Mr. Finance Minister
On businessmen, coup attempts and happy endings
“Mr. Minister it is a pleasure to meet you,” I mumbled as I was introduced to the Minister of Finance of the Republic of Maldives. My consultancy work here in Male’ has required me to meet various ministers to discuss disaster management policy. On the whole I have been impressed by the officials I have met. But this finance minister did not fit the stereotype I expected. He did not appear odd for the job, he just felt different. And he was.
Qasim Ibrahim is an outspoken, intense, energetic and charismatic former businessman, well tycoon, to be exact. He is new in the job. How he got there is a story in itself. He has extensive interests that include resorts, cement, gas, shipping among others. With his economic clout, it was not surprising that he would foray into the realm of public policy and governance. As a leader of the reform movement, however, he figured in protest actions that were too violent for the government’s comfort. He was arrested but was released from detention shortly before the 2004 tsunami.
The tsunami that devastated Maldives’ economy almost two years ago brought the best out of Qasim. Even if his motives were held suspect, he volunteered his services and resources to assist the government. That, and more likely, realpolitik opened the way to being invited to join the government and be given the finance portfolio. He stressed that he is not making any excuses for joining government. There may be no need to do so.
In our discussions, he kept repeating the word fast. He seemed genuinely frustrated at how slow the bureaucracy moves. Normal reaction from former CEOs, I thought to myself.
The move to bring Qasim into the government is not surprising given Maldives’ recent history. In 1988, Abdullah Luthufi, a once prominent businessman who was operating a farm in neighboring Sri Lanka led a seaborne mercenary force of some 200 Tamil separatists in an attempt to seize power. The invaders were defeated when the Indian government responded to the call for help of President Gayoom. Luthufi and his cohorts were arrested. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. He has since been pardoned and is a free man in Male’ today.
Qasim’s previous actions were not anywhere near Luthufi’s power grab. Nor is his fate by any stretch of imagination a form of punishment, except when you think of how slow bureaucracies move.
The fate of both these businessmen who became major players in power politics probably explains best why Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who became President in 1978, is still very much at the helm today.