Former finance minister Inaz leaves MDP

Former Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz has confirmed his decision to leave the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

Inaz did not give a reason for his decision, but told local newspaper Haveeru that the move “puts an end to my political career for now”.

In a response to Minivan News, he said he would “always remain independent and serving the national interest”.

Inaz was appointed after the then-opposition majority parliament unseated Finance Minister Ali Hashim in November 2010, along with six other cabinet ministers.

That vote came after three weeks of disruption in parliament, a stalemate ended only when MPs of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) boycotted the sitting before voting began.

Inaz’s resignation followed an incident in December 2011 in which MDP activists “dragged” him from a car in which he had been spotted hold holding a covert meeting with former president Gayoom’s half brother, MP Abdulla Yameen.

MDP activist Ibrahim ‘Dhonbeli’ Haleem told Minivan News afterwards that he had observed Inaz and Yameen holding a discussion “for two hours” near Male’s South Harbor, “a dark area poorly lit that is only really frequented by boys and girls, not for official business.”

“I told Inaz it was wrong, that Yameen is an enemy and why is he going to this area to hold a business meeting. If he needs to discuss business he should do it in his office.

“Inaz admitted it was wrong, and the MDP activists were yelling and shouting so I took him on my bike to Haruge (MDP headquarters),” claimed Dhonbeli.

Inaz would not confirm that this was the reason for his resignation at the time.

Tax advocate

Inaz’s term as finance minister was characterised by swiftly-enacted tax reforms, passed amid juggling many conflicting political interests and a campaign to sell the concept to the public.

Inaz noticeably took the time to meet with businessmen, parliament and opposition party delegations to explain the reasons and rationales for the various reforms he was implementing.

“All the businessmen I have met – all the reasonable businessmen I have met – believe that the country has to move to a much more structured, predictable and more coherent system of governance. And to do that we need an economic system that supports social change, and supports the change we have brought politically,” he told Minivan News, in an interview in May 2011, shortly after becoming minister.

“To sustain their businesses it is important that they have social and political stability. It would be a grave mistake if one stands up and says they don’t support [income tax], because that will bring instability to the country and harm businesses,” he said.

Under Inaz, the Maldives implemented a tourism goods and services tax (TGST), general GST and business profit tax, and was working towards an income tax for those earning over Rf 30,000 (US$2000) a month. Nasheed’s government maintained that combined, these elements would give a full picture of the money and assets in the country, and avoid the hiding of company tax revenue with individuals.

New Economic Minister Ahmed Mohamed announced at a press conference yesterday that policy of income tax would temporarily be halted, according a report in Haveeru.

Under Inaz, the Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA) also took over most of the Maldives’ government’s cash handling, greatly reducing petty counter-level corruption across the public sector and giving a single picture of government income.

Inaz also pushed – against subtle but solid opposition – for the rufiya to be used as legal tender for all transactions in the Maldives, aside from tax collection.

Most resorts continue to charge tourists in dollars, a practice which is contrary to monetary policy and technically illegal, but ignored by the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA). Those dollars swiftly leave the country for more financially-stable shores, instead of generating a demand for the local currency at the point of sale. The country consequently has a dollar shortage, banks have little money to loan, and the average population benefits little from the tourism industry beyond employment – for which they are paid in rufiya.

“What other country has prices in another country’s currency?” Inaz asked Minivan News, in May 2011.

A key moment under Inaz’s term as finance minister came with the discovery that based on income from the TSGT, the tourism economy was 300-400 percent previous estimates.

“Previously we had thought tourism receipts for the country were around US$700 million. But since collection of the 3.5 percent Tourism GST it has come to light that the figure is around US$2.5-3 billion,” then President Nasheed said during a press conference in June 2011.

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Mohamed Shihab appointed Minister of Finance and Treasury

Mohamed Shihab, a member of ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has been appointed as Minister of Finance and Treasury by President Mohamed Nasheed.

Shihab previously held the post of Political Advisor at the President’s Office. He has also served as Minister of Home Affairs under the current administration.

Presenting Shihab with his ‘Letter of Appointment’, President Nasheed emphasised his confidence in Shihab’s capability in executing the financial and economic reform policies of the country.

