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Economy Indian Ocean Politics Transparency

Time to Put an End to Democratic Backsliding in Seychelles is Now

Recent charges levied in a still developing high profile court case in the Seychelles came as no surprise to many. Specifically, conspiracy to commit offences under the Seychelles Prevention of Terrorism Act were levied against ex-President France Albert Rene’s wife Sarah, his son Leslie Benoiton an officer of the Seychelles Defence Forces, Maurice Loustau-Lalanne a former public servant, Lekha Nair former director general of the Ministry of Finance, and a politically tied businessman named Mukesh Valabhji and his wife Laura. This came as no surprise not because these individuals are necessarily guilty, but rather, no surprise because the case is yet another example of the extent to which Wavel Ramkalawan’s government will abuse the country’s justice system in its pursuit of political enemies.

Arrested in November of last year, Rene, Benoiton, Loustau-Lalanne, Nair and the Valabhjis were charged in December with being responsible for, or benefiting from, US $50 million donated from by the UAE to the Seychelles in 2002. The funds, donated to the Seychelles Marketing Board (SMB), which Valabhji was the Director of at the time, were earmarked for helping the country cover food imports it was struggling to pay for. This was as a result of an explosion in its foreign debt and a severe dwindling of its foreign reserves. There were US $11 million in receipts for the purchase of both food and petrol, as intended with the gift, for the Seychellois people made from this account using the funds. New evidence produced by the prosecution shows even more receipts to pay SMB debts.

In functional democracies, the guilt of suspects is usually for a court of law to decide. What is however, becoming more and more apparent in this case is that there is a political motivation behind the trial. Current President Wavel Ramkalawan and his Vice President Ahmed Afif appear to have made it a goal of theirs to rid the country of any and all political opponents, starting with those associated with the former government.

Serving in the opposition for the majority of his political career, Ramkalawan and his party successfully unseated President Danny Faure and his United Seychelles (US) party in October 2020, ending the US party’s continuous rule of the island since 1993. It was not long however, before the new government, under Ramkalawan’s leadership, began consolidating power through arresting “political opposition” members. Ramkalawan indeed needed to solidify his rule vis-a-via a real or perceived opposition.

This decapitation of anyone powerful formerly affiliated with the US party and former President René began with Mukesh Valabhji but by no means ended there. Other measures employed to alter the country’s history and solidify Ramkalawan and the party’s rule included, for example, renaming streets whose original names did not serve the current leadership’s political agenda.

The political motivation behind the arrests can be further seen by looking at those arrested and examining their positions under the former President and party. Those arrested include the former head of the armed forces, the ex-President Rene’s wife Sarah and son Leslie, plus former director general of the Ministry of Finance, a public servant bodyguard together with Mukesh Valabhji and his wife Laura who were overt supporters of President Rene and his successors. A more recently arrested suspect (number 7 in the political witch-hunt) was the former financial controller of the Seychelles Marketing Board Ganeshan Ratnasabapathy.

Interestingly, those associated with the current President who served in key positions at the time the funds went missing have not been arrested. These include current Vice President Ahmed Afif, who was the head of foreign exchange at the central bank at the time and who clearly oversaw and personally approved the transfer of the funds to their desired destination. The role of Afif in the affair indeed is quite peculiar, as even if not guilty, one might expect an investigation to have ensued to at least determine the extent of his guilt. No such investigation ever took place.

The latest development of levying charges against Valabhji under the terrorism act is a new development, and one which should be concerning to those following the delicate democratic transition the archipelago nation has been undergoing. Although not employed previously, these charges allege Valabhji to have stored weapons at his home, with the aim of committing terrorist acts. Found after the couple’s arrest, one can only question the origins of this “weapons cache”.

The President has abused the judicial system at the expense of his country’s own military weapons caches to win a cheap political victory. The weapons seized were imported and registered to the Seychelles Defence Forces (SDF) and were knowingly stored by the government and the armed forces at certain locations after a previous coup attempt stole weapons from the country’s main armory. These weapons were stored at Mukesh Valabhji’s residence at the request and authority of the government now ironically charging him with conspiracy to commit terrorism.

The implications of this case go far beyond what will become of Mukesh Valabhji, his wife Laura, and now 5 additional defendants in the case. Serial violators of human rights do not begin as such. They begin by testing the waters and gauging what the international community’s appetite is for their crimes. Indeed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad did this when he pushed then President Obama’s chemical weapon “red line”, graduating to the eventual mass murder of civilians.

At a time when the decline of democracy across the African continent is being exacerbated, countries where the future of democracy can still be salvaged must be addressed. With a Council on Foreign Relations report identifying that, “More Africans live under fully or partially authoritarian states today than at most points in the last two decades”, the time to put an end to democratic backsliding in the Seychelles is now.

With authoritarian regimes, and particularly those dependent on foreign support and mindful of the need to maintain positive foreign opinion, the Seychelles is an optimal case study of a country where international organizations must be more active. The IMF is one such example, approving a 32-month extended arrangement for the Seychelles for US $105.63 million, or 323 percent of Seychelles’ quota only 6 months ago.

Non-contingent international aid is an extremely dangerous contributor to democratic backsliding. Conversely, if employed correctly, and as has been found in empirical research, conditional aid can have a powerful effect on ensuring democratic futures. The case at hand should be understood within this context.

As stated by Valabhji’s lawyer Frank Elizabeth “issues may seem petty, but they must be addressed in the utmost urgency as it seems the police does not seem to understand the human rights aspects of the case”. The obstruction of due process alleged by lawyers involved is unacceptable behavior by a country claiming to be a democracy.

