Touria Prayag's Blog

Interview in l’express Weekly May 4

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on May 4, 2012

“The country should consider moving towards a mixed system of PR and FPTP”

The new report entitled “ Elections and the Management of Diversity in Mauritius”, which was commissioned by The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa ( UNECA) and released by local consulting firm StraConsult last Friday, brought to our shores UNECA’s representative Said Adejumobi. We met up with him to clarify the findings of the report. His strong ideas and genuine passion about the issues concerning Africa provide an excellent take on the debate going on at this point in time on our island.

You are here to attend the validation workshop of the African Governance Report of Mauritius on the theme of “ Elections and Diversity Management in Africa”. What was the aim of this report? What was it exactly that you wanted to achieve?

We are looking at a very important challenge for the African continent which is elections and the management of diversity. Our previous studies have shown that elections and diversity management are issues that are becoming a major challenge for Africa. Elections, rather than bringing people together, have been splintering them; rather than promoting cohesion and social order, elections have been seen to be promoting conflict.

Hence, the need to do a thorough investigation of the problem and proffer solutions.

Are you saying that elections and social cohesion are contradictory?

They are not contradictory. They should be complimentary but what we have seen is that elections in Africa have promoted a lot of confl ict. Instead of aggregating the wishes of the people in a consensual way, what we have seen in Africa is that sectarian identities are mobilized and turned into political weapons that promote discord and conflict. This is the experience of many African countries during elections, and even at periods leading up to elections.

Are you suggesting doing away with elections?

No. But we should plan our elections differently.

Elections the world over are the best way to gauge what problems there are. That’s uncompromisable. Why though, in the African context, do they elicit such undesirable consequences? This is not to say that the problems across Africa are the same. Even where we have fairly orderly elections, there are problems with diversity management.

For example, the issue of women’s participation; that’s a diversity problem.

In the conference you applauded Kenya for having a clause in its constitution that said that no more than 2/ 3 of its parliamentarians can consist of the same gender. Isn’t that against equal opportunities?

I think we have to strike a balance between equality of opportunity and participation.

In Kenya, what this means is that women can form up to 65% of its parliament. Men can be up to 65%, so no member of any gender can be more than 65%.

Isn’t there anything wrong with choosing people on the basis of gender rather than competence?

I think we have to address the historical injustices.

Yes, but has affirmative action worked? You had affirmative action in favour of blacks in Africa and low castes in India… has it worked?

I think it has. If you look at South Africa, where it’s coming from in terms of apartheid and the black empowerment policy that the South African government put in place, there’s the emergence of a black bourgeoisie in South Africa that’s now contributing to development and helping the economy.

But how have the poor benefited?

That’s a different issue altogether.

But we are talking about inclusiveness.

That means that everybody should get a chance and benefi t from development, doesn’t it? I think we have to keep in mind that this emergent bourgeoisie and middle class wouldn’t have been there had these policies not been in place. Had these policies not been in place, the struggle against apartheid would have come to nothing. I think quite a number of the poor have benefi ted, but not enough. What government needs to do is redirect its policies towards the very weak.

That doesn’t imply that its policies aimed at the middle class is bad, but government’s policies towards the poor have to be more than what it is currently.

In some countries that have set up quotas for women in parliament, they can’t find enough women who are interested. So what do you do? Pick up just anybody to fill up the seats?

The disadvantage of being a woman in the political process is both historical and structural and is rooted in tradition. In many countries, women are disadvantaged. Take higher education. In many countries there is the belief that women should not go to university but if you marginalize 50% of your population, you’re handicapping yourself.

Yes, but you are not talking about sending women to universities, but rather about putting women in parliament regardless of competence. Is this in the interest of women?

The issue of girls’ education is a priority for many governments and institutions.There should be this structural approach in terms of changing mindsets and beliefs but the political aspect is equally important.

When men participate in politics, who scrutinizes them? Who questions whether they are qualifi ed or not? There are some stereotypes of women in politics and in important positions. What we need to do is combat those stereotypes and make people see them differently. That’s part of the structural rearrangement that we need to make, to move women from the domestic space to the public arena. If we do not create that space, it will not happen. There has been a lot of psychological intimidation against women, when they join politics in some societies. It shouldn’t be that way. The only way we can change the landscape is that we have a constitutional order to mainstream them and gradually the mindset will change.

