Minister of Home Affairs Umar Naseer speaks to Minivan News about his mandate, his aspirations for his five year term in the cabinet position, and of his political career.
In 2013, Naseer contested against incumbent President Abdulla Yameen for ruling party Progressive Party of Maldives’ (PPM) presidential candidacy ticket. After losing the primaries, Naseer made an alliance with PPM’s coalition partner the Jumhooree Party (JP), in whose slot he sits in the cabinet today.
Home Ministry Policies
Mariyath Mohamed: What are the main targets you wish to achieve in your five year term as Home Minister?
Umar Naseer: The Home Ministry oversees four main areas; police, prisons, the Department of National Registration and Maldives Customs Services. The main targets are to do with the problem of illegal drugs. The drug issues causes the criminal justice system to be overloaded. First, the law enforcement forces become overloaded including police and customs – which has a role in gate control, and finally the end of the system – the prisons also come to be overloaded. The main cause of this overload is the increase in drugs being smuggled, the amount of drug abusers and peddlers. So my main focus is the fight against drugs.
We will be working on three fronts to achieve this. The first front is gate control, which will be done via the customs services. Sea and airports will be sealed in a manner that will inhibit all forms of contraband including drugs and illegal arms from being brought into the country. When I was appointed to this position, the gates have not been sufficiently sealed. I believe this is because enough attention has not been given to the matter previously.
The first action I took is to take an audit of the gates. While we have completed audits of all the main gates, there are still some smaller ports with a tentative authorisation to unload goods in, for example the Kooddoo port. Thus, there are ports that might globally be referred to as ‘free ports’.
The second front is to deal with the drug trade. Leaving aside abusers and peddlers, the focus of this front will be on major wholesale drug dealers. We will investigate how drugs are brought into the country, find the contacts abroad, find ways to locate and take action against those involved even if they are abroad. We will also find enough information to prosecute smugglers within the country. We have increased the number of spies and secret police within our intelligence force to conduct this work. Also within this front, we will deal with the increase in crimes due to peddlers and abusers.
The third front is rehabilitation. Although it is currently the mandate of the Health Ministry, I am involved as I sit on the National Drug Council. We are compiling a special program under which drug abusers will be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.
The Health Minister, myself, and other related agencies – after reviewing the current rehabilitation process – don’t believe it is the best model. We will need to adapt it to a regimental model, where they are disciplined. In such a model, they will have scheduled timings for all they do; including when they sleep, eat, iron, change clothes, have meals and so on. This will bring back order into their lives and prevent them from relapsing into drug abuse. My idea is to mould the drug abuse recoverer’s body into a certain way of life simultaneously with rehabilitation and detoxification.
For the next five years, the main focus of my ministry will be to work against the problem of illicit drugs.
MM: You have recently announced a labour program for inmates. Can you provide additional details about this? For example, is it restricted to menial labour like the Thilafushi road construction project?
UN: First, we are assigning them to make paving stones and building bricks. This is a work that the state factory usually hires foreign labour for. This is the first work we will be taking over through this program. I believe about 150 to 200 prisoners can be used for this work, although at the initial stage we are employing only 50.
In the future, we will introduce laundry services for hospitals and resorts. This will mainly be done by female offenders.
We have a total number of over 1000 prisoners and my plan is to employ all of them in some form of work. Running prisons has become a costly expense. We spend approximately three times the amount spent to educate a child on taking care of a prisoner in our system. This is unsustainable. And so, with this project, every prisoner will contribute some work to the state, will facilitate taking away employment from foreign labourers, will be able to earn something for himself and for the state and will be better disciplined.
When offenders come out from prison, ultimately our target is to hand over some form of employment guarantee when we release them.
MM: As many prisoners are actually educated persons, often convicted for drug offences or petty crimes, will they be involved in any academic work as opposed to menial labour?
UN: Yes, they will be. They have training opportunities even in the prisons. They can work as teachers for other prisoners.
I have also deliberated with the Health Ministry to outsource the Himmafushi Vocational Training Centre, where our prisoners can also be trained. The modules are mechanical engineering, welding, tinkering and other technical skills. I have spoken to them about implementing these within the first quarter of this year.
MM: Will you be considering the type of offence they are convicted for when selecting them for labour?
UN: Prisoners are grouped into three categories; those that are harmless, those that are somewhere inbetween, and then very dangerous criminals who are serious offenders. We won’t bring dangerous criminals out of the prisons for work, instead they will be employed at a factory we plan to build within the premises of the prisons.
I have previously suggested this to numerous ministers, but no one did it. I am here to achieve results. The work will commence in the coming week.
MM: You have also revealed plans to introduce obligatory ‘national service’ to school leavers. Does this refer to jobs in the security forces, or does it include civil service positions? Is this feasible?
UN: I am mainly referring to the disciplined forces; police, MNDF or even the fire stations are alright. We need to bring youth into a disciplined system where they get up early, become presentable, pray, have breakfast, work, and well, become responsible. Even in other countries, there is national service. This is actually my own idea, something I would like to see achieved. While I have held discussions with the government’s top level, they have not yet agreed to it. There is a lot of budgetary restrictions in doing something of the sort.
