By D Lindow

IT MAY come as a surprise to those used to reading about the apparently benign political climate in Seychelles to learn that not many years ago hundreds of property (real estate) owners had their land and houses summarily removed from them by essentially the same government currently in power. Minimal - in most cases, zero - payment was made, leaving the vast majority of those dispossessed still seeking either the return of their properties or some form of compensation. Those who lost their land were for the most part Seychellois, though many overseas investors suffered, too. The rationale behind the acquisitions was that land ownership should not be in the hands of individuals who could chose to develop and profit by it, as and if they wished, but ought to belong to and be controlled by the government for the benefit of the people. (Click here to see list of seized properties: L1, L2, L3)

The government in question, a single party state, led by Albert Rene, had gained power in a coup d'etat from its democratically elected predecessor, fronted by James Mancham, shortly after Seychelles was granted independence from Britain in 1976. Essentially Marxist, this government remained unopposed, with only the occasional, token, single candidate presidential 'election', until 1993. During that time, a 'campaign for democracy', based in London and supported by James Mancham, railed against the perceived injustices going on in Seychelles; besides widespread disappearances, occasional killings, the suppression and eventual expulsion abroad of all dissenting voices, these included further spates of land acquisitions. More often than not, property (real estate) acquired in this way was left idle. Some of it, however, was turned over to state enterprises, including 'farms'. In these early days, there was no question of land being redistributed to 'the people'; but nor was there much indication of it finding its way into the hands of those in power. Its critics may have thought the government misguided and inept but did not yet accuse it of being corrupt.

Inevitably, this all changed. The farms and enterprises failed, often dismally; the suppressions and expulsions grew more frenzied; and, as further, more extensive land acquisitions were made, stories began to circulate that officials, particularly in the planning area, were becoming open to bribes and promising favours in ways that would have been unthinkable prior to independence, and that some of the more select parcels of compulsorily acquired land were finding new owners. A much touted example of this was a ten acre stretch of prime beach frontage, 'bought' by President Rene for a nominal sum from one of his own departments, whose original owner, meanwhile, received pittance.

As pressure for more open government mounted, not so much from the 'campaign for democracy' as those Western countries predisposed to grant aid to Seychelles, a gradual process of what was officially termed 'reconciliation' began. James Mancham was invited back from London to head his Democratic Party and wide ranging discussions took place. These were aimed primarily at redressing past grievances, amongst which the land acquisition issue figured prominently.

Much was promised but little delivered. During elections that were not universally agreed to have been conducted fairly but that were at least contested, the party of President Rene was returned to power. A curious phase, one that had begun during the 'reconciliation' period, now accelerated, with once zealous Marxist thinkers, abandoning all attempts at state control, selling assets frantically. The best pieces of land went to themselves or their cronies at knockdown prices; the less attractive parcels were subdivided and leased, on considerably less advantageous terms.

Despite the cries of outrage from those who felt they still owned these assets, having neither agreed to part with them nor been offered anything in return, this extraordinary redistribution of property (real estate) took place with barely a murmur from their champion, James Mancham, or his 'campaign for democracy'. Welcoming the former first minister back to Seychelles, after fifteen years exile, massed crowds had enthusiastically gathered to herald his plane's arrival.

This is how things stand today. Incredibly, during the last quarter of the twentieth century, dispossessed investors and property (real estate) owners would have fared better almost anywhere on earth - even Uganda - than Seychelles; yet the country now presents itself as a bastion of stability, a place of fiscal probity, proud signatory of an international convention specifically guaranteeing property (real estate) rights.

In 1999, Tony Blair took his family to Seychelles for a holiday and stayed for the second year running in a palatial house on the island of La Digue. Whether his accommodation was paid for, and if so, to whom payment was made, is unknown, although at one stage the house was accepted as 'belonging' to President Rene; but what became abundantly clear from the newspaper coverage during his visit was that the property's original owner, a German who happened to be in Seychelles at the time (only to be immediately deported) felt monumentally betrayed by this apparent countenancing by Britain of what amounted to little more than state theft.

Of course, such theft of property (real estate) has always taken place. Kings and queens and more latterly usurping dictators and despots traditionally redistribute land and riches to their supporters. However, this usually happens in times or in countries where it is either an accepted way of doing things or nobody has the power to stop it. In the case of Seychelles, in the late twentieth century, a country which had no history other than one of ownership by Britain or France, and whose people lived within an essentially Western European legal and moral framework, the right to own property (real estate) must have seemed sacrosanct.

For such people to have had their land taken away from them and to have received nothing in return, however understandable from the intellectual point of view of a socialist government bent on change, was clearly unjust. Yet far, far worse than seeing such property (real estate) subsequently misused or more commonly not used at all, must have been the sight of someone else, for no reason other than that they happened to have greater political power, or simply the correct political allegiance, taking its ownership over. That this could be done legitimately beggars belief.

March 14, 2008
Copyright 2007: Seychelles Weekly, Victoria, Mahe, Seychelles