The Machiavellis of Malé
5 November 2015
How the politics of vengeance in the Maldives is destroying its democracy.
It was 62 years ago when the first president of the Maldives returned from overseas to find he had been usurped. Mohamed Amin Didi was immediately taken into detention before further intrigue and conspiracy among the country’s elite resulted in his violent death just weeks later.
In the decades that have followed, the tiny atoll nation has changed almost beyond recognition. The capital of Malé has become a bustling metropolis of high-rise buildings, whose population dwarves that of the entire first republic. The country’s economy was transformed under its second and third presidents from bare subsistence on fishing to comfortable prosperity via luxury tourism.
The vice president, said Yameen, needed to be “isolated”, to allow the investigation to proceed.
Yet, when the country’s fifth Vice President Ahmed Adeeb landed on the tarmac of Hulhule island on 24 October 2015, he took the same journey, as Amin Didi had done all those years before, to the detention facility in Dhoonidhoo island. His charge: “High Treason”, as the home minister tweeted.
President Abdulla Yameen, meanwhile, went on state media to say that his deputy had been actively obstructing the inquest into the 28 September explosion aboard his official yacht. He alleged Adeeb’s undue influence over the police force, as well as his attempts to have the president impeached. The vice president, said Yameen, needed to be “isolated”, to allow the investigation to proceed.
Foreign minister Dunya Maumoon rushed to assure foreign observers that there was no political instability in the Maldives, promising a swift and transparent investigation into what she termed “deeply unfortunate” events. Meanwhile, the rhetoric in Malé has been less cautious, with former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (Dunya’s father, Yameen’s half-brother) praising security services for fighting the “evil designs of traitors”, while the home minister described Adeeb’s downfall as the greatest national victory since the fall of President Mohamed Nasheed in 2012.
Speaking with journalists in Colombo on 29 October, Dunya refused to answer many of the more pressing questions, suggesting that the byzantine politics in Malé has become impossible to explain to outside observers, who are more used to the serene image pushed by the billion dollar tourism industry. But explanations will continue to be demanded as the escalating crisis led to the declaration of a state of emergency on 4 November, and the impeachment of the detained vice president on 5 November.
The peaceful transfer of power from Maumoon to Nasheed in 2008 during the country’s first multiparty elections is beginning to seem like a remote past, the drama of Amin Didi’s demise would not feel out of place in today’s newspapers.
While the blast on the official yacht – Finifenma – left the commander-in-chief uninjured, his wife suffered serious back injuries. Had the president sat on his usual seat, the Maldives would be searching for a seventh president, cabinet members onboard have said.
After international investigators confirmed the growing suspicions that the explosion was more than a mechanical fault, Malé’s political rumour mill – in fine working order despite years of overuse – slipped effortlessly into overdrive. Intense speculation regarding Adeeb’s involvement soon prompted a public denial from him. But Adeeb’s eventual departure to China on official business felt more like a trial separation. Police raids of houses belonging to Adeeb’s close associates while he was away, and the failure of the President’s Office to publicise his trip –which included a meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinpeng – appeared ominous.
Yameen addressed the nation the day after his deputy’s arrest, attempting to set the record straight on what he termed the “eventful” nature of his two-year presidency. Accusing his deputy of impeding the investigation into the blast and having amassed unwarranted influence over the police, Yameen confirmed that Malé’s antique rumour mill remains more reliable than any state institution. Sweeping changes have been brought to the police leadership, and the defence minister has been replaced.
Adeeb’s lawyer Hussain Shameem has maintained that the police’s evidence against his client is scant – assertions which were soon followed by his suspension by court authorities. Shameem argued that the vice president would not have returned back had he been guilty. This, however, did not stop his former party colleagues from impeaching him via a fast-track procedure on 5 November.
Conflicting forensic reports from the US, Saudi Arabian and Sri Lankan sleuths added to the confusion. Many Maldivians switched over from the usual Hindi dramas on Saturday night to watch police reveal a record haul of illegal weapons. Hand guns, rifles, grenades, and material to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were found 45 metres under the crystal clear waters of the Baa Atoll marine biosphere.
Further drama ensued days after, as a stick of dynamite was discovered attached to a vehicle outside the presidential palace – uninhabited by the head of state, but frequented by tourists visiting the capital. Citing a high probability that similar incidents could occur, the military advised the government to temporarily suspend certain rights in order to ensure public safety.
