Saturday, November 28, 2009
Afternoon tea with the FT: Mohamed Nasheed
By Rahul Jacob
As our plane circles over the Maldives, I look out on the light turquoise circles of water where coral beds break up the indigo blue of the Indian Ocean. More than a thousand tiny islands strung across the water, most of which are uninhabited, the Maldives were described by the 14th-century traveller Ibn Battutah as one of the wonders of the world, and so it seems that afternoon. But, as we prepare to land at Malé airport, I begin to imagine a picture quite different from that enjoyed by honeymooners and tourists to this much-loved holiday destination. Many scientific estimates predict that by the end of this century a large number of the low-lying islands that make up this country could be submerged by rising sea levels brought about by global warming.
I have flown to Malé from nearby Bangalore to meet Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, whose attempts to persuade the world of the seriousness of this plight have in the past few months turned him into something of a cause célèbre on the issue of climate change. At a United Nations climate summit in New York in September, he gave a speech in which he bluntly declared, “We know that you are not really listening ... Once the rhetoric has settled and the delegates have drifted away, the indignation cools and the world carries on [with] business as usual.”
A week before our meeting, more headlines were made when Nasheed, a trained diver, and six of his ministers conducted a cabinet meeting underwater to draw attention to the threat faced by his country (they used hand signals to communicate). And, next week, at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, he will call for reductions of annual carbon emissions per capita of at least two tonnes. He is also expected to rail against signing a “global suicide pact”, a treaty that settles for anything less.
On my way to have afternoon tea with Nasheed at his office, I wander through the candy-coloured capital of Malé, all vibrant lemons and pinks, and stop at the stock exchange (it has four listed companies) before arriving outside the imposing presidential building, painted peppermint and white. Two tour groups are gazing up – one Chinese, the other Indian. The Chinese group moves off quickly and I am left listening to snatches of Hindi and English from the Indian tour guide. He declares the Maldives “Muslim but broadminded” and says in Hindi that President Nasheed has a “very good relationship” with India.
As I go up to the first floor to meet Nasheed, I think that if anyone can bridge the large divide on climate change between developing countries like China and India and the developed world, it is the articulate Maldivian.
Nasheed is accompanied by his British press secretary and a couple of aides. He has, as one writer observed, the build of “a jockey” and looks even younger than his 42 years. The president leads me to a balcony where an enormous Maldivian tea is laid out with half a dozen place settings. As I fret that all his aides are about to join us, he reassures me by wondering aloud why the table is so laden. I pour him a cup of Lipton’s tea, served black as is customary in the Maldives.
Nasheed has just returned from another climate change conference, this one in India on transferring environmental technologies from western countries to the developing world. I ask him whether New Delhi’s stance is changing – India’s government has been one of the most unyielding critics of the west on climate change, arguing that limits on emissions should not apply to developing countries. He points to a recent leaked letter from the Indian environment minister arguing that it would be in India’s interests to curb emissions.
“India’s [politicians] have this difficulty completely trusting the west and seeing that there is no diabolical plan here to get at India because India’s [economy] is developing fast,” says Nasheed. “I have faith in India because it is a democracy with a very vibrant civil society.” He points out that there are 400m Indians without electricity and that, “If you start thinking in old concepts like diesel (which powers the generators used when there are power cuts in India) and coal (used in most power plants in India), then we are doomed.”
Diplomatically, he follows this by saying that neither China nor India can be expected to throttle their economic growth rates because they have large young populations that need employment. For China and India to “reduce consumption ... to forgo growth is going to be very difficult,” he says.
His east-coexists-with-west approach is also apparent on the table in front of us – traditional Maldivian snacks sit alongside the most luridly coloured pastries I have ever seen (neither of us touches them) and jam doughnuts. I ask him to explain what a Maldivian tea is. “There are usually tuna sandwiches and there are fried tuna rolls and fishcakes. It’s tuna, tuna, tuna,” he declares with a laugh. “It’s all fish. Those are pastries, which are not Maldivian at all.” He eats part of a fishcake while I choose a fish roll and refill his cup assiduously from a gigantic white tea pot.
I tell him that, after his underwater cabinet meeting stunt, colleagues have been joking that he will insist on doing this interview under water as well. He defends the publicity coup as a way for a tiny nation to punch above its weight in attracting the world’s attention. “We are sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean, there’s 300,000 people here and how in God’s name do we make our message heard? People might say these are gimmicks and stunts. I respect them, I agree with them.
“What I asked myself was, ‘Do I pay a publicity company millions of dollars?’ What we were trying to say is, ‘Look we need a deal in Copenhagen.’” What he wants in Copenhagen is for all of us to “to stop behaving in the manner in which we have been behaving”. Unusually for a politician from the developing world, he is calling for a serious commitment on the part of both developed and developing countries to become carbon neutral over this century and will be pushing for developing countries to embrace green technologies.
He has announced that the Maldives will be carbon neutral by 2020. When I suggest that the tiny country’s carbon footprint is probably less than the carbon emissions of the aeroplanes landing at the airport that keep its main industry, tourism, growing, Nasheed says that for developing countries struggling with climate change “the most important adaptive measure is development; you need to have a good income stream”.
