Q&A with Seychelles' President: "Our biggest blessing was that the tourism industry was relaunched"
Ramkalawan was sworn in as the President of Seychelles on October 26 last year. (Seychelles Nation)
(Seychelles News Agency) - On April 26, it will be exactly two and half years since Wavel Ramkalawan was sworn in as the President of Seychelles, representing the Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (Seychellois Democratic Union) party, which was formed through an alliance of the Seychelles National Party, led by Ramkalawan, and several smaller opposition parties.
His accession was after 43 years of rule by one party, led by President France Albert Rene, and later President James Michel and President Danny Faure. It was a party which changed its name over time; first being the Seychelles People's United Party, then the Seychelles People's Progressive Front, the Parti Lepep (the People's Party), and is today known as United Seychelles.
Ramkalawan had participated in opposition politics since 1991, later becoming a member of parliament and soon became the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly.
In October 2020, he won the elections against the incumbent President Danny Faure with 54.91 percent of the vote, the first time an opposition party had won the presidential elections since the country's independence in 1976.
Ramkalawan entered office at a very testing time, in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic, when the country's economy, which is primarily based on tourism, was at a standstill.
SNA met with Ramkalawan to learn more about what he has achieved during that time until today.
SNA: It has been exactly two years and a half since you took office. How has the time been?
WR: Personally, I want to reflect on where it all started and what state the country was in. On October 26, the airport was closed, and there was the FA4GR [Financial Assistance for Job Retention] programme in place as businesses were not operating and unable to pay their staff.
When it comes to COVID-19, we had not reached community transmission, but we were spending on quarantine facilities among others, and it was around December that community transmission started. By the end of December, we weren't sure how to pay workers their wages and we had already taken the decision not to give a 13th-month salary as that was part of the more stringent economic measures.
Shortly after we started the vaccination campaign and reopened the country, relaunched the economy. We obviously received a new breath, and this is where the government really started to work.
|Ramkalawan was among the political leaders and health workers who took the vaccine when the campaign started in January 2021. (Rassin Vannier) Photo License: CC BY|
We started getting the finance we made sure that projects that had started - such as the construction of schools, the library, the hospital, and the port - could restart. On another level, we entered an agreement with the IMF for budget support to keep the economy afloat. Unfortunately, as we started this, the war in Ukraine started and transportation prices doubled and tripled at some given point causing us to take a few steps back.
Our biggest blessing was that the tourism industry was relaunched, even without our traditional European market at the start. The Russian market helped us a lot in that aspect. In 2022, when things got easier, we started passing the benefit to the people.
We looked at how we could assist people who are receiving below SCR9,000 [$703] by providing SCR300 [$23] towards their electricity. For all pensioners who were getting less than SCR9,000 [$703], we gave an extra SCR500 [$40]. Breakfast and lunch at government schools were provided. During the same year, as we saw things getting better, we established performance-based management and gave 50 percent of the 13-month salary guaranteed and provided the rest upon evaluation, to get people to perform better.
We carried out reforms in the police force and today we no longer see Facebook posts about police officers beating people; creating a sense of trust and as such people are no longer scared to report their cases at police stations.
The number of [foreign] dhows that have been intercepted, the number of drugs destroyed, and the number of people arrested show the fight that we are leading against drugs. When it comes to corruption, the biggest case ever has been brought to court so that we can recover our $50 million [from a loan from the UAE that disappeared from government accounts in 2004].
In 2023, we managed to improve our Fitch ratings. Inflation in Seychelles is at 3 percent whereas global inflation is at 7 percent. We are now more disciplined regarding our budget, and we have a little surplus.
On an international level, we got recognised and were able to go before the UN committee to fight for the multi-vulnerability index (MVI). The Prince of Monaco, Albert II, came to State House and honoured us. Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayan, the President of the UAE, especially with the long-standing relations with the UAE, came to visit the State House and recognised that things have taken a new dimension.
We also received the King and Queen of Sweden, the King of Malaysia, the President of Slovenia, and the Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta.
|Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayan, the President of the UAE, with President Ramkalawan at State House. (Rassin Vannier) Photo License: CC BY|
This means that they have trust in Seychelles, and this comes with the foreign direct investments (FDIs), which are investments that have started.
Fregate Island Resort is about to start, the Reef Hotel deal is being finalised, the Anse a la Mouche hotel project is to open soon, the Platte Island project has upped the game with Waldorf Astoria, and Avani and Banyan Tree (Le Cheval Blanc) are being completed. This shows the level of trust.
SNA: What would you say you and your government have done to better the lives of the people?
WR: In the health sector during the past two and half years, we have been able to increase our number of oxygen-producing plants from one to three, we have received a modern MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] machine and now we are in the process to fix all the lifts at the hospital. We have a new school for our nurses and social workers.
For the next two and half years, if we continue with this stability we will do even more. When we talk about more money in the pockets of Seychelles, I say that there are two ways to achieve this - either you have some money in your pocket, and I help you keep it there or I put more in your pocket.