Mohamed Shihab assured the President that he would put forth his utmost effort as Finance Minister.

Parliament is expected to vote on the appointment when it returns from recess in March.

Previously a member of the MDP’s former coalition partner Jumhoree party, Shihab replaced Jumhoree Party Leader Gasim Ibrahim as Home Minister 21 days into the Nasheed administration.

In late 2010 the cabinet resigned en masse to protest the “scorched earth politics” of the opposition-majority parliament, which it accused of obstruction and attempting to wrest executive control.

Shihab was among seven ministers whose reappointment was rejected by parliament in November 2010. He has since been serving as Political Advisor to Nasheed.

Opposition Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) spokesperson Ahmed Mahlouf told Minivan News today the party would discuss the nomination in its parliamentary group before signalling its position.

“It is important to fill the post,” Mahlouf said, adding that “we don’t expect to have any difficulty discussing Shihab’s nomination.”

“I don’t think Shihab is coming from a background in finance, he has instead been Home Minister and an advisor,” Mahlouf explained. “But he is experienced in politics, he served in Parliament for 17 years, and he has been a speaker. I think we see him as someone we can communicate with easily.”

Mahlouf said Shihab’s communication skills were superior to those of former Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz, who he claimed did not have a good relationship with Parliament.

Calls to opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) were not answered at time of press.

Inaz
Picture from Manadhoolive.com.mv

Shihab’s appointment as Finance Minister follows the resignation of Ahmed Inaz, whose credibility was compromised when MDP activists found him in covert conference with Mulaku MP Abdulla Yameen of opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) in a non-residential poorly-lit area of Male’ at 12am.

Inaz was subsequently taken to MDP headquarters, where activists demanded his resignation. He resigned two days later along with the State Minister of Finance Ahmed Naseer.

Directly following the encounter MDP activists suggested that Yameen was attempting to bribe Inaz, while others believed it was a set-up.

In June 2010, Yameen was arrested on charges of bribery and attempting to topple the government. The Supreme Court however ordered his release.

Prior to the presentation of the Letter of Appointment, Mohamed Shihab took the oath of office of the members of the Cabinet before the Supreme Court Judge Abdulla Areef.

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Finance Minister and State Finance Minister resign

Local media has reported that Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz submitted his resignation today following an incident in which he was caught by Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) activists while he was having a meeting with opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MP and half-brother of former President, Abdulla Yameen.

The meeting was held inside Yameen’s car in a rarely visited area of Male’. MDP activists surrounded the car, which attempted to leave the area, and requested that Inaz step out because “it was wrong.” He was taken to party headquarters and pressured to resign.

Today Inaz told Minivan News that he would not like to say anything regarding the incident or about the rumors spread since Tuesday that he had resigned.

”Call the Press Secretary, he should tell the press very clearly,” he said when asked to confirm his resignation.

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair told Minivan News that Inaz had sent the President a letter but that the President had not read it yet.

”So we cannot confirm if it is a letter of resignation,” Zuhair said, adding that he has not attended since the incident.

Meanwhile, Yameen told the press that the meeting had been called by the Finance Minister to discuss the 2012 state budget, passed by the parliament earlier this week.

However, MDP activists allege that Inaz was plotting with Yameen and making secret deals.

Meanwhile, Adhaalath Party has condemned the action of MDP activists that night as uncivilized and degraded.

Adhaalath party issued a statement following the incident saying it was “regrettable and was against the spirit of the constitution, laws and Islamic Democratic principles.”

Today State Finance Minister Ahmed Naseer has also resigned, although according to Zuhair he did not mentioned the reason of his resignation.

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Government misled by NDMC’s management of Moreway money

Senior members of Moreway Construction Company and the National Disaster Management Center (NDMC) have been implicated by employees of NDMC and the French Red Cross (FRC) for their alleged corrupt involvement in a 2005 Laamu Gan tsunami housing project.

“Moreway is a scapegoat for forgeries and fabrications committed by the Arif brothers Ahmed and Abdullah, and Mohamed ‘Dhigali’ Waheed,” alleged one member of the business community familiar with the individuals, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Dhigali is a former shareholder and current executive manager of Moreway Construction. Ahmed Arif owns Apollo Holdings Company, which has been linked to Moreway, while Abdullah Arif, formerly director of Moreway Arun Excello, today holds shares in Lotus Company.

