Independence and the Pacific


After a solid month of rain in Port Vila, great sodden cavities open up in the road like tunnels to the underworld.

The road around Efate, the main island of Vanuatu, is worse. With bad suspension, it can take an hour to reach a village twenty kilometres away. Before each election, politicians promise to fix the roads, and then lose interest once they’ve won.

‘The state of your roads is a perfect reflection of a failed independence,’ wrote New Caledonian Kanak tourist Maximilien Goyetche in a letter to the editor of weekly newspaper The Independent recently. ‘I’d rather remain with France and be French. Black, but French. We have good roads in New Caledonia, we have nice cars Why would I trade this for the heap of shit like you have?’ he said.

With Vanuatu’s silver jubilee of independence coming up in July, the viability of this independent small island state is a hot topic. Vanuatu is only a youth scrambling up the banyan tree of nationhood, and preparations for the upcoming jubilee are powered by the energy and enthusiasm of adolescence, too. There has been much talk about commemorative T-shirts and marquees in Independence Park, a(nother) public holiday and an amplified celebration that evokes cries of, ‘Ah-weh! We won’t sleep for a week!’

Custom meets Christianity at a women's day ceremony -<br />
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<p><span><small>Custom meets Christianity at a women’s day ceremony<br />
 – photo by Kelly Chandler</small></span></td>
<p>Beneath the whoops of anticipation there is a fierce defence of hard-won independence. It took time, but the people wrestled control with relatively little bloodshed  “ at least when compared with fruitless struggles in neighbouring states like New Caledonia, whose resistance had the heart ripped out of it when leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou was assassinated in the late 1980s.
<p>In 1980, Vanuatu’s independence movement, with Father Walter Lini at the helm, finally negotiated for the French and British to pull up stumps after a chaotic century of joint rule. When the condominium withdrew, ni-Vanuatu were left with a traditional chiefly system fractured by colonialism and Christianity, and supplanted by the Westminster system. But they also had sovereignty, their dignity and the right to define themselves as a nation. It was time to make their own way, their own decisions and their own mistakes.
<p>Independence is a matter of ego: the ego trip of the powerful, who are reluctant to relinquish control, and the battered ego of those seeking freedom.
<p>The tangible benefits of independence, however, seem elusive to the likes of Goyetche, and perhaps the state of Vanuatu’s roads is an analogy for deeper potholes in the psyche of a young republic.
<p>It is true that in Vanuatu there is no such thing as town planning, the health system is ailing in the capital and almost non-existent in the outer islands, and only 40 percent of ni-Vanuatu continue with their studies past class six, mostly because it is too expensive and students are required to travel between islands to attend school. There is no welfare system, the population is bulging, unemployment is high and people are drifting to the urban centres in search of non-existent work.
<p>This story has resonance in many countries throughout the Pacific, where development is hindered by a number of inbuilt obstacles. There are small populations and great distances to major markets, while limited economic diversity, minimal trade, troubled infrastructure and weak governance frameworks lead in the worse cases to social and political instability of the kind that almost collapsed Solomon Islands.
<p>‘Fragile states’ is the how the Australian government rebadged the unpopular moniker of ‘failed states’ in its 2005 budget  “ semantics designed to appeal to the bruised dignity of nations struggling with self-governance. Under the fragile states initiative, $850 million is allocated to the Solomon Islands for the next four years, mostly for the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), while Papua New Guinea receives $492 million for 2005, for the ongoing restoration of infrastructure and security.
<p>Foreign aid plays a large role in the Pacific, so while nations have won their freedom in one respect, another form of dependency is developing. But there are limits to how much intervention autonomous countries will tolerate from foreigners. PNG recently exercised its prerogative by ousting the Australian Federal Police.
<p>The previous Vanuatu government also attempted to oust the AFP after relations broke down between then Prime Minister Serge Vohor and the country’s biggest aid donor, Australia, in mid-2004. True to Vanuatu’s chaotic parliamentary system, Vohor found himself out of power by the end of the year, and the new prime minister moved to shore up the $30 million in Australian aid that had been promised, with a $10 million sweetener if Vanuatu addressed the principles of ‘good governance’.
<p>A big bush knife is needed to carve a path wide enough to be shared by custom chiefs, the legislature and the judiciary in the principles of good governance and transparency  “ words so well exercised internationally. There is a need for foreigners to provide ni-Vanuatu with the tools and experience to build their nation soundly, but this assistance must respect the pride and independence of the culture, and come without a hint of condescension.
<p>In New Caledonia, the streets of Noumea are almost devoid of Kanak culture and major decisions about life in this Pacific paradise must go through France. Meanwhile, in Vanuatu, custom life is vital to the people and there are ni-Vanuatu working in all levels of business and government toward a future that is autonomous and functional.
<p>‘We know our country is in a bad shape, but be informed we are struggling for constructive solutions. We want to be Kings and Queens in our own land,’ says Jemmis Alain Henri, a musician from popular band XX Squad.
<p>Twenty-five years is not long in the scheme of things, as journalist Len Garae, who writes for the daily paper, pointed out in his reply to the cranky Kanak. It takes time to build a nation. </p>
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