Many Maldivians felt mixed emotions when former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was arrested and taken to Dhoonidhoo Detention Centre, the infamous prison where political prisoners were tortured during his 30-year rule.
There were scenes of jubilation among some.
Aminath Athifa* and her brothers jumped up in celebration, high-fiving each other, as the ageing dictator was taken away in a police launch. “Now he can get a taste of his own medicine,” said her brother.
But Athifa’s father, who was brutally tortured under Gayoom and hasn’t divulged the gory details, is more muted. “If my children knew what happened to me, the hatred will go on for generations,” he says. In some families it is not the victims of Gayoom’s abuse who harbour the biggest grudges but their children, whose lives were scarred by their father’s absence.
He believes that his sacrifices were made in order to bring democracy to the Maldives. “What we want is not achieved by Gayoom being in jail.”
Some in the opposition have been torn since Gayoom joined forces with the Maldivian Democratic Party. On the one hand, they desperately want to see an end to President Abdulla Yameen’s increasingly violent rule. On the other hand, they don’t want to condone the crimes of the past.
Former president Mohamed Nasheed was one of Gayoom’s longest serving victims, spending most of his twenties in a jail cell. Today he is one of Gayoom’s allies.
Before Gayoom’s arrest and incarceration, the two were reportedly in touch on a daily basis and coordinating the opposition campaign against Yameen, who is Gayoom’s half brother.
“It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever to see Maumoon in jail,” Nasheed recently said in Colombo. He has also said it is not the players who are important, but the goal of bringing lasting democracy to the Maldives.
Nasheed’s family appear to agree.
One of the most striking photos from the anti-Yameen protests is that of Nasheed’s mother, Abidha Ahmed, holding a sign calling for the release of jailed parliamentarian Faris Maumoon, Gayoom’s son.
“Nasheed has been suffering various forms of injustice since he was 23,” she told Mihaaru. “Faris, too, is a young man. I cannot accept such injustice.”
Among Nasheed loyalists Yameen’s arrival on the political scene has seen “Golhaaboa” – a derogatory nickname for Gayoom – give way to “His Excellency Raees Maumoon” (President Maumoon).
But not everyone in the opposition movement is happy with Nasheed’s conciliatory line. The thinking is that by being so magnanimous Nasheed is effectively pardoning Gayoom for making everyone suffer. “This forgiveness is not Nasheed’s to give; where is justice? Where is the acknowledgment of the damage he did to so many families?” says Aishath Naseema*, whose uncle and father bear the scars of his misrule.
For others, Gayoom’s 80-plus years plays a deciding factor in how people feel about him. In Maldivian culture, elders are held in high regard. “He is too old to be in jail, even if he does deserve it,” said opposition sympathiser Mariyam Ismail*, who dislikes Gayoom intensely.
Artist Naushad Waheed, one of Gayoom’s more high-profile victims, has also called for the release of the former strongman on account of his age.
— The F-word —
But years of mistrust linger and some MDP members, like Masood Hameed*, believe Gayoom will double-cross Nasheed if the opportunity arises. “He will find another way to jail him, Nasheed is still the most popular politician in town, and that’s a threat.”
Opposition sources told the Maldives Independent earlier this year that discord among opposition leaders was threatening to derail efforts to find a unity candidate to defeat Yameen in this year’s elections. It is unclear what will happen to this quest now that all opposition leaders are behind bars or in exile.
Many believe Gayoom’s ultimate aim is to have his son Faris as president. “If he can’t have Faris run this year, it will be for the following presidential elections. Gayoom doesn’t have much longer to wait,” opines Masood’s friend.
But the ‘Faris factor’ poses an interesting dilemma. Yameen has jailed Faris, is busy preparing to swing the presidential elections in his favour and possibly aims to rule for the rest of his life. Faris could only become president through free and fair elections, an unlikely scenario given the current administration’s approach to staying in power.
But Gayoom cannot afford to alienate Nasheed’s supporters because Faris, who lacks a loyalist base, would likely need MDP votes to win and remain in power.
The question would have sounded incredible a decade ago, but has the dictator finally become a democrat?
* Names have been changed