A council in name only

A council in name only
August 05 16:28 2015

On a Monday morning, I walked into the Malé City Council’s new offices at the run-down Huravee building. Some eight staff were squeezed in behind a counter, handing out forms to register births and deaths in the capital. Paint was flaking on the walls, the furniture was mismatched and shabby, and sunlight barely filtered in.

I asked the women behind the counter how they felt about President Abdulla Yameen’s July 23 decision to limit the city council’s powers. Some just stared at me, while others turned away saying they had work to do.

Despite repeated questions, they were reluctant to speak to me.

Just as I was about to leave, I met an elderly woman at the doorway, who pointed to the office space across the way. “That space is bigger, it used to belong to us. But the Housing Ministry has taken it over now,” she said.

The ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) in June amended the Decentralization Act to allow President Yameen to designate the city council’s work.

Deputy Mayor Shifa Mohamed told me on the phone that the opposition-dominated council’s work now revolves around maintaining the registry of births and deaths, the registry of foreigners working in Male’ and maintaining the city’s cemeteries.

“Our staff members are hesitant to talk to anyone about how they feel about the changes because so many employees across the country face the risk of dismissal or other such actions by the government, if found to be critical of the regime,” she said.

The government’s aim is to “ensure that no citizen has to come to Male’ City Council for any services, as the council’s majority is with the opposition,” she added.

Some 9 of the 11 councilors belong to the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

Since President Yameen assumed power in November 2013, the government has gradually stripped the council of its powers and staff. For instance, when the city council tried to replant Areca Palms that had been chopped down by masked men in October, the cabinet announced the council no longer had any power over the roads. Earlier this year, a third of the council’s employees were transferred to the ministry.

The housing ministry finally evicted the council from the City Hall at Galolhu Billoorijehige in April.

Shifa said that with the recent changes, the council is no longer sure how many staff are remaining with them

Councillor Shamau Shareef gave me a tour of the Waste Management Section of the council offices in Malé’s Maafannu ward on Tuesday.

He explained to me that Maafannu space—even more cramped and disorganized than the Huravee building office—is where the administrative branches of the council, including the finance, human resources and procurement sections are housed.

Staff of the finance department were at work on three computers placed on two desks. A make-shift sign on the wall read: “Finance.”

It is here that the 11 councillors also work. But there are no chairs or tables for them.

“We just sit anywhere available we can because we do not have enough space and furniture for work stations,” Shamau said.

The MDP says the amendments to the Decentralization Act has destroyed the decentralization system and reduced the city council to an “administrative desk at the president’s office.”

At the Maafannu branch, a senior staff who wished to remain anonymous said: “We are all demoralized and confused. We are unsure if we will have a job tomorrow, or even if the city council would exist tomorrow.”

I left saddened and angered. Thousands of people, including myself, had voted to elect Malé City’s councilors. To me, the government’s dismal treatment of the councilors and their staff, felt like an act of reprisal against the residents of Malé, simply for having voted for the opposition.

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