He believes that western governments need to change the way policies to arrest global warming are sold to the public. “Instead of asking people to give up life, governments should start spending large amounts on renewable energy plants. The west should switch to renewable energy and – here comes the catch – they should also help countries that need to adapt [by transferring technologies].” By way of example, he points to an agreement between his government and Falcon Energy and GE Energy for a $250m power plant that will produce renewable energy at 15 cents a kilowatt instead of the 50 cents per unit it currently costs at a conventional power plant in the Maldives.
Last year, just days after his election in October, Nasheed announced he would create a sovereign fund to finance the migration of the entire Maldives population if the threat of the Maldives being swamped by rising sea levels continued to increase. This quixotic idea was the first of his successful attempts to grab global attention, though one wonders about the practicalities of moving his countrymen to Australia, India or Sri Lanka as he has suggested. Pushed to elaborate on such plans, he retreats to generalities. “We’re talking about needing dry land and if we are not going to be here, where are we going to be?” he asks. “I think we have to have that conversation now.”
His instinct for gimmicky announcements contrast with his career in the Maldives. Formerly an investigative journalist, he reported on corruption and human rights abuses by the regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a dictatorship which lasted for more than three decades, and was jailed on 16 occasions. In 1999, Nasheed was elected to parliament before being jailed again. In early 2004 he fled to Sri Lanka, where he continued to liaise with members of the Maldivian Democratic party, which he co-founded. He received political asylum in the UK in late 2004 but returned to the Maldives in May 2005. Pressure from the US and the European Union, and rising domestic anger, prompted a first round of free polling in October 2008. After gaining support from other opposition parties, Nasheed won an election run-off against Gayoom by gaining 54 per cent of the vote.
In his first year in power he has converted the wedding-cake villa of his predecessor into the Supreme Court, to symbolise the rule of law in a democracy, and auctioned off the presidential yacht and a gold-plated toilet. He has also put in place a pension plan and now wants to cut the civil service by 10,000 to 15,000 workers, a move that has prompted demonstrations in the capital. “I like the demonstrations [by civil servants],” he says. “It’s good they are making their points because in the past they would all have been arrested.”
I ask him about his time as a political prisoner and marvel that he is seemingly at peace despite spending a total of six years in jail, 18 months of which were in solitary confinement, and despite the fact that Gayoom remains active in politics as leader of the opposition party. “You lose the novelty of time in solitary confinement,” Nasheed begins. “You know, for instance, I love the sunset, but I spent so many sunsets in solitary confinement ... ”
Recollecting how he missed his two daughters’ births because he was in jail, he grows silent. (Human rights groups report that political prisoners were brutally beaten and occasionally left on uninhabited islands covered with molasses.) Beyond conceding that he was brought to “the brink of death twice”, he refuses to discuss the matter further. Instead he addresses the subject of reconciliation: “It’s difficult to move forward and I can understand why people [whose family members were tortured or imprisoned by Gayoom’s regime have demanded his prosecution] would need justice done, but because this thing is so delicately poised it can come out [as violence on] the streets.”
His affection for Britain extends beyond gratitude for giving him political asylum and his close ties with the Tory leadership (he spoke at the recent party conference in Manchester). The son of a wealthy Maldivian businessman, he was sent to boarding school in Britain and then studied maritime law at John Moores University in Liverpool. He says the British education system “is particularly good at bringing out the best of whatever you have”. I ask him what he means. “At a very early stage, they realised I might be good at public speaking rather than [at] rugby. And public speaking was the most important tool that I had in winning this election, nothing other than the ability to stand in front of the microphone and say ‘hello’ and continue with the speech.”
He is also a fan of 21st-century British multiculturalism. He is worried by the rise of militant Islam in the Maldives and extols the island state’s liberal Sufi Islamic traditions. He says 14 Maldivians have been arrested in Waziristan in Pakistan, for being on the Taliban’s side.
I say that it is a remarkable that a tiny country should be at the crossroads of such issues as terrorism, the battle between moderate and militant Islam, climate change and the transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Nasheed argues, unconventionally for an Asian leader, that democracy provides a more effective way of dealing with the problems a nation confronts. “It is so much easier; you can always tell the people and they will tell us how to go about it. If you want longevity, then democracy is not the right form, but if you’re looking at communicating with people efficiently then democracy makes that much easier.”
His aides are circling behind our table and I am ushered out. A photographer and reporter from a Finnish newspaper supplement have been waiting patiently for a photo shoot scheduled to start 45 minutes ago. The photographer wants Nasheed, in a play on the film The Age of Stupid, which forecast environmental apocalypse, to hold up a handwritten sign, which declares in Finnish, “Don’t be stupid.” Then she asks the president to stand on a chair placed precariously close to the balcony’s edge.
Ever the showman, Nasheed calls out to me, “Look what they are doing to me and you say it’s my fault!” He looks a little silly, like a schoolboy being punished. Yet he would probably argue that a little embarrassment is worth it to highlight the threat to his besieged nation – and the world – from global warming.
Rahul Jacob is the FT’s travel editor
Malé, The Maldives
Re-icing the Arctic and other plans to save the world
Mohamed Nasheed’s proposal to relocate the population of the Maldives as the islands confront the possibility of being submerged by rising sea levels is one approach to the problem countries such as his face, writes Hazel Sheffi. More controversially, others have investigated geo-engineering – deliberate, large-scale alterations, generally opposed by scientists and environmentalist, to the earth’s atmosphere. Here are a few examples.