In neglected Dhiggaru, people are content

Additional reporting by Ismail Humam Hamid

Abdul Sattar Hussain, an 80-year-old retired fisherman on Meemu Atoll Dhiggaru Island, has seen six presidencies in the Maldives. For him, the worst rule was that of the first president Mohamed Ameen Didi, and the best was that of the second president Ibrahim Nasir.

“Ameen made us all hungry,” he said, recalling the famine of World War Two. “We were hungry all the time. But Nasir, he is the best president this country ever saw. He got us out of eating cereal and millet.”

Lounging on a woven rope joali in the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives’ (PPM) haruge, Sattar took off his dark glasses, rubbed it with his checkered sarong and declared: “After Nasir saved us it hasn’t been all that bad. It’s not that bad now either.”

Sattar is content. He does not expect much from the central government.

The people of Dhiggaru are proud fisherpeople. Their wives dry tuna, and make rihaakuru, a tuna paste famous throughout the Maldives. Their young men take up fishing or go work at luxury resorts nearby. Most invest their earnings into building single-storied brick homes on family plots.

Life, on this small and quiet island, has remained unchanged for decades.

On Saturday, Dhiggaru was at the centre of Maldivian politics. A parliamentary by-election, triggered by the surprise imprisonment of MP Ahmed Nazim, took place.

The PPM candidate and son of a former president, Ahmed Faris Maumoon, won against the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) Ahmed Raazee with 59.4 percent of the vote.

For the besieged central government, the by-election victory was a demonstration of support in a politically charged time. The PPM’s coalition partners had allied with the MDP in March and had launched daily protests in Malé over the jailing of ex-president Mohamed Nasheed.

But here on Dhiggaru, the politics of Malé is far removed.

Successive governments have neglected Dhiggaru. The people lay the pipes for a rudimentary sewerage system by hand and built half of the sea wall encircling the island. The men prefer to work hard during the day and sleep with their wives at night. Political party rivalry exists, but is muted. The economy, unlike that of most small islands, is self-sufficient.

Political party membership is divided according to neighbourhoods. The north supports the MDP, while the south, where the majority live, support the PPM.

Sattar lives in the southern ward. “I go with whatever they pick. That’s not for me as an individual to decide,” he said.

“I don’t know much about that”

Some 1,300 people are registered as Dhiggaru residents, but only 944 live on the island. The majority is middle-aged. Here, everyone knows everyone. Most are related to each other.

“We do not take political party rivalry personally,” Mariyam Hassan, 53, said. “What is the benefit of that? We talk to each other, help each other and try to live peacefully.”

Most people do not have much to say about democracy, the government’s performance, or the jailing of the MP who had represented them for 20 years.

“What is democracy? What is it like? I don’t know anything about it,” said Aishath Hassan, a dedicated 61-year-old PPM activist.

For the people of Dhiggaru, a parliamentarian is not a lawmaker, but an official elected to help the community in their time of need, mostly in paying medical bills.

Nazim is admired in Dhiggaru. Most, no matter which political party they support, have received his help. He was jailed for life on corruption charges, after he reportedly fell out of favour with President Abdulla Yameen and his tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb.

“When I was little he bought me my school books. He bought schoolbooks for my daughter. And recently, when one of my family members got sick Nazim sent him abroad for medical treatment with a family member,” Khalida Hussain, 42, said.

In his 20-year tenure, Nazim built a computer lab at the island school and is credited with the construction of the island health post, although the funds came from the state budget. Most voters said they want a man like Nazim to represent them in the Majlis.

“We are hoping to elect a man as loyal to us as Nazim,” Afeefa Abdulla, 53, said.

“Nazim is a very kind, loyal man. He brought many developments to Dhiggaru. If you go to him ask for help he would never turn you down,” Usman Mohamed, 64, said.

When asked about Nazim’s imprisonment, many said: “I have nothing to say about that.”

A 28-year-old MDP supporter, Dawood Abdul Gadhir said: “If anyone commits a crime he has to pay for it. But I have no information about it.”


Dhiggaru islanders do not have much, but they seem content.

