The general’s atoll
By Azra Naseem
2 January 2017
The political grooming of the Maldivian armed forces threatens democracy, as well as the sanctity of the public sphere.
(This is an essay from our print quarterly ‘The Southasian Military Complex’. See more from the issue here.)
The small island nation of the Maldives has little to fear from external enemy forces. Its closest neighbours are Sri Lanka and India – both firm allies. All SAARC member-states have been on good terms with consecutive Maldivian governments since the country gained independence and began entering into bilateral relations. Despite China and the US having rival interests in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives appears to be keeping both on side. Analysts predict that in terms of security threats, the Maldives has most to fear from those arising from non-traditional sources, such as piracy, terrorism, and, increasingly, climate change. Given this geostrategic scenario, it should be safe to assume that the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) would be playing a less central role in matters of state than armed forces in other countries of the region such as Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Not so.
The MNDF permeates every aspect of Maldivian life today, from education to entertainment, faith to leisure. Indeed, a cursory look at the activities that the force has initiated or partaken in since the swearing in of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom on 17 November 2013 provides a snapshot of how deep the military’s tentacles now penetrate civilian life.
Quite apart from the type of activities that armies are expected to be involved in during peacetime (such as major rescue operations and natural disaster mitigation), the MNDF competes in almost all national sports tournaments, from swimming, volleyball, basketball and football down to billiards and other traditional pursuits. At the same time it has gone into overdrive to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of young people. The MNDF holds fire-drills in pre-schools, invites children to regional military bases, allows minors to play with weapons during ‘children’s evenings with the MNDF’, holds ‘healthy living classes’ in schools, runs ‘significance of leadership’ classes, and organises ‘youth camps’ billed as ‘a weekend with the MNDF’ on military training islands.
The MNDF(Maldivian National Defence Force) appears to have an endless list of events and activities targeted at the general population, ranging from classes to teach people how to recite the Qur’an ‘properly’ to running multi-media workshops on various islands. They also train volunteer firefighters, provide scuba diving lessons, run first aid classes and host ‘military family evenings’.
Besides this unspoken ‘get them young’ policy, the MNDF also appears to have an endless list of events and activities targeted at the general population, ranging from classes to teach people how to recite the Qur’an ‘properly’ to running multi-media workshops on various islands. They also train volunteer firefighters, provide scuba diving lessons, run first aid classes and host ‘military family evenings’. The force is likewise ever-ready to provide the requisite pomp to any national or international occasion, be it Independence Day, National Day, Martyr’s Day, Women’s Day, Heroes Day or World Health Day. The annual Mr MNDF competition, in which members of the force strip down and perform body-building challenges, is, however, the forces very own opportunity to flex its muscle.
The point of all this seems to be to keep the MNDF constantly in the public consciousness. But even without these often gratuitous public exhibitions, it would be difficult for the force to escape the public’s mind, however fleetingly. The MNDF has its own television channel, Addana [Shield] TV, and a dedicated magazine by the same name which has both print and online versions that cover everything from religious beliefs to baking cupcakes. There is an official website with downloadable recruitment forms, and, of course, a Twitter handle and Facebook page. This public outreach is helped by a mainstream media that, apparently, is committed to regurgitating official press releases as news, no questions asked. All the parades, pomp and ceremony are thus faithfully relayed to the public in an endless loop, ensuring that there will be a part of public consciousness always occupied by the MNDF. It is easy to imagine that Kim Jong-un’s Korean People’s Army has slower news days than the MNDF.
The increasing militarisation of the public sphere is no accident. The military budget for 2014 is close to MVR 876.7 million (USD 57 million) comprising over five percent of the record MVR17.5 billion (USD 1.1 billion) budget for the year. At the end of last year, the Maldives had a budget deficit of MVR 1.7 billion (USD 108 million). It has since racked up even more debt, with a Singaporean arbitration tribunal ruling in June that the Maldives had acted wrongfully in terminating the USD 500 million contract with Indian firm GMR to develop and manage the country’s main international airport. GMR is now seeking compensation to the tune of USD 1.4 billion.
Under these circumstances, dedicating over five percent of the budget to the military is difficult to countenance. In light of the Maldives’ friendly geostrategic environment, it should also be hard to convince a majority of the public that the vast budget is, in fact, what it purports to be – ‘defence spending’. Indeed, a lion’s share of it goes towards paying large salaries and doling out major benefits to members of the force. But this has been going on for some time – the practice can be dated precisely to 7 February 2012, and the controversial end of the first democratically elected government of the Maldives.
