Democracy, ecology and now Sri Lankan economy, Maldives’ Nasheed has his hands full
Mohamed Nasheed is the mascot for Maldivian democracy and free speech, and an acknowledged global ambassador on climate change and environmental concerns. And now he is helping in Sri Lanka’s economic recovery
The unexpected coordinator’s role for Maldives Parliament Speaker Mohmmed ‘Anni’ Nasheed to help in neighbouring Sri Lanka’s economic recovery, should surprise his supporters and critics alike, back home. At a personal level, it remains to be seen how as the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party ‘s (MDP) chief, Nasheed intends sharing time for all his desired roles, as the nation is already on campaign mode for the presidential polls, due in the last quarter of next year.
“During the discussions, the former President of Maldives generously offered to assist Sri Lanka in securing relief for the country from foreign nations. The Prime Minister accepted the former president’s offer and appointed him to coordinate the relief efforts,” an official statement from Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office said after a closed-door meeting between the two at Colombo.
Nasheed is a never-say-die man, the mascot for Maldivian democracy and free speech, and an acknowledged global ambassador on climate change and environmental concerns. Once he puts his heart into an issue, he is known for not sparing any effort at achieving the target. It was, thus, his charismatic leadership and international contacts, centred on the UK and the rest of Europe, led the nation to an era of multi-party electoral democracy after 30 years of one-man rule in a nation with a centuries-old history of Hindu/Buddhist kings and Islamic sultans.
Nasheed captured the world’s imagination when as the Maldives’ first democratic president, he chaired an under-water cabinet meeting, to highlight the ‘sinking’ nation’s ecological concerns ahead of the 2009 UN climate change summit at Copenhagen. He has since committed himself personally and Maldives as a nation to all climate initiatives, including ‘carbon credit’ and the like.
Under President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s rule in Maldives, Nasheed had spent long years in self-exile in Sri Lanka and had also used to write for a local English language newspaper. From those early days in the nineties, he has maintained close relations with Sri Lankan political leaders, cutting across party lines. Yet, the Sri Lankan assignment now is still a new area for him to dabble with, though as Maldivian president (2008-12), he had introduced IMF-induced economic reforms, which comprised job-cuts, utility-tariff hikes and the introduction of income tax.
Plea to Indian investors
Sri Lanka is ‘extremely serious’, Nasheed told The Hindu in Colombo. “We must do whatever we can in times of need for our neighbour and cousin. I will do everything I can to assist the people of Sri Lanka.” Without elaborating, Nasheed observed that Maldivians “will never forget” the help extended by Sri Lanka and its leaders throughout the years. “If I have a single penny, I will make sure Sri Lankans have it,” The Hindu quoted him as saying further.
Nasheed made a specific appeal to Indian banks and the Indian business community to “make themselves available” to Sri Lanka at such a time. “My plea to the generous people of India, especially entrepreneurs and businesspeople, is please make yourselves available for financing and debt restructuring to support Sri Lanka,” Nasheed said. Explaining, he said financial institutions must “underwrite” Sri Lanka’s future, and added that Indian entrepreneurs and banks “are very well placed” to do so.
Sri Lanka has already appealed to the Indian neighbour as a state player in this regard. Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, while at the IMF headquarters for the annual board meeting, had a special session with managing director Kristalina Georgieva, to argue Sri Lanka’s case. On the occasion, the IMF boss lauded India’s initiatives to help out a troubled neighbour in need of immediate succour. Since then, there have been suggestions from multiple sources that India considered a standing guarantee for Sri Lanka’s loans from third nations and institutions.
Busy year ahead
Known for multi-tasking all the time, it remains to be seen how Nasheed intends to divide his time and energy among his multiple interests and responsibilities. Apart from his commitment to global ecological concerns with particular reference to his native Maldives and other small island nations, Nasheed is a full-time Speaker of Parliament. He is also the elected president of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which has a busy year ahead of presidential polls.
What more, Nasheed has multiple ideas and constitutional reforms for his nation, which he has been airing off and on. He also used to be keen on contesting the presidential polls on his party’s behalf, and equally so in the MDP primaries, which he insists should be held in good time. The opinion is however divided about the provision in the party by-laws on holding the mandatory primary in case incumbent Solih intends to seek a second term.
In the days after the camp identified with him had won three important party positions, including that of the chairman, the administrative in-charge, Solih, for the first time since becoming president in 2018, has come close to acknowledging a desire to seek a second term. For the first time, he has now personally clarified that he had not told Nasheed or anyone else that he was not seeking a second term. If so, it would make things that much more difficult for Nasheed, nearer home, especially in terms of the time and energy required for his domestic role and also Sri Lanka’s aid coordinator, if both of them want to represent the MDP in the presidential polls.
