February in History
14 September 2012
The Maldives’ Commission of National Inquiry report is a history written by the victors, but it forces all parties to look to the future, not the past.
What happened in the Maldives on 7 February this year has been the subject of constant debate ever since. The completion of the investigation into these events last month did little other than confirm the one thing that everybody already knew: that the winners of the power struggle that day were those who found themselves in charge come 8 February. The old maxim that history is written by the victors appeared to have been borne out as the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) not only absolved all those in the current government of any wrongdoing in the suspicious ousting of former president Mohamed Nasheed, but also laid upon Nasheed the blame for all the events preceding his resignation.
After a quasi-legal investigation, the final report read more like a political justification for the removal of an opponent than a genuine attempt to untangle the confusion surrounding the events, which many believe to have been a coup d’état. After half a year, the addition of two new members, and an additional month’s delay, the commission’s credibility was already under question. It came as no surprise, then, that the final draft brought no real agreement over the circumstances surrounding Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s ascension to the presidency.
What the CoNI report has done, however, is to enter the first official account of the fateful day’s events in the ledger of Maldivian history. Anti-climactic and unsatisfactory, can the CoNI still mark the beginning of a new chapter in Maldivian democracy?The past (is history)The resignation of Nasheed’s CoNI representative, Ahmed ‘Gahaa’ Saeed, on the night before the report’s release signalled that the promise of a resolution to the Maldives’ political crisis was a mirage. Saeed’s prior fears regarding the commission’s activities were realised when its co-chair, retired Singaporean judge G P Selvam, returned from a three-week sojourn to his homeland with a disappointing first draft.
After Saeed’s resignation, Nasheed responded with fury, calling on his supporters to take to the streets to “topple the government tonight”, and sparking fears of a repeat of the chaos witnessed on 8 February. Thankfully, the following day did not see a return to violence, and the initial anger within Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) seemed to give way to a stoic acceptance of reality.
In a manner reminiscent of the response to 7 February, the international community appeared to fall in line with the status quo, welcoming the report’s findings. On closer inspection, however, all the Commonwealth (including India), the US and the EU had done was to urge all sides to respect the findings. In diplomatic terms, this seems to have been more an attempt to head off any violence than a firm acceptance of the report itself. Detractors would suggest that the international community had again been caught unawares, while more generous observers might argue that the diplomats understood the importance of the CoNI process in moving the nation forward and that, as the saying goes, the journey was just as important as the destination.
Nevertheless, the first independent legal analysis of the report pointed out that respecting the journey doesn’t justify throwing away the map. A team of Sri Lankan legal experts picked the CoNI report apart from start to finish, substantiating Saeed’s concern that the commission’s work had exceeded its mandate and ignored vital evidence.
Nasheed appeared to empathise, albeit ironically, with the CoNI’s implication that the police and military could overthrow an elected government as long as their actions were justified politically. “I see the report as a document that tries to map a way forward. The commission was of the view that reinstating my 2008 government would be so messy that it would be best to move forward with another election. So the report has tried so hard to come out with this view through a proper narrative. You will have read the narrative and will understand that at times it is comical, but still, it is a narrative.” Nasheed continued in a similar vein in an online article for the The Huffington Post, which was titled, ‘How to Plan the Perfect Coup’.
A CoNI for the CoNI would only return Maldivian politics to a state of hibernation for a few more months. Challenges to the CoNI report will continue, but they are largely academic now – consigned to history, with little practical impact on the immediate present. In the time it takes to review and challenge the report itself, the current government will have entrenched itself even more firmly. Furthermore, it is hard to see how the international community can affect a reversal of the status quo, and even harder to see where it would find the political motivation to do so. This is a fact the MDP leadership appears to be coming round to.The present (tense)Regardless of the report’s myriad deficiencies, it appears to have temporarily released the country from the stasis of the last seven months, and brought the political discourse firmly into the present. Despite the MDP’s displeasure with the report, they appear to have reluctantly accepted the mantle of the official opposition. Unfortunately for them, however, it seems that the de facto government feels emboldened by having been proven de jure.
The immediate result of this seems to have been a hardening of the government’s positions on all fronts. After being absolved by the CoNI of any constitutional faux pas, the police have declared their intention to arrest anybody caught calling them traitors or mutineers. Special Operations (SO) police officers, accused by the MDP of upholding the current government, have shown equal disregard for amicable public relations. While attempting to corral MDP protesters following the CoNI report’s release, armoured SO officers could be heard chanting a song in praise of their original patron Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years until he was ousted in 2008.
Similarly, the government has hubristically rounded on the international community, with senior politicians accusing the Commonwealth in particular of ill-treatment, bias, and hypocrisy. Both the Special Advisor to the President and the State Minister for Foreign Affairs have demanded that the Maldives be removed from the Commonwealth’s Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) agenda, an ignominious position reserved for countries suspected of violating the Commonwealth’s core values of democracy and human rights. The same government figures have threatened to withdraw from the organisation should it refuse. After its first post-CoNI teleconference, the CMAG opted to delay its decision until its next meeting on 28 September.
