He was neither Mandela nor Mugabe: A Tribute to President Mohamed Nasheed
Whilst many Maldivians celebrate the recent forced resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed, at this critical juncture, it is also important to remember the role Nasheed played in transforming the social and political landscape of our country. Nasheed is the country’s first ever democratically elected leader and his rise to power marked the beginning of the democratisation process and most liberating era that the country has experienced in over half a century. Internationally, he is hailed as a crusader for democracy, the environment and his small island-nation, but opinion of him is strongly divided amongst his countrymen. Those who love Nasheed revere him as their Mandela, a man who sacrificed his freedom for a greater cause; but those that passionately wanted him deposed called him the ‘Mugabe of Asia’. One thing is for sure, he will be remembered as the leader who was avidly elected and expelled by the power of mass protest.
It is important to remind ourselves that before 2008, the Maldives was ruled under an authoritarian regime which had lasted for 30 years, and civil liberties such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly meant little to this regime. We should be indebted to Nasheed for setting the momentum for democracy in the Maldives and paving the way for the breakup of an authoritarian regime which had refused to leave, even after countless attempts to overthrow it. The attempts to oust Gayyoom during his 30 year presidency were never successful because there was no conviction, sacrifice or appeal in those movements; therefore it never gathered any momentum or mass support. What Nasheed did for us was to create a movement, a longing for a political change which would allow us to think, speak, write and elect freely. This is the greatest gift Nasheed gave us. It is this gift which ultimately paved the way for his own overthrow on 7th February 2012.
Nasheed’s fight for civil liberties began as early as 1990 – a period in which no Maldivian would dare to utter any criticism against the government, and political participation was a figment of one’s own imagination. Between 1990 and 1999 Nasheed was wrongfully accused of various crimes, arrested a number of times, subjected to solitary confinement and violence, all because of his criticism of the government. One cannot fathom the level of determination and resolve a young Nasheed would have had in the 1990s, to be able to take the risks he took with so little public support or courage.
Though still developing, the democratic provisions available in the Maldives today can be attributed to Nasheed’s efforts. The country’s first political party was established under his auspices and this consequently opened the political arena of the Maldives for participation and competition. The country’s first democratic election took place through the ardent campaigns and pressure fomented by him and many others who were inspired by him. Many civil liberties which we enjoy today were granted to us as a result of his tireless campaigns and advocacy.
True, Nasheed’s presidency was not without its faults, and his forced resignation was imminent for a number of reasons. Unfortunately his charisma and belief in democratic ideals did little to help his political immaturity and the lack of creative thinking within his party. He could have sustained his power and support base had he not made some fundamental political mistakes over the past three years. Firstly, for security he surrounded himself with cronies and relatives, many of whom fell short of political ingenuity, competence and the ability to create progressive policies. As a result, Nasheed’s regime failed to tackle the rising urban violence, corruption, economic problems and religious extremism in the Maldives. Secondly, he played into the hands of the opposition by focusing excessively on bringing down members of the opposition or members from the past regime, even if it meant defying the Constitution. In 2009 he ordered the army to take over the Supreme Court; in 2010 he ordered the arrest of two political opponents, Abdulla Yamin and Gasim Ibrahim; and most recently he ordered the arrest of the senior judge, Abdulla Mohamed. Such decisions caused the public to lose confidence in him as a law-abiding leader and created opportunities to mobilise anti-government support. Thirdly, the failures of his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), played a significant role in discrediting his rule. The constant use of dangerous language by his party members such as ‘we will stay in power for the next 500 years at all costs’ or ‘we will arrest anyone where we deem it justifiable’ fomented an iron fist image of his leadership. The parliamentary bribery allegations associated with his party, the use of thugs by his party members and the use of inflammatory and hostile rhetoric by his party members in their public declarations and speeches only created further division within their support base, public mistrust and ample opportunities for Nasheed’s opponents to slam his government.
Forcing a leader we had democratically elected to step down is a failure of our state. There are no winners here. His departure has created a political vacuum which is bound to be exploited by the eagerly awaiting religious extremists and opportunists in our country. I hope Nasheed will take this defeat as a lesson and return to the political arena with stronger policies, better allies and more determination to safeguard the rights which he had fought for.
Whilst we all anxiously await the fate of our next political chapter, I will remember Nasheed for his positive contributions to our country. Despite his shortcomings, he was a true torch bearer for democracy and I will remain indebted to him for the freedoms he helped us attain. He is nowhere close to perfect and he is neither our Mandela nor our Mugabe, but he will be remembered as the man who planted the first seed of change on our country.