A coup by any name
The Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) Government of Mohamed Nasheed, which came to power on 11 November 2008, was brought down with the participation of a rogue element of the MNDF on 7 February 2012. On the previous day, a contingent of the Maldives Police Service (MPS) dispatched to control clashes between anti- and pro-government protesters, mutinied shortly before midnight. They then went on a rampage across the capital island of Malè, attacking pro-government activists and damaging the offices and property of the ruling MDP. After the rampage they gathered at Republic Square, flanked by the military and police headquarters.
Mohamed Nasheed, who was at his official residence, located only a few hundred metres away, ordered the arrest of the mutinying police officers. Hours later, frustrated by the military’s apparent inability to make the ordered arrests, Nasheed marched into the military headquarters on foot. Retired Brigadier Ibrahim Didi, one of the most decorated officers in the Maldivian Army was chief commander of Malè Area that night. Didi, now a member of Parliament, testified at the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) – a Commonwealth endorsed fact-finding body – that he explained the MNDF’s failure to carry out the arrests to Nasheed thus: “The Commanders on the ground hesitate to go and confront the police and arrest them, so I don’t think they will be able to do it.”
Former Staff Sergeant Shafraz Naeem, who was commanding a riot squad battalion that night, described to the CoNI how perplexed he was by the inertia of some generals and other senior commanders in acting against the mutinying police. On one occasion, he asked General Ahmed Shiyam – now chief of defence forces – why he was not giving orders to have the mutineers arrested. ‘Go away!’ was Shiyam’s answer. A similar query to another senior officer who ordered the military to withdraw instead of arresting the mutinying policemen resulted in Naeem being told to ‘mind his own business’.
The World Bank noted how salary increases for the military and the police had contributed to an already excessive national wage bill. There were reasons for the government to spend beyond its means. Just as the MNDF played a crucial role in ending the first democratically elected government, it was substantially involved in the 2013 presidential elections and its many farces.
The MNDF ventured out to arrest the mutinying police three times that day. Each time the soldiers were seen hesitating, and then retreating. Soon after the third failed confrontation, several members of the MNDF were seen directly disobeying orders and joining the mutinying police. This emboldened anti-government protesters gathered outside, all of whom ran towards the gates of the military headquarters, ready to storm it. They were baying for Nasheed’s blood.
In the few hours between the time members of the MNDF joined the mutinying police – around 6:30 am – and Nasheed’s decision to resign, the mutinying soldiers, along with police and anti-government protesters, were seen taking over the premises of the state television broadcaster. Videos also exist of a squad of MNDF officers marching on the streets of Malè triumphantly chanting ‘Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!’, clearly revelling in the turn of events they had helped engineer.
Strengthened by the defecting MNDF members, the police and anti-government supporters, some of whom were by now carrying riot police equipment, attacked the military headquarters as well as members of the MDP gathered outside. Inside, President Nasheed watched and considered his options. He later told the CoNI that before resigning he asked several soldiers within the Army headquarters if they thought he should step down. Their response was in the affirmative. When he did decide to quit, Nasheed was driven to the President’s Office, just a few yards away, where he was to make his resignation speech. Photographic evidence and eye-witness accounts document members of the military surrounding the car, banging on it and shouting, ‘Swine! Bastard! Ganja Boa! [Pot Head]’. He was still their commander in chief.
Not only did the mutinying soldiers get away with disobeying orders, they were richly rewarded for it; and continue to be.
Only a month after the event, which Nasheed’s supporters – and several independent observers – insist was a police and military led coup, the government of Mohamed Waheed gave the MNDF two years of allowances in a lump sum amount of MVR 150 million (USD 10 million). In August 2012, the MNDF registered a joint venture company, the MNDF Welfare Company, along with SIFCO, signalling its entry into the corporate sector, and also announced its intentions to become a resort operator. In December of the same year, it began a new recruitment drive to add an unspecified number of soldiers to the force.
In September 2013, in the lead up to what turned out to be a highly controversial presidential election, the government laid the foundation for 300 apartments to be built on the island of Hulhumalè, a short ferry ride from the capital Malè. It was no secret that the housing was being built for members of the MNDF. Just a month previous, the force had been handed fifty apartments, re-allocated from social housing intended for the needy. Although senior officials insisted such improvements were an obligation ‘according to [the] financial capability of the government’, the government was in no position to afford such largesse. The country was so cash-strapped at the time that in August 2013 Waheed requested parliament’s approval for a loan of USD 29.4 million to finance the state budget and manage cash flows. Just a couple of months later, in November 2013, even the World Bank noted how salary increases for the military and the police had contributed to an already excessive national wage bill.
