by Azra Naseem
Until Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik took oath of office as President of the Maldives on 7 February, most people did not know much about him, and even more could not care less.
The generally shared impression of Waheed was that he is an educated man who drily stuck to policy, the ex-UNICEF man with a PhD from Stanford. As Vice President he was delegated drugs and environment as focus topics, both issues of great national concern. He seemed to keep well out of the political intrigue and chaos that surrounded him; and, unlike most Members of Parliament and the increasing band of petty politicians, largely managed to stay out of newspaper gossip, and the extremely productive Maldivian grapevine.
He has friends in high places, even if of dubious credentials, like the vacillating British tycoon Sir Richard Branson who first criticised Waheed then admired him then suggested a middle-ground; and the mysterious ‘Malaysian consultant’, Dr Ananda Kumarasiri. Kumarasiri is a best-selling Buddhist author who, when he arrived in Male’ shortly after 7 February, was described as ‘a passing friend.’ But he was allowed to interrupt Waheed during an official press conference, and to speak for him in Sri Lanka.
Abroad, the general impression Waheed seems to have left is that of an affable, likeable man. Even when disagreeing with him, Waheed’s foreign acquaintances make a point of saying they like him.
Branson said, for instance:
It was a real pleasure meeting you and your delightful wife when I was last in the Maldives…
From knowing you, I would assume that you were given no choice and that it was through threats that you have ended up in this position.
And Mike Mason, Nasheed’s Energy Advisor, said this:
I don’t think Dr Waheed is a bad man – actually I like him a lot personally.
Perhaps these men see a side of Waheed that the general Maldivian public do not. Certainly, his interactions with the foreign press are rather jovial and quite the opposite of the dull occasions they are back home.
Truth is, the general Maldivian public did not quite know who Dr Waheed was, and nobody really cared. But, now that he has put himself in the Presidential limelight, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is substantial discord between the image people had constructed of Waheed and the details of his personality emerging since he assumed office on 7 February.
At an early press conference as President, for example, he was asked about allegations of a coup. Waheed replied,’Do I look like a man who would stage a coup d’état?’
Waheed’s belligerence towards those against his presidency came as a shock to most people. A popular recrimination of Waheed among Maldivians is that he is a quitter. In 1989 he ran for Parliament but quit and left the country in 1991 when the going got tough under Gayoom’s repression. He only returned in 2005. People call him ‘Fili Waheed’, ‘Waheed who fled.’
In the last 141 days Waheed has shown that this label no longer applies, if it ever did. He makes his determination to stay President until November 2013 crystal clear. He spelled it out for the BBC earlier this month. Even if CoNI [Commission of National Inquiry] finds that there was a coup on 7 February, unless his direct involvement was proven, he would not leave the post. Even if it means battling it out in court.
If they [the commission] find out that I have had a role in bringing about a coup, then I will definitely resign.
But if I have no role – if somebody else has done it – it doesn’t mean I have to resign, according to the law of the Maldives.
People were properly introduced to this new aspect of Waheed’s personality on 24 February when he gave a rousing speech in ‘Defence of Islam’ to a thousand-strong crowd of supporters. Gone was the refined gentleman of the world, the Westernised academic. Here was an Islamic warrior, calling everyone to join his Jihad and proclaiming Allah had made him President. Again, it wasn’t just words, but his actions; the whole package jarred sharply with the public perception of Waheed.
The previously placid Dr Waheed pumped his fists in the air and addressed his supporters as Mujaheddin. Where did all the rage, the Islamist vocabulary, the sheer bull-headedness, the pelvis-pumping, and the swagger come from?
Waheed’s attempts to deliver his presidential address on 19 March also show his determination to keep his job, and suggest that he quite relishes defeating MDP’s efforts to prove the illegitimacy of his government. Three times he was interrupted mid-sentence during his ‘inaugural address’. Where a less determined man would have crumpled, Waheed battled on and, in a credible impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenneger’s Terminator, told MDP MPs: ‘I’ll be back.’ He was. He delivered the speech.
Since becoming President, he has also shown himself to be remarkably thick-skinned to public humiliation. Led by Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), supporters of Nasheed and reformists have continued to oppose his rule on the streets of Male on a regular basis. When Waheed travels across the country, he has to send ahead armed police and military to line the streets and protect him from protesters.
Waheed has refused to let it get to him. Instead, he seems to have decided on a strategy of ignoring the protesters, claiming–and then sincerely believing–he has 90 percent support among the Maldivian population. He pretends not to hear the calls for early elections, and the public anger against him. When he cannot avoid angry democrats, he waves, smiles, and makes sure at least one smiling child is in the vicinity for a photograph that could be captioned as ‘my supporters love me.’
With school children in H.Alif atoll. pic.twitter.com/BxfxfynU— Mohamed Waheed (@DrWaheedH) June 1, 2012
Visited Ihavandhoo Island today in addition to Huvarafushi and Utheemu. pic.twitter.com/REWziUKc— Mohamed Waheed (@DrWaheedH) June 1, 2012
In Utheemu recently during my visit to H Alif Atoll. pic.twitter.com/7gbmGrtC— Mohamed Waheed (@DrWaheedH) June 6, 2012
With time, it has also become clear that although Waheed has set up CoNI to look into the events of 7 February 2012 and Nasheed’s resignation, he remains absolutely convinced that Nasheed was responsible for his own demise. Details of an email exchange between Dr Waheed and Nasheed’s Energy Advisor Mike Mason published by Minivan News this month revealed that in Waheed’s opinion, Nasheed was under the influence of an illegal substance when he decided to resign.
“It would be nice if you listened to something other than Nasheed’s propaganda. He is free to go anywhere he wants and say what ever he wants,” Waheed wrote.
