By: Victoria Yates
Mohamed Nasheed was born on the 17th of May 1967 in Malé, Maldives. He attended the Majeediyya School until 1981 when he spent a year at the Overseas School of Colombo. In 1982 he again moved, this time to England to the Dauntsey’s School where he studied for his A-Levels. Upon graduation, Nasheed attended John Moore’s University in Liverpool, gaining a Bachelors Degree in Maritime Studies in 1989.
The year after his graduation, Nasheed returned to the Maldives and began publishing a magazine, writing articles in which he argued that the autocratic government was involved in rigging the 1989 election. After the publication of one such piece, Nasheed was imprisoned and, according to his account, tortured. He has stated that during his detention he was frequently kept in solitary confinement, being forced to eat food containing glass and, at one time, being chained to a chair outside for 12 days. In 1991, Amnesty International named him their ‘prisoner of conscience.’
In April 1992 he was sentenced to three years imprisonment on charges of withholding information about a bomb plot. Although Nasheed was released in June the following year, he was subsequently arrested again both in 1994 and 1995, being sentenced to two years imprisonment in 1996 after he wrote another article regarding the elections of the past few years.
Under the leadership of Gayoom (who ruled the country for three decades) Nasheed was arrested around 20 times. While in prison he spent significant portions of time studying and writing books on the country’s history.
Around the millennium, Nasheed was elected to Parliament representing Malé, the nation’s capital. It was not however a long-lived freedom. He was forced to resign following a politically motivated charge of theft that saw him sentenced to two-and-a-half year’s banishment. The political nature of the charge was uncovered when a letter sent by the then Minister of Construction and Public Works to the former Minister of Defence was leaked in October 2005.
In November 2003 Nasheed choose to join Mohamed Latheef in exile in Sri Lanka and the UK where they formed the Maldivian Democratic Party. After 18 months away, Nasheed returned to his country to promote the MDP. He was, however, once again arrested in 2005 when he was sitting with supporters of his party in Republican Square. It did not go unnoticed. The action provoked civil unrest throughout the capital that spread to several other neighboring Atolls. The government claimed the arrest had been for “his own protection” but later charged Nasheed with terrorism.
When 2008 came around, Nasheed ran for President in the first multiparty elections in the country’s history. The MDP narrowly won by around 54% of the vote to Gayoom’s 46%. He was sworn in on the 11th of November 2008.
Immediately Nasheed set about tackling one of the most divisive issues on the international agenda, the impact of climate change. Recognizing the significant risk to his nation, Nasheed sought to make the Islands carbon-neutral by converting to wind and solar energy sources. To raise attention to the issues of rising sea levels, Nasheed held the first underwater cabinet meeting on the 17th of October 2009, convening his cabinet in scuba diving equipment. He subsequently founded the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a “global partnership of leaders of countries most vulnerable to climate change actively seeking a firm and urgent resolution to the growing climate crisis.” The group included representatives from nations in Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific.
2010 brought a crisis to the nation’s governance when, in June, its cabinet ministers resigned en masse to protest the behavior of opposition MPs who they held to be making it impossible to discharge their duties and deliver on election promises. All were re-appointed the following month and their names were then submitted to parliament for affirmation. The majority opposition parliament declared that only five of the 12 would be accepted. The resulting tension included parliament preventing the finance minister from presenting the 2011 budget. The country’s supreme court declared in December that those who were rejected by parliament had to immediately rescind their positions in government and Nasheed quickly appointed several new ministers, reappointing the rejected Attorney General.
The coalition began to suffer as parties slowly severed ties with the ruling MDP. Opposition complained at the lack of transparency and widely protested the decision to maintain Gayoom’s exemption for spas and resorts from Islamic laws prohibiting alcohol and pork. Protests began to be a regular occurrence in the capital and an opposition party was soon formed that included all those groups that had endorsed Nasheed in the 2008 election.
Frustrated by the continued efforts of the judiciary to stall his democratic reform, Nasheed ordered that the Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed be arrested. All opposition groups swarmed to demand Abdulla’s release. Amnesty International similarly called for an independent investigation and the immediate release of the judge, a move that Nasheed later commented on in an article with the Guardian.
A fervent believer in human rights; Nasheed accepted that the organisation’s message was “that I must try and find a procedure within the system to deal with this another way. And I was asking everyone, can you spot that procedure? But I just couldn't let him sit on the bench. There is a huge lack of confidence in the judiciary, and I had to do something and the constitution calls upon me to do that. It's not a nice thing to do. And it's not a thing that I would want to do. And it's not a thing that I liked doing. But it had to be done."
After 22 days of consecutive protests, and the increasing involvement of the military in the opposition, Nasheed stepped down on the 7th of February 2012. Nasheed claims he resigned at gunpoint, and that Gayoom loyalists had conspired to strangle the new democracy. When the Vice-President Mohammed Waheed Hassan was sworn in, a warrant was issued for Nasheed’s arrest.
International investigations into the resignation came to differing conclusions over Nasheed’s version of events. The US State Department abided by the findings of the Maldives’ National Commission of Inquiry, as did the Commonwealth of Nations, concluding that there was no evidence to suggest that Nasheed was forced in a military aggression as he claimed.
The day after he stepped down the MDP arranged a march through the streets to Republic Square, before it could occur however the government dispersed those gathered with pepper spray and batons.
The Commonwealth, at Nasheed’s request, called on the nation to hold early elections. Nasheed was, in turn, put on trial for abuse of power relating to the arrest of Abdulla but the trial was cancelled without any official explanation. In April he was again arrested for violating an order not to leave the Malé Atoll. He was detained overnight but released the following day.
Nasheed was the subject of a widely praised documentary entitled “The Island President” that followed him through the years of 2009-2010, particularly relating to his fight against climate change nationally and on the world stage.
Dubbed the “Mandela of the Maldives” by supporters, Nasheed draws strong reactions from those familiar with his story. His efforts at bringing democracy to the nation and in publicizing the effects of global warming have been internationally lauded. And, despite the contrary reports of his resignation and government, he is held to be a hugely important political leader both for his past actions and for the future of the Maldives that many believe he will continue to help shape.