The news has been full lately of autocratic leaders willing to go to any lengths to cling to power. The Maldives is daily sinking deeper into a political crisis that has seen protesters and opposition politicians arrested, international lawyers detained and deported, and the Supreme Court’s chief justice sacked. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) teeters on the edge of tragic chaos and utter disaster, as President Joseph Kabila unconstitutionally remains in power more than a year after the end of his term. Meanwhile, Djibouti has put the capstone on years of dubious deals and legal battles by forcibly seizing control of a Dubai-run port.
The despotic leaders of these countries have so brutally cracked down on any threat to their rule that the situation often seems hopeless. Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, wrote will in a New York Times op-ed the day after he was forced to resign at gunpoint: “At times, dealing with the corrupt system of patronage the former regime left behind can feel like wrestling with a Hydra: when you remove one head, two more grow back.” And yet, even so soon after being deposed, Nasheed remained optimistic, continuing: “With patience and determination, the beast can be slain.”
Six years later, Nasheed remains devoted to his quest to slay the beast which has his country by the throat, though he’s had to move the fight to London, where he was granted political asylum in 2016 after being jailed for trumped-up terrorism charges. The Maldives’ Supreme Court’s ruling on February 1st, 2018 to overturn these charges, to order the release of nine political prisoners and the reinstatement of sacked opposition politicians is at the heart of the country’s current crisis. Current leader Abdulla Yameen’s government has instituted a state of emergency, which Yameen has exploited to suspend fundamental rights including freedom of assembly and detainees’ rights.
Yameen’s goons have taken ample advantage of the sweeping powers the state of emergency gives them to make arrests and search and seize private property. Yameen has thrown his own half-brother Maumoon Gayoom, who ran the country from 1978 to 2008, in prison, charging him with attempting to overthrow the government. Security forces in full tac gear stormed the Supreme Court, arresting two senior judges.
Following his acquittal from the bogus charges he was fighting, Nasheed announced his intention to return from exile to contest elections. In the meantime, he has denounced the disintegration of the rule of law from overseas, particularly calling on India to send troops, if necessary, to stabilize the situation, and asking the US to block Yameen’s financial transactions. He travelled to India to brief the Indian Minister of Defence on the situation.
Leading the fight from abroad is undoubtedly frustrating, but it would be difficult—if not dangerous— for Nasheed to return home without international support in the current political climate. Fellow DRC opposition leader Moïse Katumbi knows all about that: just last week, he attempted to get a new passport at the DRC embassy in Brussels, but his application was denied. It’s not the first time Katumbi’s attempts to return to his country to stand for election have been thwarted. In 2016, DRC authorities refused to clear a plane he was on for landing.
More recently, Katumbi tried to charter a private plane to participate in the massive protests on New Year’s Eve 2017, in which Kabila’s security forces fatally shot at least seven people, but the government wouldn’t give him authorisation to land. Compounding the problem, Katumbi explained in an interview with the magazine Jeune Afrique that commercial airlines wouldn’t sell him a ticket to Kinshasa. Katumbi admitted that he could understand their concerns and assumed responsibility for the safety of his fellow passengers, lamenting: “This.