One of my objectives is to increase the number of trained professionals which will be useful in protecting the independence of a small country like ours. The other objective is to prevent school leavers from going astray. They spend a brief period between leaving school and beginning work. This period is when they are most vulnerable to being led astray, and I believe this is the appropriate mechanism to inhibit such things. This is a system practised in several countries.
MM: After having served in the MNDF yourself, and later having started up your own business, what made you decide to enter the field of politics?
UN: My initial reason for joining politics was also to fight more strongly against illegal drugs. That is also the reason why I accepted this cabinet position. I was offered cabinet positions during the Gayoom administration, the Nasheed administration, as well as the Waheed administration. Why I have accepted this time alone is because the drug situation is at a point where if we don’t act now, it cannot be reverted. I have come to face that fight now.
MM: Serving as a cabinet minister now, as well as running your own business, how do you manage time between the two? Are you able to do both at your best capacity?
UN: I have given up my private business now. I have transferred everything to members of my family.
MM: As you are now filling a cabinet slot of a coalition partner of main party PPM, what are the challenges you face?
UN: No, there are no such challenges. I have three other colleagues in the cabinet from Jumhooree Party. The cabinet works like a family, and the cabinet is filled on average with young persons, a very energetic team. Everyone is working towards achieving the same goals and there are no questions about the colours of shirts we wear.
MM: Did you anticipate the endorsement you received from the parliament?
UN: From among those in the cabinet, I received endorsement with the narrowest margin. This does not surprise me at all, considering my background which shows I do not negotiate or engage with the MDP. In their view, I am a stubborn and dangerous man. This might even be a correct perception when seeing from their angle.
Some people are soft. I know there will be no controversy when it comes to non-political persons. It is when it comes to political persons that more controversy arises, and this is why there was so much controversy about endorsing me. A lot of lobbying was done to reject my endorsement, but I can understand that. It definitely will not reflect on my work at all.
MM: While the Parliament’s Goverment Oversight committee rejected 7 ministers on the basis that they see them as “ministers of the coup”, they rejected you saying that your speeches at various political rallies make it “evident” that you will not be faithful to President Abdulla Yameen. What is your view on this?
UN: This is political troublemaking. They were attempting to create friction between Yameen and me. I will be steadfast in standing honestly wherever I am. Yameen understands this very clearly. Regardless of whatever disagreements we might have had in PPM’s primaries, today I am 100 percent loyal to Yameen, as I will be loyal to the state and its leader. If I am not loyal, I will leave. I will not be stuck in the middle as I have my own way of life, and view this position not as a job but rather to accomplish something.
Yameen understands me well as we have done far more work together than what we might have done against each other. The reason being that since 2009 – from when Yameen was the leader of People’s Alliance and I was first the leader of Islamic Democratic Party and then deputy leader of Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party – he and I have worked side by side against the MDP government which existed then.
The infighting occurred only when questions arose about whether Umar Naseer or Abdulla Yameen will be president of this country. The fight was bitter and bruising, however it is over now and he is the leader and I will follow him.
MM: During the PPM primaries which you have just mentioned, you alleged that your then opponent Yameen has ties with gangs and the illegal drug trade. As a Home Minister paying special attention to dealing with the social issue of drug abuse and trade, what is your say on the matter now?
UN: That was political rhetoric. We were repeating MDP’s lines. What happens in presidential primaries is that you are competing for the top position of the nation, so you use every tool you have. I am now the Home Minister, but I do not see any indication of [Yameen] being involved in such acts. If at any point I do see such an indication, I will not hesitate to investigate it.
MM: Fighting so openly against the drug trade, as well as gang related crimes, you are likely to make a number of enemies. Might it deter you? How do you plan to deal with it?
UN: Yes, this is a difficult situation in that sense. In the future, we will be taking much stronger steps against drugs. In this war against drugs, we cannot simultaneously conduct work on all fronts. One enemy at a time is our policy.
We will be taking stronger action against gang related crimes in future too. But I am not deterred or hesitant. The reason is that we will lose our country’s future if we don’t stand up against all this today. Someone will need to stand up and fight. I am ready to take on this fight, all within the boundaries of law.
Criminals, too, will be aware that someday the law will catch up with them. It is irrelevant whether it is Umar Naseer or some other minister that catches up to them with the law. God willing, I will go after them with the strength of the law. I am not hesitant regardless of what they may wield against me. While I do have security personnel, I also have my personal strengths to fall back upon. Hence, I have no fear.
MM: How much success in the currently planned activities do you anticipate to achieve within these five years?
UN: How I see it, this is a long fight, at least fifteen years for the fight against drugs. In the first five years, if I am able to at least show some results, the public will gain confidence that the problem has started reversing, that there are possible solutions in the future. So I will describe my attempts in these five years as slowing down a vehicle which is going at a very fast speed and taking a u-turn and reversing its direction. Only after that can we start working on damage control and other aspects.
MM: Any final comments or messages to the public?
UN: A lot of people, including foreign diplomats, assume I am a hardline person. I’m only hardline when it is required, not in instances where it is not required. Some diplomats, as well as some others among the international community, have this perception where they think I am unpredictable. But they have no cause for concern. I have an academic background, I have sought training in various fields and compared to most others, I have quite a bit of experience in the political field as well. I am one of the most suitable for those that may have been raised to this position to achieve what I have detailed. Do not assume that I am impulsive or unpredictable. Not at all. I assure you all that I will operate within the law.