The Maldives’ riot police in their blue, urban-camouflage uniforms have been out in force in the capital Male in recent days. On Friday they brought out their batons and charged at thousands of protesters, badly injuring one. By the end of the day they had arrested 11 people.
More than 3,000 protesters, mostly youths, were demanding the government hold an early election.
Their protests were sparked by a Commonwealth-backed report that concluded that the former president, Mohamed Nasheed, was not pushed out in a coup, but lost power in February 2012.
Nasheed is a man who went from prisoner to president.
After setting up a magazine in the 1980s, he spent seven years in jail and was considered a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International. He spent 18 months of that time in solitary confinement and was allegedly tortured twice.
In 2004, he helped set up an opposition party. Four years later, it won an election. He became president of the Maldives.
With that, Mohamed Nasheed, known locally as “Anni”, became an internationally celebrated leader. He won international ovations. He became an icon for environmentalists by drawing attention to the affects of climate change on island nations like the Maldives.
Mohamed Nasheed replaced Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who rose from being a judge’s son to become the nation’s long-serving leader. He went to Egypt’s Al Azhar University, an international centre for Islamic learning, on a government scholarship.
By 1978, after two short spells in jail and some shrewd politicking, Gayoom became president. He stayed in the job for 30 years. He won every election he called, never polling less than 90 per cent.
That was until 2008. By then, the West had twisted Gayoom’s arm. Their citizens were providing the tourist cash which drove the Maldives’ new and booming economy. They told Gayoom that if he wanted the tourist boom to continue, he would need to deliver democracy.
Under pressure, he legalised political parties and called the Maldives’ first ever multi-party elections. He lost.
It was momentous. The country had its first new president for three decades. Democracy, it seemed, had peacefully reached Maldivian shores.
Nasheed didn’t miss the significance. Nor did the media. They gave Anni generous coverage. He came to be seen as one of the world’s defenders of democracy and the environment.
He declared he would deregulate the media. He promised to make the Maldives carbon neutral within a decade.
He held a cabinet meeting underwater to press the point that his nation was under threat from rising seas.
It all worked wonders for Anni’s international image but at home he was struggling. In 2009, his party failed to win parliamentary elections.
Gayoom’s party did better but neither man could form a single-party government. Both teamed up with minority parties. Nasheed governed in coalition with the Maldives’ Islamists. They weren’t natural partners but they made it work for a while.
Gayoom was making his opposition coalition work. And they were making life very difficult for Anni. In the end, Nasheed’s cabinet all resigned, complaining Gayoom was blocking everything they did.
That was June 2010. By the following year, Anni was still in power but all his major partners had left him. People started protesting about the price of fish.
By the beginning of 2012, the opposition was accusing Nasheed of undermining Islam. It was a grave charge in a nation which takes its religion seriously.
Anni asked the police to arrest Mohamed Jameel, a politician who he said was dishing out hate pamphlets which accused him of conspiring with Christians and Jews.
The officers picked up Jameel, but a judge subsequently ordered his release. The police again summoned Jameel. Then the judge tried to overrule the summons.
The executive and the judiciary were clearly at odds. But then Anni raised the stakes.
He asked police to arrest this errant official, who happened to be the country’s top criminal judge. Nasheed said Judge Abdulla was also blocking corruption investigations into former ministers and was protecting Gayoom.
|Protests have erupted in the Maldives since February 2012 when former President Mohamed Nasheed left office [AFP]
At this point, hundreds of individuals in the police, the military, the judiciary and many others started to make their own independent decisions about who they supported, Nasheed or his rivals.
Gayoom’s growing coalition got its supporters out on the streets. Three weeks of protests slowly stripped Nasheed of his authority.
By February 7, it was all over. Nasheed stood in front of his soldiers and asked them if he had their support. There was silence.
He decided it was time to resign. Watched by his Chief of Staff, Cabinet Secretary and opposition politicians, he scribbled a letter in blue felt pen and walked out to give an unscripted statement live on television.
“I have never wanted to rule by force,” he said. “I came to this decision because, in my opinion, I sincerely believe, that if this government is to be maintained, it would require the use of extreme force and cause harm to a lot of citizens.”
