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Opposition protestors halt presidential motorcade raising security concerns

Farah Ahmed
22 March 2023, MVT 21:28
Security forces attempting to manoeuvre opposition PPM-PNC protestors away from President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih's motorcade late on 20th March 2023 --
Farah Ahmed
22 March 2023, MVT 21:28

Late on Monday night, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was returning from the official function held to celebrate International Women's Day at the newly opened Umar Zahir Office Building in Hulhumalé. Per official protocol, the President's car was encircled by a procession of security vehicles.

The main opposition party, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), has its headquarters on Malé's outermost road, Boduthakuraafanu Magu, near the Sinamalé Bridge. The opposition coalition, which also includes the People's National Congress (PNC), has been holding a series of rallies almost every night in front of the PPM office in Malé. The protests, by now, are predictable and expected.

The situation near the PPM office was particularly bad on Monday night, with opposition supporters calling for the immediate resignation of the President as well as his arrest. The Maldives Police Service had even barricaded the area on Boduthakurufaanu Magu to control the protest.

At around 11 p.m. that night, when the President was returning from Hulhumalé, the protesters near the PPM office saw his motorcade approaching down the main road. They then decided to block the road by sitting in the middle of it and barring the motorcade from moving forward.

PPM-PNC protestors in front of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih's motorcade, barring them from moving forward while security forces attempt to clear the way, late on 20th March 2023 --

A video of the incident on social media shows the President's motorcade at a halt, with protestors in front, and vehicles trickling ahead from the sides of the security vehicles on the busy road. The President's bodyguards and other security personnel can also be seen trying to maneuver the protestors away from the president's car.

The motorcade was at a standstill for nearly 15 minutes, with protestors and motorcycles surrounding it. Eventually, the president's car turned around and took a different route to leave the scene.

This is the first time that a high-security presidential motorcade has been obstructed by the public. Therefore, Tuesday brought a fury of criticism and concern from the parliament, the opposition, as well as the public regarding the President's security.

Parliament's National Security Committee Convenes

The parliament's Committee on National Security Services, established under Article 241 of the Constitution to exercise continued oversight of security services in the country, on Tuesday decided to look into the matter further.

The consensus amongst most of the committee members was that the incident indicated a serious breach in the President's security, and they alleged negligence on the part of the Maldivian National Defense Force (MNDF) and the Ministry of Defense.

They even called for immediate action against those responsible.

Hanimaadhoo MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa, who was a bodyguard for former President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, identified two issues that needed to be looked into. The first issue was checking whether the President's security detail had done their due diligence in ensuring the roads were clear and the route was safe. The other was examining whether the motorcade was obstructed deliberately.

"You cannot get in front of a motorcade traveling with the President. It's a different scenario if the road was already crowded and full of people. If the President's motorcade was deliberately stopped, it's a matter that should be investigated," the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP said.

Alifushi MP Mohamed Rasheed, who is a close ally of President Solih, echoed the concerns about the security breach, adding that culpubale parties and the reason for obstructing the motorcade should be identified.

MP Rasheed went on to say that the opposition protestors were a nuisance to the houses nearby because they made loud noises late at night. He said that this happens because there is an oversight from the authorities that are supposed to be responsible for maintaining peace.

Security forces attempting to make way for President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih's motorcade late on 20th March 2023 --

Hulhudhoo MP Ilyas Labeeb, who is also from the MDP, raised concerns regarding the competency of the MNDF. He said that it is the responsibility of the MNDF to monitor all movements surrounding the President and make sure that he is not in any danger, at all times.

MP Labeeb recalled the attempted assassination of Parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed in May 2021 and said that the committee found that the MNDF had not done a satisfactory job in executing its responsibilities and ensuring security.

He went on to say that the recommendations made in the committee's report on Nasheed's assassination attempt have not been implemented properly. If they were implemented, the President's route from the event would have been checked and mapped, he said.

"We cannot allow situations to be created where the President's security is compromised. This incident has to be investigated," MP Labeeb said.

