Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is an eminent scientist and world specialist ethnobotanist. From tomorrow, 5 June, she will also serve her country as its ceremonial Head of State, in a move that has caused some controversy but also much support, as Sean Carey reports.
“This is the first time someone who is not a politician has been proposed as president, and that touched me,” says Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, 56, who succeeds veteran Labour politician Kailash Purryag, 67, as ceremonial head of state of the Republic of Mauritius on 5 June. “I will be an apolitical president,” she vows. Of course whether anyone, including Professor Gurib-Fakim, an internationally renowned chemist and ethnobotanist, can remain above the fray in a country which constantly bubbles with political intrigue, partly because of how the economic cake is divided up and partly because of its ethnic and cultural complexity, is an interesting question.
Already the leader of the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) opposition, Paul Bérenger, 70, has said that while his party supports the new president, he questions the timing of Gurib-Fakim’s investiture just before the municipal elections on June 15. “It’s pure electioneering, which is a shame,” he said in an attempt to neutralise the considerable political and cultural capital the first female president brings to the coalition government headed by the 85-year-old leader of the Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien (MSM) Sir Anerood Jugnauth QC.
At one level Bérenger’s analysis is undoubtedly correct. The ongoing controversy concerning the revocation of the license of the Bramer Bank, part of the British American Investment Group (BAI) headed by Dawood Rawat (which also has interests in Kenya and South Africa) was authorised by prime minister Jugnauth and finance minister Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo in April. The government maintains that the bank was running a Ponzi-type scheme. However, the closure of Bramer, followed by the seizure of assets in other parts of the BAI conglomerate, was interpreted by some Muslims (and spun by some of their political representatives) not as a legitimate move against a billionaire businessman who happens to be Muslim but an attack on the whole Muslim community (who make up around 17% of the Indian Ocean island’s 1.3 million population).
Not surprisingly, it has been difficult for Gurib-Fakim to escape the accusation that she is being used as a shield to deflect some of the the heat from the ruling Hindu-dominated government. But Gurib-Fakim counters any accusation that she has allowed herself to become a government agent by declaring that the BAI Group was a national company whose investments and employment practices went well beyond representing the interests of any ethnic or religious group.
Furthermore, Gurib-Fakim was in the frame for president long before the problem with the Bramer Bank surfaced. She was nominated by Jugnauth as part of the Lepep (‘the people’) coalition’s campaign in the run-up to last December’s general election which crushed the Labour Party, headed by Dr Navin Ramgoolam, 67, a close personal and political friend of Dawood Rawat.
The presidential nomination evidently came as a genuine surprise to Gurib-Fakim. It’s obvious that this accolade has gone a long way in assuaging her disappointment at not even making the short list of candidates for the post of Vice Chancellor of the University of Mauritius in 2013. An independently-minded woman and nobody’s fool, Gurib-Fakim went public and accused the Ramgoolam government of blocking her appointment because of her Muslim identity.
At a time when meritocracy is seen as key in unlocking Mauritius’s growth potential, Gurib-Fakim’s academic qualifications are unrivalled while her entrepreneurial skills are considerable. Having gained a PhD in chemistry from the UK’s Exeter University she knew full well that job opportunities would be limited on her return to Mauritius in 1987. Mainly for that reason she carved out a niche by studying rare plant species with the potential for novel medicinal or cosmetic uses in Mauritius as well as Rodrigues and Reunion, the other two Mascarene Islands. Later on her research was extended to Madagascar.
That can-do, will-do attitude, even when bringing up a young family after her marriage to surgeon Dr Anwar Fakim in 1988, has paid off handsomely. Gurib-Fakim is the recipient of a huge number of accolades. In 2007, for example, she was elected Fellow of the Linnean Society and also received the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Award for Africa. A few years later in 2013 she was elected Fellow of the African Academy of Sciences.
After leaving the University of Mauritius in 2010 (where she had been Professor of Organic Chemistry and later Pro-Vice Chancellor), Gurib-Fakim set up the Centre for Phytotherapy Research in 2011 the newly launched Mauritus BioPark in Phoenix. “The goal of my research is to produce safe plant-based medicines to combat everyday ailments like diarrhoea, dysentery or infectious illnesses to help children who are suffering here in Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean region and also in Africa,” she says well aware that successful products can make serious money. “The global phyto-medicine market is currently worth $60 billion. If we could bring 10% of that to Africa, I’d be very satisfied indeed.”
The job of generating income and employment through the Centre for Phytotherapy Research has now passed to her small band of trusted female employees. But the much larger task of bringing investment and work to Mauritius’s unemployed and underemployed young people, male and female, through scientific and technological initiatives involving private-public partnerships is set to be her primary focus for at least the next five years in her role as president. You can be sure that more ceilings, not just a glass one, will be broken by this remarkable woman.