Ameenah Gurib-Fakim served as the first female President of Mauritius from 2015 to 2018, thus making her the third woman to serve as Head of State of the country.
Please tell me your name, and the period you spent in office as head of state of Mauritius.
I am Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a Mauritian national who served as the sixth president of the Republic of Mauritius between the years 2015 and 2018.
Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in the 1960s, in a tiny village of Mauritius during the British colonial era. There was little to no infrastructure in the village where I was born. The only ones available were a primary school, a church, a Hindu temple, a mosque and an airport nearby.
The airport would later serve as the only avenue of distraction for kids in the village because we used to take long walks to catch a glimpse of aeroplanes landing and taking off.
My late mother was a housewife but my father was a primary school teacher. Their occupation mattered because while my mother created the home that was of course our rock, my father, being a teacher, understood the transformational power of education. He decided from an early age to give equal opportunities to both his son and daughter. His decision to prioritize my education was instrumental because in my culture, educating a boy is an economic choice compared to a female child; it is an investment done with the hope that the male child will look after the children in the future. But my father opposed that and insisted on educating both of his children. He was imbued with the Ghanaian philosophy that says, “if you educate a girl, you educate a family, you educate society, you educate the country”.
So, I was given an option to begin my primary education, which also turned out to be an issue since the school was a Roman catholic aided school and I was a Muslim. But again, there was no question here. My father said, “my children, especially my daughter will get the best”, so I attended the school.
But before my primary education, I also attended a pre-primary school that was also run by Catholics. I also attended a catholic medium secondary school called Red to a convent. I say this because the village I lived in had little to no infrastructure but there was a modus vivendi with all the ethnic groups living there. I had Christian, Hindu and Muslim neighbors but we had amazing thoughts among us.
To give you an idea of how it was then, in the morning. Because I’m a Muslim, I would go to the Madrasa to study the Quran and everything to do with the religion, I’d then return home, don my uniform and attend a Catholic school. After school in the afternoon, I’d visit the Hindu temple to listen to the stories of the Mahabharata, the Vedas and everything about Hindus.
So, this was the microcosm of the world in which I grew up and I never realized how enriched I was until I left my country for university. Because, while Christians celebrated Christmas and Hindus celebrated Diwali, I, being a Muslim celebrated Eid. All these were second nature to me and an indication of the richness and diversity in which I grew up. I must admit that the learning curve was not only momentous but it was the rock on which I built my vision, and I sincerely doubt anything can change that.
Moving forward, I went to the Catholic primary school and excelled academically and then I took the entrance exam and got admitted to the secondary school on a fee-paying basis. At the convent school, I would attend mass alright, but the only thing I would not take was the Eucharist. Allow me to chip in an anecdote here.
Once, I returned from school and complained to my father about getting baptized because we were still living with the original sins. It sounded funny at that time, but my father took the time to explain the nitty-gritty of salvation to me. And then came off the point when we were being taught science in school. And this was of course the make and break moment for me. For someone who attended a Convent school and was part of the second cohort, even though the school was indeed new in terms of structure, it lacked any form of infrastructure to teach compelling practical science, so I wondered how we were going to be imbibed with a strong foundation in science.
But the teachers were motivated, such that, anytime they would talk about Ecology or Botany, they would take us to the river I mentioned earlier, there, they would show us the beauty and wonder of life through nature. I would gaze at the tadpoles and dragonflies and ask questions such as “why is the sky blue?”, “Why are some plants blue, yellow or red?”, “what gives the pigmentation?” among many other questions any curious 11-year-old would normally ask. But as good as these teachers were, they never dismissed any of my questions but answered them pragmatically.
They would even go further to explain how some of our daily activities were components of science. To me, they provided an endless source of answers to my science questions. I was enthusiastic and excited about science then, not forgetting that Mauritius was one of the few countries that watched the live landing of mankind on the moon due to its geographical proximity to South Africa.
SA partnered with NASA at that time, which helped because they had the infrastructure even during the apartheid days, they had invested in that aspect and had the equipment to match it. I was awed by that effect and kept thinking about how transformational science was to the extent that it could allow men to walk on the moon.
