President claims MDP parliamentary majority as DRP MP Ali Waheed signs with MDP

Just a day after resigning from the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), MP Ali Waheed was last night welcomed to the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) by President Mohamed Nasheed, who claimed Waheed’s decision had handed the party a parliamentary majority and the capability to push ahead with proposed reforms.

Waheed, a former DRP deputy leader, yesterday signed up the party alongside Ahmed Assad ‘Adubarey’ and DRP Sports Wing Head, Hassan Shujau.

A senior MDP source told Minivan News that additional members of the party were talking with the MDP about signing, but were reluctant to abandon the troubled party in such a large group.

The opposition figures followed in the wake of former opposition MP Alhan Fahmy in an exodus to the other side of the country’s political divide.

DRP MPs including Ahmed Nihan, currently working closely alongside the Z-DRP faction of the opposition critical of party leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, claimed that the MPs were switching sides solely for financial payoffs, though an MDP official insisted no such transactions had taken place.

However, dismissed DRP Deputy Leader Umar Naseer has submitted a case to the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) accusing the MDP of bribing opposition MPs to join the party.

Speaking during the rally held at Male’s artificial beach last night, Waheed reportedly accepted that he had criticised the president and the MDP in the past, but said that he now stood with them nonetheless.

“I was one of the strongest critics of President Nasheed,” he was reported as saying in newspaper Haveeru. “But I am right here at this podium; being able to criticise everyone is one of the fundamental aspects of democracy.”

Addressing the crowds afterwards, President Nasheed reportedly said that Ali Waheed would be welcomed to the party and could potentially take a senior position within the party following his switch.

Nasheed talked of the significance of having a political majority for the MDP and claimed that the party’s influence on parliament would need to be used responsibly and with respect to others in the Majlis.

Waheed along with DRP spokesperson Ibrahim ‘Mavota’ Shareef and opposition leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali were unavailable for comment when contacted by Minivan News this morning.

Shareef has previously acknowledged that Waheed had served as a rising star in the DRP, and his loss would be a “great blow”.

Changing political landscape

The recent election of another former opposition MP – Alhan Fahmy – to the deputy leadership of the ruling party may be a key factor in luring ambitious MPs from the troubled opposition. However if rumours of money changing hands proved true, several MDP members have privately expressed concern that this risked unsettling grassroots members loyal to the ruling party from the beginning.

Further discontent is likely on the islands among those constituents who voted for a party, rather than the MP.

The MDP also risks importing potential skeletons into the party along with the MP, such as the case with former Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) MP Hassan Adhil who is currently under house arrest and facing charges of child molestation.

Furthermore, the departure of MPs loyal to Thasmeen’s faction will place further pressure on the more prosaic side of the opposition, limiting its ability to resist the leadership ambitions of Gayoom’s far less compromising ‘Z-Faction’ and risks greater destabilisation of the opposition.

The MDP has however struggled to pass legislation in the opposition-majority parliament, and is fervently seeking to tip the balance in its favour and gain control of the legislature to push through difficult bills such as the revised penal code, evidence bill, and income tax for people earning over Rf30,000.

Taking control of parliament is a major victory for both the MDP and the government, and potentially marks the end of the ‘scorched earth’ politics in the Majlis that led to the en-masse resignation of cabinet ministers in July last year.

While the Maldives has a presidential system of government on paper, the constitution hands significant powers to parliament – particularly oversight of independent institutions. Control of the voting floor gives the MDP levers with which to address the challenges facing the judiciary and independent institutions in the country.


Gayoom condemns Thasmeen’s leadership of opposition in 12-page letter

A letter from former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom denouncing the current leader of the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) reflects the concerns of a wide number of members over the party’s opposition of government policies, such as the privatisation of Male’ International Airport, MP Ahmed Nihan has said.

The letter was linked to on Haveeru in Dhivehi. Minivan News is currently working on an English translation.

In the letter, Gayoom accuses Thasmeen of “dictatorial” characteristics and claimed he was writing the letter “in order to protect the Islamic faith of the Maldivian people and the sovereignty of the Maldives.”

