Ten years of presidency: Seychelles President James Michel
James Michel (Riccardo Roccardi, Office of the President)
(Seychelles News Agency) - Gerard Govinden speaks to Seychelles President James Michel on the 10th anniversary of his presidency. Michel was first sworn into office on 14th April 2004.
GG: Mr President, you have spent 10 years as the head of State of Seychelles. How can you describe a decade at the head of a small but fast developing country like ours?
President Michel: The 10 years represent a new era for Seychelles. A decade that has been transformative for our country. It has been a decade of doing great things for our economy, the promotion of our unity, the strengthening of our democracy, the renaissance of our values, the blossoming of our patriotism. In the 10 years we have been facing the usual difficulties, and more, new challenges to overcome. We have grown as a nation. We’ve proven our resilience. We have erected a university. We’ve been able to harness the potential of all our people. That is why together we’ve been able to lay the foundation for a sustainable, dynamic and thriving Seychelles.
But allow me, first and foremost, to thank the Seychellois people for giving me the opportunity to serve the country as president. This decade is theirs. Together we managed to turn Seychelles into a better place. I dedicate the successes to them.
When I took the oath of office on April 14, 2004, I set out the vision for the future of a New Seychelles. I wanted to build a Seychelles where people enjoy a greater sense of security, especially in the way our economy operates. I also said that my actions would speak for me. It is not for me to judge myself. The people have put their trust in me. They, in a big way on two occasions, in 2006 and 2011, told me that they approved of, and appreciated, my leadership during the decade.
Seychelles may be a small country in land area and population, but we are huge in terms of spirit, determination and the will to get things done. We are huge when we consider the vast expanse of the ocean we command economically. Our small nation has a big voice on the international scene.
Our development has been gaining momentum, and there is no going back. The best time for doing business in Seychelles is now. The reform programme I introduced has boosted confidence in our economy. There is fiscal discipline. Foreign exchange is available. Actually the foreign exchange reserves amount to over 450 million dollars (US) as at end March. The economy is growing at 3.5%. Various infrastructure and financial schemes are being implemented for our own small and medium enterprises. In the decade we have created the space for the empowerment of our people, our youth, in all spheres of the country’s economic, social and political life. After the reform, the world, our partners, the Seychellois people, have confirmed that we have been steering Seychelles towards the port of greater prosperity.
GG: A decade has gone and what are your future plans to build the New Seychelles which you speak so proudly of?
President Michel: The New Seychelles that the people and I have started building together is not only about foreign exchange and economic growth. The New Seychelles is about the positive transformation of various aspects of our life as a nation.
There is the reinforcement of unity, peace, harmony, stability and prosperity. This is supported by the promotion of human and spiritual values. A lot is being done to strengthen our democracy, and build a country of more openness and accountability. I have stated that Seychelles should be free of corruption and favouritism. It is working to remove the negative perceptions.
In the New Seychelles we are constantly boosting our public sector because we want it to serve the citizens well. Meanwhile, the private sector is getting all the space and support possible to enable it to play its role as the motor of the economy. But let us be clear what we mean by the private sector. Some people would want us to believe that the private sector is only those few big companies and businesses that tend to dominate the economy. The fact, though, is that the private sector comprises all the businesses – big, medium and small – which are out there and constitute the driving force of the entire economy. This includes those hundreds of small businesses that have developed their own means of creating wealth. They are all part of the engine of growth.
I am putting a lot of emphasis on the necessity to work and will continue to do so. The Seychelles of the future will be a country where all people who are able are productive. Work is a means to achieve personal development and satisfaction. It allows us to contribute to the wellbeing our families. In return we also benefit from the economy.
Also in my plans is the strengthening of our resilience. We have proven already, through the economic reform programme, that we are able to overcome difficulties successfully. This is the future.
I will continue to strive for what is best for the Seychellois. We will ensure that our people continue to enjoy a good standard of living.
As I suggested before, we need to live in security and without fear if we are to enjoy the fruit of our hard work and prosperity. I am on the side of hardworking and peace-loving Seychellois. I will continue to be firm against the drug traffickers who are destroying the minds and health of our children. Together we will tackle all forms of crime as we forge ahead in our undertaking to have a society where it is pleasant to live in.
I want more of our Seychellois to become owners of our wealth-creating potential. That is why we are easing the involvement of our people in all sectors of the economy, particularly tourism and fisheries, through various schemes and incentives, including infrastructure.
One of the achievements of our country after independence was the democratisation of the education system. Now we have to ensure that we get better student results from the high investments in our education.
There are many things for us to do together. What is crucial is the need to maintain the unity that will allow us to mobilise all our people and pool our resources as we take our Seychelles to the level of a high-income country.
GG: Your foreign policy and diplomacy seem to be gaining ground. How can Seychelles make a stronger impact in affairs of the world?