Where is Africa in that process today?

I think Africa has come very far.

And how is Mauritius doing in relation to Africa?

I think Mauritius’ progress is relatively low in that regard compared to the rest of Africa. It’s a process that will take time. Mauritius is a melting pot of different cultures- Islamic, Indian, Creoles, Chinese etc. which are mostly conservative in their mindset. That tends to work against women. SADC for instance has put the benchmark of women’s participation at 30% which Mauritius has not met. The African Union has stipulated a 50% parity which most countries have not met, but there is progress. For me, the most important aspect is that issue is on the table.

Some 10 years ago, it was taboo. I think as we move forward, we should avoid the pitfalls of other societies.

What are those?

The pitfalls are that there is some kind of social disintegration that accompanies women’s empowerment. The family is weakened, gender relations get deteriorated and we have the whole breakdown of society in terms of its moral fabric in which gender independence becomes an alibi for breaking down society’s fabric.

You started speaking like Margaret Thatcher.

( Laughs) Well in my view, in Africa the emphasis has been on the family bond and social values. There are countries, Japan for instance, that have achieved women empowerment along with maintaining the social bond. We are human beings and we need to compliment one another. Seen in that way, it would guard against social disintegration.

Let me give you an anecdote, a minister from Burkina Faso, who was a woman, was invited to give a lecture on the theme of empowerment. She emphasized very strongly the need for women to cash in on empowerment opportunities, but insisted that women should not see their role in terms of liberation that would imply antagonism.

She said that she goes to work but she takes care of her children too.

That’s the point. Men say ‘ you are welcome to come and sit with us as long as you go back, prepare our meals, clean our house and look after the children’. Is this cohesion not at the expense of women?

In my personal view, we should not forget some biological roles that nature has assigned for us. Society still has structural roles and responsibilities that are made for social cohesion. We should be careful that women’s empowerment does not lead to the dissolution of these roles. In societies where these roles have broken down, they have been trying very hard to bring them back.So that’s a balance we have to negotiate.

What are the other highlights of this report?

The highlights are that elections are becoming the norm in the African continent.

The era of authoritarian and one- party regimes is over. We see a situation where elections are still crisis- prone and where many countries are having a debate about the appropriate electoral system that they should adopt.

We are in the middle of that very debate. What recommendations has the report made?

I think the report tries to capture the mood through a survey carried out by Stratconsult.

What the people are saying is that the country should consider moving towards a mixed system of proportional representation and fi rst past the post. Part of the objectives of this process is to support countries to make their own decisions. We provide the platform, but we don’t have a say. Our role is to support those voices to be heard through this report. We do not interfere. Our role is ‘ okay, you’ve decided this, so now we will support you in achieving that.

The report also talks about the Best Loser System. What is the position of this report as far as that is concerned?

I think that the position of the report is that it should be looked at again. I think that the recommendation is to think about it and refl ect around it. But like I said, this is just an input, something to discuss. You participated at the validation workshop and saw that the discussion was quite intense. Some people agreed, while others disagreed. I think what the report does is to feed into the discussion.

It is not a decision at all, just an input to the national debate.

We like to think of ourselves as a rainbow nation. We are different, but we all live happily together. Is that what transpires from the report?

I think so. When I say melting pot, it means that cultures are melted in a single pot. They are mixing and interacting. That is the whole idea and to that extent I think that this country has done very well, being able to manage its diversity while obtaining a high level of stability. I think that Mauritians need to be commended. Overall, Mauritius came out very nicely in the two previous reports that we have done under the African Governance Report project.

How do you think that we have managed that?

I think it’s because you kept the debate alive. You did not sweep the debate underground.

You kept on discussing issues and challenges and the government is responding to that, making adjustments and amendments. Reforms don’t come in a sweep. I think that there is progress. We should continue listening to each other and allowing everybody to share their views. And of course protect the weak and vulnerable because, to me the strength of a democracy is to ensure that the minorities in societies are protected.

