Former President Mohamed Nasheed Shares his Life Journey and Vision for the Future of the Maldives

Former President Mohamed Nasheed Shares his Life Journey and Vision for the Future of the Maldives

 

Tell us about the democratic journey of the Maldives, which you helped catalyse as the first democratically elected president of the country. What challenges have you faced in ushering democracy into the Maldives and how is the democratic process progressing?

 

The Maldives is a country with a very young population. More than 70% of our people are below the age of 35.  And that was true in the 1980s and the 1990s. President Gayoom brought in mass education: primary and secondary schooling was available for everyone.

And by the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, most people had basic schooling, and therefore, people could read and write. People started becoming more aware of many issues not only inside the Maldives, but outside as well.

However, people were unhappy, I had always believed because of human rights issues and corruption. There was rampant torture in our jails, and this had spread so much that every single family could count at least one or two people who had suffered in jail. Also, we very becoming very affluent with the tourist industry growing but by the 1990s, this new wealth was not distributed among the people.

And so, there was discontent all around and in 1990, I started a small magazine called Sangu.  I was only 23 at that time. The government banned and de-registered the magazine and arrested the entire editorial team. And with that, they also arrested a number of other young people. More than 300 people were arrested that night.

And we very treated in prison for a very long time. I was tortured twice. I was in solitary confinement for 18 months and many of my colleagues suffered the same fate, but finally we were released by 1994 through international pressure and human rights organizations. More general discontent within the country meant that President Gayoom was finding it difficult to hold on to autocratic power.

The ruling elite was split and at the same time, there was greater discontent, younger people with more education, young entrepreneurs who wanted to make more become more affluent. All this combined together meant that there was a climate where reform had to happen.

 

Then, I contested for Parliament in 1999 as MP for Malé and I got elected. I was still very young but then soon after elections – by this time I had been arrested so many times! – again they arrested me and banished me. A few months later, they released me again. And soon after my release, a boy died in a prison from torture.

Many people have died by this time, but the police were so complacent, to bring the boy, the dead body to Malé and to the hospital. The mother of the boy went to the hospital and wanted to see the body. The doctors at this time refused to give a death certificate, without proper examination. And finally, there were riots in Malé.

Again, I was arrested, but in the confusion of the riots, I was released and I left the country with some friends and we started a political party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, in exile in Colombo (Sri Lanka). We ran the party in Colombo for a few months. But then again, the government started harassing us in Sri Lanka.

We fled Sri Lanka and then came to England, where I sought asylum and we established our office in Salisbury. And we started galvanizing people at home. We started reaching out. We started a small radio station. We also started a newsletter again, started reaching out to people at home.

President Gayoom opened up another push to amend the constitution. This constitution amendment had been going on for a very long time, but then when he opened for elections for the new round of amendments, lots of fresh young people, reform-minded, got elected and these constitutional amendment debates became very loud. By 2004, there was a huge gathering in Malé. President Gayoom went into state of emergency, arrested MPs, prorogued parliament, and stopped the reforms.

But we were outside, so we kept on publishing. We kept on pushing with our political work. And then in 2005 I decided to relinquish my asylum. I gave up my political asylum to the British government and then I left and returned home to start the party at home. Again, President Gayoom arrested me, but people started joining the party. By this time, there was too much support and they had to finally allow the registration of the party in the Maldives, which happened on June 26th. Soon after that, the constitution was finally amended, which allowed for multi-party politics. Our party fielded me as a candidate in 2008, which I was fortunate to have won. So that is how I became the president in 2008.

 

I was president for three years and eight, nine months. There were many reforms that were required, especially economic reforms, tax reforms. When I came to government, we didn’t have a tax system. There was no income tax. There was no goods and services tax. There was no profit tax. There was an import duty and government revenue was very small. We introduced a whole series of taxes like any normal country would have. We also brought in a social protection programme, where there was free medical service, a health insurance scheme, old age pension, single mothers’ protection, protection for the disabled, etc. And we also wanted to invest in housing, in higher education. We started with the first university. I always say that it is possible to topple a dictator. But it is not so easy to uproot a dictatorship. I did not want to go on a witch-hunt against the previous regime. I did not want to arrest president Gayoom. We lacked transitional justice when we came into government. And, I would now say that we were short-sighted to believe that the social protection programmes would bring stability and allow us to move forward. I think the wounds were too deep. And in the absence of a transitional justice mechanism, we were not able to move forward. The previous regime came back, they instigated sections of the police and the military, and they staged the coup d’état and toppled our government in 2012. Again, we went into protest, but by this time the whole country had joined us.