Islands of stability?
What China makes of the Maldivian ‘instability’, after it sent a man suspected of attempting to murder his own head of state to meet President Xi, is unknown. But linguists in its Malé embassy must be double-checking the meaning of the word. Observers, who would have had little choice but to take the word of state officials 60 years ago, have been told the government remains stable and the country safe for foreign investment. Unlike during Amin Didi’s time, however, the facts are harder to conceal from the wider world.
Indeed, President Yameen’s hour long attempt to reassure the nation appeared more like an admission that he had lost control. During the address, Yameen felt compelled to discuss the arrest of his defence minister for conspiring to harm him last February, the impeachment of Adeeb’s predecessor Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed in July for disloyalty, and the controversial imprisonment of former President Nasheed on terrorism charges.
Sensationally, the president also accused senior police officers of having known about the planned attack on his yacht, inadvertently suggesting that he has done little to address well-established problems within the institution. Calls for immediate improvements in both the police and the judiciary emerged from the Commonwealth-led inquiry into Nasheed’s 2012 resignation, after a police mutiny had followed the arrest of a senior judge.
Overwhelming international criticism of both Nasheed’s trial and the continued antics of the Supreme Court under Yameen have also made clear that judicial reform has yet to be tackled. Indeed, Nasheed’s prosecution appears to have served as a distraction from the basic law and order problems that precipitated his chaotic exit from office, with leaders like the home minister reductively blaming structural problems on individual opponents. Intense political polarisation accompanying multiparty politics has allowed the issues to be dismissed as “political” in nature, stalling the full realisation of the democratic constitution adopted seven years ago.
After its inception, the newly-elected Nasheed had refused to pursue the traditional method of jailing politicians in order to forestall power grabs. While this strategy backfired spectacularly, it did point the way towards democratic politics free from the cycles of coup, conspiracy, and counterattack amongst the capital’s aristocracy. Many who balked at attempts to modernise the country’s justice system must now realise that this is a rising tide that could have lifted all boats.
As important now as bringing to justice those who planned the explosion aboard the president’s yacht is the recognition that archaic politicians are failing to meet the demands of a young and aspiring democracy. After narrowly avoiding a national tragedy, it is clear that far-sighted reform which transcends superficial political divisions is needed to lead the country back to the progressive path.
Without a trusted criminal-justice system, all decisions are bound to be considered arbitrary by 50 percent of a jaded public. In the current climate, the vice president’s inevitable conviction will sow the seeds of further political vengeance, guaranteeing further Machiavellianism in Malé. But pledges last week that a new, vaguely-worded anti-terror law would never be abused fails to anticipate a future when current leaders may need the protection of clear laws and neutral courts; something the vice president must now appreciate.
Into the past
As a country facing the modern problems of high youth unemployment, growing Islamic radicalism, and the looming threat of climate change, the Maldives in 2015 cannot afford to indulge in the political navel-gazing of yesteryears. While the foreign minister has repeatedly insisted that the state is consolidating democracy, the disturbing events of the past month show once again that powerful political groups in Malé are intent only in consolidating their own power.
The Maldives is no longer a tiny fishing country cut off from the rest of the world, but a modern state dependent on the global tourism industry for its livelihood. The September blast, which took the door off the back of President Yameen’s yacht, was likely heard on a number of nearby resorts. Similar incidents risk destroying the image of a tranquil ocean paradise fostered over 40 years.
Additionally, future generations will require a robust government to counter-balance the islands’ social and environmental vulnerabilities. Neglect of the youth – to whom Adeeb had been touted as a savior – has already led to a menacing gang culture in the capital, while others turn towards religious extremism in search of answers leaders are failing to provide.
Environmentally, the government is committed to addressing the immediate concerns regarding coastal erosion and energy consumption, but the vacillating fortunes of those in power has resulted in a reluctance to tackle to biggest question facing the country: how can a dispersed population be consolidated without destroying the basic fabric of island life?
Amin Didi and his immediate successors will go down in the country’s history as architects of the modern nation state, bequeathing independence and surprising economic development to 1200 coral-ringed islands in the Indian Ocean. Future generations would thank current leaders for steering the country away from approaching storms, rather than tossing each other overboard as the country drifts into troubled waters.
The Maldives’ first president would barely recognise the economically developed country of today. Unfortunately, Amin Didi would find the politics of the capital disappointingly familiar.