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) recently entered NDMC with police forensics experts to review files relating to a Rf18 million (US$1.16 million) payment issued to Moreway by the government in May. The ACC stopped a second payment of Rf15 million (US$973,000) in August on suspicion of corruption.

In 2005, the FRC tendered a US$7 million post-tsunami housing project for Laamu Gan, accepting bids from several companies, including Moreway, in a joint venture with Indian company Arun Excello and local company Aima. Although the project initially proposed 460 houses, complaints of insufficient conditions and finances prompted the FRC to reduce that number to 240.

NDMC Senior Project Manager Mohamed Waheed said Moreway’s complaints of insufficient financing and obstacles to construction prevented the company from fulfilling its contract, although at the time, claimed Waheed, imported materials were duty-free. A former employee of the French Red Cross, Adam, added that Red Cross site inspections and budget plans were nearly fool-proof. But “they were always demanding money from FRC, they had all kinds of excuses,” said Waheed.

Meanwhile, Arun Excello had abandoned the project mid-way due to frustrations with Moreway, incurring a loss of US$300,000.

Representatives at Arun Excello had not responded to inquiries at time of press.

After building 80 houses, Moreway’s contract was terminated by the FRC and the project handed over to Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) under the government’s remit.

Moreway was subsequently sued by NDMC on behalf of the Maldivian government for losses incurred by the unfinished project. In November 2007, the Civil Court delivered a verdict requiring Moreway to pay US$2.3 million to the government and granting NDMC the right to sell Moreway property at their construction site if the money was not paid within one month.

Sources say the money, due four years ago, has not yet been paid.

“Misleading” letters

Although payments were released to Moreway this year by the Finance Ministry, Waheed claimed that the government has been misinformed.

On April 19, 2011, Deputy Minister of Housing and Environment Ahmed Zaki sent a letter to Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz stating that a sixth invoice submitted by Moreway in March 2007 had yet to be paid, and requested that the ministry release the funds.

In response, Inaz said budget constraints prevented the money being allocated to NDMC, “so, money is to be paid from the NDMC budget.”

Further letters obtained by Waheed illustrate government confusion around the issue. In what Waheed called “misleading letters” between the Finance Ministry and NDMC, NDMC personnel requested the government to pay expired contractor invoices for a project which it had not tendered. At Zaki’s suggestion, the Finance Ministry reallocated money for current housing projects in Dhuvaafaru and Vilufushi to facilitate these payments, which were made using the current dollar-rufiyaa exchange rate.

Although the first payment voucher, processed in May, required Mohamed Waheed’s authorisation, his name had been crossed out and replaced by Deputy Minister Adam Saaed’s, who authorised the voucher along with Zaki.

Asked why this had been done, Waheed speculated that “they thought I wouldn’t sign it, and since Saeed is a friend of Zaki’s they had him sign it. I don’t think he even knew about it, maybe he signed it without thinking much.”

Meanwhile, documents used to obtain these payments are in dubious standing. Waheed points out that only copies were submitted to the Finance Ministry. “Who will accept invoice copies these days? Not even a small child!”

FRC officials also pointed out that the invoices had long been considered invalid.

Emails exchanged between Waheed, FRC senior project manager Brett Campbell and FRC construction coordinator Xavier Chanraud confirmed that all legitimate invoices from Moreway had been paid in full by the time FRC closed its housing projects and left the Maldives.

Chanraud recently stated that, “The FRC has closed all of its housing projects in the Maldives years ago and has already paid 100 percent of its contracts value through NDMC, which includes all defect liability retentions to the contractors. I do not think those invoices are still eligible, especially if rejected four years ago by the NDMC for technical reasons.”

Campbell added that the Civil Court’s verdict against Moreway indicated that “not further payments were due to Moreway.”

In reference to requests for additional payments for access road construction, Campbell said those claims were “discussed at length” and “deemed to be a contractor’s cost.”

Then NDMC Chief Coordinator Abdulla Shahid allegedly rejected the invoices at the time on similar grounds.

