Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare made waves in the region two weeks ago when he expelled the Australian High Commissioner Patrick Cole and accused the Australian Government of ‘meddling’ in local politics.
The ruckus appears to be over Cole’s criticism of a commission of inquiry into the riots in Honiara in April this year, which was to be headed by former Federal Court judge Marcus Einfeld.
Two of the commission of inquiry’s 11 terms of reference relate to whether the charges against two Solomon Islands MPs Nelson Ne’e and Charles Dausabea, who are in jail for their role in the April riots were politically motivated. Interestingly, the terms of reference were reportedly drawn up not by the country’s recently ousted Attorney-General Primo Afeau, but by Australian lawyer Julian Moti a friend of Sogavare’s and the lawyer for the two jailed MPs. (Controversially, Sogavare recently announced that Moti would be replacing Afeau as Attorney-General.)
The Australian Government claims that Sogavare intends to use the commission of inquiry to free the two MPs, and that it subverts the Solomon Islands legal system.
Sogavare says the Howard Government has ‘actively tried to impede’ a lawfully constituted commission of inquiry, ‘while preaching good governance and accountability.’
‘The Government and the people of the Solomon Islands are concerned about the manner in which the Howard Government has continued to subtly dictate the sovereign issues that are beyond the jurisdiction of Canberra,’ he told reporters last week.
The Australian Government responded to Cole’s expulsion by changing the visa arrangements for visiting Solomon Islands MPs, and threatening to cut back aid.
Last week, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer met with his Solomon Islands counterpart, Patteson Oti, in New York, where he made clear the Australian position on the decision . Downer described the meeting as ‘a good opportunity for me to ram home our message about what we think is acceptable and what we don’t think is acceptable.’
The last time a Solomon Islands Prime Minister antagonised the Australian Government, absolutely nothing got better for Solomon Islanders except profits for the logging companies, and even that did not last long.
Before the general elections in 1997, the SI Government was barely on speaking terms with the Australian Government. Then Prime Minister, Solomon Mamaloni, refused to take any of the advice proffered by anyone, least of all Australia. Wallowing in millions of dollars from the export of logs from virgin forests, the SI Government thought it didn’t need any help. Their friends, cronies and business partners gave them all they needed.
In the general elections of 1997, civil society rallied and helped to elect the well-intentioned but short-lived Solomon Islands Alliance for Change (SIAC) Government.
Under the SIAC Government, people suffered the triple whammy of a World Bank restructuring program (tied to loans) including curtailed government spending which meant hundreds of redundancies; a massive drop in revenue from logging exports as a result of the Asian financial crisis; and a general drying up of the economy.
Unrest broke out in two economically deprived areas of the country and the SIAC Government detected signs of an imminent coup. Requests made to the UN and Australia for an intervention fell on deaf ears. Only after the Bali bombing in 2002 did Australia look again at Solomon Islands. A hasty mobilisation the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was mounted in mid-2003.
Australia left it too late to show the SI Government its disdain for unprincipled leadership and undemocratic change of government. Australia should have stepped in as soon as Solomon Islands stepped out of democratic line in June 2000.
Since then, the only way the SI Government has changed hands has been by violence. Whoever gets into power has Taiwan cash to make sure they remain there. MPs believe they can act with impunity and their supporters believe so too.
So what’s different in SI politics today? Apart from the appearance of calm and the absence of gun-toting crooks and militants, there is little to show but continued political instability, corruption and ruptured relations. Our MPs are still wallowing in millions of dollars courtesy of Taiwan ROC. There is still money in the loggers’ war chest that will continue to be available as long as there are logs to be exported and quick profits to be made.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare
There is no doubt that Sogavare is attempting to help his buddies in the klink Ne’e and Dausabea . He owes them big time for their support after the 2000 coup and after this year’s riots when they voted for him from their cells. Sogavare perceives Australia as backing the Opposition and therefore is doing all in his power to maintain his numbers.
Without the Australian Government’s entry onto the political scene, Sogavare might have abandoned these two some weeks ago in return for stability. I believe if Downer and Howard would just leave him alone and let him have more rope, he and his friends will be hoist with their own petard. The letters to the editor in the Solomon Star show the rope is tightening!
The paranoia has set in so badly in the halls of power that Sogavare has directed all planning to be channeled through his Policy Advisory Unit, effectively sidelining the Department of Planning and Aid Coordination. On Monday, 18 September, he told all Permanent Secretaries that he is taking charge of planning. He fired a group of consultants appointed by the previous administration to write a new national economic reform and reconstruction plan.
Most people I know believe Sogavare and his friends have overplayed their hands, thinking the good people of this country will sit down and accept coercion, corruption and bad leadership.
Four months after taking over the Government it looks like Sogavare might soon be headed back to political obscurity. Already political violence is raising its ugly head. The MP who is a witness against the incarcerated MPs who are charged with inciting the April violence had his office attacked by men in balaclavas last weekend. (The MP was also involved in a plan to unseat Prime Minister Sogavare.)
The Royal Solomon Islands Police has stepped up its planning to counter any outbreak of violence. The sizeable military component is on alert.
Meanwhile civil society members are talking about a protest against the controversial appointment of Australian Lawyer Julian Moti who was once charged with the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in neighbouring Vanuatu, but was acquitted as the new Attorney-General .
My, what a tangled web we weave!
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