The next break came in 1978 when I read about the birth of the test tube baby. I was much older then, getting closer to going to university and was doing well academically in science too. So, I prompted my father about my decision to take up science as a program at the university. Albeit, there were persisting gender issues about my choice of study, because while I was preparing for the university, my father advised me to consult the career guidance officer at the ministry of education about potential openings because I was initially going to do a BSc.
When I went to his office, he asked why I had come to see him, so I told him about my passion for science and my intention of applying to study Chemistry in the UK. He looked at me and said, “sorry, my girl but I think this is not for you, science is for boys”. He further stated that considering we were in Mauritius, there will be no job for me when I return so it was pointless to go into a dead career. I listened to him, showed appreciation and went home.
I narrated my encounter to my father and he asked me what I was going to do. I insisted that my mind was made up and venturing into science was the first risk I was willing to take. My father obliged and paid for my studies because I didn’t get into the scholarship program at that time. These are some of the sacrifices my parents made for me which I am eternally indebted to them.
Another important thing is that I attended a university that offered a sandwich program, where students get to work for a year in the industry of their choice. I happened to work in an American firm that specialized in pesticides and herbicide research, where I spent one wonderful year learning about all the ins and outs of the research. I went through the entire process and finally attained my first degree. I went home for the holidays and left again because I had received a scholarship for my PhD and got that degree done as well.
The next epiphany will come when I was offered a post-doctoral in the United States, I got my visa and every other thing and returned home but my mother would not treat it lightly when I told her about my postdoc because of, a lack of phones, we had stayed so long apart with minimal communication between us while I was away, so it was a little daunting.
Henceforth, I used to get a letter every fortnight from my parents and that’s what sustained our communication chain. It’s a real communication blessing anytime I think about the possibility of being in constant communication with my children through video calls.
Finally, I took up a position at a university in Mauritius, and that started my academic career which I do not regret doing. But unfortunately, the issue of infrastructure came up again. Because the university was a developing one, there was hardly any infrastructure for research. This broke me when I went there and I kept asking myself how I was going to be able to do synthetic organic chemistry at such a place. Besides, I could barely compete with my colleagues who were working on similar themes elsewhere.
So, one day, while I was drinking tea with some colleagues during tea breaks, one of them suggested that I turn to medicinal plants. So, then I asked what medicinal plants were. Because, and I say this with a bit of humor, in the 1978s to the 88s, the talk of medicinal plants was deeply associated with witchcraft and quackery. Regardless, I decided to do it due to my A level background and knowledge of botany. Truly, I learned the whole thing again and started testing some plants.
So, I came up with the idea of isolating molecules and adding them to literature as that is what the finality of any academic is. As luck would have it, the European Development Fund was funding a big project around that time. They provided funding for the setting up of a database on medicinal and aromatic plants of the southwest Indian Ocean.
With some smattering of chemistry, plants and botany, I decided to give the project a try. Thankfully, I got some funds, through which I set up a phytochemistry lab at the University of Mauritius.
The only way was for me to create the infrastructure. Normally, people tend to think that when you go to a university, there has to be a red carpet rolled out for you but in reality, it isn’t like that. You need to make your way and create your path, which I did against all odds.
I was busy at work, testing the extracts of bacteria and fungi because I wanted to add value to them. In all this, I was confronted with two challenges. Firstly, I was diluting the academic content because multidisciplinary research didn’t exist during that time. There was no value because everything was siloed.
For instance, if you studied chemistry, you were unable to combine it with Biology, yet during those times, research development breakthroughs were happening at the surface on such themes.
That’s exactly how bad it was for me, I was diluting the science and practicing low-level research that many assumed to be quackery or witchcraft. So, I started developing ethics on rhinoceros skins, crocodile skins and many other developments.
Secondly, I was summoned to the VICE Chancellor’s office because a couple of my colleagues complained that I was trying to poison them with my research on live bacteria in the lab. They felt that was a no-go area, however, I assured them of the need to carry those tests and the fact that they were not going to be infected by the Pseudomonas eCola because the lab was equipped with an autoclave and a fume cupboard. But my colleagues continued to disrespect and make me an object of ridicule but I wasn’t deterred.
Then the seriousness of purpose started manifesting when I documented and published my first book titled “Medicinal Plants of Rodrigues”. Rodrigues is a small island off the coast of the Republic of Mauritius. This small feat got many to start paying attention to the prospects of my research, which is normal because academia is rife with competition and rivalry.
