Southern atolls sign pact to defend decentralisation

The Maldives’ southernmost atoll councils have signed a joint declaration calling upon the government to protect the country’s decentralised authorities.

Atoll councils from Gaaf Dhaalu, Gaaf Alifu, and Fuvahmulah, joined with Addu City Council to sign the Medheaari Declaration yesterday (December 21).

The pact, which includes measures to secure fiscal autonomy, comes after repeated moves by the central government to remove powers granted to Malé City Council under the 2010 Decentralisation Act.

“What happened in Malé, will it be repeated in the atolls?” asked Addu City Council Mayor Abdulla Sodig.

“We always have the fear that the government will come after Addu City Council after it deals with Malé City Council.”

Representatives of the four councils met in Addu City Hall yesterday to sign the six point declaration, which Sodig described as “historic”.

As part of the arrangement, the councils passed a resolution vowing that all fees collected by local authorities should be deposited in council bank accounts.

Despite provisions in the 2010 act allowing for revenue raising measures, amendments to financial legislation have yet to be introduced, meaning that fees raised by local authorities are still sent to the capital Malé.

The 2014 UNDP Human Development Report has pointed out that harmonising laws remains a key challenge facing the decentralisation transition, as well as suggesting a pressing need to reduce the size of government at all levels.

While the Maldives Inland Revenue Authority has recently established an office in Addu, the city council has refused to allow it to begin operations until it pledges not to interfere with local fee collection.

Sodig explained that Addu City Council does not currently send its local fees to the capital, though the neighbouring atoll councils still do.

The President’s Office has declined to comment on the Medheaari Declaration.

An additional point contained in the document includes sending a letter to to the Majlis saying that any amendments to the Decentralisation Act must be brought in line with the spirit of the country’s decentralisation laws.

Recently proposed amendments to decentralisation – from pro-government MP Riyaz Rasheed – called for a reduced number of local councils and to cut the salaries of all councillors except the council’s president.

At yesterday’s meeting, the councils also agreed to write to all government institutions requesting that they respect the Decentralisation Act and uphold the powers of the constitution, and its specific provisions on local governance.

The removal last week of further lands originally granted to Malé City Council prompted the capital’s mayor to condemn what he called the government’s systematic abrogation of the council’s powers.

“We are now only in charge of facilitating construction in Malé, issuing death and birth certificates and cleaning mosques. But the constitution clearly states the Maldives must be administered through decentralised councils,” said Mayor Mohamed Shihab at the time.

The southern atolls yesterday also pledged to meet annually as well as to sign a joint MoU on February 24, agreeing to work together on socio-economic issues.

The southern atolls have traditionally supported the current opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – as is Malé City Council, which has labelled the government’s removal of its authority an attempt to destroy decentralisation.

All of Addu City’s 6 councillors are MDP members, while the party won just over 40 percent of island, atoll, and city council seats nationwide in January’s local elections. The elections commission was unable to provide information on the current distribution of councillors in Fuvahmulah, Gaaf Alifu, and Gaaf Dhaalu at the time of publication.

Previous comments from government officials have suggested that political decentralisation must follow economic development throughout the atolls.

“Land, labour, and capital – the central government and the regional governments are fighting for it as we don’t have enough resources even for the existing government to cover the budget deficits,” Minister of Tourism Ahmed Adeeb has explained.

“I believe when there’s enough economic activity we can give more powers to the councils.”

Analysts have suggested that political wrangling over the implementation of decentralised governance – which included wholesale revisions to the original act proposed by the MDP government – has left the atolls’ populations less empowered than ever.

Addu, Fuvahmulah, and Huvadhoo (containing Gaaf Alif and Gaaf Dhaalu atoll councils) currently contain 14 percent of the Maldives population.

The same three atolls declared independence from the central government in 1959, forming the short-lived United Suvadive Republic before government forces regained control in 1963.

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Beatings and arrests of more than 100 MDP supporters in Addu: Mayor Abdulla Sodig

Amid the apparent stalemate in Male’ on Thursday as foreign diplomats and journalists flood the capital, hundreds of MDP supporters in the country’s second most populated area are reported to have been beaten and arrested in a police crackdown today.

