Update (26 Sept): Anni Nasheed has returned to the Maldives capital Malé and has been put on island arrest, meaning he is forbidden to leave the 2 km2 island. He’s ordered to attend court on Monday for what democracy supporters say will be an unfair trial.
London: 2012 has not been a good year for President Mohamed (Anni) Nasheed of the Maldives. Anni took office in 2008, the country’s first democratically elected president, ending Maumoon Gayoom’s 30-year oppressive dictatorship. In a little over three years, Anni had made good on his promise to invest in people, bringing about social change and democratic reforms. He introduced healthcare, pensions and education improvements.
Perhaps most famously, Anni became an international champion of the environment, protecting marine species and campaigning for action on climate change. When I visited him at home in the early months of his presidency, he talked about the urgent risks of sea level rise – Maldives is one of the world’s lowest islands – and his plan for a sovereign fund to help nationals migrate elsewhere when their country became inundated. And he discussed his ambition to make the country carbon neutral by 2020.
In February this year, however, he was forced to resign the presidency at gunpoint during a coup arranged by a coalition of his opposers, including Gayoom’s supporters and radical islamist groups. Anni and several members of his party were injured – some seriously – in the attacks that followed, which were led by the 300-strong secret military police force, set up by Gayoom to root out dissidents during his dictatorship. Since then, there have been continual pro-democracy protests on the streets, often dealt with torture and brutally. Journalists have been beaten and arrested, and Anni and his party members are threatened with imprisonment and, he fears, death.
Nevertheless, he looks refreshingly vital, when I meet in him London this week, and in fighting spirit. “The people won’t stand for it,” he tells me with a confident smile. “Democracy will return soon. We kicked them out before, and we’ll do it again.”
But last time, it took 30 years and you were imprisoned 20 times and tortured, I remind him. You’ll be an old man in another 30 years, and besides, Maldives is sinking – you may not have 30 years.
Anni looks serious for a minute. “You are right, of course, we don’t have 30 years. This is an urgent situation. Every day things are getting worse for my country. This month, they banned singing and mixed gender dancing! These are cultural traditions in the Maldives and I don’t want my daughters growing up in such a regime.”
Maldivian youths have been recruited to islamic schools in Pakistan and elsewhere for religious training, returning to the island nation with fundamentalist beliefs. During the brief democracy, such voices were a kept in check by healthy social forces, Anni says, but now, with their politically powerful roles, they are able to exert greater influence.
How do you plan to return to office, I ask him.
New incumbent Mohammed Waheed (widely acknowledged as Gayoom’s puppet), has agreed to hold elections next July. Although, whether they will be free and fair is the big unknown. If they are, then Anni is confident he would “easily win a majority vote”, but he fears being arrested (along with the 750 already held) and prevented from taking part.
Under international pressure, Waheed agreed to hold an investigation into February’s coup. The report, for which the new government was allowed to choose the judges, except for the appointment of an independent judge, retired Singaporean GP Selvam, who is notorious for stamping down on opposition and dissent in Singapore, concluded that no coup had taken place and that Nasheed had resigned voluntarily. The report has since been widely criticised (and here), and Anni’s Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) commissioned an independent legal analysis of the report, which concluded that it was deeply flawed.
To me, it seems increasingly unlikely that democracy will return to Maldives. But Anni is optimistic. “They cannot run the country – there are nonstop protests. They have no mandate.” He thinks the coalition of groups will implode, allowing Anni to return. Or, more hopefully, that Western democracies will put pressure on the government to bring about change. Before I met up with him, Anni had been in a meeting with the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who had assure him of his support. And what form will that support take, I ask, bearing in mind that large numbers of people are being killed daily in Syria without much intervention from the UK. I think, I say gently, that Maldives is a fairly low priority for the UK.
“We don’t need foot soldiers or guns, we’re not asking for money or military intervention – it wouldn’t cost anything,” Anni says. “We’re just asking for diplomatic pressure.”
Even if he does return to power next year, where does that leave the plans for carbon neutrality? The day of the coup, Anni was poised to sign a massive new clean energy bill. The government had negotiated $60 million in funding from the World Bank, another $60 million from Finnfund and investments from other players including Germany, to install solar powered electricity across the country. Since Maldives imports all its fossil fuels, it actually works out considerably cheaper to use solar power. Since the coup, all such funding has been withdrawn, and Anni thinks it will take time to generate the monies again.
Nevertheless, he is confident that he could still meet the 2020 target of carbon neutrality, if he gets in next year. “It took us 10 months to achieve 12 of our carbon installation plans. There are a total of 176 in all, before we are carbon neutral, and I think it would be possible by 2020.”