Interview: Ahmed Naseem

‘We have the best team in an emerging democracy’

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Ahmed Naseem. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Interview with Ahmed Naseem, former Foreign Minister and currently Minister in the President’s Office.

Former Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem was at the forefront of the efforts in garnering international support in the past five years, initially to ensure that his party leader Mohamed Nasheed was released for medical treatment and later to ensure that the Maldivian elections were free and fair and that all parties had a level playing field. Soon after the election, he was named Special Adviser to President-elect Mohamed Ibrahim Solih, and on November 19, he was sworn in as Minister in the President’s office. In between helping the President choose his officers and diplomats, Naseem spoke to Frontline on the critical issues facing the new government. Excerpts from the interview:

Just three hours after the new government was formed, there was criticism on the allocation of portfolios. It appears that the coalition partners have been making too many demands. The coalition experiment did not work the previous time. Why do you think it will work this time?

These things take time, and certain issues will need to be addressed. A lot of time will have to be spent on these issues. The good thing is that President Solih has got the experience, having been in the parliament and having been continuously in the opposition from [former President Maumoon Abdul] Gayoom’s time. He has mastered the art of negotiation. So I think that is a great asset for this government. There is nobody in the Maldives who actually dislikes him because, over the years, he has been extremely patient and has got things done, though life wasn’t easy for him.

What we have to do is to act quickly on issues that we have agreed upon and the pledges we have made and also on the manifesto that we came out with. To do this, we need a strong team to work in the government, we need a strong government and the blessings of the parliament. So the coming parliamentary elections [in March] are crucial for the coalition. This coalition will be tested very much in the parliamentary elections. We are hoping that everything will go smoothly, but then nothing goes as predicted in politics.

There are murmurs about some Ministers—Tourism Minister Ali Waheed, Transport Minister Aishath Nahula, and Home Minister Sheikh Imran. In the case of the first two, there is a clear conflict of interest because their party leader, Gasim Ibrahim, owns five resorts, an airline, and operates a few airports. In the case of Sheikh Imran, his sentence (on a terrorism charge) has only been suspended by the courts. How can such a person be Home Minister?

There will always be these issues in a coalition. One partner might feel that his party has not been given its due share. We have to strategically work out all these things and accept the fact that there will be discontent in some areas. The good thing is that there is a lot of goodwill among all party leaders. We have to depend quite a lot on that. I think things will smoothen themselves out in a few days. At the end of 100 days, things will get much better because we have got programmes that will really touch the people. I think all in all we are looking at a good democratic future for the Maldives.

But then almost all the major parties are together. In all likelihood, Yameen will not have a party to lead by the time of the parliamentary elections. It appears that you are conceding space for some kind of a new opposition to emerge.

Yes, there needs to be an opposition in a democracy.

But if all of you are together, only so many people will vote for the ruling party because there will always be discontent. People would want an opposition in the Maldives.

We are aware of the lack of opposition. And I sincerely and genuinely hope that an opposition will emerge. There are a couple of new parties that have emerged, and there are others who have not joined the coalition. So, we hope that they will get together and that there will be an opposition. Democracy doesn’t work without an opposition. We will certainly give space for that because that will be a sensible way to go forward. There has to be criticism of the government and there have to be questions raised in the parliament. Otherwise it becomes too convenient.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) may not be for witch-hunting as is evident from the situation post 2008. But will others who went to jail have the same outlook towards, say, former President Abdulla Yameen?

I think this is a crucial point. We are not interested in a witch-hunt. But what we are interested in is some kind of a closure to a lot of issues. People will have to answer for the things they have done.

I don’t know what the end will be—whether it will be something in the line of [the reconciliation in] South Africa or whatever—but there are people who really need to be investigated.

Investigative committees will be formed, and they will go ahead with their work. In the end how these things are going to be solved, I am not in a position to tell you. What really happens in this investigation is to get to know what really happened. It is only then we can decide how to deal with the different issues.

The coalition and President Solih himself have made a lot of promises. There is a 100-day programme, and there are specific promises for each island.

We have programmes for every island.

How do you propose to implement them? You don’t have money. Your own Finance Minister has been saying it.

The Maldives is not a poor country. And we have very good friends like India. India will certainly be there to help us. Western democracies will help us. I don’t think there is a shortage of people who will help us. And we don’t intend to disregard everything that has been going on in this country. We will have to have continuity on this. But before that we need clarity on what has happened so far. So we need to do an audit on what has been going on.

Actually, what we owe to one country or another or banks we don’t know. The biggest issue lies with the way in which Yameen has conducted his business with China. That needs clarity. So when we go into these things, there will be support to carry this forward as well. Within China, the Chinese President is very clear that he will not tolerate corruption. They will have to help us in finding out where the corruption lies and then give us clarity.

We don’t have a clear idea of our debt. So we will have to go into the books and find out. This is because the government of President Yameen was dictatorial and he was doing things on his own. There was no consultation. Even the parliament was not consulted. The parliament was used only to rubber-stamp what he said. This way you can’t have transparency in anything. This is where the problem lies and it got accumulated for years. It does not take much to destroy what you have set up. The structures of the government and the institutions of the government have all been destroyed. So it is a tall order.

The shape of the economy is one part. The other important part that this government has to concentrate on is communication among the leaders of the coalition. Will forward movement and development get stuck because of pulls and pressures and because the coalition experiment in the Maldives has not worked so far?

The leaders of the four parties will officially meet every month. At the same time there will be day-to-day issues that will be discussed by the leaders if there is a difference [of opinion]. I believe they [the leaders] have a clear understanding on how to go forward. Yes, the leaders could not communicate much until the elections were over because [former] President Gayoom was in jail and [former] President Nasheed was in exile.

We know that there are no laws that protect coalitions. We ourselves have to find solutions to the problems that emerge.

Will it be fair to say that you are in the situation that you were in in 2008 [when almost all the political parties came together to defeat President Gayoom]?

The difference is this. After having tasted freedom for three years plus [from 2008 to early 2012 when Nasheed was President] the people of the Maldives are not going to accept anything less. I think in an emerging democracy, we have the best team. Once you taste freedom, it is difficult to take it away. This is where Yameen failed. Whatever concrete was poured into the Maldives, it did not matter. It is the people’s rights and the people’s freedom and the judiciary that made the people vote out Yameen.

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