Hours after the Maldives declared a state of emergency on February 5, the police showed up at the door of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom with a battering ram. Earlier that day, attorney general Mohamed Anil had declared that an upcoming Supreme Court order expected to disqualify President Abdulla Yameen from office would be illegal. Rumour had it that Yameen’s half-brother Gayoom had something to do with the imminent order. After all, most of the judiciary was a relic of the 30 years of his dictatorship.
The Maldives police subsequently broke into Gayoom’s home and took the 82-year-old into custody. Unlike his successor Mohamed Nasheed, who was dragged onto the street before being arrested in 2015, Gayoom’s arrest was peaceful. Some officers even saluted their former commander-in-chief, who had served as the president of the Indian Ocean archipelago from 1978 to 2008. Two days later, Gayoom was charged with bribing MPs and Supreme Court judges and inciting them to “overthrow a legitimate government”.
On February 7, acting police chief Abdulla Nawaz – the third chief appointed by Yameen since the crisis began on February 1, when the Supreme Court ordered the government to release jailed Opposition leaders – said that a large stash of bribe money had been found under a mattress in the home of one of the judges. On being asked for evidence, the police official walked out of the press conference.
Since 2015, Gayoom had been expressing his reservations at some of Yameen’s policies, starting with his attempt to permit the sale of some Maldivian islands to foreigners. In mid-2016, he refused to endorse Yameen for a second term. In October that year, he and his MP son Faris Maumoon were booted out of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives. By then, Gayoom seemed to have sensed his luck would soon run out. “I am ready to face anything,” said Gayoom during a press conference that year. “But I have sufficient courage. During my youth, I spent 50 days in solitary confinement. Afterwards, I was banished for four years to a remote island. I have faced many such things. I am no longer that young, but I have the courage to face anything.”
On February 6, as Gayoom returned to the prison island of Dhoonidhoo after over four decades, it became clear that the fissures within the Gayoom family had become irreparable.
But some might wonder: why would Yameen turn against his own half-brother whose support was arguably the biggest reason he won the presidency four years ago?
The website of the Maldives president says that Yameen is the son of Sheikh Abdul Gayoom Ibrahim, an “eminent judge” in national capital Male. His father had eight wives.
Members of the Maldives’ political fraternity have previously suggested that the president, who grew up in the same house as Gayoom, had a “troubled childhood”. They say that Gayoom’s mother was part of the Maldives elite, and her children received preferential treatment. They speculate that this is probably why Yameen resented Gayoom and his siblings. Explained an insider who did not wish to be identified: “The Maldives’ elite has traditionally lived in the capital. Yameen’s mother was from a different island and initially worked as a domestic help in the Gayoom household. As a result, the kids at home were not treated equally.”
Growing up, Yameen had little of a relationship with Gayoom, who, apart from being 20 years older than him, had spent most of his formative years in Sri Lanka and Egypt. After finishing his schooling in Male, Yameen studied business in Lebanon and the United States. He joined the Gayoom government in 1978. Over the next three decades, he served in the Department of Finance, Maldives’ Central Bank and several ministries such as trade, education and tourism.
Given the authoritarian regime that Yameen was part of, Gayoom’s support was key to his progress. Yameen seemed to have his half-brother’s backing until 2005, when Gayoom heard allegations that Yameen misused his authority as the chairman of the State Trade Organisation in the 1990s and 2000s to indulge in “internal corruption in hiring people from abroad, work permits and making deals”, said Abdul Aleem Adam, a member of the ruling party and a close confidant of Gayoom’s. Gayoom, then the president, promptly asked his half-brother to step down. “President Maumoon [Gayoom] asked him to resign from the trade ministry and the STO [State Trade Organisation],” said Adam “Yameen seems to be still angry about that.”
In 2008, Gayoom lost the first-ever democratic elections held in the Maldives to Mohamed Nasheed. Three years later, his Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party split up and six MPs, including Gayoom, walked away. Yameen, then the leader of the People’s Alliance party with eight MPs, joined hands with his half-brother to form the Progressive Party of Maldives. Gayoom was the party chief and, ahead of the presidential elections in 2013, Yameen was its candidate.