“It is questionable how these invoices made headway into NDMC budget section [in 2011],” Waheed wrote in a statement. “These are not outstanding payments to Moreway as one would think and FRC does not recognise these invoices as pending.”

When the invoice for a second payment was authorised by Zaki and NDMC chief coordinator Sheikh Ilyas Hussain and submitted to the Finance Ministry, Inaz questioned its validity against Moreway’s pending debt to the government.

Zaki then took the invoice with comments from NDMC Finance Director Mohamed Shiyam’s desk and passed a new copy to someone else for processing, Waheed alleged. Copies of both invoices with clear discrepancies were shown to Minivan News in private interviews.

The Maldives’ current Red Cross affiliate office, the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC), was unable to comment on the case.

A blind spot

Sources at NDMC and formerly the FRC agreed the previous regime’s corrupt reputation has left the current government with a blind spot.

“At the time, the government was too corrupt to get money for projects,” said Waheed. “So the FRC was funding the project, but after Moreway could not complete the project FRC left and the government stepped in.”

Government bias may have pervaded the project from the start, however. Moreway’s original bid was rejected over a fake bank guarantee, Waheed pointed out, and the company had to go to court to clear its name before re-submitting its bid.

“This is how things were done then, I don’t know why Moreway was selected but that was Gayoom’s regime,” he said.

Internal complications at the Red Cross were also rumored, although a source familiar with the operation could not confirm the reports.

For Adam, the central issue in the Moreway case is ignorance. “GoM does not understand the discrepancies in payments and procedures, and has not been properly informed of the project, so it is being charged for variations that were not approved by FRC,” he said.

According to Adam, the “local procedure” leaves project tendering and awarding to the Ministry and does not include consultants. It is “the only procedure Maldivians know,” and supports a “culture of embezzling state funds” whereby invoices are frequently submitted, rarely checked, and often paid.

FRC’s procedure is more meticulous and independent, Adam explained. Consultants are included in the bid review process, and officials at local and international FRC offices review projects alongside NDMC officials and consultants.

Had the government been more aware of FRC’s procedures, Adam said it would have noticed that the recently-paid invoice had not been signed by a consultant or passed through the review process at FRC.

The trickle-down effect

Distribution of the Rf18 million (US$110,000) is unclear. One source said it was obvious to anyone familiar with the business community that Dhigali “has profited personally, that he is a crooked businessman is known across the whole Maldives.”

A source familiar with the business community implicated Dhigali in a check fraud case involving companies Apollo and Lotus. The Arif brothers are currently shareholders in Lotus, and were allegedly issued a bad check by Apollo, in which Dhigali is a shareholder.

Other sources believe that anyone involved in processing the payments has also received a share.

The Arif brothers, said to have split associations with Dhigali earlier this year, were reportedly unaware that the payments were made. Ahmed Arif avoided scheduled interviews with Minivan News, and Dhigali did not respond to phone calls.

To date, Moreway’s debt of US$2.3 million has not been paid.

Breaking the Silence

“This is a big fraud and corruption case involving senior members at the government and at NDMC,” said Waheed, who said he suspects political tensions could make the ACC’s investigation difficult. “I’ve told Ilyas and Zaki not to do this. But Ilyas said he is helpless because he is not part of the ruling party. Zaki is MDP, though, and I think the two don’t want to have a conflict.”

While Waheed believes the ACC “is now more professional than before, and we should attach some faith to their investigation,” he chose not to report his findings to the commission.

Instead, he wrote to the President. “Because this involves so many government members I thought it was best to go to the government first, before reporting anything to an outside body. But when I spoke with them they were nervous, they didn’t want this thing to be talked about.”

Minister Inaz had not responded to phone calls at time of press, and Ilyas refused to speak to Minivan News. Deputy Minister Zaki denied all allegations.

ACC’s investigation of NDMC is currently underway.

Correciton: Previously, this article stated “Zaki then took the invoice with comments from Inaz’s desk and passed a new copy to someone else for processing.”

It should have read, “Zaki then took the invoice with comments from NDMC Finance Director Mohamed Shiyam’s desk and passed a new copy to someone else for processing.”

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Finance Minister walks out of negotiations with “politically influenced” youth

Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz yesterda  walked out of a meeting with several young people claiming to represent the ‘concerned youth’ behind the recent week of violent protests in the capital Male’.