Mohamed Munavvar is only 20 years old. By dawn he is out at sea. But on Friday, he was home because of bad weather. “It’s just fishing. It’s not hard if you love what you do,” he said.

A fisherman makes an average of MVR10,000 (US$648) per month. The fisheries sector is small and dependent on skipjack tuna.

“People ask us why we don’t build bigger fishing boats to catch yellow fin tuna, which is more lucrative. But then, we would have to travel longer distances and we will be out for at sea for weeks. We would rather spend all the money we get on this island and come back to our wives at night,” Mohamed “Gadha” Hussain, 38, said.

Some young men, however, expressed discontent with the lack of employment opportunities.

“There are no jobs here. You either go fishing or end up in a resort. I just finished my A ‘levels. I will have to go and work in a resort probably,” Ibrahim “Dida” Humaid said. “The other option is going to Malé City for work. A lot of young people are there already.”

Dhiggaru islanders have one wish – for the government to reclaim land from the lagoon and increase the land area of the now-13 hectare island.

“We want to own land. We want more people here. Every government has promised that, but its all lies,” Munavvar, the 20-year-old fisherman said.

During president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s time, a small sliver of land was reclaimed at the harbour. During Nasheed’s time, another area was reclaimed to the south of the island.

In the weeks leading up to the by-election, the government promised several development projects. An x-ray machine and air-conditioning units were delivered. A contract was signed for harbour renovation. President Yameen promised a new power generator, a new sewerage system, and said PPM constituencies will be prioritised for development in 2016.

Meanwhile, Faris has promised that the government will develop five resorts close to Dhiggaru.

Excavators and heavy machinery were brought on to Dhiggaru. But work has not begun yet.

With Faris’ win, some hope the island will be reclaimed, but many opposition supporters said they do not expect much progress.

“These machines are not going to be here for that long. Whatever the results of the elections may be, these are going to go from here,” Dawood Hassan, 28, said. “We haven’t seen any development in Dhiggaru for ages. But now that its election time, we are hearing many stories and plans for development. I think there is something awfully wrong in this.”

“Yameen recently said he is hoping the work will be done by next year. So we don’t know anymore. It progressing slowly,” Ahmed Nishan, an MDP council member of Dhiggaru island council said.


Opposition councilors barred from Dhiggaru office over PPM lunch

Two opposition councillors in Meemu atoll Dhiggaru say they were barred from the council office today because of a lunch set for the ruling party’s campaign team.

Former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, his son and ruling party candidate for the Dhiggaru by-election Ahmed Faris Maumoon, and senior party officials are on the island ahead of Saturday’s polls.

The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) councillor Ahmed Nishan said they were unable to work today as lunch had been set for the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) campaign team in their offices.

“When I came to the office I found out that a lunch was set up in the office where the councillors usually work. The lunch was for Faris Maumoon’s campaign team,” Nishan said.

Dhiggaru lunch

The five-member council consists of three PPM councillors and two MDP councillors.

Dhiggaru council president Imran Ismail denied that lunch had been set at the council office.

“I am not aware that any councillors are facing difficulties as of yet,” he added.

The council’s vice president, also a PPM member, declined to comment on the matter, while a staff at the council office hung up the phone when asked about the lunch.

Nishan said he believed the lunch was bought on PPM’s funds, as all council members must be informed of expenditure from public funds.

Former President Maumoon reportedly arrived at the council office in the island health centre’s ambulance.

Faris will contest against the MDP’s Ahmed Razee and independent candidate Moosa Naseer Ahmed in the June 6 poll.

The opposition has accused the PPM of vote-buying and bribery after PPM donated x-ray machines and air conditioning units to the constituency.

President Abdulla Yameen this week pledged to provide a 140 kilo-watt power generator for Dhiggaru and urged Dhiggaru constituents to vote for Faris to ensure development.

“If you do this, no doubt when the budget comes, under the principle where constituencies with our members are prioritised now, this constituency will be noted very early on,” he said.

The generator will arrive before Ramadan, and projects to establish water and sewerage systems in Dhiggaru will begin early next year.

