Tuesday, January 5, 2016



"I wouldn't be surprised if we go into a third round"

Anglican Bishop James Wong was perhaps one of the most vocal dignitaries in the country in the weeks leading to the 2015 Presidential election as well as during its aftermath. For this reason and because of the fact that he is politically neutral, we chose him as our first guest for this year. In the interview that follows, Bishop Wong does not paint a very pretty picture of what he witnessed during what was probably one of the most important democratic events in Seychelles' post independence history.

2015 was a bit hectic for Seychelles and we ended the year with a warning which you made during a post electoral meeting with the election observer missions to the effect that there might be violence in the country following the results of the election. That did not happen but do you think the warning is still valid as we start this year?

My comments came following persistent rumours as well as reliable information that I had to the effect that the risk of violence following the proclamation of the results was high. There was an unfortunate incident in Port Glaud and I learnt that somebody had been shot with a rubber bullet there. There was also the Cascade incident. So yes, there were some tense incidents but fortunately, they were not as widespread as we had feared. The tension in the country was so palpable and I could not very well say to international observers, "well done, we'll happily wait for your report in three months". I took issue with the fact that the observers refused to say whether the election was free and fair, a statement either way would have calmed things and reassured many. It can't be that hard - either it was free and fair or it wasn't. The Church does not support any political party but we hear many things and we work with the information that we receive. And I have no qualms saying it - the observers' stance - their refusal to say whether the election was free and fair - was not acceptable. If SADC could have presented a preliminary report after less than a week, what stopped them from releasing the final one?

But they explained why they deferred the publication of their findings. What do you say to their argument that they don't want to prejudice the court case that will be heard soon?

That argument does not convince me since some of those observer missions have still not released their final reports following the elections in 2011!

Then what is point of their presence in the country to observe the election? Do you feel that their presence is important to the election process?

I think it is important to have them here as long as we hear their conclusions and they release their reports based on their findings. It is important to have this assessment from the international community but it does not need to take as long as it has for them to release their reports.

But what difference does their presence make? The fact that they were here did not stop many things that should not have happened from happening. Bishop Wiehe, the Seychelles Interfaith Council (SIFCO) and yourself issued important messages to the voters and the political parties but were they heeded in the end?

I think the answer is yes, it has made a difference in the sense that it reassures people in terms of the confidence in the democratic process. On both rounds of the election, Bishop Wiehe and myself went around all the polling stations and during the first round, it was a joy to have been able to encourage and give strength to people who spent a lot of time waiting in the queues. It was a joy to encourage many youngsters to have patience, it was a joy to give a smile to people as they were queuing up, as a way of saying, “you did well, you have gone to vote”. And I think that the number of people that came down to cast their votes has been very encouraging and, in this sense, the voice of the church and of SIFCO has been heard. During the second round, I was able to address the nation through the SBC, to encourage voters to go to the polling stations early, to vote so the process of counting could start as soon as possible. And I think this was done in most polling stations.

What about the other messages, were they heard? Especially the one about not selling one’s vote?

The message was do not sell and do not buy. If there's no one buying, there'll be no one selling. And it was a very funny situation that we witnessed on the eve of the first round. People were queuing up at Oceangate House to buy new ID cards.

What do you mean by "buying" cards?

Well one has to pay for new ID cards. And to be able to obtain a new ID card, one has to go to the police station and declare the current one lost. So I asked myself how come so many people had suddenly lost their ID cards on the eve of election. Why this sudden urgency to get new ID cards?

You'll be even more surprised to know that the procedure was free for two weeks prior to the election but that this was never advertised through normal channels! And this brings us back to free and fair elections: the observers have not released their report but you were there and you saw how things went so what is your conclusion?

What we saw on the polling days, Bishop Wiehe and myself, has been very encouraging. We saw people coming down to vote en masse and this was our main objective. What happened inside the polling stations was not part of our observation because we weren't allowed to go in even though some very nice Presiding officers did kindly let us in at some polling stations. From what we saw, everything did seem to be going well inside the polling stations. Those who had difficulties were helped and I think that the staff of the Electoral Commission did a very good job.

But to me, what surprises me - and I don't know what the law says, I am only talking about the sense of right and wrong - if there's any contestation of the election result, a swearing in ceremony should not have taken place. I think it would have been better to wait for the clearance from the Electoral Commission, the Constitutional Court to say what has happened exactly and to say who the winner actually is. But I suppose that the fact that the chairperson of the Electoral Commission had already declared that the winner was James Michel made it "normal" for James Michel to be sworn in.

Except that the argument still hasn't been settled with regards to whether James Michel actually got more than half the votes cast or not. But by the time this mistake was realised, Mr Michel had been sworn in by the Chief Justice and Mr Gappy had stopped "commenting"! And despite this confusion, Ministers have been sworn in and Parti Lepep is ruling the country and there's been no institution that has come out and said, "wait a minute, are we making a mistake?" What do you make of this?