Between 1975 to 1997, I felt I didn’t have the authority to patent the traditional knowledge that was shared with me by the local old women, so I published the entire database. This was key because I was at that time documenting important traditional knowledge that Africans didn’t find useful even though it was.
For instance, in 2015, Professor Tu Youyou received a Nobel for discovering artemisinin which is a cure for Malaria in Chinese traditional Medicine.
By publishing my work, it became a prior art and became recognizable by WIPO, which meant that the state of Mauritius owned the data and would have input whenever anyone decided to work on the data (flora and fauna). Moving forward, I made a transition from chemistry isolation to application validation of traditional knowledge. This new venture gained more traction because people started realizing the value of such knowledge.
I published enough papers to merit a professorship title in 2001, which made me the first female professor at the university. I became the dean of the faculty later and subsequently the Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Interestingly, I was never considered for the Vice-Chancellor position because being a woman of Muslim faith meant certain odds were stuck against me, even though they were materially worth it somehow.
As the only laureate in 2007, I received the L’Oréal UNESCO prize for women in science which has remained the same ever since.
When my tenure in office as Deputy Vice-Chancellor elapsed, I took a leave of absence. Later, I met an entrepreneur who had set up a contract research facility that was conducting clinical trials. I submitted a proposal to him on my value proposition. By then, I had innovative molecules and a partnership with NASA, The 1992 convention of particle diversity and the ratification of the Nagoya protocol. This means corporations were now mandated to have a negotiation with partners in the developing world. So, we decided to start something.
I then incorporated one pillar in the holding company, truth be told, the holding company was and is still doing some amazing clinical trials in makeup and cosmetics. In 2010, I started working there with several big names in the industry. I was happy going about my work as usual. In 2014, I was privileged to give a TED talk in Brazil after which I received a surprising call from one journalist who wanted a statement regarding my name being put forward in contention for the presidency in the 2014 general elections.
I was dumbfounded, to which I responded it must have been a mistake because I had no such ambition whatsoever at that time. I granted the interview alright, and the next day I saw my TED talk picture in one of the newspapers asking about my quest for the presidency. All that the people saw was my name, my picture and the presidency, they didn’t care whether it was true or not, that somehow acted as a springboard.
At this point, all the negative perceptions about me didn’t matter anymore. My gender and faith were now positive images. Before they officially put my name forward, the people wanted a fresh face, one that was untainted by the world of politics. I decided it was worth the shot, I said to myself, I had nothing to lose, after all, I’m not a civil servant, I’m an entrepreneur and if my people wanted me to serve at the highest political level, why not?
That in effect was the third count of risk I had taken, the second was when I left my comfort zone in academia to start my private enterprise and then lastly, throwing my hat in the political arena knowing fully well that I was an underdog.
The opposition was heavily funded and had all the big parties under their coalition, and there was me, in the midst of this motley collection of small parties. But I wasn’t deterred, I went for it and on the first of December 2014, while the counting of ballots was ongoing, I closed my laptop and exclaimed to myself, ” oh my goodness. I shall be president”.
This is great. I will revisit your presidency but before that, I’d like this to be one of your most detailed biographical interviews. So for the record, tell us the names of your parents.
My father’s name is Hassenje Gurib and my mother is called Firdaus Durgauhee. My mom passed away two years ago but my father is still alive. He turned 89 years on the 18th of March, 2022.
From what I gathered, I believe you have a sibling, a brother I guess and what is his name?
Yes, I have a brother. He is an engineer. He has a PhD in communication technology and now works for Steadicam in Paris. His name is Salim Gurib.
What is the name of the Catholic Primary School you attended?
I attended St Patrice RC, a Roman catholic aided school for my primary education and Loreto Convent now Lorrento School for my secondary education. It was a convent because my teachers then were Irish nuns who spoke with beautiful Irish accents. It was an interesting moment for us whenever they taught and explained the origin of the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet during my O level.
Tell us about your personality as a child and what the other kids felt about you.
I was a pretty shy yet curious girl who liked to ask a lot of questions. Generally, my persona has been influenced by my parents’ personalities. I have the resilience of my father, the bad temperament of my mother and the collective intelligence of both. Even though they had little to no formal education, their views on life were superb to the extent that, their counsel to me then, is still valid now and continues to shape my decisions. Because of that, I’ve come to accept that no amount of college instruction or education can replace home training.
