In an interview with the Maldives Independent’s Omkar Khandekar in early July, former Home Minister Umar Naseer spoke candidly about his resignation from the cabinet, the changing political landscape, and the high-profile murder of Dr Afrasheem Ali.
Days after his surprise resignation, Naseer announced his intention to challenge the incumbent president for the ruling party’s presidential ticket. On July 4, he met with “kingmaker” Gasim Ibrahim to seek the Jumhooree Party leader’s endorsement.
Asked by reporters after the meeting whether former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom will back him over President Abdulla Yameen in the wake of a public rift between the brothers, Naseer refused to comment directly but added: “I will just say that my opponent won’t have the ace of spades now.”
Omkar Khandekar: Congratulations on your bid for the presidency. Could you tell me about the journey that led you to it?
Umar Naseer: I have been eyeing this for a very long time, for nearly 15 years. I started my presidential bid in 2008. I knew I wasn’t electable in 2008 but I was a ‘message candidate.’ So I gave a message of firmness, fairness, good governance, clean governance.
OK: Why weren’t you electable then?
UN: Because I wasn’t represented by major political parties at the time. After 2008, I joined the main opposition party then called DRP [Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party, led by former President Gayoom] and then I started to take the front stage. I became one of the four deputy leaders of the party. When I joined, there were no presidential primaries in the party. Tickets were distributed on a plate. Silver plates, I called them.
OK: Was it literally silver plates?
UN: [laughs] No. They gave tickets to whoever they wanted to give. There was no involvement of the grassroots. The first thing I started advocating for was there should be a primary. I had a clash with the then leader, Mr Thasmeen Ali. He expelled me from the party. Maumoon rejected the expulsion and backed me. We had to separate from the DRP and form the PPM [Progressive Party of Maldives]. I became the deputy leader again and Yameen the Parliamentary group leader.
In 2013, the PPM had its first primary. I competed against Yameen. We had a very bitter fight as any other primary. Yameen won through the backing of President Gayoom’s family. He (Yameen) is a family member. I can understand. I am not the blood, you know (chuckles). I lost to President Yameen and later I was expelled from the PPM.
On President Yameen and the murder of MP Afrasheem Ali
OK: Were you expelled then because you alleged certain misdemeanours on the part of Mr Yameen?
UN: Yes. Not alleged, I said what was true. Today it is proven. People won’t have to take a second guess.
OK: When you say ‘proven,’ do you mean that Mr Yameen does indeed have links to criminal gangs, that he indulged in vote rigging and that he was involved in drugs [trade]?
UN: Let’s clear this. First on the question of vote rigging. Yes, the primary vote was rigged by him. Had he not rigged, I would have won. We have clear cut evidence for that. I don’t blame Maumoon. I blame Yameen.
OK: You think Mr Gayoom was aware?
UN: I don’t know if he was aware. But even if he was, there wasn’t anything he could do. The machinery was controlled by Yameen. The second thing on connection to drugs, I didn’t say he have links, I said, people on the street said that he had links.
OK: But now you say it’s been proven.
UN: Vote rigging is.
OK: You meant all three.
UN: Vote rigging is clear. On Afrasheem, I said, I had seen one of the suspects sitting in PPM office to meet him. I didn’t say he met him, I didn’t say he was involved.
OK: I’m really surprised. Now you’re playing safe.
UN: You take my word. You go through my recordings. In a primary when you fight, it is up to the opposing candidate to show the public who the guy is. I said I have seen a suspect sitting in the office. I didn’t say they had any links. After being the home minister, I can confirm that there is no link of Yameen to Afrasheem case.
OK: Then why was his name bounced up?
UN: Because the gang that killed Afrasheem had some friends of Yameen. That’s what it is. Unfortunately, Yameen was invited to the opening of a futsal ground. The gang members were there on the ground in the opening ceremony.
OK: For Mr Yameen to have gangsters as friends, isn’t that dubious enough?
UN: In today’s politics, Nasheed has lots of gang members on his side.
OK: That doesn’t exonerate him either.
UN: In Maldivian politics, many senior politicians believe that gang members with criminal cards can help them. This has been going on [for a long time]. This is what I am opposed to. This is the difference between me and them. I think [the criminal gangs] have no political weight. They should be imprisoned.
On why he would support President Yameen over Nasheed
OK: What is it about Mohamed Nasheed that is such a deal-breaker that you’d rather support President Yameen?
UN: Yameen has lot of experience.
OK: So does Mr. Nasheed.
UN: Not at all.
OK: He was the president of the Maldives.
UN: For three years, that’s it. Yameen has a lot of parliamentary experience. The governing decisions that he takes tells me he is a better candidate.
OK: Some would argue that the very fact that Mr Nasheed has been able to build a momentum on an international scale, to the extent that it poses a threat to the government in Maldives, proves that he is a seasoned politician himself.
