Sir Anerood Jugnauth, the towering figure of Mauritian politics for six decades, has died at the age of 91. “SAJ”, as he was fondly known, will be remembered as the father of the Mauritian economic miracle.
Under his stewardship as both prime minister and president, Mauritius witnessed full employment, unprecedented growth and the setting up of new economic pillars, such as the offshore sector and knowledge economy.
He was one of the last surviving politicians who participated in the Lancaster House discussions in 1965 on Mauritius’ independence from the British.
Jugnauth eventually went on to hold the highest political positions in the country. He served as president from 2003 to 2012 and prime minister from 1982 to 1995 and then from 2000 to 2003. He was 84 years of age when he took on his final round as prime minister in 2014.
Though his administration did have its challenges, there’s no doubt that Sir Anerood Jugnauth considerably shaped the economic and political contours of contemporary Mauritius.
The early years
Jugnauth first came onto the political scene in the 1950s. He joined the Independent Forward Bloc of the Bissoondoyal brothers who militated for Hindu political empowerment and renaissance. He subsequently held ministerial positions in the pre-independence government.
When Mauritius became independent from Britain in 1968, the island was fraught with economic and social uncertainty. Many didn’t want independence, with 44% of the population voting against it.
Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam became independent Mauritius’ first prime minister. He was the premier in the pre-independence government and led the Independence Party (an alliance of the Labour Party, Independent Forward Bloc and Comité d'Action Musulman) which garnered the most seats in the 1967 general elections. Ramgoolam rallied all political parties in a national unity government, leaving an opposition political vacuum. It was at that time that the Mouvement Militant Mauricien – a political party founded by Paul Berenger, a politician with French ancestry – emerged.
The Mouvement Militant Mauricien fought for social justice among the working class and trade unions. This appealed to Jugnauth and he joined the party in the early 1970s and soon became its president.
In the 1976 general elections (the first since independence), Jugnauth’s party lost and he became the leader of the opposition in parliament. This was where he cut his political teeth.
A turning point was in 1982 when his political party swept all the seats at the general elections. This was an unprecedented feat as it left a nonexistent opposition.
Jugnauth was appointed prime minister for the first time, a position he would occupy for an uninterrupted 14 years.
His government faced new challenges and hard choices, like the management of high unemployment and severe austerity measures proposed by the International Monetary Fund.
Differences in strategic pathways concerning the economic and social issues split his cabinet and party. He left the Mouvement Militant Mauricien and created his own party, the Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien. Just nine months after his resounding win, he dissolved parliament.
Jugnauth is often credited as the father of the Mauritian economic miracle. He initiated the diversification of the economy with sectors such as the offshore, the freeport, the cybercity and the financial services. These were able to succeed because Mauritius had good quality institutions: political participation, rule of law, and control of corruption. The island was classified as a low income economy when he first took office and moved towards a middle income one by the late 1990s and ultimately into a high income economy in 2020.
There were some hurdles along the way. Jugnauth’s prime ministership was also tainted by several controversies, scandals, abuse of authority and unfair practices.
This includes the abrogation of the Muslim Personal Law in 1987. This stripped the Muslim marriage contract (nikaah) of legal standing, antagonising a segment of the Muslim community. In addition, in 1993, Jugnauth attempted to disqualify the then leader of the opposition, Navin Ramgoolam, from his parliamentary seat. He also tried to rein in the media by bringing an amendment to the Newspapers and Periodical Act (1837).
Staying in power
Despite this, Jugnauth had real staying power.
He was an astute politician, with a flair for opportunism, he crafted coalition politics with military precision to his advantage where he would retain the position of prime minister and his Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien party would dominate within the coalition. This explains his successive electoral wins in the 1983, 1987 and 1991 general elections.
Things changed in the 1995 general election. His coalition party suffered an electoral washout faced with an unbeatable Mauritius Labour Party and Mouvement Militant Mauricien coalition party.
Jugnauth accepted this defeat.
Ahead of the 2000 general elections, Jugnauth and Berenger, who was the leader of the opposition, signed a pre-election pact that if they won, power would be shared between them. Effectively, their parties won with a landslide victory and Jugnauth kept to his word and stepped down after three years as prime minister, allowing Berenger to became the country’s first non Hindu prime minister since independence. The move drew a lot of criticism from traditional Hindu voters.
With Berenger as prime minister, Jugnauth acceded to the post of president of the republic – a position that essentially holds ceremonial power.
But the call to get back into the political arena was too strong and he resigned as president in March 2012. At the ripe age of 84 years, he swept the polls in the 2014 general elections and once again became prime minister. He eventually ceded this position to his son Pravind Jugnauth in 2017.
His last struggle was for the restitution of the Chagos Archipelago to the sovereignty of Mauritius. A good, lasting legacy for future generations of Mauritians.
His success in garnering the support of more than 95% of nations of the United Nations General Assembly in supporting the return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius bears the hallmark of a true patriot and history will bear witness to this remarkable achievement.