100,000 march in Mauritian capital after catastrophic oil spill kills dozens of dolphins

The demonstration has been described as a ‘turning point’ for the country

Khalil A Cassimally
Mauritius
Sunday 30 August 2020 01:05 BST
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Protesters spontaneously sang the national anthem as the march began
Protesters spontaneously sang the national anthem as the march began (AFP)
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Around 100,000 protesters took to the streets of the capital Port Louis in Mauritius on Saturday, three weeks after an oil spill caused by the grounding of a cargo ship and days after dozens of dolphins were found dead.

Marchers, dressed in black, held placards with drawings of dolphins or stating “citoyen leve citoyen” (citizens wake up citizens) and others waved Mauritian flags as they walked peacefully through the capital. Several statues, including one of Queen Victoria, were also wrapped in the Mauritian flag.

It was one of the largest public demonstrations in recent Mauritian history. Siddick, 65, who declined to give his full name, said: “I travelled two hours to get here. I’ve never seen so many people before.” A commentary in Le Mauricien, a national newspaper, said: “It’s clear we are at a turning point in the history of our country.”

Many shops in Port Louis closed early as owners joined the demonstration. Others set up makeshift stalls to provide fruit juices to marchers.

Participants amassed under a scorching early summer sun at St Louis Cathedral, one of the country’s oldest churches. They were addressed by several activists who criticised the Mauritian government for its handling of the oil spill and called for it to step down.

As the protest began just before 1300 local time [0900 GMT], marchers spontaneously burst into a rendition of “Motherland”, Mauritius’s national anthem. They also sang songs by Bob Marley and by Kaya, a Mauritian seggae musician (a fusion of sega and reggae) whose death 20 years ago in police custody sparked four days of riots.

The grounding of the ship and the estimated 1,000 tonnes of oil that spilled have sparked widespread popular anger towards the government. Marchers say the spill could have been prevented. Christian Merle, 18, said: “This didn’t have to happen. It is sheer incompetence. What did [the government] do during those nearly two weeks between [the bulk carrier MV] Wakashio running aground and the oil spill? Nothing! Nothing!”

Others lamented about the potential ecological impact. Shekha Boolaky, 37, said: “It’s an ecological disaster for the country … but it has broadened the minds of people, especially young people. They are concerned about our environment.”

Some marchers were keen to voice out their discontent at a government that they think is becoming increasingly authoritarian. A few days following the oil spill, police officers prevented journalists from attending a press conference by Dr Arvind Boolell MP, the leader of the opposition. Bruneau Laurette, a social activist, and one of the key organisers of the march, had previously alleged, following a meeting with a government minister, that there had been an attempt to intimidate him.

Roseline, 65, who refused to give her full name, said: “Enough is enough! I hope the government realises now that they can no longer dupe the people. The people are rising. We’ve seen the Arab spring, now we have a Mauritian spring!”

Marina Edouard, 27, came with her husband, father, brother and her 20-month-old baby. She said: “I am here to demand a better future for my baby. This march is for the future. It shows that the people will take action if the government keeps failing.”

Demonstrations were also organised by Mauritians overseas in cities including London, Paris, Geneva and in Ontario. Hans Balgobin, 31, attended the demonstration in front of the High Commission of Mauritius in South Kensington, London, saying: “Mauritian society is unique. We all mix together and we live in mutual dignity. I was present today to show my support from abroad.”

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