Following his retirement from politics in February 2010, Gayoom endorsed Thasmeen as his successor to the leadership of the opposition. Thasmeen was then appointed to the leadership unopposed during the party’s congress.

However, after months of infighting between two factions – one loyal to Thasmeen and the other to dismissed Deputy Leader Umar Naseer – and speculation as to which side the party’s ‘Honorary Leader’ would back, Gayoom’s letter finally puts the former President’s card on the table.

“Disputes and conflicts always arise within the party, as you are leading the party against the democratic manners, and in a dictatorial way,” Haveeru translated Gayoom as saying.

Gayoom’s particular point of contention with Thasmeen was his “taking decisions without the advice of the party’s council and against the council’s decisions” – namely, an apparently unanimous decision made by 21 council members in an urgent meeting in on June 24, 2010, to fight the government’s leasing of Male’ International Airport to Indian infrastructure giant GMR.

“Decisions are being taken on force and on your influence on several organs of the party, outside the system of the party. This should not be the case in a party that is being run on values of democracy and transparency,” Gayoom said.

The former President criticises Thasmeen for the party’s dismissal of Umar Naseer, accusing his of having “a personal grudge” against Naseer. Gayoom said he had requested Thasmeen resolve his difficulties with Naseer outside the Council, and retract his request with the Elections Commission to remove Naseer from the party.

“I was given the short answer of ‘out of the question’. Your answer proved to me that you have a personal grudge towards this particular Deputy Leader, Umar Naseer, as you have not taken an action against the other Deputy Leader Ilham Ahmed, who was involved in the matter to the same extent as Umar Naseer,” Gayoom stated.

“I believe that every political leader should be free-minded and patient in order to be able to live with people of different ideas. It is democracy. I believe that the severe action taken by you against the Deputy Leader [Umar Naseer] proves the small scope of your political views,” Gayoom said, in Haveeru’s article.

Gayoom also attacks Thasmeen for contributing only Rf300,000 (US$23,300) to his campaign for the 2008 Presidential election – a campaign Gayoom said cost Rf33 million (US$2.6 million), and criticised him for not accompanying Gayoom’s son Ghassan on his campaign trip to Thaa Atoll during his bid for the Thimarafushi constituency in the 2009 parliamentary election.

Gayoom further accused Thasmeen of trying to damage his reputation by following the recommendations of a British public relations firm, The Campaign Company (TCC). The same firm was used by Hassan Saeed, leader of the minority opposition and now coalition partner Dhivehi Quamee Party (DQP), during a PR trip to the UK last year in a bid to gain international support for the opposition. The firm employed an individual named Peter Craske to arrange meetings with politicians and journalists, who falsely presented the DQP as “an alliance between the DRP and MDP parties.” Craske later acknowledged the error in an email letter to Minivan News.

Gayoom claimed that TCC’s cofounder, Jonathan Upton, visited the Maldives and recommended that Thasmeen sideline him.

“[Upton] did not have any idea of the views of the Maldivian people and the political situation of the Maldives. His recommendation to keep me aside, without knowing the support of the majority of the Maldivian people as they have seen the development and changes during my presidency, was not a politically mature recommendation,” Gayoom said. “You are showing characteristics that cannot be prevented after being deceived by the words of people who are unaware of the political scenario of this country.”

The letter puts the writing on the wall for Thasmeen and is likely to split the opposition’s membership. There was heightened speculation this week that the party would actually split into two parties and potential names were reportedly being circulated among MPs through SMS – however the fight for the right to keep the DRP’s name is likely only beginning.  Thasmeen is showing no sign of bowing to the wishes of the former President, and has already told local media that he considers the letter “slanderous” and dared Gayoom to make it public.

Thasmeen’s ability to use his democratic mandate – though unopposed, he was still elected – to survive the  factional struggle within the opposition will serve as a bellweather both for the extent Gayoom’s continuing influence in the Maldives and the potential for Maldivian parties to mature beyond personality politics.  However if Thasmeen remains, the split opposition could mean an easy re-election for the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in 2013, given the party preferences in the recent local council elections.

DRP MP Nihan, who said he is yet to fully read the leader sent by Gayoom, believes Gayoom’s correspondence reflects dissatisfaction among a number of “ordinary members” during the last ten to eleven months concerning the leadership of his successor.

