Exclusive interview with President Wavel Ramkalawan | 13 November 2020
‘Seychelles is open to all Seychellois of good will’
Eighteen days after taking office, President Wavel Ramkalawan yesterday graciously granted Seychelles NATION an hour from his hectic schedule for an exclusive interview in which he talks about a host of topics from his childhood and early upbringing, to the day he became the President of Seychelles and how he is settling down in his new role.
Seychelles NATION: Mr President please tell us more about your childhood and your parents
President Ramkalawan: My father originally came from Praslin, in fact he was the first child to be born in the new hospital at Baie Ste Anne (cottage hospital) in March, 1927. At the age of 14, he decided to leave Praslin to move to Mahé to live with his aunt at St Louis. My mother comes from Mahé. By the time the Second World War was coming, my dad was not at the age yet to join the British army. But, he wanted to join the army to explore the world, so he forged his age so that he could go to East Africa and North Africa. He was in the pioneer corps and then came back to the Seychelles. When he was in the army he learned to become a tinsmith and later worked at the public works department. My mother was a teacher and rose to become a head teacher at the primary school of Seychelles College. They got married soon after they met and I always consider myself lucky because I have always had a mother (mummy) and a father (papa) in my life. That was a blessed situation. Both my parents were from the Anglican Church and church was always part of our lives.
I had a happy childhood. My mum put a lot of emphasis on education and they made lots of sacrifices. Both my sister and I, through the sacrifice of our parents, went to the two elite schools in the country at the time – Seychelles College (for the boys) and Regina Mundi (for the girls). I must admit we had the best education one could get at that time. Sometimes when I look back, I realise I should have used the opportunities more wisely.
Seychelles NATION: Tell us more about your journey from high school to priesthood
President Ramkalawan: I completed my A-Levels at Seychelles College and from there I went to Mauritius to study theology at St Paul’s theology college. I received my calling towards priesthood at the tender age of four. My mother was the head teacher of the Anglican Church’s school on Praslin. We were at St Mathew’s church and I still remember vividly the moment I received my calling. After this year’s elections, I went back there to offer prayers and give thanks and I pointed out to my friends the exact spot where I received my calling. From the age of four, I knew what I was called to do in life! So it was not a difficult decision for me upon completing my A levels.
From Mauritius, I came back to Seychelles where I was ordained a deacon at the age of 22 in 1984 and then in January 1985 I was ordained to the priesthood. It is interesting to note that the canonical age for one to be ordained a deacon is 23 years and the canonical age to be ordained to the priesthood is 24 years. I got special dispensation as I was ordained a year early. The same year I got married to Linda in May. Following that we moved to the UK where I did post-graduate studies at Birmingham University where I focused on pastoral studies and Linda did a course in church management at West Hill College.
When we came back to the Seychelles the Archbishop, Bishop French Chang Him, chose me to be the Provincial secretary and Bernard Georges was the Provincial Chancellor. We did a lot of travelling together and on the day I was ordained to the priesthood, Bernard Georges was made the Chancellor. He delivered the oath of obedience for my ordination. I then worked at St Paul’s Cathedral and the Holy Saviour’s church at Anse Royale. I was always interested in translation of the Holy Texts in Creole. I was the person who translated the Eucharist service in Creole and I led the first Creole service at St Paul’s Cathedral. Some people were not happy as they were used to the English service. I also translated all the other services and together with Père (Gustave) Lafortune and James Sabadin of the 7th Day Adventist church, we translated the New Testament. Then I continued to translate the Book of Psalms, the Book of Genesis, the Book of Ruth and a couple of others.
Seychelles NATION: Describe your entrance in politics and what was your priority?
