Vice President of the Maldives Ahmed Adeeb stepped onto the tarmac of Malé International Airport on Friday and into the custody of the Maldivian police. His charge: high treason, specifically the 28 September bombing of President Abdulla Yameen’s yacht.
Yameen escaped unharmed, although his wife remains hospitalised. Foreign forensic specialists concluded that an explosive device was involved, prompting Yameen to purge the government of Adeeb’s supporters and deploy balaclava-clad soldiers armed with assault rifles to the streets of the honeymoon paradise. Adeeb, visiting China on an official trip, called Yameen’s bluff and caught the flight home.
A rotund and ambitious 33 year-old best known for his self-aggrandizement, alleged links to Malé’s nastier gangs and friendship with the notorious Artur brothers, Adeeb rose quickly through the ranks of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM). As the regime’s favoured scion he was first appointed tourism minister and then vice President, after a constitutional amendment was forced through parliament specifically lowering the minimum age to accommodate him. The previous office holder, Mohamed Jameel, was charged with treason and fled to the UK to reflect on a life spent sabotaging democracy, and the vagaries of the very regime he had proved instrumental in returning to power.
Political conspiracy is the national sport of the Maldives, and the yacht ‘whodunnit’ is the equivalent of this year’s Superbowl. Unravelling what actually happened with any degree of confidence — as with the brutal 2012 killing of Maldivian MP Afrasheem Ali and the disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan — is likely to prove impossible given the regime’s contempt for credibility and thorough compromise of the security forces and judicial system. Expect intense instability as the infighting escalates, and opportunities for the country’s growing number of Islamic radicals to exploit the chaos.
Students of dictatorships and democratic transitions would do well to watch the coming days in Malé. Dictatorships need enemies — internal and external — to focus the support of a public and the ambitions of their upper ranks. When a democratic opposition is so thoroughly crushed, as with the Maldives, and a regime is left to its own devices, it can grow paranoid and turn on itself like a snake eating its tail.
Regimes around the world show other surprising similarities. Obvious characteristics include the indulgence of violence and impunity on behalf of the security forces, a violent and humourless inability to tolerate criticism, and insistence on respect for a ‘rule of law’ of their own arbitrary invention. Other qualities are less obvious, even mundane: a love of shopping at upmarket department stores in London and New York, extravagant spending on luxury vehicles, private schooling abroad for the children, and a surprisingly universal taste in decor that can only be described as ‘dictator-kitsch’ — marble floors, Italianate furniture, golden toilets.
The golden toilet in the palace of former Maldivian ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — Yameen’s half-brother and Asia’s longest-serving dictator until he was briefly toppled in 2008 by the first democratically-elected President, Mohamed Nasheed — now resides in the Supreme Court building. This is rather fitting, for it was Gayoom’s pet judiciary that took on the mantle of protecting the ousted dictator and enforcing his interests under the radar of the international community, even as the 2008 democracy struggled to establish itself. The ousted dictator’s tolerance for democratic reform waned and the 2012 coup ended Nasheed’s rule, restoring the Gayoom family to power. ‘Respect the rule of law’ became the cry of a regime invoking the pageantry of democracy to prolong the souring of international opinion, even as the judiciary itself proved to be the root of most of the Maldives’ current problems.
It is debatable whether the Maldives even has a constitutionally legitimate judiciary. Gayoom’s old bench was imported into the new democracy verbatim despite specific provisions in the constitution to prevent this, and as a result 60 per cent of the current judges have less than a Grade 7 education, and 30 per cent have actual criminal records. It is a justice system that thinks nothing of sentencing child rape victims to lashings for the crime of extramarital sex, even as Supreme Court justices are themselves videoed cavorting with prostitutes in neighbouring Sri Lanka. Ultimately these courts would overturn the 2013 presidential elections, install Abdulla Yameen in the presidency, and jail former President Nasheed on charges of terrorism for daring to attempt judicial reform.
Vice President Ahmed Adeeb may be pondering the irony of all this as he sits in a cell on the prison island of Dhoonidhoo, next to the jailed democratic leader he fought so hard to thwart.
JJ Robinson is the author of Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy, a first-hand investigation of the seamy, dangerous and greedy politics that underpin the globally renowned tourist destination.
On Twitter: @journojim