Now that you’ve talked a bit about your mother and how she made home safe for you, tell us more about where you lived, its nature and any fond memories of your childhood.
The fact that I didn’t live far from my primary school, and that I could go home every day for lunch cooked by my mother and then back to school was priceless.
Honestly, some kids were even lucky to get tiffin to school, some were also even lucky if they got school meals, but I, on the other hand, had a home-cooked meal all the time. The weekend was always amazing at that time, because we had no fridge, my father would go to Port Louis, the capital and will return with biscuits, sweets, fish and meat, which we’ll enjoy over the weekend because they needed to be cooked right away. Those little feasts are so memorable.
My sibling and I had an entente with our cousins so they normally will come over during the vacation. Because our grandmother didn’t live far from my home, we’d visit our grandparents together. Computers were not a thing then, so we played together, went to the river and walked to see the planes land and take off. We had fun together. Let me hasten to add that, the church had a library, so occasionally, I’d borrow a couple of books while taking my father’s book collection as well and read them.
Reading at that age is how I discovered the life of Abraham Lincoln and the writings of Krishna Murthy, which were pretty heavy for a child but I’d browse through them anyway. Reading also exposed me to French literature, Lofoten and other foreign literature due to my bilingual education. I could pass for a trilingual person too because I studied Urdu at the madrasa and as a foreign language.
My childhood was rich with diversity but unfortunately, such experiences are almost out of existence due to the pace at which development has taken place, the industrialization process has made many parents work so there’s hardly any time left for childhood bonding and fun. I must say, the childhood I had is exactly what I wish I could have given my children but for a successful woman such as me, house help matters a lot and the reason why my career blossomed is that my parents were there for my children.
Did you play any sport or partoke in any extra-curricular activity during your days in secondary school?
I used to read a lot but for me, I had to do sports because it was mandatory during recess at school. I partook in basketball and badminton for the most part. Our form of recreation and entertainment was walking hours on the beach anytime we visited our grandmother at the coast and spending hours at the cinema watching movies. Moreover, anytime our Hindu neighbors had a wedding or Chinese festivals, we’d indulge in firecrackers, light the lamps and noise activities. These were pretty much all the fun I had growing up.
Do you have any fond memories of your teachers back in secondary school? Do you also think any of them made an impression on you?
Yes, there were a couple, my pre-primary school teacher at that time, for instance, was an amazing woman. Interestingly, I used to entertain her at the statehouse with a cup of tea and she’d relate to my childhood with great detail and nostalgia. She passed six months later after her visit. She was about 99 years old.
The other time, I happened to chance upon my French teacher as well. I also follow and interact with some of them on social media. I once visited my Alma mater as a guest of honor during a flag-raising ceremony for our independence.
For someone who was focused on science, did you have any sense of what the presidency entailed or did you have any political exposure growing up?
Truth be told, I had no idea what politics was, growing up in the colonial era. I used to ask my father questions about the queen and why we sang every day to God to save her. What does she even look like? I asked. I had no idea, not even the university days and life soared my interest in politics. This was practical because no member of my family had come close to the corridors of political power.
Did you indulge in politics at the student level during your secondary and university days?
No, I did not. My father shielded us from politics because of the tension and uprising at that time. Independence seemed realistic and that bred some inter-communal fights which were quite dangerous. For instance, there was particularly terrible tension at the port but we were living far from there. The constant lack of communication between towns and villages meant we were disconnected from the chaos. The only thing we knew because our lives were touched directly by it, was about the country’s bad recession in 1982 that resulted in massive unemployment. Beyond this, I was out of touch with politics.
What year did Mauritius attain independence?
Mauritius attained independence in 1968. We are now 54 years into our independence.
What did it mean to you for your country to have independence and also, did it give your parents any sense of pride when it happened?
I remember watching that on TV. Fortunately, my home was one of the few places where TV sets were available. I witnessed the British flag come down and the hoisting of the Mauritian flag. It was a special moment I must say, but we weren’t sure how we were going to fare post-independence, because we were weak economically. Our per capita GDP per income now stands at around 200 dollars/ year. I look back at the numbers and I think we’ve been successful, considering how we’ve turned around and diversified the economy. Comparatively, when I was younger, everything looked disorganized and foreign, we were poverty-stricken and houses got destroyed anytime a violent cyclone struck.