“Have you ever thought that Nasheed could have made a stupid mistake under the influence of what ever he was on and blown everything away? I thought you had more intelligence than to think that I am someone’s puppet and Maldives is another dictatorship,” the President said.
Is Waheed a puppet?
Since the coup, people have come to form a new impression of Waheed: that he is a puppet of political masters above him. In late February, an audio recording was leaked to the local media in which Waheed’s own political advisor was heard describing him as ‘the most incompetent politician in the Maldives.’ From Dr Hassan Saeed’s comments, emerged a Waheed who felt bored and irrelevant within Nasheed’s administration, spending his time playing games on social media networks.
Although it contradicts Waheed’s emerging Hard Man persona, it matches people’s perception of him as a coward and a quitter.
Many incidents have occurred in these 141 days of his presidency to suggest the accusations are not baseless rumours. Waheed’s speech was interrupted live by MP and tourism tycoon Gasim Ibrahim on 24 February. A President who is in command will only be interrupted in public if there is a national emergency (remember this moment?)
or, if someone else is in command.
And then there are the ‘little things.’ Like Waheed paying a courtesy call on Gayoom at Gayoom’s residence after becoming president. Protocol dictates the visit be the other way round. When President Mahmood Abbas of Palestine paid a visit, on invitation from President Nasheed, it was impossible to say who the official host was, Gayoom or Waheed.
Waheed also seems incapable of stopping involvement of the supernatural in law enforcement practices–a hallmark of Gayoom’s thirty-year rule–that have returned to haunt Maldivian politics in the last three months. The general impression of Waheed as the well-travelled ex-UN-official cannot be easily reconciled with a Commander in Chief who lets his armed forces pursue, prosecute, and punish people for ‘practising sorcery.’
Another factor that further indicates Waheed is far from being in control of the government is his relations with the Islamists. Perhaps because he worked in Afghanistan, and saw first hand the dangers of extremist religion in the twenty-first century, countering Islamism in the Maldives seemed to be of some concern to Waheed. In October 2010, for example, he told Indians that ‘rising extremism‘ posed a challenge to the Maldives.
Yet, he gave that 24 February speech about the Mujaheddin, and allowed himself to be criticised for attending a ceremonial service at St Paul’s in London marking the British Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
In May, convicted terrorist Mohamed Ameen who detonated a bomb in Male’s main tourist thoroughfare was released from prison, while this month Islamists attempted to murder the country’s only openly gay rights activist and campaigner for a secular Maldives, Hilath Rasheed. On 7 February itself, extremists vandalised the National Museum and destroyed age-old Buddhist relics.
Waheed has remained silent on such critical incidents while key members of his cabinet have told the international community that threats from Islamism in the Maldives are exaggerated.
Also, thanks to a purple-prose column published on Haveeru [in Dhivehi] recently commemorating the 25th aniversary of Dr Waheed’s PhD degree, the public has come to know that his dissertation was on the subject of political influence over national education curricula. Yet, he has not made a stand against the Islamist Adhaalath Party’s continuing efforts to meddle with the national curriculum. And he most certainly did not stand up against Adaalath, and key political figures, for their criticism of Nasheed as anti-Islamic when Washington Post reported that:
While he [Nasheed] was in power, he says, he changed the school curriculum to make it “more balanced and not so Islamic” and proposed a new penal code less dependent on Islamic sharia law.
It is surprising that a man so proud of his academic credentials that he thinks its 25th anniversary is an occasion deserving of national attention, fails to stand up for the core arguments of his own work. Such weakness of principles does suggest a corresponding weakness in character, making it very plausible that Waheed is, indeed, a puppet being controlled by an unspecified master or masters.
Despite his many weaknesses in the face of the varying demands and beliefs of the so-called Unity Government, should Waheed really be dismissed as a mere puppet?
It is just as, if not more, plausible that his ‘inability’ to take action is precisely the terms of the deal he agreed to with the so-called Opposition Coalition in the early hours of the morning of 31 January 2012.
The rewards for Waheed the President, even if a very short-term president, are rich. Apart from the usual perks of travelling the country and the world in full national honour, influence and global profile, there are also the many benefits for his nearest and dearest.
Almost all members of his family in Male’ and of working age are now in high-ranking government positions or in lucrative positions as board members of various national and international businesses and associations. His son Jeffery Salim Waheed, was promoted from an Intern at the Maldives Permanent Mission to the UN to First Secretary shortly after Waheed assumed office. Salim Waheed was previously a vocal campaigner for democracy but has now become a crusader for his father’s cause.
Judging from what other key players in the Opposition Coalition have said, Waheed’s deal with them also includes a promise that he will not run for presidency in 2013. Umar Naseer, the outspoken Vice President of Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) has told the media several times that he ‘knows’ Waheed will not run in 2013. So far, Gasim Ibrahim from the Jumhooree Party (JP), Thasmeen Ali from Dhivehi Rayyithun ge Party (DRP) and Nasheed have declared their intention to run in 2013. Waheed has stayed silent.
The silence suggests Umar Naseer, as usual, is speaking from first-hand knowledge of the behind the scenes strategising by the Unity Government. Waheed’s share of the pie for helping topple Nasheed seems to be twenty-one months as President, and full immunity from prosecution at the end of his term with full benefits and privileges accorded to former presidents. A life of luxury abroad–preferably in America and desirably inclusive of frequent socialising with the Obamas, and perhaps working the lecture circuits à la Clinton and Blair, is what Waheed is looking forward to once he completes his part of the deal.
This suggests that Waheed is more pragmatist than puppet. Someone who knew exactly what he wanted–the Presidency of the Republic of Maldives–and got it. It mattered little to him how. Dismissing Waheed as a puppet would be a mistake.