Anni then walked away from the President’s Office back to his official residence. Three lines of soldiers lined his path. They weren’t honouring a commander-in-chief. They were protecting a civilian.
Then Anni sat in his official residence for around four hours until a military escort could take him home. By the time he got there his deputy, Mohamed Waheed Hassan, had already replaced him as president.
Coup d’etat or collapse?
Was it a coup d’etat or had the government collapsed? Had the president resigned under duress or not? Had there been a mutiny?
Predictably, the answer depends on who you ask. The new president, Mohamed Waheed, said the government collapsed, Anni chose to resign and there was no mutiny.
The old president, Mohamed Nasheed, said it was a coup. “I was forced to resign at gunpoint,” he told journalists the next day. He pointed the finger firmly at his predecessor, Gayoom. “Dictatorships don't always die when the dictator leaves office,” he wrote in the New York Times.
Under international pressure, the new president asked a three-man commission to tackle these questions.
One member was a former defence minister under President Gayoom. Another was the first president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, set up in the final years of Gayoom’s government. The third was a former director of the country’s biggest hospital.
The Commonwealth suggested the commission could be more impartial, credible and broadly acceptable. So a Singaporean judge joined in and Mohamed Nasheed nominated former school principal, Ahmed Saeed.
Saeed quit last week, saying evidence was ignored and the report was biased. A day later, the commission published. Their conclusion? No coup, no duress, no mutiny.
Nasheed’s supporters protested, but it was done. The government and Gayoom both declared themselves delighted with the report. The Commonwealth and the United Nations welcomed it as well and urged everyone to look to the future.
Mohamed Nasheed had earlier asked three Danish legal experts to offer their opinion. Last month, they declared that February’s events constituted a coup.
“We conclude that President Nasheed resigned as President of the Maldives under duress, and that his resignation cannot be considered voluntary or otherwise ‘in accordance with law’.”
"Democracy in the islands is young and extremely fragile and those familiar with Maldivian political history should be very concerned with the course of events over the last six months "
- Danish report on the events of February 2012
In the end, whether it was a coup or not is academic. The chance to reverse the situation is long gone. Waheed’s government is established.
But there are two other questions. Was there a conspiracy to cripple Nasheed’s government? And did Gayoom have a hand in bringing Nasheed down?
The evidence is circumstantial.
It centres on what the Danish experts describe as “a highly unorthodox meeting” at the end of January between then Deputy President Waheed and the opposition leaders. Afterwards, opposition figures pledged their allegiance to Waheed.
Two key players in Nasheed’s downfall have also received senior posts. Mohamed Nazim is Defence Minister. Abdulla Riyaz is Minister for State and Home Affairs. They both watched as Nasheed signed his resignation.
Waheed was also fast to reshuffle his government, promoting Gayoom’s son and daughter to the foreign and fisheries ministries respectively.
Nasheed has been quick to point out that the government-commissioned report sets an “awkward precedent”. It is one which suggests that while you can’t bring the government down by force, you can trip it up.
Anni’s supporters are on the streets protesting about the commission’s findings. But the truth is that the politicians’ attention has already turned to elections. Nasheed is keen to take on his former deputy at the ballot box as soon as possible.
Nasheed’s old rival, Gayoom, has also said President Waheed is welcome to run on his party’s ticket. It would be an interesting move, setting up a contest between Nasheed and Gayoom by proxy.
Nasheed, the activist-president, would be taking on Gayoom, the puppet-master president. Each feels he has been dragged from power by the other. Each wants his revenge.
It is also a tantalising contest. But it is perhaps not one which will help the Maldives.
“No one should be blind as to what is actually at stake in the Maldives,” wrote the Danish experts. “Democracy in the islands is young and extremely fragile and those familiar with Maldivian political history should be very concerned with the course of events over the last six months.”
Neither Gayoom nor Nasheed has established himself as a democracy-builder. Gayoom was an autocrat, Nasheed a firebrand. Caught in the middle were the deficient democratic institutions of the Maldives.
They still are.