownership to staff who hadn’t previously seen the value of fighting corruption. It also empowered senior officials to strengthen institutions to fight corruption more effectively.

Recent scandals highlight much work still left to do

While the national anti-corruption strategy made a big difference to bribery, it did not rid Mauritius of nepotism and cronyism. It is common for public sector positions to be filled through political connections rather than ability — many top public officials are relatives of ministers. A notable example is the prime minister, Pravind Jugnauth, who took office when his father retired from the role.

Scandals involving top politicians have also rocked the country: Pravind Jugnauth was forced to resign as technology minister in 2015 when found guilty of a conflict of interest. He was later acquitted and quickly appointed as finance minister.

In 2017, the then justice minister, Ravi Yerrigadoo, resigned in connection with money laundering, and in 2018, the then President Ameena Gurib Fakim resigned after a US$27,000 spending spree with an NGO’s credit card. The NGO was funded by a notorious Angolan businessman who had acquired a Mauritian investment banking license shortly after laws had been conveniently changed to make this easier to do so.

These scandals — which were followed by resignations rather than prison sentences — may be major reasons why Mauritians feel that unchecked corruption is on the rise.

Speaking out is a challenge

The lack of convictions in these scandals may be due to political interference with the judiciary in cases involving members of the ruling circle. Additionally, politicians have allegedly used the police to prevent political demonstrations as well as intimidate, arrest and detain some people; in 2017, three journalists investigating the justice minister for money laundering were arrested.

While independent outlets often publish stories that are critical of the government, covering corruption can be difficult and there are laws that provide for imprisoning journalists on charges like offending the public order.

What’s next for Mauritius?

Mauritians benefit from some integrity in public institutions and some very effective anti-corruption strategies, but they are right to worry that corruption is rising and that those in power aren’t serious about tackling it. The upcoming general election in December 2019 gives the ruling party a chance to show that it is committed to improving integrity by not interfering with political rights and the press. It should also support a strong legal framework and allow the judiciary to bring the corrupt to justice.

GCB

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