An outer wall for the Dhiggaru football field will also be built in two months and a futsal pitch will be built during the year, he pledged.

The government has also signed an agreement with the state-owned Maldives Transport and Construction Company to build a harbour in Dhiggaru.

The by-election was triggered by the jailing of former MP Ahmed Nazim, also a PPM member. He was convicted of defrauding the former atolls ministry and imprisoned for life.

Dhiggaru is a PPM stronghold and a support base of the former president.

The ruling party was also accused of vote buying in April after handing over air-conditioners to a school in Raa Atoll Alifushi, shortly before an island council by-election.


President Yameen promises engine for Dhiggaru during campaign trip

President Abdulla Yameen visited Meemu Dhiggaru today to campaign for the ruling party candidate ahead of the upcoming by-election for the constituency’s vacant parliament seat.

“There will be a 145 kilowatt generator in Dhiggaru before the start of Ramadan,” he said at a campaign event, according to president’s office spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz Ali.

The president’s nephew, Ahmed Faris Maumoon, is contesting the June 6 by-election as the Progressive Party of Maldives’ (PPM) candidate. Faris is the eldest son of PPM leader, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

President Yameen’s pledges follow PPM MPs assuring development of the five islands in the Dhiggaru constituency if Faris wins the by-election, prompting allegations of undue influence and bribery.

In his remarks at Dhiggaru, President Yameen also slammed the opposition’s continuing protests, saying demonstrations would not lead to development.

Tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb, housing minister Dr Muiz, and more than 25 PPM MPs accompanied the president during the trip. The delegation also visited Madduvari and Muli in Meemu atoll.

According to the president’s office, the president met the people of the three Meemu atoll islands and inquired about the difficulties being faced by the residents. ‎

“Addressing the people of the islands, the president mainly ‎highlighted the developmental projects to be carried out in the islands,” the president’s office said.

“The ‎president also reiterated the government’s commitment to realise the ‎developmental aspirations of the people. Further, the president underscored ‎the importance of receiving greater cooperation, and the significance of a ‎peaceful and harmonious society for the successful implementation of such ‎developmental projects.‎”

The PPM has previously been accused of bribery over the delivery of an x-ray machine to Muli last week.

The government has also signed an agreement with state-owned Maldives Transport and Construction Company to build a harbour in Dhiggaru.

The ruling party was previously also accused of vote-buying after openly handing over air-conditioners to a school in Raa Atoll Alifushi, shortly before an island council by-election.


PPM accused of bribery over x-ray machine

The ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) has been accused of bribery for delivering an x-ray machine to the island of Muli in Meemu Atoll two weeks ahead of a parliamentary by-election.

PPM parliamentary group leader Ahmed Nihan said the government had delivered an x-ray machine to Muli, in the Dhiggaru constituency, and urged islanders to vote for PPM candidate Faris Maumoon.

“The government fulfills its pledges, vote for our candidate Faris Maumoon,” he said in a tweet yesterday.

The tweet triggered accusations of bribery, with one Twitter user describing the move as “cannibalism.”

Others questioned if the state had also paid for a radiologist at the island hospital.

One highlighted the distribution of air conditioners in Raa Atoll Alifushi before an island council by-election in April, and said the donation of x-ray machines to Muli were similar.

“Islanders only needs x-ray machine when the Malé man needs a vote,” another said, referring to the lingering discrimination between islanders and residents of Malé.

“The x-ray machine will only gather dust. A technical will only be set for the next election. That is OK, one at a time,” June Rasheed said.

However, speaking to Minivan News today, Nihan said funds for the x-ray machines was allocated in the 2015 budget, and described the move as “a service to the people.”

“This is a government which makes promises and fulfills them. That is why the people should vote for Faris Maumoon in the upcoming election,” said Nihan.

The government has also signed an agreement with state-owned Maldives Transport and Construction Company to build to harbors in the Dhiggaru constituency.

“All of these projects were included in the budget, after the former MP asked for the development projects for his constituency,” he said.

