On Thursday, celebrations of the Maldives’ Golden Jubilee of independence from the British kicked off in the capital with fireworks. Millions of rufiyaa were spent on decking every street, every tree, and every government building in red, green, and white lights. Public parks have been renovated. Monuments have been erected. But here, in the southernmost Addu City, where the British presence was most felt, there are no signs of celebrations.
“This is not Independent 50 for us. It’s Ruinous 50. Since the English left, we have been sidelined and neglected,” Ahmed Shamaal, 29, told me.
His words reflect a sentiment largely shared by both the young and old in Addu, one I’ve heard frequently since I arrived here on Thursday. Under the British, Addu had been a centre of commerce with the air base at Gan and the British-established regional hospital. The people of Addu feel their development took a U-turn since the British left. Successive governments have since neglected Addu, turning it into a provincial backwater.
In stark contrast to the capital, only five buildings in Addu City are decorated with lights. The opposition-dominated city council has erected a few hundred national flags on the main causeway linking the interconnected islands of Addu atoll. The flags were leftovers from the SAARC summit of 2011.
Meanwhile, a power generator recently sent to Addu City to solve its periodic power outages has been transported to Malé, to ensure uninterrupted electricity during the Independence Day celebrations.
Chairs, sound equipment, and computers were taken from the Equatorial Convention Centre, which hosted the 2011 SAARC summit, to the Usfasgandu area in Malé for the official Independence Day function.
The Maldives became a British protectorate in 1887. During the Second World War, Britain wanted to build a strategic outpost far removed from the threat of a Japanese attack, to which its main military presence in Singapore was vulnerable. After reaching an agreement with the Sultan of Maldives for a small fee, the British built an outpost on the island of Gan in Addu atoll, complete with a runway, a communications centre, oil tanks and a hospital.
The islanders of Gan were forcefully evicted to nearby Feydhoo Island for the outpost. The British provided free health services, jobs, and vital infrastructure. The British abandoned the base in 1976 after Maldives gained independence in 1965 . A secessionist movement in Addu, Fuvahmulah and Huvadhoo was partly responsible for the negotiations for independence.
In the British-built buildings, equipment and machinery were left intact. However, the people of Addu say everything that the British had left behind was quickly seized or destroyed by the central government in Malé.
“They are repeating history now,” said 62-year-old Latheefa Mohamed, pointing to the now rundown ECC. “Look at how they stole our generator. How they stole the chairs from the convention centre. Look at how they left the place to rot. Exactly what happened decades ago.”
The ECC, built in 2011 for the SAARC summit, now lies in ruins. Grass is creeping up on the entrance, and a putrid smell reeks from the mangroves nearby.
Investment in infrastructure ahead of the regional summit also saw the construction of new roads connecting the interconnected Maradhoo, Feydhoo and Hithadhoo islands. The new roads were the only substantial development the atoll has seen in years.
“I enjoy the festivities. Especially the music and the dancing. But I am not going to celebrate 50 years of independence as long as we are forced to depend on others,” Latheefa said.
Nothing to celebrate
The unemployment rate in the city of nearly 20,000 people is 40 percent, according to Abdulla Thoyyib, the deputy mayor. “The civil service is the main employer here. Once the jobs at the hospital, school, and other few offices are filled up, there is nothing else left,” he explained.
Lack of jobs has discouraged the young in Addu.
“I have been trying to get a job here for a long time now, looking for a way to earn money. I’m so hopeless now that I don’t even bother trying to find one anymore,” 20-year-old Aishath Maani told me. “We have no choice but to migrate to Malé.”
There are two resorts in Addu City. They hire only a few locals, many young people told me. Migrant workers serve in the restaurants and do menial labor, like elsewhere in the Maldives.
The deputy mayor believes the current administration has actively obstructed Addu’s development. The council’s longstanding plans to build a city hotel have been stalled, he said. The majority of the roads are still unpaved and a proper sewerage system is yet to be established .
Today, as Malé gears up for grand celebrations, the people of Addu do not feel they have a reason to celebrate.
“Independence only came to the people of Malé. We are not independent. We are forced into silence, there is no free speech,” a local businessmen man, Fathuhulla, said.
For many in Addu, today is just another day. Nothing special.
“We will go through our daily routine of doing nothing. Maybe go for a ride on the link road,” one young man said.