President Michel: Our strong stance on the environment, climate change, has given us a powerful voice on the international stage.
We are now linking the ‘Blue Economy’ concept to climate change, our survival and the sustainability of all the nations of the world. Because the Blue Economy identifies us as islanders, we will be able to use it as another tool to join the voices of small states, and even bigger nations that border the sea.
I said in the state-of-the-nation address that we need to continue making an impact internationally. Our tourism industry is our greatest asset for international visibility. We have the culture of a melting-pot society to showcase to the world. It is an example of unity in diversity, tolerance and democratic values that we can use to aid the cause of international peace.
We can do more to embrace new technology, like we are doing with renewable energy generation. It puts us in the international network of innovation.
We occupy a strategic position in the world, in a space of huge potential for future development linked to the sea. Have we done enough to market that space?
Perhaps our greatest international success of the past two years has been our vanguard role in the fight against Somali piracy. We are not only chasing the pirates, but we are also urging the world to invest in the development of Somalia. We are doing our share by offering to help the war-torn country to develop its fisheries.
Our recent economic reform achievements are recognised globally. This is another example of the type of contribution a small nation like ours can make on the international scene. It boosts investor confidence and makes us more visible.
GG: You have been championing the Blue Economy for some years now. What are the achievements registered in developing this concept and how do you see the future exploitation of the oceans and their resources?
President Michel: The Blue Economy, in a way, defines us as islanders. Our exclusive economic zone covers over one million square kilometres. It is a source of natural resources, a big space to ensure the sustainability of our development. As a nation we are yet to fully benefit from these resources. The tuna fish stock, for example, is almost entirely harvested by foreign fleets.
In the meantime we continue to empower our Seychellois fishing businesses to invest more in the potential of the Blue Economy, in harvesting and value-added processing.
We need to seek greater value for the resources harnessed by others. We are investing in training, infrastructure and incentives in order to draw maximum benefits from these resources. We need to encourage joint ventures. We need foreign investment, experience and know-how, so that more of the dividends generated by the Blue Economy should remain here.
The Blue Economy has already contributed abundantly to the supply of food, economic growth and the creation of jobs.
The petroleum potential in our EEZ is attracting international oil companies to undertake prospecting in our waters.
GG: Some people say that you prefer the young professionals in your leadership team and forget about the more experienced workers. What do you think about this perception?
President Michel: I was in my early 30s when I was appointed a minister for the first time. There were other young ministers, young principal secretaries, young directors, at the time.
We have to realise that our education system is today producing a lot more professionals than 40 years ago. They are people who have gone to university, where they have learned how to do things the modern way, but all have to acquire experience before promotion.
There is no particular preference for the young professionals although sometimes there is a need for fresh faces, fresh ideas, and new ways of doing things in this rapidly developing Seychelles. One clear example is new technology. We need to adapt fast. While we always treasure experience, it is also important that we start preparing the next crop of leaders for the future of the country.
I value greatly the more experienced workers in my government. They are in key positions and are able to guide the younger generation, with wisdom, with a good memory of past successes and challenges, and they are not in any way sidelined. On the contrary, we work together in teams, which include both the younger and older generations, to provide dynamism and efficiency within our work.
GG: Like most societies, Seychelles is going through a lot of changes, which bring with them a number of good and bad things. We have over the last years seen decadence in terms of morality and to counter these you have initiated the social renaissance programme and lately the Values for One, Values for All programme. Do you think Seychelles can win this battle and how?
President Michel: It is a long battle. We cannot win it overnight because changing habits and attitude takes more than one generation. The social renaissance programme, and now also the Values for One, Values for All programme, have enabled us to place the social issues on the national agenda. Together, we have been able to draw the line between good and bad things. In this rapidly changing world, the line between right and wrong is becoming thinner. But I am convinced that the spirit within us is powerful, especially the spirit to do good. The negative spirit does not prosper. It dies a natural death.
We have succeeded in placing the issue of social scourge in the national psyche. We continuously revisit our programmes, give publicity to them, and keep talking about the pleasant society we all yearn for our people. We need to continue supporting the families, promote good parenting. We start learning about good and bad things at home.
Society, good neighbourhoods, the village where we live, the religions, the schools, sports and recreational activities, continue the good work. It is important to have responsibility and discipline. I think that placing the social scourges on the national agenda, and drawing the line between right and wrong are already a progress in the right direction.
Our fight against illegal drugs is reducing the amount of the illicit narcotics in the community. Incarceration is certainly a deterrent, especially for traffickers. But I also firmly believe that we should focus on rehabilitation – long term and permanent rehabilitation – especially where those caught in the trap of consumption of narcotics are concerned.
I think Seychelles can win this battle. We will do it because all our men and women of goodwill are joining forces to protect our future generations.
