Africa

Mauritius: Media-savvy President still stands her ground as graft scandal closes in

By Carien Du Plessis 11 March 2018

Mauritius is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence from British rule this week, but a corruption scandal around the island’s first woman president, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, has cast a cloud over the festivities. By CARIEN DU PLESSIS.

It’s been storming in Mauritius pretty much all the way since after New Year, ruining some crops and the holidays of hundreds of tourists who come to the island’s renowned resorts to unwind.

Lately, however, a cyclone of an entirely different kind has engulfed the tiny country with its idyllic beaches, sugarcane fields, booming businesses and big properties.

On 28 February L’Express newspaper reported that President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim abused a credit card given to her by controversial Angolan businessman Álvaro Sobrinho. Ostensibly, it was meant to promote a PhD programme which bore Gurib-Fakim’s name, but documents obtained by the paper showed that the president’s platinum card was used for other purposes.

From September to December 2016 it was used to pay hotel bills in Sweden and England, and for a 43,811 Mauritian rupees (R15,687) purchase (perhaps a laptop) at an Apple store in Washington DC.

There was a Rs5,895 bill for clothes in Dubai, and a Rs8,001 shoe purchase in Abu Dhabi, and more than Rs700,000 was spent at Dubai’s duty free shops. Rs480,000 worth of jewellery was purchased, and a number of other smaller buys were made in Lucknow in India as well as in Budapest.

She also spent Rs90,000 at the fashion designer Roberto Naldi and more than Rs10,000 at the La Rinascente department store – both in Rome. And so forth.

Gurib-Fakim first questioned the authenticity of the documents L’Express wrote about, but later changed her story to say she would repay the money.

On International Women’s Day last week, the Mauritian cabinet took a decision that the country’s first woman president – appointed three years earlier – has to go.

Even in societies less conservative than Mauritius, it’s a big deal appointing a woman in this position – even though it’s not the Mauritian president, but the prime minister, who has the executive powers (this is also, incidentally, why Gurib-Fakim isn’t counted among the continent’s female heads of state, of which there are none left after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stepped down in 2017).

She was appointed president in Kailash Purryag’s place (he resigned) in May 2015 after L’Alliance Lepep selected her to be its presidential candidate the year before. Both Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth and Leader of the Opposition Paul Berenger welcomed her nomination, and the National Assembly unanimously voted for her.

L’Express, at the time, described the appointment of this world-renowned academic and biodiversity scientist as “a fair recognition of the contribution and skills of women”, mostly because she didn’t get there solely on a gender ticket.

Sobrinho is said to have been looking for investment opportunities in Mauritius, but if the platinum card was supposed to grease his way into this country, Gurib-Fakim was the wrong person to target. She doesn’t have the decision-making powers to help him.

Despite her lack of a real political power base (she was in effect appointed rather than elected by a popular vote), Gurib-Fakim has won a string of awards for promoting women in science and in July 2017 Forbes magazine named her one of the 100 most influential women leaders in Africa.

She’s also media-savvy, and a day before the platinum card allegations were published, the BBC’s Lerato Mbele interviewed her in her State House garden for the channel’s Working Lives documentary about the endemic species and medicinal plants she has planted there.

In January, as the push for former South African president Jacob Zuma to resign was gaining momentum, Gurib-Fakim met then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and his wife Tshepo Motsepe on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos and posed for some merry pictures which were posted on her official Facebook site.

Three weeks after this meeting, Ramaphosa replaced Zuma as president, and two weeks after that, Gurib-Fakim’s own troubles started.

Last week, as the red, blue, yellow and green colours of Les Quatre Bandes, the Mauritian flag, went up on the fences of government buildings ahead of a storm-free long weekend of celebrations, Gurib-Fakim fought back.

Even as Jugnauth on Friday announced – in a press conference that lasted a rather mind-boggling four minutes – that Gurib-Fakim has agreed to go on Tuesday, the day after the celebrations, she retorted on Twitter: “It is being reported that I am resigning … I am still in post…”

She also insisted that the truth about what she said were allegations about her credit card misuse would come out in an inquiry.

So, while it seems that Gurib-Fakim is on her way out, Mauritians say they’re not sure when that will be. One even asked whether her usual garden party the day after the celebrations could happen, as there is talk of fellow politicians and even the media boycotting it.

There are also questions about why it seems so difficult to get rid of Gurib-Fakim. Could it be that she’s the fall woman and that she has dirt on fellow politicians embroiled in much bigger scandals?

She’s not the first politician there to face corruption allegations, and her supposed kickbacks are small compared to what others are believed to have received. Mauritians still talk about the wads of crisp, fresh foreign currency found in safes in the home of former Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam, who saw out his term but who was subsequently investigated for corruption.

L’Express editor Nad Sivaramen in a weekend column suggested that Gurib-Fakim might know about fellow politicians who have benefited from Sobrinho’s millions, and he listed a few instances to support his suspicion.

One thing has become clear,” Sivaramen wrote, “AGF [Gurib-Fakim] doesn’t want to pay the price alone.”

As flag-raising ceremonies are held all over Mauritius on Monday and children drive adults to distraction by blowing reinforced plastic vuvuzelas in the national colours, many eyes will be trained on the president’s next move. DM

Photo: Mauritian President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim delivers a speech during a panel discussion at the Budapest Water Summit in Budapest, Hungary, 29 November 2016. EPA/ZOLTAN MATHE HUNGARY OUT

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