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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