 

I wanted to go into 2013 elections again, because I strongly believe that the only way to transfer power must be through the ballot. Nothing else. The first round of elections was cancelled, which I won. Again, we had another round of elections. I won and it was cancelled. As many rounds of elections were held until I lost. I lost and I conceded power and I congratulated the new president Yameen, but in 2014 he decided to arrest me. I was imprisoned, but later with a lot of international support, especially the British government and the European Union, I was allowed to go for medication again to the United Kingdom, where I sought political asylum. I remained there, and they would not let me contest the 2018 elections. Our party decided, and I backed the party, to field my friend Ibrahim Solih as the new candidate. And we won. So we are back in government, and we were doing fine until this assassination attempt on my life happened. I must thank Germany for all the assistance that they had given to us while I was in government as well.  While I was president, I came to Germany on a state visit. And since then, I’ve met Chancellor Angela Merkel a number of times. The German government was very quick in sending people to pick me up from the hospital and to bring me to a military hospital in Berlin where I was treated. Doctors in the Maldives and Germany saved my life.

 

To what extend you think this attack on your life will impact upon the democratic momentum in the Maldives?

 

I like to think that this is going to give a new life to democracy activists. People would understand how precarious democracy is. It is not deep rooted. And now we have extremists. Unfortunately, a lot of our young people went to fight for the ISIS in Syria and the Levant. And they had joined many extremist groups, and this misguided ideology had come to the Maldives, and they have a view to take over the state through violence. What we are now seeing is the very sad outcome of these misguided youth and we must have a better grip on the situation, how to treat and rehabilitate the young people. And to make sure that young people have employment. There’s rampant youth unemployment, congestion in Malé, housing issues, family breakups. So, with all these social issues, the ideology of the youth and what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East combined, this is making Malé streets very dangerous. What we have now seen is a warning signal. I hope that other security services with the help of the international community would be able to have a better grip on the situation and root it out. It’s not going to be easy, but we must put our heads together and try to resolve this as quickly as possible.

 

 

Your Presidency was characterized by building a strong safety net, which was non-existent beforehand. The other issue that characterized your presidency is the fight against climate change and we all remember the images of the underwater cabinet meeting that you held in 2009 to raise awareness of this issue. This year is very crucial. We have COP26 coming up in Glasgow, which may be the last chance for many countries to take robust action. What are your hopes for global action on climate change?

 

Now I work for Prime Minister Hasina (of Bangladesh) as Ambassador on climate change. We have a Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) of 48 countries, which she is now chairing. The CVF is working very hard to see that COP26 becomes a success. But unfortunately, the Paris agreement is almost dead. More than half the countries have not submitted their ambition, required by the Paris agreement, and going towards COP26 I don’t see this happening either. Unfortunately, when the G7 countries met in Cornwell recently, they were not able to articulate the finance that is required, that they have pledged. There was no certainty. There were too vague words. Uh, there is USD 100 billion dollars that the developed countries have pledged, but we are still short of that.

We have lost five years with the United States being all over the place. But with the new presidency in the United States we are hopeful they will come back to the fold – they have, but we are also hopeful that they will bring in fresh contributions, monetary contributions as well. Unless countries come around and try to make COP 26 a success, I am afraid it will not be. Right now, it does not look like it is going to be.

 

What role could small island developing states like the Maldives play?

With the CVF, we want to map a pathway that will take us to a more successful COP26 in Glasgow. This will simply involve finance, but the CVF is now propagating a prosperity plan. The CVF is suggesting, in a sense, that you can have the cake and eat it, that you can develop your societies without rubbishing the planet. There is a low carbon development strategy. You can have the same economic outcomes, but through less extraction and more recycling. Renewable energy now is cheap. It is financially viable, it is economically feasible. There is an economic development strategy that you can implement in your own countries that would make protecting the planet a by-product of development.

