Committee approves amendment for state to cover expenses of president’s and vice president’s private residences

A parliamentary committee has approved amendments proposed to the law governing remuneration and benefits for the president and vice president for the state to cover expenses of the pair’s private residences.

If the president and vice president choose not to live in the official residences, the amendments stipulate that the state should provide employees and cover other expenses out of the budget allocated for the official residence.

The amendments submitted by Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MP Riyaz Rasheed were sent to a select committee for review following preliminary debate on March 31.

The bill was sent to committee with 29 votes in favour and 17 against with no abstentions. While pro-government MPs voted in favour, MPs of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) voted against the legislation.

After completing the review process in two meetings, the seven-member committee voted unanimously to send the bill (Dhivehi) without any changes to the People’s Majlis floor, where it will be put to a vote.

In addition to Riyaz Rasheed, the select committee comprised of government-aligned Jumhooree Party (JP) MPs Ilham Ahmed, Hussain Mohamed, and Ahmed Sameer along with PPM MP Moosa Zameer, Maldives Development Alliance MP Ahmed Amir, and Adhaalath Party MP Ibrahim Muttalib.

The opposition MDP was not represented in the committee.

Immediately after being sworn in on November 17, President Abdulla Yameen announced he and his vice president – Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed –  would be fulfilling a campaign pledge of only taking half of the MVR100,000 (US$6500) salary afforded to the head of state.

“The reason behind this is that Dr Jameel and I both live a simple life. No matter what has been said about us we are not wealthy. We want to be an example to others and lead by example,” Yameen said.

After assuming office, President Yameen announced that he would continue to live in his private residence while Dr Jameel moved into the official vice presidential residence, Hilaaleege.

However, despite Yameen’s decision, the budget allocated for the official residence was increased by MVR2 million (US$130,208) in the state budget for 2014 – rising to MVR19.1 million (US$1.2 million).

In December last year, Parliament’s Budget Review Committee Chair Gasim Ibrahim – leader of the JP – said the increased budget was necessary in case the president decides to move to Muleeage.

Highlighting the increased budget for Muleeage at the time, MDP Spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor described Yameen’s decision to live in his personal house as a “symbolic act.”

“Unlike in the past, even media points out inconsistencies in what leaders say and what reality presents these days. I do not believe the public will be deluded about any of this,” Hamid said.

“While Yameen might have thought his decision will get people thinking that he is a humble man, reality is that ultimately, the state is having to spend much more of its funds to maintain this decision of his. People are much more aware now than in previous PPM times. People can see he’s just trying to score political points.”

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Police ordered to investigate Nasheed administration over SAARC Summit, alcohol

President Mohamed Waheed has ordered police to investigate budget overruns on the 2010 SAARC Summit during the previous administration of Mohamed Nasheed.

The President told a rally last night that he had “used my rights as president” to compel police to investigate the matter, according to local media.

The Auditor General released a special audit report last week on the Summit, alleging several financial discrepancies including an overspend of more than MVR 430 million (US$27.9 million) on the event’s allocated budget.

President Waheed is competing against Nasheed in the September election, along with the head of parliament’s finance committee responsible for commissioning the audit report, Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) candidate.Abdulla Yameen.

According to the report (Dhivehi), former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government spent MVR 667,874,870.84 (US$ 43.3 million), on the summit – 188.82 percent more than the MVR 231,240,000 (US$14.99 million) budget passed by parliament.

Others inconsistencies included payment of MVR 61.8 million (US$4 million) more the amount agreed for the construction of the Equatorial Convention Centre built for the summit, financial losses incurred by the government, violations of Public Finance Act and Public Finance Regulation and wasteful spending.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has meanwhile challenged the intent and credibility of the report, alleging the report “misleadingly” failed to distinguish between the government’s own money and the millions of dollars worth of foreign grant aid the country received to host the event.

Responding to the Auditor General’s claim that the former government had overspent more than MVR 430 million (US$27.9 million), former Housing and Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam said the Indian government had provided grant aid of MVR 267 million (US$17.3 million), the South Korean government MVR 3 million (US$194,552.53), while an additional MVR 2 million (US$129,701.69) was given from a trust fund.

According to the former Minister, when the grant aid was accounted for the deficit stood at MVR 167 million (US$10.83 million) – a third of the audit report’s figure – which had been settled by government’s contingency budget.

“The Auditor General is doing the math and arithmetic without taking these key figures into account. You simply can’t count apples and oranges and decide the total sum of both in apples. We see his findings something similar to counting apples in this manner,” Aslam said.

He also claimed that MVR 64 million (US$4.15 million) spent on building roads in both Addu City and Fuvahmulah was directed to improve the capacity of Southern Utilities Company Limited (SUL) because other companies who proposed to construct the road, including the government’s Maldives Transport and Construction Company (MTCC), were too expensive.

“The Auditor General claimed the government incurred financial losses by giving the project to SUL, and that the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) was actively involved in the construction work. And that government had paid SUL for the voluntary work carried out by the military personnel. What we are highlighting here is that if mathematically calculated, the amount spent on the project did not result in financial losses to the government,” Aslam contended.

He also questioned as to how the Auditor General came to the conclusion that the MNDF had contributed to 60 percent of the total work carried out to hold the SAARC Summit, stating that there was no justification given for the figure.

Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim defended his office, claiming the report was compiled based on information received from current government.

“The [MDP] is alleging that the current government was withholding information from us. We can’t do anything about that. We base our reports based on the information we receive,” he said.

PPM vice presidential candidate Dr Mohamed Jameel meanwhile called for the MDP to account for “economic atrocities”, speaking at a rally on Kulhudhuffushi in Haa Dhaal Atoll.

Alcohol investigation

In a separate investigation, police have re-submitted for prosecution a case involving the alleged discovery of alcohol bottles in the presidential residence on February 7 2012, during the police mutiny that led to Nasheed’s resignation the same day.

The case was first filed by police on April 12 2012, but the case was returned by the PG’s office.

Police Spokesperson Chief Inspector Hassan Haneef confirmed the case, which had been returned by the PG in December 2012 for further investigation, had been resubmitted after police “clarified certain issues” originally highlighted by state prosecutors.

“We have checked these matters and resent the case,” Haneef said.
Haneef downplayed any potential concerns that the resubmission of the case just over a month before the presidential election could be seen as politically motivated.

“This case has been going on for a long time. [Maldives police] work on a case-by-case basis and we have re-sent the case after investigations were completed,” he said.

Nasheed has also faced charges for the military detention of Chief Judge of the Criminal Court Abdulla Mohamed prior to the controversial transfer of power. Nasheed’s government had alleged the judge – who had struck down police warrants for his own arrest and obtained a civil court injunction against his investigation by the Judicial Services Commission – had “taken the entire judiciary in his fist”, among other allegations.

Nasheed and the MDP have maintained that the charges are a politically-motivated attempt to bar him from contesting the elections.

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Police forward case of Muleaage liquor bottles to Prosecutor General

The police concluded its investigations into the alcohol bottles allegedly confiscated from the home of former President Mohamed Nasheed and has forwarded the case to the Prosecutor General’s Office (PG).

In a press conference, Deputy Head of the Drug Enforcement Department, Sub-Inspector Ismail Fareed, noted that all  people questioned regrading the case had fully cooperated.

According to Police Media Official Ahmed Shiyam at the time, the DED investigation of the historical President’s Residence was prompted just hours after he had resigned, when a lorry emerged from the residence with “bags of trash”.

“Security stopped the vehicle and found a number of alcohol bottles in the bags. The police were notified of the situation and an investigation is underway,” Sub-Inspector Shiyam said at the time.

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Nasheed installs solar panels on roof, Obama close behind

President Mohamed Nasheed this morning clambered onto his roof and assisted with the installation of 48 solar panel modules on the presidential residence of Muleaage.

“Solar power helps combat climate change, reduces our dependency on imported oil and most importantly cuts our electricity costs,” Nasheed told assembled journalists, in his bright orange hard hat.

Yesterday, US President Barack Obama announced he would be following suit by lining the roof of the White House with photo voltaic cells and installing a solar-powered water heater.

The Muleaage solar system provides 11.5 kilowatts of peak output, enough to power almost 200 standard 60 watt light bulbs, and will save the country US$300,000 over the life of the system. The panels were donated pro bono by LG Electronics, while Sungevity trained local staff to install and maintain the panels.

Moreover, the system is plugged into the city’s grid and any power not being used will be fed back into the system.

The design itself was competed by Sungevity from its offices in Oakland California, without taking even a tape measure to the president’s roof. Using a software algorithm developed by a high school student at Sydney Grammar School in Australia, aerial photographs of Male’ and trigonometry to determine the azimuth of the President’s roof, Sungevity was able to calculate Muleaage’s solar efficiency with a one percent margin of error.

The company is now conducting an energy audit of the building to identify way to cut energy wastage.

“We are proud he chose Sungevity to coordinate the design of a system from halfway around the world,” said the company’s founder, former Greenpeace campaigner Danny Kennedy. “Saving energy and going solar are the keys to unlocking economic growth and energy security.”

The Maldives is presently entirely reliant on imported fossil fuels, and the high cost of electricity – particularly in islands, where it can double – remains a political hot potato, as well as placing the country at the mercy of fluctuating oil prices.

The country’s state-owned power provider, STELCO, faced a loss of Rf547 million (US$43 million) in 2008 and was operating at a daily loss of Rf320,000 (US$25,000), building up staggering levels of debt.

Significant anger was directed at Nasheed’s government when it raised prices to reflect the real cost of providing the utility, culminating in an opposition-led ‘Red Notice’ protest in May which left scores injured.

Following a tense three-hour stand-off, police used water canons and then tear gas to disperse the crowd and took a number of DRP activists into custody. At street-level politics in Male’, the rising cost of electricity comes second only to fears of rising crime and is a key domestic point of contention with Nasheed’s government. It is not uncommon to hear of families paying up to a third of their incomes to STELCO.

This means that unlike many other countries, the Maldives has a strong political as well as economic imperative to drop the cost with proven renewable energy, suggesting Nasheed’s rooftop antics this morning were less of a publicity stunt and more a way of raising the profile of solar technology as a proven alternative.

“The average price in the US is now US$0.24 a kilowatt, which makes solar power already a third cheaper than grid electricity in the Maldives,” noted Danny Kennedy, in an earlier interview with Minivan News.

“The Maldives can move to clean fuel, hedging against fuel price rises while taking on the vested interests of incumbent technology.”

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