In a series of interviews to lead into the the 2014 parliamentary elections – scheduled for March 22nd – Minivan News will be conducting interviews with incumbent MPs.
All 77 sitting members have been contacted, from across the political spectrum, to be asked a standardised set of questions with additional topicals. The interviews will be published as and when they are received.
As part of the series, Minivan News interviewed MP Ahmed Nihan.
MP Ahmed Nihan represents the Villi Maafannu constituency and is from the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM).
Mariyath Mohamed: What made you enter the political arena and how?
Ahmed Nihan: To be honest, I didn’t enter this field to achieve any major political goals. However, there are certain things that circumstances brought about. Namely, the political chaos of 2003.
We were used to a very normal, peaceful way of life. The society we grew up in was not one where political dialogue in public places were common. It is not even important. If there was a cause for disheartenment, most people kept it to themselves. However, even then there were some people who would talk about such issues both in public places and through media. It was not even done after considering what sort of penalties may be levied against them for doing so. We were, however, aware that those who were being jailed for participating in political activity were being placed in that situation due to the involvement of other factors besides political expression.
For example, the bombing of 1990. Those allegedly involved in the bombing later became major political figures. While they may have their reasons for committing such an act, it is never acceptable for violence, arson or terrorism to be used as a solution for anything. In 2003, I closely saw the situation deteriorate in Malé. As a bystander, I saw three or four places being set ablaze.
I thought then that the peaceful atmosphere of Male’ was coming to an end. While I don’t mean that everything was happening right then, I felt that anti-social elements would then seep in and damage the general social norms of the Malé society. Whatever good or bad reasons behind it, I was aware that anti-social elements would come in.
A cause for widespread political discussions in the country was the announcement made by then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on 9 June 2004, where he said the people were free to discuss political matters publicly. I will not judge whether the intentions behind the announcement were good or bad, but that is the reason for increased politicisation within the society.
Friends and I then started having long discussions about this matter over coffee meet-ups, where intellectuals from across the political divide frequently joined. It so happened that one other friend and I took the side of the then incumbent government. It was purely from my own views, as I had no other connection to the government. Neither me nor any of my relatives were serving in Gayoom’s administration, none of us had any businesses we needed to protect, there was no child we need to send abroad to study, at the very least we did not even possess a vehicle in our names. Despite all of this, I was among the few who accepted Gayoom’s policies as being right.
In March 2005, following the parliament’s approval of multi party democracy, we faced a lot of political challenges. Everyone was identified as a political person. Even then, I had no intention of joining any particular party. However, from my childhood, I have always been a fan of Gayoom’s. I especially liked his policies on nationalism.
On May 29, 2005, I learned while I was at a coffee with friends that Gayoom was going to form a party. I decided to go for two reasons. One is that it is a common rumour here that Gayoom operated via nepotism and cronyism and would not allow a commoner into their inner circle. I wanted to see if this is true. I did not enter politics on anyone’s intention, at 34 years of age I just knocked at the door of the meeting place uninvited.
At the meeting, I saw that it was filled with elite persons and children of high level officials, and I couldn’t accept that although the meeting was for a youth audience, there was enough representation of general youth there.
I was outspoken and questioned Gayoom, asking if he believed there is enough youth representation there. I asked if he was aware of the criticism against him in the public. I then volunteered in preparation of the first two party meetings but there was absolutely no chance of going to the frontline at that point.
At the third public meeting held on June 13 – Gayoom’s party still had elites in it, while MDP was at its peak already – at this point, then government spokesperson Dr Ahmed Shaheed called me and asked me to speak in that night’s meeting. This was not due to any connections, but probably because I had been so outspoken at this first meeting.
He was the first person to plant the idea of comparing MDP’s Mohamed Nasheed to Adolf Hitler, by asking me to make the comparison in my first political speech. He asked me to point out that nothing good may come to a party through a politician leading groups on to the street and to point out the likeness between how Nasheed operated and how the Nazi party had operated in the past.
No one in the higher tiers had thus far dared to criticise the MDP. This speech of mine was very well-received and people accepted me. I then became a member of DRP’s council. I was the only ordinary member on it. This is how I entered the field.
MM: Based on your attendance and work in this ending term, how would you judge your performance as an MP?
AN: For me, especially being an MP who lives out of Malé, I will say I performed well over average. I’m the only member who starts his day on a ferry. Despite the political situation I walk through the public and travel on a ferry with them every day, that is my way of life.