 

Prime Minister Hasina has launched a “climate prosperity plan” in Bangladesh under the Mujib prosperity plan. And I think countries will take the plan up. Ethiopia is taking it up and there are many other countries who are interested in the plan. Now, I cannot ask countries not to have a comfortable life. They want to have a better life. They want education for their children. They want clean water. They want education. They want electricity. They want roads. They want housing. But you can have them in a low carbon development strategy where there is less extraction of resources from the planet, less carbon emission and the prosperity plans that CVF is suggesting would give countries a pathway that would allow you to do that. What the small islands developing states and the climate vulnerable countries are suggesting is, we can reduce carbon emissions, but at the same time, you can also be growing your economies. You can have a high GDP growth. You can have low inflation. You can have high employment with less carbon. And we want to introduce, come up with the new technologies available. There is a lot of new technology available, both in adaptation and in mitigation. So going to COP26, we think that countries must realize the prosperity plans.

 

 

If we broaden the discussion to sustainability, a few weeks ago we organized a conference with some of your ministers (environment, education and tourism) and young civil society representatives, and the question we posed to them is whether the Maldives is on track for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. And we had no consensus during the discussion. We would like to pose this same question to you.

 

If you want to arithmetically measure this, there are always ways of coming up with figures and numbers. Depending on which way you want to do your maths, you can probably come out with any number, but I know my country and I know my people. They are not happy. They have a hard life. They need a better life. They need housing. They need the young people need jobs. And we need transport, we need communication.

 

We need many things for our country to reach these development goals. Yes, we have become a middle-income country. Again, if you want to do the maths, you can come out with that. Our per capita is very high now, the highest in South Asia. But I do not see this being translated to the people: there’s delinquency, there’s gang warfare, there’s drug abuse. So I do not think that we have reached the visions of the SDGs. If you want to do the numbers, we probably have caught up with the numbers.

 

The international community must understand how little countries and societies can become. You know, I joined discussions on climate migration: will the Maldives disappear, what would happen to low-lying countries if sea level rises? Winds are becoming stronger. The weather patterns have already changed. Our islands can become uninhabitable, but we must find ways and means of adapting so that we can remain without leaving our islands. And again, in adaptation we must find biological adaptation methods, not concrete.

 

You would have seen water breakers in Malé, and embankments. It costs USD 8,000 a meter. We have 2,000 islands. No one has that money. But you can grow a reef. You can implant a mangrove and you can protect your shores. And we need to find a biological adaptation methods. Concrete walls are not going to save us. We need to find a way of growing reefs and mangroves faster, and we need to spend a little bit more money on research to see how these things can grow much faster.

 

Embankments and water breakers are 1920s and 1930s technologies, and we keep on funding it, the World Bank and the IMF are. Don’t do that! Let us grow a reef, implant a mangrove, and save our beaches. In 2009, I started working with Dutch Docklands on ways to build a floating city. This will become a reality this September, when construction will begin. I am hopeful that this city is going to be the new adaptation.

 

We have been landfilling an incinerating rubbish. We have still not been able to recycle the waste. The waste is no longer waste, it is energy and it is recyclable. And we must act quickly to stop incinerating our waste and to stop landfilling with our waste. We have been saying this for so long, but we have not been able to actually do it. This slowness is a problem. The CVF prosperity plan suggests that rubbish is an asset. It’s not rubbish. It’s energy. We’ve extracted enough in the last 500-700 years. And all that extraction is around us. We can go on for another thousand years by recycling that, this is not so difficult to understand.

 

You mentioned that 70% of the population in the Maldives is under 35. What is your message for them?

 

Never, never, never give up. Never underestimate the power of yourself, your individual self. I know it’s gloomy today. I know it’s hopeless. But never, never give up. The human being is such a resilient thing. And especially a young being, far more resilient.

 

I am already very old. I am 54 years. My oldest daughter is 23, and my youngest is 19, and they need to survive. They need a safer place. And to do that, they must understand how strong they themselves are. You cannot be hopeless and then survive. You cannot give up. So my message always is never give up.