We have done both by reducing the price of electricity by 42 cents in January and now by 49 cents. In April, you have been able to make a savings of SCR600 [$47]. Fuel has gone down and when we provided breakfast to your children, another SCR400 [$31] stayed in your pocket.
On the other hand, we have changed the aid weights for a disabled person. All home carers have received an SCR500 increase, we have revised wages in the public service, where we have added certain allowances to the basic salary, which means that at the end of the year, your 13th-month salary will be higher.
When applying for a loan, your salary will have more weight. For people who are on part rental, we have moved from SCR1,400 [$109] as the threshold and increased it to SCR1,900 [$150], meaning that more people will be able to get this assistance.
SNA: The Final Report of the Truth Reconciliation & National Unity Commission (TRNUC) was handed over to you late last month. What is the next step?
WR: As soon as I received the report, I made it public and sent it to the National Assembly for members to debate it. I cannot take any decision on this. I need to allow the Assembly, as the law asks, to do this.
I am now waiting for the debate and once they present me with the result, this is when I will make a declaration, be it when it comes to compensation or other elements, this debate will be public like all assembly deliberations. I know that the compensation aspect will be one of the elements that will bring about certain contradictions, debates, anger, and disappointment.
|Gabriel McIntyre handed the commission's final report to President Wavel Ramkalawan. (Seychelles Nation) Photo License: CC BY|
SNA: Since the COVID-19 outbreak, with situations being much more difficult in Seychelles, there seems to be a high level of frustration in the country. What is being done to bring back a certain level of understanding?
WR: I think the expectation that the people of Seychelles had was really high. People expected that overnight, 43 years are normalised. This is impossible. I think that this might have brought some frustration. People who felt that they were victimised when it came to getting a piece of land or a house, expected that they would get a piece of land or a house immediately.
It is frustrating for some people to see that certain people in high positions are still there - this has also created a level of frustration. For us to be able to normalise 43 years, it takes time. Among all this, we provide people with the freedom to express themselves, but this comes with responsibility.
As a government, we operate on merit, and I think that people have mixed this meritocracy with their expectations and when things take time, people get angry and frustrated and say that this is not what they voted for.
It is this transformation and transition that will allow us to come out as a strong nation that works for what they want and does not depend on charity and has pride.
SNA: We all saw the BBC broadcast on drugs in Seychelles and one of the main points raised in it is a lack of a rehabilitation centre. What is being done to have such a centre?
WR: We have already taken a decision. The rehabilitation centre that the UAE is funding will be built opposite the English River Health Centre which means it will be close to a health facility in case something happens. Sometimes people want us to do this on another island, but this can be dangerous. When a person goes through rehabilitation, they go through withdrawal, depression, and many other things. Our professionals also need to be taken care of on a mental level.
When a person complains about bedsheets at the hospital, I also must look at the mental health of our professionals, look at the babies being born with a drug addiction problem, and look at how maintenance of the casualty and maternity units should be done among others.
SNA: The fight against drugs remains one of your priorities. You recently met with diplomats, are they ready to help on an international level?
WR: The fight has two faces. On one side there is cutting off supply, and this is where we have a lot of cooperation with our partners. We have the Europeans through mainly two of Reunion's vessels - 'Floréal' and 'Champlain' - helping with patrols in the region. With their help, we are disrupting this trade. With India and the United States, we are getting certain information, which also includes the illegal trafficking of arms among others. We have done a lot of arrests at the airport as well.
On the other side, locally we have squads disrupting the business. Dealers are persisting as this is fast money and we constantly need to step up.
There is also the methadone programme where we are helping people to continue working. For example, a great percentage of our stevedores at the port is using heroin. Having them on the programme allows the industry to continue to grow. There is the rehabilitation side as well. It is true that we do not have all the manpower we need.
On an international front, the UK government has said that it will help us internally with our fight against drugs and provide us with training. The Cuban ambassador shared that they have specialists, and therapists who can help us.
The UAE has agreed to provide us with the centre. We will be knocking on more doors. They appreciate the effort that the government is putting into this and our determination. When we stop an Iranian dhow, we are stopping drugs that might have ended up in other countries as drugs do not have borders.
SNA: In May you will start meeting with the people in the districts. Would you say you are starting to prepare yourself for the next campaign?
WR: I meet people on a daily basis. With the fact that the State House is open to everyone, I am provided with the possibility to meet with a lot of Seychellois. I go to church every Sunday. These meetings are not meant to be a form of reconnection. As of May 15, I want to go to all districts to hold a conversation with the people, and to get their propositions, critiques and questions. We will visit all 26 districts and I hope that by mid-June we will be done. We will visit a district each weekday and another on Saturdays. In a week we will visit 6 districts.
SNA: When will the people know of your decision to run again for the presidency or not?
WR: I will use the people to do this. They elected me to serve them and if the people of Seychelles recognise that one mandate is too short to achieve all that needs to be done and recognise that I have started a lot and done a lot, and they want to provide me with another mandate, then I will make the declaration.