Waheed’s visit to China the day after the report’s release, during which he finalised a half-billion-dollar loan for housing and trade development with received promises of more to come, may well have been a coincidence; his praise for China’s foreign policy of non-interference, however, was a clear signal to the Commonwealth that it is not the only show in town. The Home Minister, Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, used his first press conference after the CoNI report to make clear his feelings about the international community’s preference for the current government’s charismatic nemesis: “No international power can coerce this government into discussions with Nasheed again. This chapter closes here.”
Unsurprisingly, the gulf between the national unity government and the MDP has not narrowed. The newly named ‘Leaders Dialogue’ talks – a streamlined version of the all-party talks whose persistent failure left so much riding on CoNI – bettered the past meetings only in the speed with which they fell apart. Perhaps wisely, the MDP had sent party chairperson, ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik to the talks, but even without Nasheed’s polarising presence, the tension between political parties was evident. After local media misinterpreted Manik’s query about the MDP’s official status as a request to join the government, the Jumhooree Party (JP), aligned to the current president, responded by saying, “We have to think carefully about whether this is part of a hidden agenda by Nasheed.” A spokesperson for the President’s office immediately accused the MDP of lacking sincerity.
Meanwhile, as the now-official opposition, the MDP has chosen to re-focus its efforts on reforming the police, whose brutality in February was acknowledged by the CoNI report. Adamant that the current government represents a police state masquerading as a young democracy, the MDP hopes to build on the strong anecdotal evidence to this effect, given further credence by the government’s failure to discipline any officers following the well-documented incidents of 8 February. Since the CoNI report’s release, the publication of two reports by Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) on those human rights abuses suggests that the MDP still has the connections to ensure that international interest and scrutiny will remain strong.
Whilst present tensions may not augur well for the future, the re-focusing of the political debate must be seen as a positive development. Whilst the government may feel its troubles have been left in the (somewhat fictionalised) past, closing the door on the coup has opened the floodgates on a host of issues which will be much harder for the new leaders to handle.The (fractious) futureSeven months of bitter political feuding have exposed severe problems with the economy, police, judiciary, constitution, independent institutions and media. These long-standing issues may soon make the government long for the time when it was preoccupied with proving its legitimacy. President Waheed – who before the removal of Nasheed was regarded more as a technocrat than an autocrat – ought to be better qualified than most to address some of these problems. Aggrieved at being underused as Nasheed’s vice president, Waheed now has an opportunity to use his years of international experience to the country’s advantage. His recently announced intention to run for a second term in next year’s scheduled elections indicates confidence. As president, and as a seasoned diplomat, Waheed himself must set the example by not letting personal animosity between prominent politicians and Nasheed disrupt the dialogue necessary to accomplishing his agenda of reforms. This may be easier said than done, however, as his national unity government has at times appeared united only by its leaders’ disdain for Nasheed.
Unfortunately, the old-guard’s enmity towards the former president has more to do with what he represents than with any personal traits. Waheed’s ability to consolidate democracy with progressive reforms may be severely hampered by his need to placate those who have supported his rise to power, especially those on the sidelines who acted as spoilers during Nasheed’s term. Nasheed’s frustrations (and likely his removal) resulted from a deep-seated unwillingness in the upper echelons of society to make the 2008 constitution fully functional. “You can get rid of a dictator, but you can’t get rid of a dictatorship,” Nasheed told Time magazine back in April. “You can get rid of a person very easily, but the networks, the intricacies, the establishments – you have to flush them.” Whether Waheed can clear the blockages to democracy more easily by working with these powerful interest groups than Nasheed could by working against them will go a long way towards determining whether he is more than just a puppet of the old system.
As for the MDP, after a day of indecision and rumours of infighting following the report’s release, they appear to have regrouped. After his fiery rhetoric, Nasheed was conspicuous in his absence the day of the CoNI’s release. MDP spokesperson Hamed Abdul Ghafoor suggested that Nasheed’s failure to lead the anticipated protests may provide an opportunity for new leaders to emerge, prompting rumours that there may be divides forming within the party.
Finding another figure to take the strain off Nasheed may be more a matter of pragmatism, however, as Nasheed’s trial for the illegal detention of Judge Abdullah Mohamed looms. This episode was one of the triggers for February’s transfer of power. Nasheed used his first post-CoNI press conference to request that the trial be expedited, so keen is he to have his day in court. Should he be found guilty, Nasheed would be constitutionally barred from running in elections. The MDP has already stated their intention to boycott elections should this happen, undoubtedly making this issue the next flashpoint on the Maldivian political calendar as well as a definitive test of the party’s internal cohesion.
In the meantime, the party will go through the motions of calling for early elections despite the fact that there are few left who believe this to be a realistic possibility. Planned marches have already been scaled back, and anti-government demonstrations over the next few months can be expected to gradually morph into a core component of Nasheed’s endangered election campaign.
In short, the CoNI report has shed little light on the past, and the future still looks gloomy. History may look back on the report as one of the growing pains of Maldivian democracy, but the report could just as easily be the sign that the country is running out of time to consolidate the political gains made in the last decade. As for the MDP, they can console themselves with the thought that, despite losing this battle, the war for democracy is far from over.
~ Daniel Bosley is a journalist currently writing for Minivan News in the Maldives. He can be reached at danielbosley80 (at) gmail.com or via Twitter @dbosley80.