How much is your MP worth?

How much is your MP worth?
March 07 23:31 2016

By Hassan Moosa and Zaheena Rasheed

Eight MPs of the Maldives’ 85-member parliament have publicly declared their assets in response to a social media campaign launched by anti-graft NGO, Transparency Maldives.

National frustration is boiling over corruption.

An audit report published last month revealed that some US$80million was stolen from tourism leases by officials of President Abdulla Yameen’s administration.

The opposition and the former auditor general are accusing the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives of having siphoned public funds to steal elections and bribe judges, security forces and MPs across the political spectrum. The president has denied wrongdoing, but admitted that the stolen money may have been used “to help” MPs.

The Haamakurey or “Make it Public” campaign appears to be gaining traction by the day, and fuelled debate on loopholes in current practices. It has also triggered a backlash from MPs of both the ruling and opposition parties.

Some have claimed that information on their income and assets is private, while others argued that publishing details with a weak asset declaration regime was ineffective. Still others said the focus on MPs has shifted the conversation away from the ruling party’s alleged involvement in the tourism corruption scandal.

The first MP to publish his disclosure forms was Ali Hussein of the Jumhooree Party.

According to the brief submission published on Ali’s Facebook on Thursday, he has US$12,807 in bank accounts in his name, and owns two vehicles and a law practice.

MP Mohamed ‘Rukuma’ Abdul Kareem of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party followed suit on Sunday. “I do not believe I have to list my assets publicly for the whole of Maldives and the world to see,” he wrote on Facebook. “I believe that only my constituents have a right to see this, but I am making it public reluctantly this once.”

According to the statement, Rukuma has less than a thousand dollars in his bank accounts, and had spent nearly half a million rufiyaa on expenses for his family and another half million on charity for his constituents in the past year.

MDP MPs Eva Abdulla, Ali Azim, Ibrahim Mohamed Didi and Mohamed Falah, and independent MP Ahmed Mahloof also published their statements today.

While parliamentarians are obliged to submit their business and financial interests to the People’s Majlis annually, they are not required to make the information public. The parliament’s secretariat has previously refused to release financial disclosure forms claiming they were private.

Critics of Transparency Maldives’ campaign have noted that since the submissions are not audited, there is no way to verify MPs’ claims. Still others have questioned how effective a social media campaign would be in pressuring MPs to disclose information.

Ahmed ‘Forme’ Mohamed, who is spearheading the asset declaration effort, said the campaign was “an important first step towards tackling issues of grand corruption that has become prevalent across the country.”

Transparency Maldives itself has noted weaknesses in the Maldives’ asset declaration regime. Chief among concerns listed in a 2014 paper is that public officials are not required to declare assets and income of their spouses and relatives.

“This increases the risk of corrupt officials using the names of their family and relatives to hide their assets, which makes cases of illicit enrichment and conflicts of interest invisible and harder to detect. Moreover, the disclosure of business and activities outside the jurisdiction of Maldives, and details of substantial gifts or benefits are also not a requirement in the current system.”

The system is ineffective, the paper contended, because of the absence of a verification mechanism and lack of legal provisions to penalize those who do not declare assets.

The watchdog Anti Corruption Commission has further said that even if a public official is accused of illicit enrichment, it would be difficult to prosecute them as the outdated anti-graft law does not criminalise illegally obtained wealth.

MDP MP Fayyaz Ismail meanwhile raised a different concern; saying that a truthful declaration of his assets would put his businesses and his partners at risk of government sanctions.

“I am somewhat concerned because repercussions are certain in this current political environment. I must discuss with my partners before risking our businesses,” he said in a series of tweets on Sunday.

In a Twitter post on Monday, he announced that he would not disclose his statements publicly, but would “entertain” private requests to view information.

MP Ahmed Nihan, who heads the PPM parliamentary group, said an independent body must be established to audit MPs financial statements before they are made public.

“The current statements do not include a breakdown of how the member have spent their earnings over the past year, which means a member can claim that he or she spent most of it on their constituency. This brings into light the culture of patronage in our society, which has to end,” he said.

Nihan, who heads a group of some 60 MPs, a majority of the parliament, refused to answer questions on whether the PPM would introduce legislation to strengthen the system.

Despite the criticism, Thoriq Hamid, also of Transparency Maldives, said their campaign has started a conversation on steps to combat corruption.

“Once a person runs for public office, the person is giving up some aspects of their privacy for the greater public good. In this case, the greater public good is to limit the ability of MPs to abuse their positions to amass personal wealth,” he said.

“At the least, it provides some level of public scrutiny in the absence of any formal scrutiny.”