Solomons: A Nation Not Yet Born?


On 30 May, in a letter to Honiara’s daily newspaper the Solomon Star, a writer quoted the late Prime Minister Solomon Mamaloni as saying in 1988 that the Solomon Islands was ‘a country conceived but never born.’

Prime Minister Sogavare

Local analysts and elder statesmen are still trying to wrap their minds around the aphorism. I agree with the wit who suggested it meant that national leaders started with a good idea, but they haven’t stopped f***ing around!

The spin coming from the current Grand Coalition for Change (GCC) Government led by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is that it wants to stop stuffing around. It has issued a policy framework document which is not yet available on any website, but I attach a copy for New Matilda readers here: (SIPFD A Grand Coalition Word doc)

Prime Minister Sogavare says the GCC’s policies are ‘reform-minded, people-focused and rules-based.’ The document speaks of ‘firm and ethical leadership, clear demarcation of the statutory roles of each arm of Government, accountability, transparency, results-driven, well resourced implementation, a secure environment for economic growth, a financial system that provides access to services for the majority, a fair and equitable justice system, rural development and pursuit of the Millennium Development goals.’

If this is a new direction, what then was the previous thrust?

Such a question helps put the previous Kemakeza-Rini regime (2001-2006) in perspective. They held power and had access to millions of dollars in donor funds, but little else. It was painfully embarrassing for many Solomon Islanders as it must have been for some Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) advisors to realise that nearly all initiatives in the country were the result of RAMSI inputs. This embarrassment fueled the impetus to have a new mindset in government after the recent elections.

RAMSI has had a rough trot here in the past six weeks. On 7 June, the local media carried highly critical remarks of two Australians, both former Royal Solomon Island Police commanders Frank Short and Mike Wheatley (the latter also writing for New Matilda). Their main accusation was that, during the April riots, the experience of the local police was not relied upon to deal with a situation that they had successfully dealt with in the past.

RAMSI Coordinator James Batley and his Kiwi Deputy Paul Ash, both known to be good sports as well as very professional diplomats, are now stepping up to assure the public of the efficacy of RAMSI. Last week, Walkley-award winning journalist Mary-Louise O’Callaghan rejoined the RAMSI HQ team, and press releases are again being issued by RAMSI’s Public Affairs Manager, former ABC journalist Annie McCaig.

Parliamentarians have taken part in a belated induction session, organised through the UN Development Program with Australian funds and facilitated by Dr Michael Morgan of the Australian Labor Party. And in a speech that was published in the Solomon Star on 6 June, Batley and Ash have spoken to Parliament explaining RAMSI and extolling its considerable successes including the rise in government revenue from SBD$258 million (AUD$49 million) in 2002 to the SBD$688 million (AUD$133 million) projected for 2006.

Some on the sidelines think it’s sad that Batley and Ash are now burdened with reviving RAMSI’s image after their police commanders failed to anticipate and deal with the mid-April violence that resulted in the burning of Chinatown. Government is shortly to set up a Commission of Enquiry into the events of 18-19 April and many expect a new Commissioner of Police.

It is true that RAMSI made considerable progress with RAMSI’s advice, and its technical and financial inputs, Government’s revenue collection has improved markedly and the health system is not only restored but much improved. But apart from failing recently to maintain law and order in Honiara, RAMSI’s proposed economic policies saw a handful of people and their corporations make enormous gains, while quality of life in villages sunk to new lows.

A current concern is that RAMSI governance advisors are attempting to alter the current provincial system to reflect the Australian conservative agenda minimising local/regional government and re-centralising power in Honiara. This is anathema to most people after the disastrous years post independence, when central government was captured by political elites, criminals and big business groups that often overlapped. But the RAMSI advisors persist.

If they must alter anything, let it be the electoral system. It is clear the knowledgeable folk want either a limited preferential system or one that eliminates opportunists and conmen from the line-up of candidates.

Another urgent matter is the re-design of the civic education project. Prior to April’s general elections, this was more like a traveling exhibition than an educational experience for adults. Pitched at primary-school level, it made little impact if the results are anything to go by.

Although national sentiment was to attempt a clean sweep of Parliament and start with an untainted cohort, half the previous Parliament were re-elected, most using government and donor funds as inducements in their campaigns. Only the island of Isabel succeeded in a thorough clean-out and the people are understood to be very proud of themselves.

Dr. Roughan

At the end of this week, Cabinet will know who has applied for the extremely important Permanent Secretary posts. The contracts of incumbents expire at the end of June. Writer and activist, Dr John Roughan has already accepted the Prime Minister’s offer to be the Cabinet Secretary the chief Permanent Secretary. This stunned many who perceived Roughan to be anti-government, whichever government was in power.

Originally from New York, Roughan is a former Irish-American Catholic priest who married, and has lived in the Solomon Islands for more than 30 years. Co-founder of the country’s oldest and largest NGO, the Solomon Islands Development Trust, he has been close to the rural scene for many years and writes a weekly column for local newspapers and the web.

He has said he is glad the Government has finally realised that the country’s future lies in rural areas.

This is a man who will surely have baptised many Solomon Islanders in his time. If it’s time for the country to be born, John will be officiating yet again. To help Government realise its plans will take the focus, the commitment and the tenacity of a priest who has given his heart to the Solomon Islands. John can definitely pave the way but the big decisions must still be taken by the politicians.

Let us hope they listen.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.