UN: Not at all. The countries backing him know him very well. He basically messed up. After becoming the president, he embarked on a journey to grab power. He didn’t respect the independence of the judiciary or the parliament. He wanted to take all powers into his hands.
OK: Those three allegations are also being made against the candidate you favour: Mr Yameen.
UN: That is after giving him an opportunity that we know.
OK: But you’d still select him?
UN: When it comes to these two people, yes.
OK: You left Jumhooree Party after it sided with Mr Nasheed. Why would you side with Yameen after having served under him and resigned voluntarily?
UN: The system is such that when you are presented with two candidates only, you have to choose one. Or you have to go home.
OK: Or you have to sit in the opposition.
UN: Can’t sit in the opposition. The opposition is led by a cult again. Nasheed has formed a cult.
OK: You do have a political leverage that you can hold anyone to account for.
UN: I cannot. I am not a leader of a main party.
OK: Are you saying the reason you made a bid for the presidency is because you have the backing of Mr Gayoom? That otherwise, you wouldn’t stand a chance?
UN: I wouldn’t say I have the backing of Mr Gayoom. I would say I have the backing of the most senior politician in the country (laughs).
OK: Which you have already said on record. Once again I’ll say this: I’m very surprised you’re playing safe.
UN: (laughs) What I’m saying is I have the backing of the most senior politicians in the country. (laughs) On my own, I cannot beat… no one can win in this country. Nasheed carries more votes than any other candidate. He carries about 70,000, Gayoom about 55,000, Gasim 30,000. These are the heavyweights. But they need a coalition. My advantage is that I can form a coalition. I am very close to Gayoom, to Gasim, to Adhaalath, to religious groups. I am a mature politician, I have the experience. I am a man of principles. I mean what I say, I say what I mean. People who know I am. I am standing at the right position. All the stars are aligned. (laughs)
On resigning from the Yameen government:
OK: Why did you resign from Mr Yameen’s government?
UN: We had disagreements on many occasions. It came to a point that it was better for the government that I leave. Being such a close competitor, being a home minister – and my portfolio was huge… There were times that we had some differences of opinion.
OK: You make it sound like you were looking out for his interests.
UN: (laughs) When I tried to serve him, I did my best. I am an honest man. I am not a backstabber.
OK: What is your working relationship and the personal equation been like with Mr Yameen?
UN: He is a very decisive politician. It is very easy to work with him in the cabinet. Whenever we take an issue with him, he will give us his decision. But he is a man of conviction. He will not consult. He will not talk to other cabinet colleagues and discuss and bring solutions together. He will make decisions on his own, on the path that he chooses. I would say he is a leader of his own convictions.
OK: Are you in a roundabout way saying that he is a dictator?
UN: You can’t say dictator. The term has a different meaning.
OK: ‘He is a man of convictions’, ‘he won’t consult cabinet…’
UN: No, he won’t.
OK: These are the things that are the hallmarks…
UN: There are leaders such as that. Even Margaret Thatcher was one.
OK: And she’s been one of the most reviled politicians in the UK.
UN: But these are good politicians. There are leaders who make decisions on their conviction, there are those who do that on consultancy. Yameen is a man of convictions. Sometimes he’s wrong, sometimes he’s right. He’s a smart person. When he wanted to take away my powers as home minister, he did it smartly. He did it through the legal system.
OK: Once again, are you in a roundabout way saying that he will use legal system to strip his competitors who he sees as a threat?
UN: When I look at Nazim’s and Nasheed’s case, there are reasons to believe that. There are no other examples to prove that. If he arrests me, then I can say, yes, this is what he is doing. (laughs)
On the death penalty
OK: The death penalty has been a controversial topic in the last few weeks. Many would say you were the architect behind it. What do you think of the fallout?
UN: I believe the Maldives should execute murderers based on Islamic sharia. But on this particular case of Humam, I don’t think there will be execution. Islamic sharia has a very clear cut principle on this: the next of kin of the deceased will have to consent to the death penalty. Now we have found out that they are not consenting.
OK: The president said recently that the death penalty is right, that they will go ahead with that.
OK: He didn’t mention Humam’s case but that’s the only one in the headlines these days. He’s clearly hinting at Humam.
UN: No, he’s saying this is the policy. I support him…
OK: On Humam’s case, many would say that it wasn’t properly investigated. The ‘political nature’ [of the killing] wasn’t proved. Who was it financing Humam?
UN: Investigation could go as far as the person who paid money. We couldn’t prove that he actually paid the money. That person belongs to MDP, unfortunately.
OK: You know as much but why don’t you know the name?
UN: We know. He was arrested and imprisoned for three months. For lack of evidence, he was released.
