This is definitely not how Mohamed Nasheed imagined he would be promoting a new film about his campaign against climate change, writes Decca Aitkenhead for the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
The documentary follows the charismatic young leader of the Maldives, an island nation slowly sinking into the ocean, as he lobbies world leaders, addresses the UN, and makes international headlines by conducting the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting. But now that The Island President beginning to appear in cinemas, Nasheed is no longer the island’s president. Ousted from power in February, and now a quasi-fugitive in his own country, he arrives for our interview via Skype dishevelled and breathless, following another dramatic day.
“Well it’s been fairly challenging today,” he admits, lighting a cigarette and composing himself with a rueful grin. “First there was this scuffle inside parliament, but mostly there were a number of people who were demonstrating outside. The military charged at the crowd and therefore there were disturbances throughout the day. And after sunset the police and the military moved down to where we have been having our rallies and gatherings, and they ransacked and dismantled that place, and cordoned off almost a good half of Malé town.”
But after 30 years in office, in 2008 Gayoom yielded to pressure and held the country’s first democratic elections, which swept “the Mandela of the Maldives” to power. Quickly claimed by David Cameron as “my new best friend”, the young president became an international folk hero, and the face of a nation that, as he warned the UN, will be underwater “before the end of this century” unless the world acts now on climate change.
The Maldives’ transition to democracy was, however, ominously incomplete. According to Nasheed, elements still loyal to Gayoom were undermining reforms, and in response to repeated constitutional crises many opposition MPs and officials were arrested and detained during Nasheed’s administration. In January, frustrated by the judiciary’s attempts to thwart his reforms, Nasheed ordered the arrest of chief justice Abdulla Mohamed. Protesters loyal to the old regime took to the streets, supported by factions within the police, and on 7 February, after weeks of unrest, Nasheed was confronted by armed military officers. “There were guns all around me and they told me they wouldn’t hesitate to use them if I didn’t resign,” he told reporters that evening. It wasn’t a resignation, he says simply, but a coup d’état.
The picture since then has been, to say the least, highly confused. A warrant was issued for Nasheed’s arrest, and he has been threatened with life imprisonment, but for now he remains at liberty – just about – in his family home in the capital, orchestrating protests and demanding fresh elections. “Well basically the arrest warrant is there,” he explains, “but they haven’t moved on with it simply because there’s always so many people around me, so I suppose they don’t want to risk it yet. But they tried to do it today, and they will continue to try, tonight and tomorrow as well. I wouldn’t put anything beyond them.”
How did he feel about Amnesty International calling for the release of the chief justice? “I didn’t like arresting a judge, and as a long and dedicated Amnesty member I must say yes, Amnesty’s point was that I must try and find a procedure within the system to deal with this another way. And I was asking everyone, can you spot that procedure? But I just couldn’t let him sit on the bench. There is a huge lack of confidence in the judiciary, and I had to do something and the constitution calls upon me to do that. It’s not a nice thing to do. And it’s not a thing that I would want to do. And it’s not a thing that I liked doing. But it had to be done.”