Now that we’ve covered enough of your childhood, tell us more about your campaign and election.
Per our Mauritian constitution, even though the president has executive authority, the executive power rests with the prime minister. This means technically, the president is elected by an act of parliament. But for the first time in the history of my country, the name of the president was flagged before the campaign. In Mauritius, unlike becoming a minister, one does not campaign for the presidency but even before voting, the national assembly knew I was partly because my name was flagged earlier. Albeit, people can still debate their vote as to whether they voted for the party or against the outgoing party when the need arises to allude to transparency. I think people voting for me regardless of my faith and gender showed a tad of voting maturity. It was a fantastic opportunity for me as I got what I wanted.
For education purposes, tell us a bit more about the outgoing and incoming parties.
The outgoing party, known as the Labor Party is one of the biggest as well as the oldest party in Mauritius, went into coalition with an older party known as the Movement Militant Mauricien (MMM). I think one of the reasons they (Labor Party) lost the election is that they’ve been in power for about nine years. But unlike other African countries where the average stay in power is 20 years, Mauritius has cultivated an election culture cycle of five years backed by the constitution which is untenable unless the said party has a parliamentary majority, which is impossible. Also, like most political parties, the Labor Party became complacent and took the presidency for granted with the hope that the populace will vote for them again. To them, the alliance of the two big parties was an automatic victory. Moreover, they had proposed to amend the constitution to probably share power or take more power which made the people more uncomfortable.
So, in 2014, the party that I had joined, leveraged the use of technological tools to campaign and disseminate information on the wrongdoings and failed campaigns of the outgoing party to the public. In my opinion, these three elements tipped the balance.
Again, I tell people to always vote for the opposition because a landslide victory for the ruling party meant a golden opportunity for them to tweak the constitution to favor their parochial interests. Fortunately, they didn’t get the chance to tweak the constitution because one of the three parties resigned in 2016 so they lost the absolute majority. This goes to affirm the importance of voting intelligently for an opposition who will safeguard the interest of the people.
Did you actively campaign in any form or shape and what were the three questions you asked?
No, I did not. I told them up front that I was an entrepreneur, not a politician and I gave them my name because I was daring and courageous but didn’t have time to devote to the campaign for the presidency because it is meant to be apolitical. Even though I was nominated in the world of politics, I was determined to lift the position above politics and as such, I didn’t campaign. But I’d like to share one important thing that may be of interest in other discussions. A strong Muslim delegation petitioned my party to take me off because they couldn’t bear to have a woman leading them as head of state. My party informed me about it and I said to them, ” as a Muslim scientist if they can answer three questions then I will withdraw.’
The three questions I asked were, one, who was prophet Muhammed’s first wife? Secondly, who was prophet Muhammed’s second wife? And three, where is it stated in the Quran that a woman cannot lead? I posed these questions to them as a scientist and pledged to resign if they answered. As expected, I didn’t get any answer. Either way, prophet Mohammed’s first wife was his employer and was 15 years older than Mohammed and had many children together. He remained faithful to her until her death.
His second wife was at the war front when he was sick and thirdly, no portion of the Quran forbids women from leading. So instead of being emotional with them, I was rather rational and posed cold-blooded questions to them, which they couldn’t answer.
Tell us the role Monique Delpo has played as a Mauritian Politician.
Monique Delpo was the first female vice president of Mauritius. She was the Vice President during the time of the outgoing Labour Party and doubled as the party’s candidate. When the president resigned, she acted as the president but was never a substantive president.
You’ve talked a lot about culture; tell us the languages you speak apart from English and French.
Yes, we all speak Creole, which is our lingua franca. Interestingly, the Creole I speak is widely understood in Seychelles, Haiti and St. Lucia.
Because I am of Indian descent, I learned Urdu or Hindi as a language and even though I’m not fluent, I can have basic communication with it and understand it perfectly. So, primarily, I grew up with four basic languages.
What language was spoken in your home?
All Mauritians speak Creole at home but we speak English and French at school, and some smattering of Arabic or Hindu when we go to the Madrasa. There are about 11 languages spoken in Mauritius. Some speak Marathi, Telugu and Mandarin by dint of their Indian and Chinese origin respectively. These constitute quite many languages; some are taught in primary schools up to secondary schools.