The by-election, scheduled for June 6, was triggered by the conviction of former PPM MP Ahmed Nazim on corruption charges. The Supreme Court had stripped Nazim of his seat after sentencing him to 25 years in prison on April 6 for defrauding the state of MVR1.4 million (US$91,400).

Former President Maumoon Abdull Gayyoom’s son Faris secured the ruling party ticket after winning a primary with 67 percent of the vote against Meemu atoll council president.

Another PPM atoll councillor, Moosa Naseer Ahmed, is also contesting the by-election as an independent candidate. The third candidate is the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party’s Ahmed Raazee.

The ruling part was previously also accused of vote-buying after a high-profile handout of air-conditioners to a school in Raa Atoll Alifushi, shortly before a council by-election.


Opposition to field single candidate for vacant Majlis seat

The opposition coalition is holding talks to field a single candidate for a vacant parliament seat after the incumbent MP was sentenced to life in jail on corruption charges.

The Elections Commission has scheduled the by-election for the Dhiggaru constituency for June 13. The call for applications will be open from April 15 – 25.

Though the “Maldivians Against Brutality” coalition is made up of parties with vastly different ideologies, they are confident of fielding a single candidate against the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM).

Former PPM partners, the Adhaalath Party and the Jumhooree Party, allied with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party following what they called a government crackdown on opposition politicians including former President Mohamed Nasheed and former defence minister Mohamed Nazim.

The two were sentenced last month to 13 years and 11 years in jail for terrorism and weapons smuggling, respectively.

Meanwhile, JP leader Gasim Ibrahim is facing a US$100million fine that may bankrupt his Villa Group.

Adhaalath spokesperson Ali Zahir and a PPM councilor for of Meemu atoll council Moosa Naseer have expressed interest in standing for the vacant seat.

The former Dhiggaru MP Ahmed Nazim lost his seat on Monday after the Supreme Court convicted him of defrauding the former atolls ministry.

Ex-MP Nazim, a former deputy speaker of the Peoples Majlis was convicted of defrauding the state of MVR 1.4 million (US $91,400) by submitting bids on behalf of non-existent companies to supply 15,000 national flags to the now-defunct atolls ministry.


Politicians line up to replace jailed MP

Would-be candidates are already setting out their stalls for the parliamentary by-election in Meemu atoll Dhiggaru after the seat’s previous incumbent was jailed for 25 years yesterday.

Ruling party MP Ahmed Nazim, a former deputy speaker of parliament, was found guilty on Monday of defrauding the state of MVR 1.4 million (US $91,400) and sentenced to 25 years.

Members of both the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) and the opposition have expressed an interest in replacing him in the Majlis (parliament).

Among these are Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) member and Meemu atoll Muli island councillor Ibrahim Zaki, ruling party member and Meemu atoll councilor Moosa Naseer, and Adhaalath Party spokesperson Ali Zahir.

“I have decided to run for Dhihgaru constituency and I will apply as soon as the elections commission gives notice,” said Ali Zahir.

Elections must be held to fill parliamentary vacancies within 60 days under the constitution.

Meanwhile, the MDP has condemned Nazim’s conviction, saying several aspects of the process violated his rights.

“The lower court and the High Court threw out the case. So the state had appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling. But instead the Supreme Court ruled on the case,” said MDP MP and spokesperson Imthiyaz Fahmy.

“So literally Nazim did not have a chance to defend himself,” Imthiyaz added.

He noted that former defence minister Mohamed Nazim, accused of plotting to assassinate President Abdulla Yameen, and ex-president Mohamed Nasheed, accused of terrorism over the arrest of a judge, received shorter sentences than Ahmed Nazim.

“[They] were charged with more serious crimes. So I don’t see the fairness in this conviction,” he said.

“It seems that the courts had all ruled in favor of Nazim when he was in favor with the government. But after his spat with [Tourism Minister Ahmed] Adeeb, the courts had turned against him,” Imthiyaz said.

Nazim, an ex-deputy speaker of parliament, was found guilty of defrauding the state by submitting bids on behalf of non-existent companies to supply 15,000 national flags to the now-defunct atolls ministry.

He faces three more outstanding corruption charges.