Mauritius remains an Indian Ocean success story, quietly going about its business far from international headlines and emerging relatively unscathed from uncertain economic times. Mauritius' politics remain robust and, where scandals occur, the country emerges with credit for its handling of things, though there is creeping concern about growing political dynasties and a need for new talent. The impact of tourism on island life and fears about climate change and weather extremes remains at the forefront of public debate.
Mauritius' economic success wasn't inevitable. Diversification has been key – away from sugar cane, then away from textile manufacturing in the face of competition from China, and so on. Tourism remains a major money earner, and the country's stability and distance from world trouble spots has insulated it from the ups and downs of recent years. As a result the economy continues to tick along nicely, with growth rates of around 4% for most of the past decade, and unemployment stable at a respectable 7.1%. A 2017 jump in inflation from 1% to 3.7% raised eyebrows, but it's still a figure many countries would love to see. The focus now is on banking, with the government announcing in 2018 that it hoped to double the size of the country's financial sector by 2030. The challenge in doing so in the aftermath of international scandals such as the Panama Papers, is how to offer conditions that are attractive to international investors while ensuring transparency and that big global companies meet their tax obligations back home.
Mauritius has a proud democratic record, with changes in government arising from the ballot box, never the barrel of a gun. But some things stay very much the same, most notably the family names of those who rule. Take current prime minister, Javind Jugnauth. He became prime minister in 2017 when his father Sir Anerood Jugnauth (who served six terms as prime minister and nine years as president) resigned. It was a seamless transition, and one that Mauritians will, in turn, get to vote upon, but it's not quite the generational change that many Mauritians had in mind.
One of the leading opposition figures, Paul Bérenger, is another of the old guard who has been in and out of power for decades, though the surprise 2014 defeat of Navin Ramgoolam, a former prime minister and son of founding prime minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, was taken as a sign of important change – he went from being prime minister from 2004 to 2015, to losing his seat entirely. Even so, talk to many Mauritians and you may sense a growing cynicism about the country's political class.
If the constant recycling of the same old faces in the country's top political jobs is a sign of political stagnation, recent political scandals suggest that the system may not be theirs to own. The most dramatic case relates to long-serving prime minister, Navin Ramgoolam, who was arrested in Port Louis in 2015, a year after losing power. A police raid on his home uncovered Rs 220 million as well as prohibited drugs such as Viagra. He has since been charged with money laundering. He denies the charges and has promised to fight them, while his supporters claim the charges are politically motivated.
Then in 2018 the country's president, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (at the time Africa's only female head of state), resigned after accusations that she spent thousands of dollars for her own personal use on a credit card given to her by a charity. She, too, denied all allegations. Both cases remain before the courts, but the episodes have caused much anger in Mauritius, even as analysts suggest that bringing such high-profile defendants to court shows the system is working well.
Sometimes it's not easy being small, and Mauritius has found this to its chagrin in recent years. The most obvious case is that of the Chagos Archipelago. Long a part of Mauritius, but appropriated by the UK just prior to independence then leased to the US for its top-secret Diego Garcia military base, the fate of the Chagos is something of a cause célèbre in Mauritius – many Chagos Islanders live in poor conditions in Mauritius, and the government has been the major and persistent voice of protest in international courts and forums. Even when the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Mauritius and the Chagos Islanders in 2019, the general consensus remained that little was likely to change.
So, too, for climate change. In 2017 then finance minister (now prime minister) Pravind Jugnauth warned that Mauritius was one of the countries 'most exposed to the adverse effects of climate change'. Like most island nations Mauritius is vulnerable to rising sea levels, extreme weather systems (such as more intense cyclones) and increasing droughts (especially on Rodrigues). The country has made small steps towards moving away from fossil fuels, but far more difficult is the task of making its voice heard in international debates about the planet's future.