Governor of Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) Fazeel Najeeb also attended the meeting.

The faction of the opposition party loyal to former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom have maintained that the protests over rising commodity prices were “youth-led”.

‘’I waited in the meeting until we could address the real issues, but they kept on criticising the government policy and some of the government projects,’’ Inaz told Minivan News. ‘’I did not want to have a heated political debate – we went there to negotiate with the youth regarding the dollar issues, not for a political debate.’’

Inaz claimed that the youth delegation included leader of the opposition-allied People’s Alliance (PA) sports wing, and two others he claimed were ‘’new political figures’’ created by senior party officials.

Inaz explained that government needs to find ways to increase its revenue.

‘’Currently 75 percent of the government’s revenue is spent on salaries. The government did try to decrease the salaries but other state institutions did not support the decision,’’ he said. ‘’There are other necessary things to do such as providing electricity, fix sewerage systems and supply water to those in need.’’

Spokesperson from the youth delegation, Mohamed Ahsan, said the delegation was unable to clarify information from the Finance Ministry as the minister left the meeting.

‘’However, the MMA officials were very cooperative,” he said. “We found out that the government have not been implementing the MMA’s suggestions to its full extent,’’ said Ahsan. ‘’The MMA clarified almost all the information we required.’’

He also said the finance minister “took it politically” because a PA member was present at the meeting.

‘’We have decided to recommence the protests, but due to exams we have temporarily delayed it,’’ he said. ‘’Once the examinations are over we will restart the protests.’’

A first round of negotiations held last week were described as “very upsetting” by the opposition’s Gayoom faction after the delegation accused President’s Office represenative Shauna Aminath of stating that the “political solution” to the country’s economic woes was the arrest for the former President.

Shauna did not comment on whether she had suggested Gayoom be arrested, and said the government was unable to officially respond to the delegation because it was unclear who they officially represented.

“We met with four people who claimed to represent youth,” she said. “They presented a piece of paper they said was a youth proposal, but there was almost no discussion of what was on it.

“They talked a little about youth unemployment, and the rising price of milk, cooking oil and petrol. They said that young people did not have enough money to pay for coffees or petrol for their motorbikes.”

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Education Minister and Deputy Trade Minister joins MDP

Minister of  Education Dr Mustafa Luthfy and Deputy Trade Minister Ahmed Inaz yesterday left the Gaumy Ihthihaadh Party (GIP) to join the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

Last week the MDP National Council announced it was tearing up its coalition agreement with GIP, and requested President Mohamed Nasheed remove all GIP ministers from public office. Economic Minister Mohamed Rasheed was sacked several weeks ago amid ongoing tension between the two parties.

Dr Luthfy, who was deputy leader of GIP, said  he joined MDP not because he had been influenced or under threat of losing his job, but because he felt that it was “the best way to continue serving the people.”

”I discussed it with GIP Leader Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik before taking the decision,” Dr Luthfy said. ”He said it was sad, but said to do as I wished.”

Dr Luthfy said he did not condone criticising the government while he was a member of it.

”I do not know whether GIP might join the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP),” Dr Luthfy said, ”but I noticed that during a recent GIP rally held at Giyasudeen School, a lot of DRP members attended.”

He said that there was no split between the government and GIP, and that the tensions were rather between the two parties.

”The President told me I could stay in the position as an a individual,” he said, ”but I preferred to join MDP of my own wish.”

He said that MDP had invited him to join the party on several different occasions.

Vice President of the Maldives Dr Waheed Hassan Manik, who is also a key figure in GIP, said the decision by Luthfy and Inaz was their own and he had nothing to say.

He said their decision would not affect GIP and that he was not sad about it.

”[Luthfy and Inaz] discussed it with me,” he said. ”I told them to do as they wished.”

MDP Spokesperson Ahmed Haleem said both the Education Minister and Deputy Trade Minister had been serving the party unofficially long ago, in different ways.

”Now have they returned to where they belong,” Haleem said. ”It will be a progress for them.”

He claimed that GIP was now “close to joining DRP”.

”In my political experience I can say that it is very likely to happen,” he suggested.

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