President Ramkalawan: In 1990, I was living at Bel Eau and I remember there was a band called Radio playing in town which I could hear. It was a Saturday and I was preparing for the service at St Paul’s Cathedral. The sermon basically wrote itself! The sermon was calling for democracy, for human rights, an end to victimisation and to extra-judicial killings. The following day I delivered that sermon and it did not please the authorities. On Monday, the Bishop received a letter from James Michel who was then the Minister for Information, informing us that I was banned from leading any service that was to be broadcast live on radio. My voice was silenced on radio, but this attracted many to come to the church to listen to the sermons. I continued to address some of the issues and I have always been a people’s person and in a sense I always stood up to defend or to fight any injustice. I have always defended my friends and even in the assembly if one of my colleagues was attacked, I would definitely defended him. Once I give a commitment, I keep my commitment! Of course I am not perfect, but as far as the priesthood is concerned, I have been ordained a deacon for 36 years and a priest for 35 years, I am still a priest for the Church and I still have my license to practice. Right after the election, I delivered a service! I have been married for 35 years, my family comes first and I always believe in what I am doing. It is the same where politics is concerned. State House was not the aim or the objective of my activism in politics. This is why even if I lost several elections before, I never gave up because my objective was social justice, freedom, respect for human rights, elimination of poverty, giving everybody a fair chance and I can tell you even if I had lost the 2020 elections, I would still be fighting for these principles. This is why having been given the opportunity to serve the people of Seychelles, these will be the principles that will guide me. That’s me!
Seychelles NATION: Was there any point throughout your political journey when you felt like giving up?
President Ramkalawan: There have been many moments of discouragement. You lose an election when you believe that you should have won and when you know there have been gerrymandering. In 2015, when I lost by 193 votes, of course I felt down as a human being. But this is a feeling that lasts for a short time and then you pick yourself up and go back to your principles and start the fight all over again. There have been moments of deep discouragement and eventually you learn. When people who are close to you, your partners, let you down in politics, you feel upset. But you keep on working. After standing for five times and losing, I won with an overwhelming majority the sixth time around. The difference in votes were over 7000! Our party also won an absolute majority in the National Assembly election. But because of my principles, this will not have an effect on the way the country is run.
Seychelles NATION: Some of your supporters have clearly expressed their dissatisfaction with your decision not to make leadership changes in governmental departments and agencies.
President Ramkalawan: It is not because we have an absolute majority that we will do whatever we feel like doing, because I always fought against dictatorship. I will never be forgiven if I now adopt the same principle. I know many of our supporters are upset because they voted for change, they expected me to come to State House and sack everybody who have worked here and in the civil service and everywhere else. I have stood up to them and said “I have always preached to you that every Seychellois should be afforded the same opportunity and everyone has rights and one of your right is to be able to decide for yourself which political party you support. Your political belief should have nothing to do with the work that you do as a Seychellois. Every Seychellois should have an opportunity to work with total commitment and to be able to feed his family. I don’t mind if people around me have a different political opinion to mine. The only thing that I ask from everyone is that we are here to serve the country. What you do with your life in private, this is your business!
Seychelles NATION: During your familiarisation visits, you are being very positive about what you are seeing and hearing. We can see and feel your determination to make Seychelles better. What is your message for the Seychellois here and overseas?
President Ramkalawan: First of all it is important to note that in the Cabinet, there are Seychellois who have stayed here in the country. But on the other hand, we have Minister Patricia Francourt who had to leave the country for exile in the U.K. The message for those who went into exile is YOU ARE STILL SEYCHELLOIS. Seychelles is as much my country as it is yours. We will open our arms to welcome Seychellois from across the world. Secondly, Minister Sylvestre Radegonde had to leave the country when James Michel was President. It was a tough decision but he is back. The message there is your professionalism is what matters. Under President Faure, Mr Radegonde was the country’s ambassador in France; the message there is you are good, you can serve the country, come back. A third example is Minister Billy Rangasamy who lived in Canada for some time and then was working in Dubai. He was also proposed as a minister by President Faure. This goes to show, you are a Seychellois. I don’t mind if President Faure named him to become a minister. The message is Seychelles is open to all Seychellois of good will.