Hulhumalé MP Ali Niyaz, also a close associate of the President, assessed the situation on Boduthakurfaanu Magu that night a little closer:

"It wasn't a particularly big crowd. It's not a location where routes are closed off. So, the presidential motorcade waiting in that area for 15 whole minutes before turning around and leaving is something that needs to be looked into seriously."

"A presidential motorcade, with all that security, not being able to pass through that road is unacceptable," he said.

Adding to MP Niyaz's comment, the former Defense Minister and opposition PNC member, Madduvari MP Adam Shareef, said that it was not a good indication that the motorcade had been turned around from a scene that was not deemed too serious or dangerous.

This raises concerns about the president's security detail's preparedness, he asserted.

"The protest was also almost over, the situation was quite normal, so an overhaul in the President's movements [in that situation] is a bad indication. It shows how much the security forces are prepared for," MP Shareef said.

"It is a matter of concern. This is not something we like to discuss, but there are questionable aspects to what the security forces are doing."

MP Shareef proposed obtaining incident reports from MNDF and the police, as well as summoning them to the committee for further investigation.

The committee concluded after agreeing to get incident reports from the relevant institutions.

The Opposition's Responses

Faresmaathoda MP Hussain Mohamed Latheef speaking at the parliament. PHOTO: MAJLIS

PPM's council member and Faresmaathoda MP Hussain Mohamed Latheef submitted an emergency motion to the parliament on Tuesday, alleging that the President's motorcade breached security deliberately.

However, the motion was dismissed immediately, with only six members voting in favor of a debate. Seventeen members voted against it.

The opposition implied that the motorcade had entered the area where they were protesting on purpose and that it was a planned tactic.

MP Mohamed Latheef went on to blame Minister of Defense Mariya Ahmed Didi for the ploy.

"To compromise the President's security just to shift the blame onto someone else is completely unacceptable," he said.

The opposition MP said that the failure to ensure the safety and security of state officials is a serious issue that should result in Mariya being removed from her post.

"I call for an emergency motion, under Article 170 of the parliament, to look into the dismissal of Mariya, and to investigate the presidential motorcade deliberately breaching security," he said.

Amidst the commotion on Monday night, Naifaru MP Ahmed Shiyam, a prominent member of the PPM, was detained along with several members of the opposition. However, the police released him from custody just a few hours later. The PPM condemned his arrest and claimed police incompetence.

In a statement released by PPM regarding MP Shiyam arrest on Tuesday, the party reiterated MP Mohamed Latheef's allegation and maintained that the president's motorcade had entered the protest on purpose.

They called for an immediate, independent investigation into the incident and to take the required measures to reform the police, as well as MNDF.

State Takes Action

According to the police, a total of 17 people were arrested during the PPM protest on Monday night; however, the Criminal Court released them all on bail.

The police arrested four individuals for obstructing the President's motorcade. Two of these individuals were remanded for five days, while the other two were remanded for 15 days. One of the two who was remanded for five days is a woman, the police elaborated.

By Tuesday afternoon, the MNDF suspended the Commander of the Presidential Guards, Colonel Abdullah Ibrahim.

Commander of the Presidential Guards, Colonel Abdullah Ibrahim at a press conference. PHOTO: MIHAARU

Mihaaru news reported that Deputy Commandar Ibrahim Haleem had temporarily taken over the command.

MNDF has not made any official comments regarding the decision yet.

Later in the day, however, MNDF issued a brief statement saying a special committee has been formed to investigate the breach of security. The committee was set up by Minister Mariya in order to hold discussions amongst the leadership of the security forces in the country, the statement read.

Meanwhile, President Solih on Wednesday morning said that he had received an incident report from the police, and that he would receive one from the MNDF tomorrow.

The Minister of Defense also responded to the criticism she received after the motorcade incident. She expressed discontent with the backlash and said that the criticism came because she is a woman.

There have been no official explanations so far as to why the President's motorcade entered the ongoing protest. However, the Maldives' security forces have come under fire for the fairly apparent breach in security, especially after security for state leaders was heightened after Speaker Nasheed's assassination attempt.