Gayoom has been notorious for doling out crucial portfolios to his family and friends. But in an interview in 2016, his older son and MP, Faris Maumoon, denied that nepotism was the reason Yameen had been selected. “We weren’t as close as a family,” Maumoon said. “We only knew him in the professional capacity. We knew what the public knew: he had served in the cabinet, the Parliament for many years. We saw him as someone who was capable, who was intelligent, who could achieve targets. Of course, there were rumours about his character, his past, but we dismissed them, saying it was just Opposition-speak.”
Gayoom’s support to Yameen was crucial in the 2013 elections. “I travelled with him all over the Maldives to campaign for him,” Gayoom said in 2016. “In the first round he won 25% of the vote. I then worked on bringing other parties on board…and we all worked on electing Abdulla Yameen in the second round.” Yameen won the election. His rival, Nasheed, fell short of 6,000 votes.
But by mid-2015, Gayoom seemed to have lost faith in his half-brother, especially after he amended the Constitution to allow foreigners to buy land in the Maldives. Faris Maumoon also said that Gayoom also had reservations about Yameen’s deputy, Ahmed Adeeb, for his criminal record, his role in the appointment of judges and financial misappropriation.
In October 2015, Yameen imposed a state of emergency after an explosion in the yacht he was travelling in. Adeeb was arrested for trying to assassinate him and later, for orchestrating a $79 million corruption scandal. But over time, said Faris Maumoon, it became clear that Adeeb’s corruption was “sanctioned by, sometimes devised by those above him”.
When he lost the backing of his older sibling, Yameen resorted to harassment. Gayoom’s monthly allowance for rent, healthcare, support staff and to run a secretariat was scaled down. As the courts expelled Gayoom as the head of the Progressive Party of Maldives, his office was stripped of its furniture, computers and documents.
In mid-2017, the Nasheed-led Opposition, with the help of Faris Maumoon and MPs supporting the Gayoom faction of the Progressive Party of Maldives, failed to impeach Yameen through Parliament. Soon after, Faris Maumoon was arrested for bribing MPs and trying to overthrow the government and sentenced to six months in prison.
Until recently, the understanding among the Maldivian political fraternity was that arresting Gayoom would be a red line that Yameen would not cross. After all, even after being routed by Nasheed in the 2008 polls, Gayoom continued to wield considerable sway over civil servants, security forces and the judiciary in the tiny nation. It was believed that Gayoom’s incarceration would result in an all-out mutiny. Indeed, in all of his fiery speeches over the past months, Yameen seldom criticised his half-brother by name.
But the events of the past few days suggest that the gloves are off. Even as India said it was “disturbed” and refused to entertain a visiting Maldivian envoy on Thursday, Yameen extended his crackdown against Gayoom’s family and allies. On February 8, Faris Maumoon was arrested for the fourth time in eight months. So was opposition leader Gasim Ibrahim’s son, Ibrahim Siyad.
Ahmed Nadheem, husband of Gayoom’s daughter Yumna Maumoon, had already been arrested on terror charges on February 1.
“The ongoing crackdown against political opponents is 90% personal,” said Gayoom confidant Adam. “Yameen used Maumoon [Gayoom]. He got all the power and then put his right leg on his backside.”
Wherever the Maldives’ experiment with democracy is headed, its first family will continue to hold centrestage. Differences are already beginning to emerge. On Thursday, Gayoom’s other daughter, Dunya, who serves in the Yameen government’s health ministry, denied that her father was involved in the alleged attempt to remove Yameen as president by putting the blame on Gayoom’s rival-turned-ally Nasheed. “My father is in a mess Nasheed has created,” she told the Indian Express. In a stand radically different from the Opposition parties her father has allied with, she expressed support for the emergency and praised the security forces for executing it.
Did that mean she was allying with her father’s rival, the reporter asked. Dunya said, “President Yameen is my family too.”