In fact I will be making a special call to the diaspora to say to them, especially during these difficult times, we need you to help us. I will be talking to the banks to see how to facilitate the opening of bank accounts for Seychellois living abroad who feel that they want to open an account to place their foreign currencies to help build up our reserves. Seychelles belong to all Seychellois.
I also have a special thought for Gerard Hoareau who had the same principles as me. We are making the necessary arrangements to bring back his body to Seychelles. He is a son of Seychelles and he is supposed to be here!
Seychelles NATION: You praised former President Danny Faure during your inauguration for the good and honest work he has done for the country during the four years of his presidency. However, during the four years, a completely different message was given to the populace by the then opposition party, of which you formed part. Which is the correct message that the population needs to know?
President Ramkalawan: One has got to understand the politics of the day. Of course Danny Faure remains a good friend, but politically, he was my opponent. So, in politics you don’t really praise your opponent, especially when that opponent is the presidential candidate from the other party. Unfortunately politics is about criticism, there is a lot of criticism and there is a lot of convincing the people that you are the best candidate. He did the same thing to me, and this is a fair game. I consider, for example, the presidential debate, something which I fought for for a long time and which we finally got, showing another step, as we criticised each other, and it is at that level that politics should remain. It is when politics and the criticism become personal that it becomes dirty politics. With President Faure, I have never gone to that level, I have always drawn a line to say no, you don’t step over this line. So, upon winning the election, I was basically the new leader of the country and having talked about the reconciliation of this nation, obviously I had to reach out to him and I also realised that it was the first time that he had participated in an election, and at his first attempt he lost. I know the pain of losing an election and I have been listening to some of his interviews and he has expressed the pain. For me it was not a moment to come out with arrogance and that sort of thing. I knew that this would not be the way to build the new Seychelles and our theme was ‘Seychelles for all her children’ (Sesel pour tou son zanfan), so straight away, I considered Danny Faure as a child of Seychelles, and was seeking how he could help and this is why I have offered for him to have his office as the former President of the country. I am giving him all the support. In fact, we will have to amend the law to bring in new elements so that legally he can obtain all the promises that I made. I believe in it and he is committed to working for the country, and he has said that, but if tomorrow he decides to come back to politics, this is his choice, but the one thing that I am focused on is the fact that he was the President, and in many ways, I will admit that, if Danny Faure had not been the President of Seychelles in the last four years, maybe the transition would have been different.
Definitely the transition would not have been as smooth as it went, maybe the country would have experienced some violence, but he played a very important role. That Sunday October 25, 2020 when we met the two of us and we talked, we talked about the country and we talked about the transition, we talked about how we would push Seychelles to a higher level. This was our conversation and both of us have been faithful to what we agreed on, and I insisted that President Faure be given all the honours when he was leaving, that he should get the red carpet treatment, and that I would accompany him to his car. What we did does not happen in Africa. This was all part of bringing the people together, and it is in that spirit that I am working. I have clearly said to the leader of opposition that I have an open-door policy and that hopefully we can address any issues he has, and I have also reassured the civil service, I have reassured everybody working in this country that the importance is for us to work for Seychelles.
Seychelles NATION: You clearly stated in your campaign that you will eliminate the ‘ek nou pa ek nou’ system. How will you proceed with that, noting that whatever decision or appointment you make, it will be met with certain opposition? What will be your guiding principles to include all Seychellois in the development of the country?
President Ramkalawan: Well, it has already started. When I came to State House, there were staff working here, and I said to them ‘you are the ones working here, you know the place and I am the stranger here’. The presidential security team, I looked at them and many of them thought they were going to lose their jobs but I said to them that they are the experts who have been trained and you’ve sworn your allegiance to the State and to the Constitution, so I am in this seat and you are the professionals and the only thing I expect of you is to take care of me. And, I must tell you, there is a great ‘camaraderie’ among us. They know what they are called to do, they are taking care of me and everything goes on.