This is precisely the reason I raised the concern with the electoral observers. Had they come out and said the election was free and fair, then fine, no problem. But the fact that they have not been able to say the election was free and fair is the problem. The chair of the African Union said that there had been incidents in one polling station but added that she couldn’t generalise. But if there were incidents in one polling station and that this incident could bring any candidate 1000 votes...

... Or even just 200!

Or 200 - it could have swung the election! She cannot say that incidents in one polling station should not be generalised when it could actually change the results of the election. Her correct report should have been that there had been incidents in one polling station that could have had a bearing on the election results! That was my main concern when I spoke to the SADC observers. And what will they actually say in their final reports, is what I'd like to know. They all said they had heard reports of buying and selling of ID cards but that they can’t prove it. They can't prove it and yet they all mention it?

That said, Seychelles still being a young democracy, I think that we are still in the process of learning. We've seen what happened in the first round and the last voter at Anse Etoile voted at 11pm and we have learnt from those mistakes and the second round was much better. I think we have to see it as a process of learning. Seychelles is still in the process of learning and this is why it is good for us to go through those unfortunate occurrences so that we can learn from them. I think that Seychellois in general have shown a lot of maturity but that, at the same time, some have shown that they can be bought and this is so sad. The Seychellois need to realise that people have fought so that today they are given this power to vote and for the sake of our ancestors who fought so hard to get the right to vote, we have to learn not to sell our dignity.

Maybe this can be explained by the past? What is a vote worth if it can be nullified by a coup d'état?

Again this is where the process of learning comes in. Whatever has happened in the past, happened in the past. We need to learn from the past. It is important for the Seychellois nation to grow and understand the value of their vote.

And 2016 will be very important in that respect. A petition was filed last week and we have the National Assembly elections to look forward to. Democratically speaking, this will be a big test for the country, don't you think?

Again, I think the political parties - and I'm talking about both sides - will be working very hard at the grassroots level and this is good for our democracy. And I think both sides will have to go and get engaged in electoral education. The Church will also have to play the role of electoral educator. The Electoral Commission (EC) has to put the emphasis on electoral education. The whole of Seychelles has to go through a time of training to understand what the role of an election is.

It didn't seem to me that the party in power was too much in favour of voter education during the last election…

At SIFCO, very early on, even before the election was announced, we were already thinking about the education of voters and all our communiqués went towards this. And again, both sides of the political spectrum have to learn from mistakes made in the past. And because democracy is still young here, we have to take time to learn from past mistakes and grow. Both Parti Lepep and the opposition parties will need to put the emphasis on the training, whatever the means. As for the Church, we can do it through Sunday worship. A lot has to be done.

Do you think the Electoral Commission also needs to learn from its mistakes?

At the time, we decided to start our voter education campaign, we felt at SIFCO that we needed to involve the EC but the issue was that the EC was not seen by the Seychellois as independent. In many circumstances, we have seen that the Seychellois do not have enough trust in the Electoral Commission and this was obvious in the way the opposition parties' request for a softcopy of the voters register was dealt with. But as time went by, I think Seychellois and then the political parties started to trust the EC a little bit more. Even on the day the results were proclaimed, Wavel Ramkalawan thanked the EC so there has been a shift in the perception, at least by political parties.

A few days before the election, we did a joint SIFCO-EC service for the first time. Teaching the people, getting people to understand the value of their vote, this is what voter education is about. The members of the EC should take the initiative for the next elections. And might I add, you are talking about the National Assembly elections but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a third round soon!

Do you not feel that the hierarchy of the EC has shown that they are not fully independent from the establishment?

I would not say that unless I have proof. That said, the concern I had was when Judge Renaud ordered the EC to give the opposition parties the softcopy of the voters register and they did not. That wasn't good.

And you still feel that if we go to a third round, the EC as it is, could be trusted to do its job independently?

I think the fact that Wavel Ramkalwan thanked them was a sign of the trust he had in them.

You are one of the very few people in Seychelles who represents an institution and speaks his mind. And you've said some things in the course of this interview that will not go down very well with a few people. Would it be fair to say that contrarily to others, you're not afraid of repercussions?

To be honest, I am here in Seychelles to work for the Church and to work for God. I have demonstrated my political neutrality throughout my stay in Seychelles and I am so happy that my clergy agreed that we need to be neutral in all our actions and we have demonstrated our neutrality. From what I understand however, for some politicians, being neutral means to be against them. But we are not against any political party; we are not in favour of any political party. And this is where the strength of the Church lies - in our neutrality. We will never side with anyone. But we have a duty to tell the truth.

The President knows about my neutrality, so does the Vice President. Wavel Ramkalawan also knows I am neutral, as does Patrick Pillay. In 2016, we will maintain this neutrality, we will maintain our mission to educate voters. I must say though that I have heard that even though we are committed to neutrality, some parishioners have said that Bishop is doing politics. I have heard that. If educating people means that I am doing politics then I am doing politics. But partisan politics, never! And I was so happy that the message of the Church and the message of SIFCO was well-received. I was on La Digue last week and people came up to me to ask whether I was Bishop Wong and they said "thank you for your message". The message was and remains to learn to be good voters and encouraging all parties to do what's right.

Source: Today in Seychelles