OK: If you can’t prove it, why hold him guilty?
UN: I hold him guilty because on information we have, we have enough evidence to satisfy the investigators.
OK: But not the judiciary.
UN: No. That’s why he was released.
OK: What are MDP activist’s reasons?
UN: That’s what I could not establish. He must have been motivated by something else. Nasheed wouldn’t fund killing an MP. Nasheed is a big opponent but I’m saying he is clear of this. So is Yameen… It is still a puzzle for me why [Abdulla] Javid would fund to kill Afrasheem.
On the upcoming protests by the Maldives United Opposition
OK: Do you think the MUO will create a momentum after their first rally?
UN: Because of Nasheed being the leader of MUO… In this country or any other, you cannot win the majority of public alone. You have to form coalitions.
OK: You said earlier that Mr Nasheed has 70,000 votes. It’s a big number to come out on the streets of Malé.
UN: It’s a big number but people are fed up of him. They won’t come out.
OK: But people made their intentions clear on the May Day rally.
UN: During his presidency, he abducted a sitting judge, he padlocked the Supreme Court, abducted a judge. Everyone knows that he was going after the judiciary and the opposition leaders. He arrested Gasim, he arrested Yameen without a court order… At least [Yameen] did it through the courts. On paper, it is perfect.
OK: But not in public mind.
UN: Public has made a decision that this guy is something else. But at least Yameen has done that through the legal system. (laughs)
OK: But he hasn’t been able to convince people of his clean image.
UN: No, he couldn’t… So the public is not with Mr Yameen, nor with Nasheed.
OK: Are you saying that’s where you come in?
UN: Of course. People know what Nasheed is, what Yameen is. They’ve been tested. Now it’s time for a third candidate.
OK: Some would say that’s why you join with MUO, topple the government and sort out between yourselves later.
UN: No, we have no intention to overthrow Yameen’s government.
OK: If that happens, what will you do?
UN: I will wait for 2018 election.
OK: And you will do no protests?
OK: You won’t support Mr Yameen at all.
OK: You will be peacefully waiting on the sidelines?
UN: I will be peacefully waiting. In the future, I won’t be organising any protests against any government. And I am a good person to be doing that. I am one of the best in the country. (laughs)
On relations with Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
OK: Could you tell me about your relationship with Mr Gayoom? How has it has stood the test of time in spite of you being expelled?
UN: I have a high respect for him. When he came to power in 1979, I was a little boy. I was listening to him sitting on my father’s lap, seeing the oath he was taking. In 30 years of his rule, he’s taken the country to a different level. [Life expectancy] from 38 to 65. He had continuously the majority.
OK: So the allegations of him being a dictator are false?
UN: Completely. He’s like Lee Kuan Yew [the first Prime Minister of Singapore, who also ruled for three decades]. Lee Kuan Yew scores A+, Gayoom scores A.
OK: Where does he take a beating?
UN: On the issues of not allowing opposition parties. But when it came to time, he was the one who introduced it. He could’ve easily held it up. He didn’t abuse the power, not as much as Nasheed and Yameen. He’s a very decent person. That’s why I worked with him. We have some common understanding. We have a chemistry… Although PPM expelled me, I had regular contacts with him. I still do. It’s not just that I have a political ambition. He’s the father of the nation. In last 10 years, Nasheed, Waheed and Yameen was the most disastrous period.
OK: Let’s go back to the relationship you share with Mr Gayoom. What made him choose you over ‘his own blood’?
UN: He hasn’t yet.
OK: You said earlier that he is ‘the father of the nation’ and that you have the support of ‘the most senior politician in the Maldives’.
On former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb and Colonel Mohamed Nazim
OK: People say that you resigned moments after Adeeb’s DNA was found on the pistol. Could you confirm if that was the reason for your resignation?
UN: It wasn’t the reason but it was one of the disagreements we had with the president.
OK: Could you elaborate?
UN: I can’t. It’s an ongoing legal case. I’m proud that the police found that because it was alleged that the police had planted [the pistol]. I wanted the police to be clear or be convicted of that… Now Nazim is basically in the clear… My hands were tied in Adeeb’s time. I couldn’t operate as a Home Minister. It was a very difficult time for me. After Adeeb’s departure, I have done a very good job.
On the allegations of misrule against Yameen
OK: Do you think Mr Yameen has compromised the judiciary?
UN: There are reasons to believe that.
OK: Do you think Mr Yameen has compromised the police and army?
UN: No. Adeeb has done that.
OK: Mr Adeeb is in jail. Are you saying [the police and the army] are independent of President Yameen’s influence?
UN: That can’t be. He’s the commander-in-chief.
OK: I’m talking about the excesses of force, the over-exerting of authority.
UN: He cannot over exert authority. The present commissioner and executive very well. They won’t allow that.