What is your first and fondest memory as president?
Well, I came into the office with an entrepreneur mindset. I was disciplined with my reporting and closing time. I was punctual to the letter that many of the office staff were astounded. This set a new trend of discipline in the office. My mission was pretty simple; to engage and deliver on embracing science, technology, innovation, quality education, entrepreneurship and girls’ education. For every speech I made subsequently, those elements were predominant in them.
Having represented Mauritius and spoken about the challenges surrounding climate change in Paris for COP 21 due to my science background, I organized the first women’s forum in Mauritius on climate change in 2016. The forum was originally held in Paris by Publicis. With over 45 nationalities represented, the forum was geared towards creating awareness of climate change and that women’s empowerment was no longer an ethical issue but an economic issue because women were the answer to sustainable development. This was my mission and I’ve remained focused on it even outside my tenure of office.
What was your goal as president?
When you assume office, you tend to be starry-eyed because there’s potential to do a lot of things. But along the line, you realize that it’s a straight jacket post and everything you do or say must be in tangent to the focal narrative of the government. It was like walking on eggshells without breaking them. Regardless, I still managed to incorporate my vision of gender, education, entrepreneurship and everything I’ve been advocating for in my messages.
What vision or ideal did your party identify with?
Well, like most political parties, they come up with many promises they never can deliver on. One primary example of promises at that time had to do with the freedom of information act, which never materialized. Similarly, they promised a constant supply of water and many other fantastic promises which they never delivered. Fortunately, I was conscious of this so I set in motion a plan which paid off strongly; I started an interfaith and intercultural dialogue. This was necessitated by an event that took place in September, three months after I assumed office.
Some people had gone to decimate a temple which resulted in a lot of tension, so I invited some priests, pundits, and molanus to the statehouse to have a discussion. I expected a few people but hundreds thronged in. Dressed in my traditional apparel, I went to the room and began by addressing the individual groups in their respective native greeting. That effectively calmed the room and restored some sanity. I later held the hands of every single person and asked them to shake one another as a sign of brotherliness.
This is how my interfaith and intercultural plan started. This ruffled the feathers of some few politicians, because then, their divide and conquer political trick was crumbling down. There was a time I celebrated Diwali in the Anglican church to the surprise of all. Even though the priest and myself got chastised for delving into the affairs of others, it didn’t deter me. We continued to celebrate big events and festivals in different groups and their importance dawned on people. This undoubtedly forms an important part of my legacy if you ask me, because it fostered a stronger society, and created mutual respect among each other. Societies themselves become fragile when there’s a lack of knowledge and understanding, it’s also pretty dangerous to be ignorant of your neighbor’s culture.
Tell us more about your family life and how you navigated it?
I think I was lucky because growing up in a multi-ethnic and pluralistic society shaped how I can transmit and share the values of diverse cultural settings. In my biography, I opined on the cultural and religious diversity of Mauritius. I think it’s the only country where different religious abodes are at arm’s stretch of one another and such diversity must be promoted. I believe the world would be better if we had a common understanding and respect for each other. Diversity is indeed our strength and promoting that is part of my legacy.
I got married in 1988 to a surgical doctor. We are blessed with two children, the boy has a bachelors in fine arts and is trying to find his feet as an entrepreneur, while the girl has a master’s in computer science from the UK. I must admit, my husband’s career, which he loves so much, has been a blessing to me. Because he spends quite an awful amount of time at the hospital, I’m a tad liberated to focus on my plans as well. Usually, he would call from the hospital while I put our first boy to sleep, I would then move to work on my datasets and botanical drawings.
I was blessed with a father who was my cheerleader while growing up and a husband who was indifferent to my career plans and supported me through it. He didn’t seem to have a problem with my presidential bid even though I couldn’t tell him before announcing because he was in the operating block and wouldn’t pick up my calls. My job demanded that I travel a bit and whenever I did, my parents came in to care for the children.
I had to make sacrifices to cut off my social life and focus on my career and family. Occasionally, I would take my children on botanical trips and capture memories of them holding plants. Because I’m a gardener I would also collect moss and put them in vases. The message I will give to women is to strive and find husbands who will be indifferent and support their growth.
What is your husband’s name?
My husband is called Anwar Fakim. My son is Adam and my daughter is Imaan.