Thasmeen was unavailable for comment at the time of going to press concerning the letter.  However in response he has written his own letter stating that he will “stand firm and with full confidence” of winning the presidential election 2013.

“In my trips to more than 100 islands during the local council election campaign, members of the party, heads of the party’s wings and supporters have assured me of giving their full cooperation and have asked me to continue with this work,” Thasmeen said in a letter, translated by Haveeru.

Earlier this week, DRP MPs from both sides of the spat said they believed a split within the party appeared imminent; with some members even considering potential names for new political bodies as internal divisions and infighting between factions has continued to escalate.

These factions relate in part to a war of words between the supporters of Thasmeen and dismissed Deputy Leader Umar Naseer that has continued to escalate, at times, into violent confrontations over the legitimacy of decisions taken by the party’s council, such as the latter’s removal.

In light of these divides, Nihan said he believed the letter, without having read it in detail, was not so much part of a vendetta against Thasmeen from factional rivals in the party, but a reflection of complaints that Gayoom has received from party members dating back almost a year.

“There have been reports received by Mr Gayoom as to what has been seen as mismanagement on the part of Thasmeen,” he said. “Ordinary members of the party are very unsatisfied with party leadership and they have complained to Maumoon [Gayoom] about this.”

One of the key issues Nihan stressed that was behind the complaints levelled against Thasmeen had been in the work of the party to hold the government accountable for its actions, particularly in terms of deals such as the decision to allow Indian infrastructure giant GMR to manage and devlope a new terminal building at Male’ International Airport.

“Like with the GMR issues, there is a sense that Thasmeen hasn’t done enough to oppose this,” he said. “The divided thinking in the party has really been seen in the last six months from around when the airport was handed over [to GMR] in November.”

DRP Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali told Minivan News in November that a coalition of political parties formed in opposition to the GMR airport deal remained committed to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) focusing on legal recourse to try and prevent the privatisation agreement.

“We simply believe the deal is not in our national or security interests,” Thasmeen said. “With the privatisation of other [existing or soon to be] international airports in the north and south of the country, the state will not have an airport under its control.”

Thasmeen soon came under fire amidst allegations that both himself and fellow party member and Parliamentary Speaker Abdulla Shahid has taken bribes from GMR to hinder opposition to the deal. Both politicians and GMR have denied the allegations, which they claimed were a complete “fabrication” by political opponents.


Piracy and the Maldives: special report

The Maldives territorial waters are regarded worldwide as a beautiful and popular setting for desert island holidays, but though the country is about 1,800 miles from the volatile coastlines of Somalia, the island nation is increasingly concerned about becoming the target of potential pirate attacks.

Maritime protection experts and European diplomats linked to coastal security around Somalia have told Minivan News that the Maldives has the potential to become a target for pirate vessels, forced away from African waters as a result of political upheaval and maritime security crackdowns.

Although there is no evidence from Maldivian security officials that national interests have been threatened so far, fears have grown over maritime security and possible acts of piracy in Maldivian waters.

In light of these security concerns, the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) has said it is working alongside the Indian Navy as part of an ongoing collaboration to patrol the country’s territorial waters in attempts to prevent “terrorist acts” such as piracy that it has claimed are a “central concern” to the nation’s maritime security.

MNDF Major Abdul Raheem said he was concerned by the threat of possible attacks on “cargo ships within Maldivian waters by Somali terrorists”.

Several incidents of Somali nationals arriving in the Maldives in dinghies becoming lost at sea were reported during the 2010.

Two days (November 28) after the taking of the Malaysian vessel Albedo, a dinghy containing seven Somali nationals was brought ashore after it was discovered in Gnaviyani Atoll. The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) discovered a bullet shell during a search of the vessel.

On November 30, a second dinghy containing three Somali nationals was discovered by a Maldivian fishing near Thinadhoo in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll.

The captain of the fishing boat, Mohamed Hussain, told Minivan News that one of the men had a stab wound in his neck and was seriously injured.

Such incidents have led to allegations that piracy originating in Africa may have reached the Indian Ocean – suspicions that are yet to be proven beyond circumstantial evidence.

