Umar Naseer, former home minister and presidential hopeful, has been accused of abuse of authority in awarding contracts for activities held in July 2015 to celebrate 50 years of independence.
Shortly after investigators from the anti-graft watchdog went into the home ministry Sunday morning, Home Minister Azleen Ahmed called an impromptu press conference and alleged that his predecessor had awarded contracts in violation of public finance rules.
“We have noticed that work was contracted out without asking for quotations or any prior agreement. We also have information that the responsible person at the procurement department was bypassed and the minister himself awarded contracts to people he wanted,” he said.
Naseer promptly denied the allegations, insisting that all contracts were signed with the finance minister’s written approval.
“I ask President [Abdulla] Yameen to defeat me at the ballot box. Not through ACC or Court,” he tweeted.
According to Azleen, the allegations against Naseer include the awarding of successive contracts to single parties. He added that the prices of goods and services sought by the ministry were exorbitant.
Azleen stressed that he was not blaming a particular individual, but added: “Whoever is in the minister’s role, whether it is me or anyone else, no minister has the power to work against the public financial regulations.”
The minister did not disclose the amount of money alleged to have been spent in violation of the rules.
Naseer meanwhile sent out messages to his supporters on the messaging app Viber, explaining that the Independence 50 celebratory activities were organised by a special office set up by the home ministry and was overseen by a five-member cabinet committee.
“All the 50th independence day works were conducted with the written permission from the then-Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad,” he wrote.
He also stressed that the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Audit Office closely supervised the work of the Independence 50 office.
Desks were set up at the office for officials from both oversight institutions, he added.
“They checked all transactions related to it during that time. By the time the independence day activities had been wrapped up, they had not flagged any issues,” he said.
According to the finance ministry, a budget of MVR150million (US$9.7million) was allocated for Independence Day celebrations.
At the time, Mohamed Hussain Shareef, former presidential affairs minister, was accused of graft in awarding a lucrative contract to the Newport restaurant for the official Independence Day banquet.
But the Prosecutor General’s office later declined to prosecute Shareef after the ACC forwarded charges of abuse of power to unlawfully benefit a third party.
Naseer had meanwhile announced his intention to challenge the incumbent president for the ruling party’s presidential ticket days after his surprise resignation from the cabinet in June.
He has since told local media that he will contest as an independent in the 2018 presidential election, hinting that “political heavyweights” – former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim – would endorse his presidential bid.
Gasim is currently ineligible to contest due to amendments brought to the constitution in July 2015 to set an upper age limit of 65 for the presidency. The business tycoon will turn 66 before the polls.
Other likely contenders were meanwhile convicted and jailed, including former President Mohamed Nasheed, former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, and Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla.
Official Independence Day celebrations had kicked off on July 24, 2015 with the re-opening of the newly renovated Republic Square and a massive fireworks display.
The celebratory activities included a music show with performances from Bollywood pop star Sanam Puri, brass band marches, a float parade, and official games featuring a sky-diving event and a three-hour drill depicting different stages of Maldivian history from the Buddhist-era to the present.
All government buildings, streets, lampposts, communication towers, and hundreds of trees and walls in Malé City and other islands were decked in blinking red, yellow and white neon lights.