You’ve touched on this already but it seems your parents were always there for you.
Yes. My parents were there literally all the time, my home was theirs whenever I traveled. My mother would cook for the family and perform all motherly duties. They are the rock on which my family thrived including my career and my life would be nothing without them.
Tell us about the end of your presidency.
The end of my presidency was marred with frivolous accusations. It started when I met a businessman in London. He ran an NGO foundation known as the Planet Earth Charity that was investing in African youth through scholarships. I had visited the UK then, to present a paper through the House of Lords at a conference hosted by Lord Paula Tang. Together with the Melinda Gates Foundation, they wanted me to partner with them to become the mouthpiece for Africa to promote science. So together, we formed the Coalition for African Research and Innovation to look at healthcare, science, technology and innovation. That meant we could look at issues beyond healthcare which the Gates Foundation was passionate about.
But my presidency was such that it had a limited budget for out of state travels so the foundation decided to foot all extra expenses that would be accrued. By doing so, they provided a private credit card from the same bank for the charity and advocacy work for which the then prime minister was duly informed.
I did use the card a couple of times and made sure to refund all personal expenses made as protocol demanded. But in 2018, I received an email from some journalists asking me to respond to questions about my expenses and bank details in my capacity as a sitting president. I told them I couldn’t as I had to visit the state law office to have them respond to your questions. But the next day, all my expenses were published in the dailies coupled with innuendos that I was having an illicit affair with the businessman because he had given me a credit card for my expenses. The prime minister asked me to vacate my seat because of the alleged scandal. Strangely, nobody was interested in knowing who had leaked my details.
It was a crime to reveal the details of people let alone a sitting president and yet no inquiry was constituted and the pressure to get me ousted mounted. I petitioned the then-new prime minister, who happened to be the son of the retired prime minister, to clear my name for I had not taken money from anybody and I had even informed his father about the credit card. But he wouldn’t listen and insisted I leave, even though it was illegal and I also knew who had leaked the details.
I fought and resisted their call to leave the office. But as the constitution demanded, they put in a motion among the cabinet of ministers to approve the terms of a tribunal to get rid of me but I insisted a commission of inquiry be set up to investigate what I’m being accused of, but the prime minister took a strong exception to that and called for my removal citing a constitutional violation on my part.
So, on March 23rd 2018, I resigned from the presidency, but the prime minister wouldn’t stop there. He issued a communique to all the media outlets, including the New York Times, CNN, Fox, the Vanguard etc. that I had resigned because I got myself mixed up in a financial scandal. He further set up a commission of inquiry on my person. I told him I wasn’t obligated to even avail myself to this commission because the constitution protects and provides me with immunity in and outside my term of office. Regardless, I still went through the inquiry for two years as a complete service. Interestingly, it’s been four years since I left office yet I’ve not received a single report from the commission of inquiry. The prime minister once alleged on-air that, he’s received an anonymous letter of all my wrongdoings in office and I rebutted by demanding a copy of such a letter as a courtesy if he was going to accuse, judge and execute a sentence on it, but such letter hasn’t been received. The leader of the opposition even demanded that such a letter be tabled before parliament for deliberation but to no avail.
This is how far we’ve come on that accusation. I am not dead yet and I don’t think that accusation will kill me because I will continue to challenge them. My father recently has vowed to see that report before he leaves this earth, he sees me as his investment and doesn’t think I deserve what I am going through. But I am still strong and ever relentless in my advocacy work across the globe.
Do you regret taking the presidency?
Not at all. It was such a huge honor to serve my country. It was also a huge honor to have made history not only in my country but the world as well. It is historically significant to note that, I am the first female Muslim president in Africa. It was indeed such a gamble worth taking but I have had the extreme honor of serving my country at the highest level and will do it again if given the chance.
Let’s talk about the continent for a bit. How did the unique nature of Mauritius compare to other countries?
We knew we were an island with a unique identity but we never thought of ourselves as being part of the greater African continent. Some people still perceive us as outliers but I think we have a crucial role to play in bridging two equally important continents, having been labeled the star and key of the Indian ocean, for which we are. Unfortunately, due to the existence of bad leadership over the past years, we’ve failed to realize this potential and are dilly-dallying. I also think we have a key role to play in the transition of Asia to Africa. By being small, we have shown our potential to make changes. Even though we’ve had no economic miracle, the diversity and pragmatic solutions of our leaders post-independence were able to drive our economy from a paltry $200 per capita GDP in 1968 and 69 to nearly $10000.