There is a cook here and many people are advising me that I should not eat what he prepares as there is a risk of being poisoned. But the cook knows that the only thing he has to do is cook and to give me good food. The cleaner in my office is the same person who was working here. The girl who brings my tea and everything is the same person, and I believe that I am leading by example. I have not asked anyone for whom they voted, because literally, I don’t care because this is their right. And so, we are getting on very well and the country has not stopped functioning and the same with the ministers. I told them go out there, there are staff attached to your office and there are workers, go out there, help them to help themselves, and this is how we will move the country forward.
I was very happy when I visited Praslin. I had asked that both elected members of the National Assembly (MNA) be present, and Honourable Churchill Gill of Baie Ste Anne (from the United Seychelles party) was there. And on Friday (today), when I go to La Digue, Honourable Rocky Uranie (United Seychelles party) will be at the pier to welcome me and he will be part of the delegation. And as you also know, we have agreed that every elected MNA will have an office in the district administration office and when I visit a constituency or district, I expect to be accompanied by an MNA and I don’t care whether it’s LDS or US. What I care about is that the elected MNA accompanies me. So that’s the principle on which I am working. These are the guiding principles that I will continuously follow.
And I can also tell you, in order to remove this ‘ek nou pa ek nou’, for example for the post of district administrator, I have already given instructions to the Minister of Local Government and she’s told me that there are a couple of districts that don’t have a district administrator. We have to advertise the post, state the qualifications, do a proper interview and the successful candidate will get the job. I don’t care which party the person supports, as long as he/she is a qualified person who will work for the district. That is all I am interested in.
Seychelles NATION: The people have been calling for a better public administration. Again we see that the President holds this portfolio. How will you be doing things differently?
President Ramkalawan: There is one guiding principle for the civil service, work hard, treat your department, your ministry as a business. That’s all. You are the one occupying the post, you are a servant of the people, so when someone comes to you asking for a service, serve that person. Don’t play around with any citizen. If the person qualifies for whatever service, the person will get it. Basically it is a question of working hard, deliver in as short a time as possible, remove frustration from the public because people need to know where they stand at all times. And maybe it’s the same principle that I have given to the ministers. I have told them, when you go to the assembly, answer the questions, tell the members the truth, and by telling the members the truth, the people will know exactly how their country is being run. And it is the same with me, when people ask me questions, it is a direct answer.
Seychelles NATION: You said you have not been in the government before, and surely this is something completely new to you. How have you been settling in as President over the past two weeks?
President Ramkalawan: It is true, I have never been in government, except for two occasions. This is part of my growing up. When I finished my O-Levels and was waiting for my results to start my A-Levels, I decided to join the police force. I was a police cadet as I was only 17 and I was police cadet number 17. I was a police officer for some months, and they thought I was going to stay on the force, so they rushed. In no time, I was in a uniform, but then when the results came, I was about to go to police cadet officers course. At that time, in the force, there were only two or three officers with O-Levels, and only one with A-Levels. When I came with O-Levels, they kept me at the station to fill out the occurrence book but as soon as the results came out, I left.
And then, when I finished my A-Levels, before going to Mauritius, I, of course, needed some money, so I did some work at the Probation Office, at the time it was at Huteau Lane. But I have not worked as such in government. How am I getting along? It is the people who are around me who are holding my hands and telling me what to do, where to go and of course using my initiative, I get on with it. I smiled when Vice-President (Ahmed) Afif, after the first Cabinet meeting, said to me: “How many years have you been leading the Cabinet?” This is because everything went so smoothly. We are fitting into the role and getting a lot of help from the people around me, and just sticking to my principles.
Seychelles NATION: We have recently seen the resignation of Dr Patrick Herminie. Do you expect that there will be more resignations in the different ministries and departments, and if so, what do you think would be the reason(s)?
President Ramkalawan: I don’t know. I was slightly surprised that he sent his resignation and of course I respect everybody’s decision. I don’t know whether I am expecting any more. People are free and if they decide to resign because they have other responsibilities they are taking, I will simply respect their decision, but my principle is that nobody should lose their job. Maybe I can also tell you that Secretary of State Barry Faure has sort of negotiated with Foreign Affairs and Tourism Minister Sylvestre Radegonde. He has said he feels for family reasons, he has to go to India. The negotiations are ongoing for him to exit. That’s about what I see presently, but we will take it one day at a time and we will move on.