There were reasons for the government to spend beyond its means. Just as the MNDF played a crucial role in ending the first democratically elected government, it was substantially involved in the 2013 presidential elections and its many farces. The first round of elections, scheduled for 7 September 2013, went ahead as planned. Eighty-eight percent of eligible voters turned out in an election reported as free and fair by hundreds of national and international observers. The results of the first round of voting – in which Mohamed Nasheed attracted 46.9 percent of the vote, trailed by Adulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) who received 29.7 percent – were, however, disputed by the third-placed Qasim Ibrahim, a resort tycoon leading the Jumhooree Party. Despite universal praise for the integrity of the elections, Ibrahim’s protests gathered a momentum of their own.
The Maldives was thrown into turmoil when the Supreme Court first postponed recognition of the first-round elections, and then cancelled the results. Nightly street protests led by Nasheed’s MDP became the norm. The military were a strong presence throughout, acting in consort with the riot police to not only monitor but also intimidate and sometimes assault protestors. Tear gas, pepper spray and batons were used indiscriminately and gratuitously by the security forces.
Fear played a decisive role in the decision to accept the annulment of the first-round results and the re-scheduling of a whole new election for November. By then, the constitutional deadline for electing a new president had long been breached. On 16 November, after the first round of voting held seven days previous failed to elect a clear winner, 51.34 percent of the electorate voted for Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, against 48.6 percent for Mohamed Nasheed. It was a result that was deemed acceptable to the interim government of Waheed, and, more importantly, to those in charge of the security apparatus.
During the long weeks of unrest that stretched between the first cancelled election on 7 September and the accepted results on 16 November, dissent within the MNDF’s higher ranks swelled as members of the force were deployed to assist in activities that were against both the spirit and letter of the Constitution. On 28 September 2013, a day after the Supreme Court postponed the second round of scheduled elections, sixteen senior MNDF officers, including three of the rank of brigadier general, released ‘a letter of concern’ on social media, noting their ‘forced’ participation in obeying unconstitutional orders.
The repercussions were immediate. Authorities quickly amended laws and regulations that prevented dismissal of some of the officers, and fired several. Some resigned. More punishment and dismissals came en masse as soon as Yameen was declared the winner on 16 November. The new government quickly swept the MNDF clean of all the officials that had objected to its behaviour during the elections, including Brigadier General Ahmed Nilam, one of the most decorated and long-serving members of the force. Nilam is currently appealing his dismissal at the Maldives Human Rights Commission.
Despite the warnings of economic experts on unbridled spending on security forces, one of Yameen’s first acts as president was to visit MNDF headquarters. Just over a week after Yameen was sworn in, the MNDF – with great fanfare – announced a Strategic Action Plan for the first 100 Days of Yameen’s presidency. Along with establishing Addana TV, a day care centre for officials’ children was to be built, and facilities improved at the dedicated military hospital ‘Senahiya’. Many of the plan’s goals were achieved within the time limit. At the beginning of the New Year, major changes within the administrative and command structure of the MNDF were initiated, while in February, foundation stones were laid for a new building dedicated to the Coast Guard and the Ministry of Defence.
A dedicated welfare system for the armed forces is presently in the pipeline. According to authorities, its funding would circumvent the state budget, instead being financed by the MNDF cooperative society SIFCO, as well as from the MNDF’s planned new corporate ventures. The MNDF, for example, is currently looking to develop Uthuru Thilafalhu, an island in a lagoon near Malè, as a naval dockyard that doubles as a for-profit berthing space for ocean liners. Apart from seeking foreign direct investment through the usual financial channels, the MNDF is also pursuing investment in the project via official bilateral discussions, effectively militarising the country’s diplomatic sector.
The face behind the force
The face of the MNDF – and, increasingly, Maldivian diplomacy – is the Minister of Defence Mohamed Nazim. The events of 7 February and the subsequent penetration of the military into Maldivian civilian life are intricately linked with, and inseparable from, Nazim. A tall, well-built man approaching his fifties, Nazim joined the military in 1987, a time when military service had just been made compulsory for male graduates of state-funded education. According to Minister Nazim’s official profile, “unlike most of his friends who sought several excuses to evade compulsory military service”, Nazim chose to “embrace the strenuous life”.
While Nazim’s former schoolmate Nasheed was jailed and tortured during Gayoom’s regime, Nazim was a rising star in the military, quickly climbing through the ranks to become colonel. At the time, there was no separation of the military and police services, meaning military officials were often in charge of prison security. Less than a year after Nasheed was elected president, in mid-2009 Nazim was dismissed from duty for breach of discipline standards. Nazim sued the MNDF for unfair dismissal and won in January 2011. The court ordered that Nazim be restored to his position as colonel. But he chose to honourably retire.