GG: There are mixed feelings as to how you are governing the country. On one hand, some people talk about the many successes, especially the way you guided Seychelles out of the financial crisis with the help of the IMF. On the other hand, some people are not too happy with having foreign investors, especially Arabs, here. What is your impression of this polarisation?
President Michel: The facts and figures, supported by our international partners, confirm the progress of our economy, especially the success of our reform programme. We will always need investment in order to continue growing our economy, to create more wealth. We need investment from Seychellois, and also foreigners. Seychellois investors in the small and medium enterprise sectors are now benefitting from subsidised interest rates for their business projects. Government is also helping with the allocation of land and workshops.
There is fierce competition in the world for foreign investment. Even the developed European countries are after foreign investment. America, too, is no exception. If we shut ourselves off from the global economy, it is like going back to the days when there were only coconut and cinnamon plantations.
Foreign investment brings capital, mainly for big projects. It brings brand names to Seychelles particularly in the tourism industry. Good brands are good publicity. Even if we had all the capital to undertake all the developments in our country, we would still welcome foreign investment, especially in areas that provide knowhow, and connect us to the world. And these investments are in convertible currency.Investment creates employment opportunities, produce wealth, generate tax, and support a host of other economic activities.
The fact in the world today is that the oil-producing Arab countries have money to invest. And why should not they invest in Seychelles? I do not hear of any Europeans criticising Arab investment in their country!
Fighting foreign investment is suicidal. It is like saying that we do not want the Seychellois to progress.
GG: You have spoken much about national unity and you emphasised this during the Parti Lepep symposium this year. What does national unity mean for you? Your critics say that if we want to have real national unity, we need a national unity government. What is your opinion about this idea?
President Michel: I use every occasion to talk about national unity. Promoting national unity is one of the cornerstones of my government. Without national unity there is no progress. There are many bad examples of nations being torn apart because of lack of unity. Seychelles is small.
The 90,000 of us have proven that we are able to do great things when we pull in one direction on issues of national interest. National unity does not mean that we all have to think the same way all the time. We can have unity in diversity. It is beautiful to have unity in diversity. We may have our different opinions but at the end of the day we put our country first, we put the nation first.
My popular practice of consulting the people and the various organisations in the country allow me to get the public views of others. It fosters inclusion. It promotes the sense of belonging. It is giving all Seychellois the opportunity to have a say in the affairs of their nation. It is happening every day. In various ways.
Our constitution makes provisions for the election of a President. The elected President then forms the new government through the appointment of ministers and other senior officials. It is my role, and also the task of the government, to promote unity in all that we do.
We have in government today people who had different political affiliations before. What is the legal basis for a national unity government now? What would be its raison-d’être? Who will be part of the national unity government when the extent of support of some of the political parties is not even known? The opposition has always said that the role of the opposition is to oppose. Who will oppose when all the opposition parties are in government? And we will question democracy once again!
GG; There have been calls in recent years by opposition politicians to remove the Liberation (Zonm Lib) Monument, which marks the 1977 Liberation Day. This month the Parti Lepep decided to move it to the Maison du Peuple grounds. After this decision was taken and announced publicly, some people including opposition parties said they were upset as 'the people were not consulted' concerning Zonm Lib, which is a national monument. What process of consultation needs to take place in these cases?
President Michel: The debate about the Liberation Monument has been going on for many years. The views of various sections of our society have been expressed, the most vocal being from the opposition.
But if you were to ask me, I would say that their position on the issue smacks of hypocrisy! For years they have been attacking the Liberation Monument and all of a sudden they have changed their tune! Political opportunism at its worst!
As part of my vision of ten years ago when I said I saw unity, peace, harmony, stability and prosperity prevailing in Seychelles, all the views about the Liberation Day monument were considered. Recently, in February, when I delivered my state-of-the-nation address, I said we should free our society of any rancor that may still exist in our society.
The Liberation Monument is being relocated and a new structure symbolising the coming of a new age of unity is being erected in its place. I am guided by my principle to do what is best for Seychelles and not what will please a minority. What matters to me is what is best for the people of Seychelles. This informs my decisions and actions.
However, it appears that whatever we do in this country some people will never be satisfied. You turn left, they are not happy. You turn right, they are not happy. It is like complaining about the weather all the time. I understand this is the game of politics, about constantly creating issues in order to feed the opposition media. However, now my feeling has been reinforced that the Liberation Monument matters to a lot of people in our society. We are not parting with the monument.
GG: Will you be standing for the next presidential elections?
President Michel: The next presidential election is scheduled to take place early 2016. It’s still early days! When the time comes, the people will decide. Right now, I am preoccupied with the task of promoting unity, national development, rallying all our people for the building of the New Seychelles. The New Seychelles I outlined in my vision is not built in a day.