Is that the dark spot in our diversity?

Well, I would not say dark spot. Some of the challenges regard equal opportunities, something which is not unique to Mauritius.

It exists also in Seychelles, for instance, and other African countries. I think that it is something which we can look at and see how we can address the historical disadvantages in the policy and institutional process. A lot has been done, but much can still be done.

Do you feel that some people are at disadvantaged because of their ethnic belonging?

Well, I would not say so. The report says that you should ensure equal opportunities for all citizens. I think that there are challenges and what we need to do is to address those challenges.

When you say “ address those challenges”, do you mean to address them legally or through a change of mind set?

I think it requires both. There is no society in which the establishment of an institution has fully adjusted the process.It takes time. It is important to have some affi rmative action without sacrificing merit in the process.

How can merit be compatible with affirmative action?

You create a threshold.

You’d still sacrifice some merit?

Well, managing a society is a major challenge. There are options and sacrifi ces that we have to make to ensure stability and progress.

But you can’t have stability if some people feel that they have been discriminated against because of their ethnicity and affirmative action.

Let’s look at it the other way. Let’s go on a hundred per cent merit for plural societies.

A particular group, because they’ve had access to education, better facilities and are predisposed to perform better, can score between 70 and 90%. Some other group, because of historical reasons, scored between 40 and 60% and we set our bar at 65% and we then go for merit. We would then discover that there is single group that gets the positions, thus reinforcing the divide.

Isn’t the answer affirmative action at the level of education not at the level of jobs?

I think structural problems have to be addressed structurally. It’s a combination.

Affirmative action can be for a number of years to give the disadvantaged educational opportunities and create professionals out of them; So if you keep it at that level, and also reinforce it by measures at the top, it will work together such that over a period of time that problem can fix itself.

The problem with affirmative action is that it tends to encourage people to think of themselves as distinct ethnic categories rather than as Mauritians. Then you either have to ask people to declare their ethnic belonging or have the opportunist who says he belongs to the disadvantaged group so that he gets the benefits.

There are no easy choices to make but the more opportunities we give to disadvantaged groups, the more we reinforce national identity. In countries like Mauritius, where there was what we call settler colonialism, where historically certain groups were disadvantaged, to really reconfi gure society, we need some form of affi rmative action.

Society must set its objectives. What do we do to reduce social tension, to make sure that inter- group relations improve in society? We will gain in some places and lose in others.

The debate will go on and on. What is important is that we must collectively encourage such decisions and, at the end of the day, make adjustments and move along.

Plural societies are difficult to manage. You have to redress the balance and while doing so cater for various sensitivities.

Let me ask you one easy question and one difficult one. The easy one is what has come out of the report which you find commendable and the diffi cult one is what has come out of it which you fi nd shocking?

Commendable are two things that I see.

One is that there is a good management of elections. That came out very strongly. The people believe very strongly that the management of the electoral process is impartial which is highly commendable. The second thing has to do with the political stability in the country, despite all the challenges.

There is political order; there is political consensus and debate on going forward.

The one shocking thing in the report was how to fi nance political parties. The parties for instance have no support from the state.

Then what happens? Corporate interests now control the parties. This is something that the country needs to refl ect on: how to come up with a fi nancing structure so that parties are not hijacked by private interests.

That is a challenge.

The problem with state fi nancing political parties is that it forces taxpayers to fi nance political parties they would never vote for. And there is no guarantee that the big parties will not continue to have their hands greased by the private sector.

I think parties should declare their assets, and fi le fi nancial returns. This means accountability because parties are public entities. Not fi ling their records means that they act like mafi a groups rather than public entities; that they can get money from anywhere and use it any way they wish.

Party fi nancing should be part of a reform process where public donations are encouraged, some agreed government formula is in place but at the end of the day parties have to be accountable. The accounts have to be public so that they are truly public entities bound by public rules. The next issue will be registration, because we cannot fund all parties ad infi nitum. My own suggestion would be registration and keeping the number of state- funded parties to a minimum.

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