Allowing former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to live in peace following the 2008 election was a bad decision, former President Mohamed Nasheed has told Time Magazine.
The Maldives’ experience with the remnants of autocracy should serve as a lesson for other countries in the Arab Spring said Nasheed.
“The lesson is we didn’t deal with Gayoom. That’s the obvious lesson. And my romantic ideas of how to deal with a dictator were wrong. I will agree with that,” Nasheed told Time, in a striking reversal of his magnanimity in 2008.
Nasheed observed that “you can get rid of a dictator, but you can’t get rid of a dictatorship. You can get rid of a person very easily, but the networks, the intricacies, the establishments — you have to flush them. And to do that is not an easy thing. We have to be mindful with other countries going down the same line — for instance, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya. They’ll have good elections, they’ll probably come up with a better leader. But then the dictatorship will always try to come back. And it’s going to be impossible to hold them from coming back from within the system.”
Gayoom stepped down peacefully in 2008 after losing the country’s first multi-party elections election to Nasheed, a former political prisoner who was quickly dubbed ‘South Asia’s Nelson Mandela’ by international media outlets. The peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy was held up as a model for other countries by human rights and democracy organisations, including the Commonwealth and UN.
Nasheed, despite heavy resistance from key supporters, pledged to leave Gayoom in peace, acknowledging his contribution to the development of the tourism industry and encouraging him to assume a role as a respected elder statesman.
“Be magnanimous in times of victory, and courageous in times of defeat. The test of Maldivian democracy will be how we treat our former President,” said Nasheed at the time.
His sentiments were echoed during a state visit from the President of Timor-Leste, Jose Ramos-Horta.
“I prefer to be criticised for being soft on people who committed violence in the past than be criticised for being too harsh or insensitive in putting people in jail,” said Ramos-Horta, during a visit to the Maldives in February 2010.
“Our approach fits our reality, an approach the president of the Maldives and I share – the need for magnanimity. Immediately after our independence in 1999, I said: ‘in victory be magnanimous. Don’t rub the wounds of those who feel they lost. Make them feel they won, also.’”
Exactly two years later Ramos-Horta would become the only world leader to condemn “the obvious coup d’état”, and the “unsettling silence of big powers”.
After the 2008 election Gayoom continued to lead his Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP), but in January 2010 announced his intention to bow out of politics ahead of the DRP congress, anointing Ahmed Thasmeen Ali as his successor and become the party’s ‘Supreme Leader’.
“The Maldives is a young country, and only will progress if youth become involved in politics and leadership,” the 72 year-old said during a live press conference on January 25, 2010.
“I am not young any more. I have spent many years in office, and I want to spend time with my family. I need to give the younger generation the opportunity [to lead the party] – they are capable,” Gayoom said.
A senior government source at the time observed that Gayoom’s announcement was not met with celebration by the country’s leadership.
“There is no jubilation here. It was very hard on some people when Gayoom publicly denied he ever harmed anyone,” the source said.
With Gayoom absent from the DRP, a power struggle quickly erupted between the vigorously uncompromising faction of Umar Naseer, a former policeman, and Thasmeen’s mellower, more conciliatory approach to opposition politics. The struggle came to a head with the expulsion of Naseer from the party in late 2010, a decision that sparked Gayoom’s return to active politics with a dramatic attack on Thasmeen’s leadership in a 12 page open letter.
Backed into a corner by the party’s Supreme Leader, Thasmeen did not respond, while the infighting – occasionally violent – culminated in Gayoom’s faction splitting from the party and forming the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), backed by the People’s Alliance (PA) of his half-brother, MP Abdulla Yameen.
The PPM actively led protests in the lead up to Nasheed’s downfall on February 7, opposing everything from the “idolatrous” SAARC country monuments in Addu to Nasheed’s detention of Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed, an ill-fated last-ditch attempt to reform the judiciary.
Speaking to Time Magazine this week, Nasheed said he had pushed against a “witch hunt” after coming to office: “We didn’t want to purge the military, we didn’t want to purge the police.”
“There were mistakes,” he confessed. “One thing the international community finds it difficult to understand was the arresting of the judge. He asked a child to re-enact a child-abuse case in the court. The whole country was disgusted by it. The very next week, he gives an order for a murderer to be released because the Ministry of Health didn’t have a death certificate. And then [the released man] goes out and murders again. It was like releasing a hit man so he could go out and make another hit. The whole picture was getting very, very clear with gangs, drug dealers and with Gayoom and his cronies,” Nasheed told Time.
The government had begged the international community for assistance after detaining the judge, Nasheed said.
“Unfortunately, I kept on asking everyone – the Commonwealth, the EU, the Indian government – to assist us in reforming the judiciary. But they were very late in coming. And we didn’t get the necessary help from them,” he said.
“Also we were bringing in reforms very rapidly. We were liberalising the outlook of the country very, very rapidly. Especially with Islamic radicalism. Our ideas of moderation, the moderate Islam — there were some small, entrenched sections that reacted strongly against me. I thought they were odd people here and there. But there was a core of radical Islamists who fueled the coup through media and harping on about how un-Islamic I am. I must confess, I’m not the most pious of the people. But I am a strong believer.”
Nasheed predicted that Gayoom would make a move for the presidency “when he thinks it’s in his hand, when he feels the field is skewed enough in his favor.”
“His designs are to have a stronger hold on power. He would avoid an election. I am sure he would avoid the scheduled election in 2013 as well. He’d try to push back the elections as much as they can. He would talk in words that the international community will like. We had elections in 2008, 2009, 2011 that were all free and fair. But suddenly the US government is saying, ‘Oh Gayoom says, there might be a problem with the election commission.’
“This is very strange. At the same time, [Gayoom] will start running things through the military. My fear is that we’re not going back to pre-2008 Maldives. We’re going back to pre-2008 other countries, to Pakistan, perhaps, where the military becomes so strong that they call the shots.”
Nasheed said he was “shocked” at the speed with which the US, India and other countries recognised the new government, especially after “we did so much to encourage internationalism, encourage liberalism, to bring Indian investment — to get rid of anti-India phobia. We tried to have good relations. But when push came to shove, we ended up in the wrong. Somehow we were not the right people to talk to. If you want to be a regional leader, you must be sensible. And consistent. And you should lead. They should protect democracy, and they should be on the side of democrats and human rights.”
Nasheed said they tried to encourage him to form a national unity government, “but my point is, why should we try to unify the dictatorship? The coup is not unifying the country – it’s bringing back the old dictatorship. We didn’t want to have a part in it. We beat them in the elections. It’s wrong to talk about governing with Gayoom because he was rejected by the people.”
The international community had slowly begun realigning itself after realising that the ousted government was refusing to be supressed, and had backed early elections – “they should have been the first to say it, not me,” Nasheed noted.
India in particular “has the means” to push for early elections, Nasheed observed.
When those are held, “I am very, very confident that the people will decide upon us. And the thing is not who wins an election – it’s the fact that you have to have one. It’s the fact that a government is formed through the people.”