The new coalition Government of the Solomon Islands, led by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, promised ethical and transparent government and ‘bottom up’ policymaking with the rural community as the focus of a broad-based economic development policy.
But Solomon Islanders are wondering how all these changes are going to be made when the political culture doesn’t seem to have changed much at all.
The campaign activities that launched the new Parliament in April were basically the same that elected previous governments – and which have compounded the problems over the years. Donors, NGOs and civil society worked hard to ensure people voted wisely. However, Taiwanese slush funds disbursed through the Government enabled the return of 50 per cent of the previous parliament, and with them, many of the old habits.
Newly elected MPs were pressured by those re-elected to follow their lead in the formation of the new Government. Many hadn’t even met each other prior to taking sides. Camped like sports teams in two different hotels, the MPs were herded and guarded by the experienced MPs and their cronies. The presence of one well-known Malaitan MP in one camp caused a group of Guadalcanal MPs to stay in the other camp. It seemed like politics as usual.
Many people felt the only chance for major change in political behaviour was if a new Prime Minister was elected who was untainted by involvement in previous Governments. This was not to be.
Manoeuvering, floor-crossing and regular change of Government is common in Solomon Islands politics, but the violence that has preceded the last two changes of Government is a new phenomenon. For Sogavare, it is the second time he’s become Prime Minister after an outbreak of violence against the Government. The first was after the coup in June 2000 when then Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu was forced to resign and several MPs were frightened away or otherwise prevented from voting in the contest for his successor.
This time, two of those who voted for Sogavare did so from a police cell where they had been remanded in custody for alleged involvement in the riot outside Parliament and the burnings and looting that followed. He rewarded them with Ministries (Justice and Tourism), and national self-esteem took a nose dive.
But hopes rose again when the Grand Coalition for Change (GCC) Government published its policy framework, cobbled from platforms of its coalescing Parties. Despite the rhetoric, many people and donors warmed to it. Promising ethical and transparent government, it stressed equitable distribution of the benefits of development, and that community leaders and provincial governments would play a key role in influencing national policies. Constitutional reform would also be pursued, albeit cautiously.
Sogavare eventually terminated the appointments of the two Ministers in police custody and appointed new Ministers from the backbenches, raising more hopes as people began to feel the new Government was serious, not to be trifled with and could at last speak out on issues on behalf of Solomon Islanders without coordinators and advisors working for the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) having to do so.
Sadly, however, malaise has returned. Almost three months since the new Government came to power, nothing substantial has been accomplished and it seems old habits have re-emerged.
Five MPs crossed the floor in June. Cabinet must keep its backbenchers busy and happy. Idle ones tend to gravitate across the floor. For many years, appointing them as Chairs of State Owned Enterprises (SOE) was the antidote to floor-crossing, but if the Government succumbs again to this, the SOEs and Government itself will be severely damaged.
(Meanwhile, the Minister for Finance, Bartholomew Ulufa’alu, is seriously ill with diabetes and renal failure. A recent former Minister for Finance reputedly favoured by Australia has crossed the floor. If he becomes the new Finance Minister, the Coalition will begin to fray as he is seen by some as a trojan horse for the camp of former PM, Sir Allan Kemakeza.)
Rushed and delayed appointments
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare
The Prime Minister quickly appointed a Senior Permanent Secretary for his own office and announced a three-month delay in the appointment of the others. This week, he rescinded that decision and has rushed through appointments. Seven are new faces, of whom one is a woman. Nineteen are re-appointees, of whom four are women.
Apprehension about RAMSI or at least its Australian influence
Sogavare has announced that he plans to introduce legislation to ensure the command of the Royal Solomon Islands Police is directly under the control of the Government, and has also stated his preference for a Briton to take over from the current Australian Police Commissioner. He raised a few eyebrows by citing controversial lawyer Andrew Nori’s views on this matter. Nori was ‘legal advisor’ to the Malaita Eagles militant group, who were involved in the 2000 coup.
As Prime Minister from July 2000 to December 2001, Sogavare lost control over the Government machinery, watched the plunder of the Treasury and then borrowed millions of dollars from Taiwan to pay off compensation claims against the Government for damage done by militants and criminals. While he co-operated in moves to restore land and order, he also provided amnesty for militant leaders and their soldiers, the coup makers, renegade police, and their advisors. He even persuaded Parliament to change the Constitution to secure their safety from prosecution. He has watched things descend before. What more is he prepared to countenance?
Logging blues and withdrawal symptoms
Unhappiness is prevalent in communities where there have been logging operations. Many islands have no more virgin forests to sell. Some loggers no longer pay royalty advances to secure their continued approvals. Some Islanders have become dependent on these royalties and let their subsistence gardens go unattended. Already riven by disputes over timber rights, many landowning units are very unsettled, which could reverberate into Parliament.
No or slow service delivery
There are some 7000 village communities in the Solomon Islands, according to the 1999 Population and Housing census. Provincial Governments are unhappy about the lack of services from the central Government. One group of outlying Polynesians is talking about seceding because no services have been delivered.
Shipping and commodities
During the period of economic restructuring promoted by the World Bank in the late 1980s, the national Government sold its fleet of ships, which used to visit most islands on a regular basis. The privatised system now only caters for those ports where freight and passenger demand is viable. The rest, which are the majority, are not serviced and are very unhappy.
While commodity prices are generally good, the price of copra, produced in nearly every island, has dropped, as has the price of seaweed. The previous Government slapped a ban on the harvesting of bÃªche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and this has dramatically affected village income levels.
Taiwan vs China
On 13 July the Solomon Star reported that the top official of Taiwan’s International Development Agency is concerned about the misuse of aid monies by leaders in Solomon Islands. He told visiting Pacific island journalists that ‘abusing our financial aid raises serious concerns and we are deeply concerned about this practice in Solomon Islands.’
Cracks in the Grand Coalition emerged when the leader of the National Party announced that his group favoured the ‘one-China’ policy. This was quickly papered over by press releases, but the news was already out: If the National Party wins control, it will ditch Taiwan.
The main impression in Honiara is that the Government is trying to be all things to all people. It would do better to focus on livelihoods and employment by driving policies that put well-earned money into needy pockets. This is what will ensure economic growth and stability in the Solomon Islands.
But the sands of Solomon Islands politics are still shifting and the politicians on those shaky platforms are shifting as well. Add to this RAMSI’s own agenda and the political pot is a concoction of competing demands.
What’s needed to stabilise the country, secure respect for the Government and get on with the job of service delivery is a paradigm shift in political behaviour. The crucial question is: does Sogavare have the political nous, skills and leadership capacity to engineer such a shift?
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