Except for a few days where I had to be involved with other issues, I have not missed any Majlis sessions. Later on, I have met with some VilliMale’ constituents during Majlis hours to listen to their concerns, but even then I do come to Majlis in time for voting on bills. Even this was possible after the starting quorum was changed to an open quorum and things became more convenient.
I have also missed some of the latter committee meetings as I had to involved in the [presidential election] campaigns.
MM: What are the main committees you were acting on? What particular bills did you focus on?
AN: I was in many fundamental committees. This is because due to the political situation, there was a lot of space for waste arguments. For example, matters around the judiciary.
One of the committees I was on for the longest and contributed most to is the Social Affairs committee. This is the committee that compiled some of the most important bills. For example, the Act on Special Measures Against Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse.
I was also on the Economic Affairs Committee, with the intention of learning something new. I figured the best way to learn about the matter once budgetary issues arose would be through the Economic Affairs committee.
The Public Accounts Committee is what parliamentarians often saw as the most privileged committee, due to the many opportunities for trips abroad that rose out of it. However, I did not push to be on it. The other committee most in demand by parliamentarians is the 241 Committee on national security.
I gave the most importance to the Petition Committee, Economic Affairs Committee and the Social Affairs Committee. After February 7, on request of the government, I joined the Executive Oversight Committee to defend the government through my concrete arguments.
The bills I played the most major role in completing include the Act on Special Measures Against Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse, the Drug Act, Banking Acts and the Right to Information Act.
One of the saddest things I came across is that the Water Bill that was submitted by the government was thrown out of parliament without even allowing it to go to committee stage. I individually spoke to several MPs about the importance of having litigation on water standards here, but no one listened, and MDP members voted it out just by yelling “baaghee” [traitor] at government-affiliated members.
However, the most major bill that I must carry responsibility for is the Act on Privileges for Former Presidents. This is something that had to be done, Article 128 of the Constitution mandates that such a law be formed. Yes, it was designed for Gayoom, but it later applied to former Presidents Nasheed and Waheed, so it can no longer be said that I made it for Gayoom alone.
MM: What would you say are the biggest achievements within your term; in terms of what you have accomplished for your constituency and the country as a whole?
AN: I was in a challenging position as an opposition member in a Malé area seat. I was steadfast in not changing my position, despite large offers being placed in front of me in exchange for switching. The 17th parliament was corrupted not by parliamentarians alone, but with the involvement of political leaders. It was done deliberately. For example, Ali Waheed and I worked six or seven months working closely together and I know his financial level. It is not acceptable for me that he and Alhan Fahmy all of a sudden reached a level of financial comfortability where they were able to purchase land from capital city, Malé. That is against the oath we took assuming public office. The reason behind why I remain homeless to date is the loyalty I have towards the Maldivian people. MDP sent numerous multi-million offers asking me to defect, but I do not believe it is the right thing to do.
So, what I did for my consituency is a huge question. In reality, there is nothing I am mandated to do for the constituency. I am not elected to represent a constituency so that I can take material things there. I have not been able to do that, and will not do so in future either. On the other hand, I am the conveyer of the constituency’s concerns. There is no other MP who has done as much as I have on this front. There never goes much time between my appearance in some media or other.
An MP’s mandate is not to build mosques, or construct roads or football grounds. That is not our mandate. I have conducted about 90 percent or more of what is in my mandate. I have not sold a vote or misvoted by mistake or done any other such actions.
MM: What would you say is the biggest mistake or worst step you have taken in your career? Why?
AN: Not something I did out of my own capacity, but I’d say it was the compiling of the judge’s bench by the parliament’s bench during our initial days. It is definitely something that we as members didn’t look into enough that we were not used as much as we should have been when our leaders made the decisions regarding the judiciary and it’s compilation.
Not to defend myself, but I am a person who doesn’t personally know these judges. And today, being 42 years of age I have never had to stand in front of a judge. And the most controversial judge Abdulla Ghazi (Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed). I even saw him for the first time way after he was released from detention, at a National Day event held during the Waheed administration. So it was difficult for me as I couldn’t identify them.
But I do regret some of the problems that have risen as a result of those decisions.
The second thing is the Priviliges Act. I regret that I was unable to succeed despite always having stood up against the parlimentary privileges bill. I do not believe this is required in a place like the Maldives. Even today, it saddens me that there are still members who advocate for additional privileges.
These are not my personal decisions, but as a member, collectively I too have some responsibility in these.
MM: Are you taking the optional committee allowance of an additional MVR 20,000? Why or why not?
AN: I have never considered either taking or not taking that allowance. I did want to initially check if it proved to be an incentive for members to better attend committees. But it doesn’t work that way. There are no members that better attend committees just because this allowance is paid. So it is 100 percent evident that this need not be paid now.