Raheem confirmed that the MNDF has yet to uncover any terrorist acts having been conducted by Somali nationals or any other groups linked to piracy in its territorial waters, but added that the authorities remained “on alert”.

As part of joint operations with the coastguard and Indian Navy, Raheem told Minivan News that special patrols are being conducted in the Maldives territorial waters frequently in an attempt to try and preempt acts of piracy or terrorism in a country that is 99 percent sea. “We have not set a date when we will stop these operations, they are still continuing,” he said.

A European diplomat familiar with the EU’s anti-piracy policy around Somalia said that some attacks by Somali pirates had occurred within 300 miles of the Indian coast and that there was a trend for some of these groups to move further away from Africa and deeper into the Indian Ocean.

“We believe that this trend is due to the fact that the pirates are following the vessels – as merchant ships increase their distance from Somalia in order to feel ‘safer’, the pirates follow them resulting in attacks much farther east than ever before,” she said.

As merchant ships have increased their distance from Somalia in search of “safer” transport routes, European defence experts believe that pirates operating from the country have followed in pursuit.

“The pirates will follow the prey,” she explained. “If they can find vessels in or around the Maldives, they will probably attempt to pirate them.”

On a strategic level, the diplomat added that there was “no reason why attacks would not take place in the vicinity of the Maldives”.

Taking the Seychelles as an example – the country is closer to Somalia than the Maldives – she suggested that any pirates contemplating attacking the Maldives would follow a similar pattern.

However, the Seychelles coastguard in collaboration with the European Union Naval Force Somalia (EUNAVFOR), which under the Operation Atalanta military programme has aimed to try and limit the growth and scale of Somali piracy, has recorded some successes.

“Coordinated action can disrupt attacks but there is simply too much money and reward involved to deter attacks significantly,” she said.

From an EU perspective, restricting pirates’ “freedom of manoeuvre” is a major preventative measure, helping to ensure persecution and imprisonment for any individuals caught performing acts of piracy. The adoption of so-called Best Management Practices (BMP) by individual ships could also be adopted by Maldivian vessels wherever possible to further reduce possible attacks through security measures and evasive manoeuvres, according to European officials.

More information on BMP practices can be found here.

Instability on land

The European diplomat said that the current piracy problems emanating from Somalia were the result of instability on land, an area she said EU mandated training missions were being focused to try and better train Somali forces for protection.

Tim Hart, a security analyst specialising in piracy originating from the Horn of Africa for the Maritime and Underwater Security Consultants (MUSC), agreed that despite the implications piracy has on the oceans, its origins and solutions remained a landlocked issue.

“Piracy stems from problems on land and will not be stopped until this is tackled,” he said. “Traditional reasons [for piracy] usually extend from strong maritime communities and lack of law and order on land.”

Hart said that from his experience, Somalia was a nation with a “perfect storm of factors” such as a strong proximity to shipping lanes and proliferation of weapons that had contributed to an “extremely high level” of piracy stemming from the country.

With popular shipping routes moving increasingly eastwards from Somalia due to concerns over the dangers of sailing around the Horn of Africa, Hart claimed historical evidence has shown pirates follow these routes, which may in turn have led to the current concerns being expressed in the Maldives.

“Somali pirates have shown over the last few years that they are prepared to move thousands of miles from the coast to target rich environments,” he said. “The Maldives has a popular route for vessels transiting from the Gulf of Aden to the Far East and also for vessels transiting to the Far East from the Middle East.”

As a business, Hart said piracy has originally stemmed from local Somali groups taxing foreign fisherman illegally working within Somali waters and then hijacking their vessels for ransom.

Early successes led the pirates to become more ambitious in terms of the size of vessels they were targeting, Hart added, with the result that by 2008, the numbers of Somali people turning to piracy for survival or profit “exploded”.

This growth in numbers also saw a correspondingly large area being affected by the country’s piracy.

“In 2008 [piracy] was mostly limited within the Gulf of Aden area,” he said. “It moved further into the Indian Ocean in 2009 and in 2010 it has expanded even further east so that in the last 7-14 days, the majority of the attacks have been around 69-70 E – only a few hundred miles from the Maldives.”

