In the Maldives, the shelf life of Vice Presidents is very limited. Muhammad Jameel Ahmed was President Abdulla Yameen’s running mate and later Vice President. He was impeached in absentia on charges of terrorism. Hardnews spoke with him as he emerged from a gym in London, where he has been living in exile since 2015. Jameel was scathing in his criticism of President Yameen and how he had subverted democratic institutions to facilitate mass corruption. The former Vice President also said that Yameen was closer to China as they collaborated in his moneymaking enterprise and did not exert any moral pressure on him. These activities were difficult with a democratic India.
Excerpts from the interview:
What were the circumstances of your impeachment?
My impeachment was the result of the struggle between the government and the Opposition. What is evident is that the government had brought in criminal elements in the government to subdue people who were opposed to him.
President Yameen had brought me in as a running mate because I had greater appeal among the masses. He sat through the campaign in Male, while I made 400 trips to 209 islands of our country. After winning the elections and becoming the President, he brought in all kinds of criminal elements who had been responsible for the violation of human rights and engaging in mass corruption. The Maldives is a young democracy and could not really endure such organised criminality. People, who were not politicians and who had unverified allegations of murder and other serious crimes against them, were brought into the Cabinet. The ministers of tourism and fisheries were involved.
The opportunist Opposition collaborated with the government to bring in an impeachment motion against me. The charge was so frivolous. My removal happened very quickly as no process of law was followed. My representative was not allowed to put up a legal defence. The Parliament voted to bypass the constitutional process. Unfortunately, the Opposition joined the government — a decision that has hurt our democracy.
The Maldives is a small country where modern democracy was ushered in only by 2008. It was trying to have a modern Presidential system of governance. But ever since President Yameen came to power, he has limited fundamental rights and has undone basic tenets of a progressive democracy. Maldives does not have a system like the US Presidential system where there are checks and balances due to the separation of the Congress, judiciary and other institutions. In the Maldives, the President manipulated laws to centrally control everything. Now one man is controlling the Parliament and judiciary. In these difficult circumstances, it is wrong to blame a junior minister for making money. If there was a free and fair probe, then it will show that all the money trails lead to the President. Al Jazeera documentary on the Maldives, Stealing a Paradise, shows pay-offs being made in black bags. The President’s wife is known to accept bribes. If you look at the airport, fisheries and many development projects, then you will realise the extent to which funds have been syphoned off.
President Yameen’s financial fortunes have improved remarkably since he came to power. He has had no sources of funds or resources. How has he bought a 4,000-square-foot plot in a land-scarce Male where the price of land is Rs 10-15,000 per square feet? Once this government goes out, all these details will emerge.
What is the reason for President Yameen favouring closeness with China?
There are many reasons for this.
The Maldives is a democracy. It got a modern Constitution in 2008, which has a framework that has been subverted since President Yameen came to power. Parliamentary oversight on expenditure was replaced by the new powers that President armed himself with and that allowed him to borrow and spend as he liked.
Democracies like India have a fair and open bidding process. Even Maldives followed these procedures earlier. Here again, the law was amended and the President usurped the power to give land or contract to a company. This is the reason why many rogue companies were sold islands and land in the Maldives. This is the fundamental reason why the Chinese companies came to our country.
The power to grant land and contracts, that the President enjoys, ensures that there is no clarity on how much the government has earned by leasing land. Some islands have gone for as less as $50,000. No democratic country would have allowed this kind of sell out.
Why has Yameen sought to distance the Maldives from India?
Yameen was never a friend of India. After he came to power, his hatred for India got aggravated as he realised that India is a democracy and there is an accountability built within the system. This means that India cannot give serious money to Yameen without being subjected to parliamentary oversight. That’s why he likes to do business with Chinese companies. A huge contract has been awarded to a Chinese electronics company, which should not have gone to them. Deals worth millions of dollars are finalised overnight. This is not possible with India. Being close to India would have meant listening to their advice and Yameen is not in a position to absorb that.
The Maldives also withdrew from the Commonwealth due to this reason. President Yameen did not want to be told how he should conduct his business.
Has Islamic radicalism seen a rise in the Maldives after Yameen came to power?
The rise of the ultra Islamist began much earlier. Former President Abdul Gayoom was complacent with the conservatives and allowed them to grow. Their enlargement is a failure of the government’s policy over the years. It got aggravated when President Yameen came to power. As he did not have the support of the masses, he gave space to ultra-religious elements, drug dealers etc. These were used to browbeat the genuine Opposition. Then we have the problem of drug addiction. Half the society is unwell.
What is really happening the Maldives now?
The Maldives is a failed state where no institution is working. Yameen controls the judiciary and corruption prevails. Dictators like Yameen take inspiration from US President Donald Trump and are backed by undemocratic China. Such support encourages him to limit the freedom of the press and other rights.
We have a monumental task ahead to rebuild our democracy and restore the primacy of the Parliament.