Addu City makes up the southern-most tip of the Maldives and is the second most populated area in the Maldives after the capital Male’, with approximately 35,000 people. Like Male’, 100 percent of its councillors were elected on MDP tickets in the most recent local council elections. It was also the scene of the recent SAARC Summit.

Minivan News was informed just after 2:00am on Friday morning that arrest warrants had been issued by Meedhoo Court for the arrest of all Addu City Councilors. Two councilors are already in police custody, a source claimed.

Addu City Mayor Abdulla Sodig was attacked by approximately 10 individuals while taking a phone call outside the City Council on Wednesday night. He claimed his assailants were associated with opposition parties Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), and several other groups.

The attack on Sodig came as members of the public, allegedly supporting ousted president Mohamed Nasheed, burned and closed police stations and courts in islands across the Maldives’ south.

Sodig, who sustained injuries to his wrist, back and head, has said he is currently “hiding in a safe place” and has not seen his family, who are also “hiding in separate places.”

Sodig described the attack as an ambush. “They jumped over the wall and surrounded me before I could run, and began beating me to the ground, then jumping on me. If they had had knives, they would have killed me.”

“Two members of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) were in the state house next to our office, and were notified. When they came the attackers began pulling me by one leg towards the road, but then they ran away,” he explained.

Sodig said his family has since received threats “that they would come for us, and torch our house.”

In what appears to be a retaliation for last night’s activities, members of opposition parties are now said to be assisting police to beat and arrest MDP members and activists in Addu.

Sodig reported that 100 people, including minors, had been arrested as of 7:00pm while an arrest warrant had been issued for council members.

Sodiq said he became aware of the situation when Deputy Mayor Hassan Shahid informed him that he was under police custody.

“Before the arrest, these people – no, thugs- lead the police to the homes of [MDP] members, beat them up while the police watch, and then the police arrest them,” Sodig explained. “One person has told me he was first pepper sprayed, then beaten, then arrested.”

Addu police had not responded to phone calls at time of press, however Police Media Official in Male’ Ahmed Shiyam said police operations are being carried out on all islands affected by last night’s violence.

Earlier today, police reported damage to public property on islands in Gaafu Dhaalu, Shaviyani, Gnaviyani, Haa Alifu and Raa atolls.

“The police are now investigating the violence of last night and arresting those responsible,” Shiyam said, adding that those assisting the police are “not the opposition.”

“These are only members of the public from those islands who are helping the police, they are just local civilians,” he emphasised.

Shiyam said he had not received any reports of violence being used during the investigation.

An expatriate teacher working in Addu told Minivan News that while unrest continued until 12:00pm today, shops and offices had opened this afternoon and that the streets are currently quiet. “There was a lot of uproar yesterday but things seem all right now,” he observed.

However, speaking on the condition of anonymity an individual familiar with last night’s uprising reported that members of opposition PPM, DRP and the 23rd December coalition began assisting the police early this morning.

“Around 9:00am the police began going around with these opposition members and arresting people. They even walked into people’s homes when most people were sleeping, they beat them in their beds,” he said, adding that “most people they’ve arrested weren’t even involved in last night’s protest.”

The source said police, whose vehicles were destroyed last night, had patrolled Addu in MNDF vehicles until 6:00pm tonight. He said he had heard they would return to the streets around 10:00pm.

At the moment, streets appear dull. “MDP is afraid, they’re staying in. The police have gone rogue,” he said.

Following his attack and threats made to his house and family last night, Sodig said he requested police “to give protection to the public and the government buildings, hospital and power station. But the commander said he couldn’t do anything.” Sodig added that to his understanding there are enough police forces to protect the people of Addu and maintain law and order.

“But they have failed, I don’t know their motives,” he said, adding that MDP members “are very frightened, they are hiding.”

Sodig was unclear if tonight’s attacks are being carried out on the order of the current government, the newly appointed Police Commissioner Riyaz Rasheed, the local commander or no official commander at all.

“Security services should not allow people to come and beat other people. If there are problems in the city police should address those problems, but they should not involve other members of the public. This is against the law,” Sodig elaborated.