As any expanding global business, Hart explained that piracy has become “a huge industry” for Somalia due to being “extremely lucrative.”

“The increase in the number of Somalis involved – represented by an increased amount of groups that operate as well as vessels held at any one time – shows that [piracy] still holds a great attraction for the Somalis,” he explained. “And there is still not a sufficient deterrent to prevent pirate groups from operating.”

Responding to ongoing patrols and the special operations being conducted by Maldives defence forces and the Indian Navy, Hart said that by taking the example of similar military commitments in the Gulf of Aden, such preventative measures had been found to effective in deterring the likelihood of piracy.

Nonetheless, with an apparent expansion into the Indian Ocean and other maritime areas, anti-piracy resources were being stretched to their limits.

“A comparison that is often made [to preventing piracy] is that it is like trying to ‘police the US/Canada border with a scooter’. The area [involved] is larger than the size of mainland Europe. However, when combined with effective onboard measures, pirate effectiveness has decreased in the last 12 months.”

Rob from the rich

While the extraordinary profitability of piracy has led to a surge in the practice – largely driven by the willingness of shipping companies (and their insurers) to pay the ransoms and get on with business, the root cause of the problem is perhaps more socioeconomic than mercenary.

Somali pirates, when captured and questioned, claim that the stealing of fish by giant trawlers and the illegal dumping of toxic waste in their territorial waters has left them little choice but to turn to piracy.

Their claims are not without some merit: in 2003-2004, the UK’s Department for International Development estimates that Somalia – one of the poorest countries in the world – lost  US$100 million dollars in revenue to the illegal fishing of tuna and shrimp by foreign-owned trawlers.

As for the pirates’ claims that toxic waste was being dumped in the country’s EEZ following the collapse of the government in 1991, evidence emerged in 2004 following the tsunami when the rusting containers washed up on the coast of northern Somalia.

This side of the piracy debate – that the rise in Somali piracy was fermented by a decade of abuse by the developed world – was reported by Project Censored as the third most under-reported story of 2010.

“There is uranium radioactive (nuclear) waste. There is lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is also industrial waste, and there are hospital wastes, chemical wastes—you name it,” United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) spokesman Nick Nuttall told Al Jazeera.

As a result, “hundreds of [Somalis] have fallen ill, suffering from mouth and abdominal bleeding, skin infections and other ailments.”

“What is most alarming here is that nuclear waste is being dumped. Radioactive uranium waste that is potentially killing Somalis and completely destroying the ocean,” he said.

The UN envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, revealed that private companies were paying corrupt government ministers and even militia leaders to dump the waste, but that even this token reciprication had disappeared with the demise of the country’s government.

Following these revelations, the European Green Party released copies of contracts signed by two European companies, Achair Partners, and an Italian waste broker, Progresso, with Somali warlords detailing the exchange of 10 million tonnes of toxic waste for US$80 million.

Nuttall notes that disposal of such waste in Europe costs US$1000 a tonne. Somali warlords, in contrast, were willing to accept as little as US$2.50 a tonne.

As a result – and perhaps unsurprisingly – piracy enjoys the widespread support of the Somali population – even across fractious tribal and ethic boundries. Project Censored points to a survey conducted by independent Somalia news site WardherNews, which fond  that 70 percent of the population “strongly support the piracy as a form of national defense of the country’s territorial waters.”

In an article for the UK’s Independent newspaper, journalist Johann Hari claims “You are being lied to about pirates”.

“Do we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We didn’t act on those crimes – but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world’s oil supply, we begin to shriek about ‘evil.’

“If we really want to deal with piracy, we need to stop its root cause – our crimes – before we send in the gun-boats to root out Somalia’s criminals.”

It could be that Maldivians – contending with rising sea levels potentially exacerbated by the industrialisation of the developed world – have more in common with the Somalis washing up on their islands than they may think.

It could be that Somali fishermen are battling their own set of man-made environmental problems – successfully and profitably – with the only means left to them.

“It is said that acts of piracy are actually acts of desperation, and, as in the case of Somalia, what is one man’s pirate is another man’s Coast Guard,” writes Mohamed Abshir Waldo, of Somalia Wardheer News.