Not adequately addressing these issues only gives the current government the reassurances it is looking for, namely that the violation of justice and democratic rights are acceptable. As long as you mask it under perceptions of a seemingly democratic nation and prolong due process, one can continue being the recipient of international largesse while trampling on the rights of its citizens, all the while ignoring the fact that as former Prime Minister William Gladstone so aptly put it, “Justice delayed is justice denied”.

Categories
Economy Indian Ocean Transparency

Seychelles Condemns Pirate Attack Off The Coast of Hodeidah

The Seychelles government is profoundly worried by the recent attacks on the UAE-flagged vessel in the Red Sea, as Seychelles has long been at the forefront of the battle against piracy in the Western Indian Ocean.

Somali pirates operate in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, principally. Attacks have occurred around 1,000 nautical miles off the Somali coast, primarily targeting tankers and dry bulkers, which bring in tens of millions of cash for pirates.

The Gulf of Aden is bordered on the north by Yemen, on the east by the Arabian Sea, on the west by Djibouti, and on the south by the Guardafui Channel, Socotra, Somaliland, and Somalia. It connects to the Red Sea in the northwest through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, and to the Arabian Sea in the east. Its waterways are among the most perilous in the world for piracy.

In recent years, pirates have moved their focus from hijacking oil tankers to the more lucrative kidnapping of sailors for ransom, according to Noel Choong, the head of the Kuala Lumpur-based IMB piracy reporting center.

The Seychelles government strongly condemns the recent pirate attacks off the coast of Hodeidah on the civilian cargo ship RWABEE.

Such flagrant acts jeopardize regional security and put the safety of the region’s population at risk, in addition to posing major challenges to sea commerce and international trade.

All parties are also urged to follow international law and seek peaceful solutions to the crisis, according to Seychelles.

Seychelles demands that the vessel and her crew be released immediately in light of the circumstances.

Categories
Economy Politics Transparency

Something Smells Fishy!

The Seychelles Tuna Fishing Scam

Huge, industrial fishing vessels operate in the Seychelles national waters yearly, looking for a fish known as “blue gold”: tuna. The most sought-after tuna is the yellow fin tuna, but fishers also catch big-eye tuna, skipjack tuna, and swordfish – all of which turn a healthy profit in the international market.

Undeniably, the fishing industry fortifies the Seychelles’ economy. In 2019, the small East African archipelago nation exported about 6,600 metric tons of fish and crustaceans, which brought more than $13 million into the country, according to a local news report. Fisheries is the second most important sector after tourism in the Seychelles, contributing to 20% of the GDP and employing 17% of the population, according to the World Bank. Yet conservationists have long been sounding the alarm that fish stocks, particularly yellow fin tuna (Thunnus albacares), are over harvested.

To address over fishing, the Seychelles decided in 2017 to join the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI), an enterprise born out of global discussions about how to deal with illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the waters around Africa, particularly by commercial fleets operated by foreign nations.

Philippe Michaud, a consultant at the Seychelles’ ministry of fisheries, said the country joined FiTI because doing so aligned with the government’s implementation of the “Blue Economy,” a national initiative focused on making fishing and other ocean-related activities more sustainable.

According to Michaud, “I think FiTI should contribute in making people more aware of the problems, because we’re not running out of fish, because we can buy fish every day, we think that it’s going to go on forever. So, we need to mobilize all the different stakeholders and say, ‘This is a problem.’”

In December 2021, the Seychelles released its second report to FiTI, which detailed the government’s efforts to increase public access to certain information about the management and direction of its fisheries. This includes an online registry of large-scale fishing vessels operating in Seychelles waters, and information about what they need to pay to cast their nets and lines in these waters.

While the waters surrounding the Seychelles yield prolific catches, a lot of this fish isn’t being caught by Seychellois themselves, but by fishers from places like China, Taiwan and member states of the European Union.

One of the most contentious issues facing the Seychelles is the overfishing of Indian Ocean yellow fin tuna, which some experts say is being driven by EU-controlled vessels operating under Seychellois flags. According to a Mongabay investigation conducted last year, the Seychelles’ entire purse seine fleet — that is, vessels that use circular, wall-like netting to trap species like tuna — was fully controlled by European interests.

The Seychelles’ second annual report submitted to FiTI, which covers 2020, shows efforts made by the government to increase transparency around many aspects of its fisheries, including its foreign interests. For instance, the government has now published summaries of the license agreements for local and foreign fishers on the Seychelles Fishing Authority’s website.

Although this move seemingly towards transparency should be positive, there are limitations to the information in these reports. For instance, to date nothing has been revealed about how these agreements are negotiated with the EU; the entire industry rests on hidden agreements between the Ramkalawan government & EU member states. Additionally, the Ramkalawan government has attempted to explain away this lack of transparency under the nebulous guise of ‘national security’.

Yet the report shows it isn’t just the EU putting pressure on the Seychelles’ fisheries — it’s also vessels from Taiwan and China. Last year, the Seychelles government published a registry of the 180 large-scale vessels authorized to fish in the country’s EEZ; 66 of them operated under the Taiwanese flag, while eight operated under the Chinese flag. The report also notes that some agreements between the Seychelles and Taiwanese and Chinese fishing interests have not been published due to confidentiality clauses. There’s also insufficient data regarding ​​catches, landings, transhipments, discards, and fishing efforts for the industrial longline fleet, which is largely operated by vessels from Taiwan and China.

What this boils down to is that opaque foreign interests are making huge amounts of profit from Seychellois waters, permitted & facilitated by the government. Why all the secrecy?

The only logical conclusion is that political forces are profiting from these contracts via kickbacks or other underhanded payments. If this wasn’t the case – why has the government in Victoria gone through the motions of window-dressing, presenting reports touting ‘increased transparency’ while at the same time blocking the release of the most critical records.

Something smells fishy in Seychelles.