Colonel (Retd.) Nazim disappeared into the relative obscurity of the private sector until 7 February 2012, when he returned to the limelight as the man who famously issued President Nasheed the ultimatum: ‘Resign, or else’. At the height of the police mutiny, which occurred directly in front of military headquarters, it was Nazim who arrived to ‘save the day’. Defence Minister Tholhath Ibrahim allowed Nazim, along with two former members of the security services, to enter the military headquarters to ‘negotiate’ with Nasheed. The president came out an hour or so later and, speaking into a megaphone, announced to the police, military and public gathered outside that, confronted with his ultimatum, he had agreed to resign. Nazim accompanied Nasheed to the President’s Office, and, according to Nasheed’s testimony, dictated what he wanted in the resignation statement. The sight of Nazim entering the military headquarters – and the baying mob trying to force their way in behind him – made clear to Nasheed the stark choice he faced: ‘Resign or die.’
In May of this year, Nazim signed an agreement that provided the opportunity for Maldivian troops to serve on UN Peacekeeping Operations. Though this sounds good in theory, it will allow the country to sustain an oversize military as a result of renting part of it out to the UN. The size and strength of the MNDF is only likely to increase.
On 8 February 2012, Nazim was pronounced the minister of defence, a position he was re-appointed to by President Yameen in 2013. Ever since, Nazim – like the defence force he is in charge of – has remained at the forefront of the public’s consciousness. This is not surprising given the number of government portfolios he currently holds. Shortly after the events 7 February 2012, the Ministry of Defence was also put in charge of the Department of Immigration and Emmigration. During the turbulent time in which the Supreme Court prevented presidential elections from being held, then-President Waheed made Nazim the government’s elections envoy. Nazim also leads the National Disaster Management Center and is the head of the Local Government Authority (LGA) which, under the previous government, was pursuing a nation-wide decentralisation project. Under Nazim’s leadership, however, the LGA has embarked on a campaign to re-centralise power in the hands of the Malè-based elite. Meanwhile, Nazim’s acceptance of the US gift of PISCES (Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System), a border control system that Pakistan and other countries had rejected as inadequate, resulted in the country arbitrarily cancelling an agreement with Nexbis of Malaysia, which already had a contract to provide the Maldives with a border control system. Included in Nazim’s long list of portfolios is also the position of acting transport minister, which put him in charge of the Maldives Airport and the controversy over the Indian multinational GMR. He acted hand-in-hand with then Attorney General Azima Shakoor (who moonlights as his personal lawyer), to wrongfully declare the GMR agreement void ab initio.
Nazim’s military diplomacy continues without relent. Between his November 2013 re-appointment and now, he has met with high-ranking military and diplomatic officials from India, the US, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Malaysia while joint military exercises and ‘increased cooperation’ with the militaries of China, India and the US continue to be announced at ever shorter intervals.
In May of this year, Nazim signed an agreement that provided the opportunity for Maldivian troops to serve on UN Peacekeeping Operations. Though this sounds good in theory, it will allow the country to sustain an oversize military as a result of renting part of it out to the UN. The size and strength of the MNDF is only likely to increase. Since Nazim was appointed last November, he has procured a landing craft and two helicopters from India, while also allegedly seeking to attract Indian investment in the MNDF’s naval dockyard project. The consequences of these efforts fail to be processed by the media and public, as do Nazim’s less straightforward dealings. The April 2013 meeting of Nazim and Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb with the notorious ‘Artur brothers’, known across the world as Armenian drug lords and smugglers, received little attention. Despite evidence documenting their chummy relations with the shady siblings, neither minister was made to satisfactorily explain their business or their relationship with them. The story was buried.
What does appear in the media on a daily basis are reports (and pictures) of Nazim handing out trophies, opening futsal fields, accepting military hardware and hobnobbing with the world’s political and military elite. Watching, listening to, or reading local news it is hard to know which hat Nazim is wearing on any particular occasion. To the less than discerning public (and media), it is Defence Minister Nazim – and by a symbiosis of sorts, the military – that provides them with medicines, hospitals, entertainment, religious education, food, shelter, peace and security. The MNDF, under Nazim’s leadership as designed by President Yameen, is set to occupy Maldivian civil public space for a long time to come.
~Azra Naseem holds a PhD in international relations from the School of Law & Government at Dublin City University, Ireland, and is currently based in Male.