We don’t have a lot to show off because we are small but our good practices have birthed a thriving sugar industry which has served us as well. We also have a world-acclaimed tourism sector made possible through the vision of our founding fathers and a thriving financial sector. We have some good practices and knowledge to share but countries thrive on strong leadership. A typical example is Rwanda. It’s easy to criticize Kagame as tyrannical and label him as bad as the west has been doing but he’s been able to transition Rwanda from a genocide obliterated state in 1994 to a modernized state in the 2000s. He’s further modeled the digital system after their tradition and culture and now has a thriving financial sector. Furthermore, Rwanda is one of the six countries earmarked to get the vaccine technology. The country is doing well due to its strong leadership. His approach to healing Rwanda through his guiding process is commendable at best. We need more enlightened leaders on the continent.
Another example is how some Africans were treated in Ukraine in the middle of the crisis. Even though the African Union issued a communique, we still need strong leaders whose voices and opinions will be structurally heard and acknowledged. We need leaders who will redeem our image and the respect we deserve. This continent alone has funded three successive industry revolutions and is on the brink of doing so for the fourth. The world of telephony largely depends on resources found on the continent and the atomic bomb is primarily made possible from the Shinkolobwe mine in DRC. I believe we deserve our due respect but were not getting that for many reasons. But I think we need more Mandelas and Tutus of this world to ensure that we get the respect we deserve.
Tell us about your proudest moment as president?
My proudest moment is when I brought the various communities together for a discussion to ensure that peace prevailed. This is only possible when different ethnic and religious groups get to understand each other, share their stories and culture and appreciate each other more. And I think this is the crux of the matter in many parts of the world, where the fear of the unknown causes insecurity among many people. To add to that, I’ve always wanted to be an inclusive president, so it warmed my heart when I managed to bring the less privileged, the orphan and the handicapped to the statehouse every Christmas for a party. I did it systematically every year and it was something they always used to look forward to. My quest to be inclusive of all was evident in every facet of my presidency.
What advice do you have for other women looking to run for office?
Not many women will be outliers like me; having a caring father and a loving husband but they can only dream, take risks, take actions and believe in themselves as much as I did when I was a child. Everyone is capable of doing everything because they are. And I remember a popular quote my father used to tell me is that ” you are capable of everything once you put your mind to it”
Just dream, dare and take action.
Would you like to add anything that we didn’t cover?
I think we’ve covered the entire story. For starters, even though my journey hasn’t been easy, I am very proud of it and I will never trade it for anything. I will do it again if I am given the chance again.
There is also one thing I just quickly like to add, you know, in the past, it was easy to demonize women by accusing them of infidelity, but lately, it seems slotting women isn’t enough, they’d rather smear them with financial scandals and then demonize them in the cyberspace. Cyberspace has become an ultimate frontier that women have to grapple with now. It is so easy now to tame the confidence of women and give them a bad reputation. I’ve been there and so we ought to educate girls to be strong in the face of this invisible army of cyberspace.
I agree with you on this. Usually, young girls in their teens without resilience and will are targeted. The stories of suicide are rampant among teenagers. For someone who has been able to accomplish all that you have, what advice will you give to young women?
The trick is to try and be friends with your children as I did with mine. For instance, my daughter will be 24 soon but she still foretells me what she does, who her friends are and where she goes, which isn’t mandatory but she still does, this goes to stress the importance of encouraging parents to foster good friendship bonds with their children. It’s a useful safeguard against external influences and I advise all parents to be friends with their wards.
It is evident that Ameenah had a humble upbringing in a disciplined household with limited resources. Influenced by her surroundings, she would later become one of Mauritius’ most celebrated scientists and subsequently, the first female president of Mauritius. A feat that’s never been repeated ever in Mauritius.
Her cultural tolerance and respect for traditional values shaped her tenure as president and promoted peace and sustainable development in Mauritius.
Even though the end of her tenure was marred by unfounded allegations perpetrated by her political enemies, she continues to illuminate and influence the path of many women in Mauritius, on the continent and across the globe.
Ameenah believes that every dream is achievable no matter your circumstance. She’s living proof of her resilience and strong will.