Seychelles NATION: Mr President you presented a manifesto during your campaign and now that you have been voted in, there are a lot of expectations. Do you think that you and your team will be able to deliver what you have promised to the people?
President Ramkalawan: We will at least start. And this is the message. At the first Cabinet meeting, each minister was given a copy of the manifesto to remind them of the programme on which we have been elected and what are the expectations of the people. So we will start, and I must say we have hit the ground running. Already there are a lot of encouraging signs and our friends from overseas, the friendly countries have come in with the energy and the enthusiasm, wanting to help Seychelles during these difficult times. Some of the things have really amazed me, for example, we now have a commitment for the construction of a new hospital on La Digue. It is not going to be on the same venue and it has nothing to do with the old plans that the previous administration had done. It is a new concept altogether being put together and it will be closer to l’Union Estate. Only this (yesterday) morning, I was given another pledge for a new operating theatre at the Seychelles Hospital, fully-furnished, brand new with all the equipment costing over US $350,000. I have also received other commitments vis-à-vis India, we are expecting to sign some memoranda of understanding. India has also invited me to visit in January. As you know I have been recognised as somebody of Indian origin and the village from which my great-grandfather came from, celebrated my victory. There were fireworks and everything.
A lot of people don’t have a clue of the emotions when I visited the place the first time. The welcome was grandiose and I told them, my great grandfather left in 1887 or 89 and I am bringing his soul back into the village and I told them to pray for me and if I become the President, I will come back, so now they are all asking when I am coming back.
There is also a story I will share with you. The gift that they gave me was an icon of Goddess Durga. This was interesting and when the Magistrate gave it to me, he said to me: “Goddess Durga will protect you.” I am going to tell you something which I myself don’t understand. The date of the election was October 24 and this is the date they celebrate Durga Pooja, and of course in Hinduism, she is one of the strong goddesses. I just do not understand but they are waiting for me to come and celebrate with them.
I don’t know yet, but in January, on the day that they celebrate the Indian diaspora, I will be there.
Seychelles NATION: The First Lady has won the hearts of many. What are your thoughts?
President Ramkalawan: I never expected that the people really wanted a first family and that they were longing to have a first lady. If I had known that this is what they wanted, I would have pushed Linda to the limelight earlier, so that she had helped the chances of me winning. Linda took the whole country by storm and everybody is talking about her and I told her I didn’t know you could be so good in interviews and she told us that the words kept coming to her.
Seychelles NATION: Mr President, what do you have to say to the people who did not vote for you and for all of us during these trying times?
President Ramkalawan: We should all first of all realise that we are going through extremely difficult times. And first of all the people must understand that the income that the country receives has gone down, it’s next to nothing. But our expenses are still the same, therefore the element of sacrifice, the element of changing our lifestyle has to come in.
Christmas will not be the same in 2020. We have to be serious, we have to realise that the job we have today is very important. Please if you are in employment, keep your job, and work even harder, because that job is crucial. Do not think that you can change jobs just like that, you can resign or you can depend on social assistance. Even that is drying up, so please let us act responsibly. That’s the overall message, but I can tell you on Tuesday (November 17), I will be addressing the National Assembly at 5pm and during the address I will be pronouncing the government’s position on a number of issues, a number of topics, including the 13th month salary. But I am sure that our people are strong and that we will go through this difficult period and we will come out stronger to face the future. And it is also important for every one of us to realise that if we can go through this hardship and overcome, then in 2021, with the vaccine and our tourism economy getting back on track, the future of our country will be great. With unity, the same focus and discipline, the future can only be great and I believe Seychelles can be a true model not just for the region, but for the continent and for the world.
Interview conducted by Vidya Gappy