Pin-pricks at home?
Maldivian president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was among the first to welcome the new recognition for his childhood friend, who has had a few run-ins since he helped the former come to the office in 2018. Solih also tweeted, “Maldives will always stand with Sri Lankans and will support Sri Lanka in every possible way to overcome these difficult times.”
However, the same cannot be said of traditional critics of Nasheed, who have resorted to social media to ask why he did not use his good offices to fetch global funding for the nation through Covid-19 lockdowns. With India helping out during the period, both on Covid and infrastructure fronts, as a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, there was no need for Nasheed or any other Maldivian leader, or even the government, to approach equally-stressed third-nations, big or small, for further assistance.
If all of it is on the personal front, Nasheed as party president and Parliament Speaker, and President Solih, heading the government, both have a joint fight on hand and together. There are multiple criticisms, including those from unanticipated quarters, that too on the MDP Government’s democracy credentials. Solih’s presidential decree banning the Opposition PPM-PNC combine’s ‘India Out’ campaign, while seeming to have produced desired results on the ground, a new trend emerged when the legend appeared on the house-door of Defence Minister Mariya Didi and also the walls of the Indian High Commission.
However, the hyped criticism of both the decree and its enforcement has since emerged from multiple quarters. Over time, they have the potential to challenge the ruling MDP’s democracy credibility from within, as Speaker Nasheed was an ardent supporter of outlawing the anti-India protests. In turn, it could impact the mood and method of the large constituency of non-cadre MDP supporters dating back to the Gayoom era — and may even be reflected in the presidential elections, one way or the other.
It is no better on the global front, where Nasheed and MDP have a better standing than all other political parties in the country. The Amnesty International (AI), which had once declared Nasheed as a ‘Prisoner of Conscience’, for instance, has now criticised the Government over Solih’s decree, citing reports of ‘police crackdown on peaceful protestors and journalists’. Like Amnesty, the Maldivian Media Council (MMC) too has asked the police to investigate an officer who allegedly threatened media persons covering the ‘Indian Out’ protest rallies, held by PPM-PNC supporters of former president Abdulla Yameen.
While Yameen himself has gone as far as to dub the Solih Government as ‘demonocracy’, the worst criticism thus far has come from Nasheed’s one-time ministerial aide, Dr Ahmed Shaheed. According to the veteran lawyer, who at present continues as the UN Rapporteur for Religious Freedom and Beliefs, the Solih administration has ‘joined the ranks of most repressive governments’. In particular, Shaheed, who too had fought the ‘Gayoom autocracy’ in its time, has gone as far as to recommend Maldives to be put on the ‘agenda’ of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), as under Presidents Gayoom (1978-2008) and his half-brother Yameen (2013-18).
Taking a swipe at Nasheed inside the House, the Opposition PPM-PNC combine complained that Parliament work was halted during the week to save the Speaker personal embarrassment after his faction within the ruling party had lost all three national positions in internal party polls, to the rival Solih camp. In the 87-member House, where the ruling party has a high 65 members, they went on to allege that Nasheed was ‘scared’ to face Parliament, wantonly implying that the Solih camp might have been up to something.
Knock on the head
Yet, the knock on the head for the Government and the ruling party came, not from the political class or international NGOs. Instead, it came from the common man. Abdulla, the grieving father of Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist missing since August 2014, told an interviewer that the MDP, Nasheed and Solih joining the protests, demanding investigations into his son’s disappearance, ‘was a ruse to secure the presidency’ in Elections-2018. He said, neither the government under president Solih nor Parliament with Nasheed as Speaker, had responded to his multiple enquiries.
Abdulla said that he was convinced that then-President Yameen had no role in Rilwan’s disappearance, especially after former Attorney-General Husnu al-Suood, heading the Presidential Commission appointed by the Solih Government, told him so. The commission, as may be recalled, held that Rilwan was no more, and blamed a local Al Qaeda group for the killing.
It is in this background that Nasheed will be sparing time and energy to assist the Sri Lankan neighbour as ‘aid coordinator, whose success would reflect on his domestic image, which has taken a beating in recent times, as reflected in the multiplicity of party elections that his faction has lost since last year. It would not have been dreamt of in the pre-Covid era, what with the Solih administration’s effective management, coupled with island-wise infrastructure-spending has found supporters — who however will yet to commit to the party and its candidate in the presidential polls when held.
The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator. Views expressed are personal.