And there is nothing I have gained from getting the committee allowance. There are many months where I have not received it, due to my not signing the attendance sheets. It is of my own mistake. I never considered it so important to sign the attendance sheets.
It is only paid in relation to the number of committees we attended. I think I only received it six months. Even if I receive it, it is never there by the end of the month. I would have given it away for some thing.
MM: What is your view about parliamentarians and other public servants declaring their financial assets publicly for the electorate to be able to refer to?
AN: I support that, because there is nothing I need to hide. But there are some MPs whose shares in certain businesses that citizens need to know about. About how their financial assets suddenly increase. Like I said before, when a member who enters parliament without a penny in their name suddenly rises to the point where they can purchase a 10 storey skyscraper, the people have right to know whether this was indeed purchased by money earned from selling arecanuts, teaching Quran lessons or money sent by a father who works as a sailor. The reasons are very correct and people have much right to demand to know these details. Not only parliamentarians, but everyone in senior posts. This can be included in an amendment in the Right to Information Act that has recently been passed. It must have a radius though, where the other person’s privary is not breached.
MM: Are you recontesting in the next elections?
AN: My consituency no longer exists, but I will recontest for the same district. That is to say, using a football metaphor, I must play another half, another term, representing VilliMale’. To ensure that everything that can be done for them through their government is achieved.
MM: What do you hope to accomplish should you be elected for a new term?
AN: One thing is to ensure that someone from the district itself gets elected in the local council elections. The government has also assured me that through their development policies, unmatched developmental changes will be brought to VilliMale’ in these five years. Through my work I have also ensured that the PPM policies include providing housing for those who have the most housing difficulty in this country, including housing for those on the Malé municipality register.
MM: What improvements do you feel the 18th parliament will need to make to improve as an institution?
AN: A lot of major changes must be brought.
One thing is to make members aware that every bill that comes there way is not something that they must view through a political lens and reject or approve just based on political reasons.
The general public must also be aware that despite the excitement around politics, important issues must be focused on beyond politic rhetoric. The political atmosphere must come down to room temperature, where people with different political ideologies must be able to sit down and discuss matters in a civil manner. I believe, this will take approximately 25 years for us to achieve this.
MM: What are your thoughts on party switching – do you think it undermines the party system?
AN: There is an issue where even parliamentarians do not really understand the system. And there is a lack of information or of negligence among those who impart knowledge of these matters to the general public. It must be considered whether a member is defecting to gain some personal benefits, for the party’s benefit or for the nation’s benefit. If one has already done so for their own benefit, then it is wrong. It is wrong as it causes people to lose hope in the system itself.
If they don’t have a thorn in their tongues, they might say whatever they want, but I see no dignity in such a person coming out to recontest and saying they are doing so for the good of the nation.
If it is an independent MP, I have no comments about them being among the movers and shakers. It is not a problem for them to go around changing parties. But someone who was elected for having run via a party must not defect mid-term.
It is not for national benefit or love for the people that members like them defect or sell votes. It is because their pockets are being filled. On the day of cabinet endorsement, we too fished out many votes in this way. They will now say that it is out of love for the people, but no, it was in interest of filling their own deep pockets.
MM: As a politician who has been outspoken about matters regarding the judiciary, alternatively positively and negatively, what is your view about the current judiciary and if you believe there are steps that can be taken to improve it?
AN: Numerous major changes need to come it. These are not things that can be sorted just through litigation or changing laws. It needs to majorly improved as an institution.
I need to know judges better, their histories and capacities and all. We must all know them better. We need to better the review the problems arising about judges today and review the existing litigation. We must find out what amendments we can bring to the existing litigation, and whether more effective new laws can be drafted for the issue. Everyone from all parties need to agree on how we must act on this matter.
In June 2010, we suddenly appointed judges. So for the lack of effectiveness in the judiciary, we cannot blame the judges alone. Instead, all us politicians must shoulder responsibility for it.
Now the thing is due to one or two judges within the judiciary, the whole sector has lost trust. This is something I have often said. Don’ t blame the whole institution for the acts of a few individuals.
For example, Judge Ali Hameed who is allegedly involved in a sex scandal. I have never met him. We should not defend him for his negligence. I would have preferred it if he had resigned from his post before it comes to the level where even the parliament will need to get involved. If he had, half the country would not have lost trust in the institution.
I believe that both MDP and PPM should work to further train and make the judiciary more responsible, however this does not mean that we should continue yelling out that the judiciary is bad. We must do constructive work.