Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Lacking wisdom in the Solomons

Today, Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare announced he was replacing his Attorney-General with a controversial Australian lawyer. Many critics fear his move is aimed at releasing two powerful leaders charged over the riots which destroyed the capital Honiara in April. Sogavare told the SMH he had lost trust in the Attorney-General Primo Afeau, after a dispute between the two spilled into a local newspaper. He said he was considering replacing Afeau, who has held the job under four governments, with an Australian lawyer Julian Moti. Moti, an adjunct professor of law at Bond University on the Gold Coast, is a QC in the small Honiara legal set. The Solomons Bar Association has warned against appointing him. Moti was deported in 1994 after giving advice to a governor-general who tried to sack a government which attempted to put controls the country’s Malaysian-dominated logging industry.

Sogavare’s sacking of his Attorney-General is related to Afeau’s support of the public debate on his High Court challenge of the Terms of Reference of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the April riot. Afeau has challenged the two Terms of Reference that touched on the two detained Honiara MPs, Charles Dausabea and Nelson Ne’e, saying he was acting in the public interest. Sogavare countered by saying the government viewed it was in the public interest the COI was established, adding that the fundamental question raised by the April civil unrest was why people reacted and behaved the way they did. However it would appear Sogavare would prefer if the COI did not consider the behaviour of Dausabea and Ne’e. Dausabea is his police minister and Ne’e is his minister for tourism. Both MPs were charged by the Islands' Australian director of public prosecutions John Cauchi with inciting the April rioting in Honiara.

The Solomon Islands achieved self-governance around the same time as neighbour PNG and was granted full independence in 1980. But although the newly-fledged country struggled economically, it was not until the 1997 election of Bartholomew Ulufa'alu as Prime Minister did the Solomons take a serious turn for the worse. Ethnic rivalries plagued the police force and other government agencies. In June 2000 Ulufa'alu was kidnapped by militia members from the island of Malaita (whose migrants form a significant population of the capital Honiara) protesting the government, and he resigned his post in exchange for release. Manasseh Sogavare, leader of the People's Progressive Party, was chosen Prime Minister by a loose coalition of parties. Militants retaliated and sought to drive Malaitan settlers from Guadalcanal, resulting in the closure of a large oil-palm estate and gold mine vital to exports. Two rival armed ethnic factions, the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) and the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF) crippled the country in a wave of violence from 1999 to 2003. The Isatubus of Guadalcanal began to force Malaitans out, accusing them of taking land and jobs. Around 20,000 people abandoned their homes, with many subsequently leaving Guadalcanal.

As a result of the ethnic tensions, the Australian government acted with other Pacific nations to send an armed force into the Solomons. The force was called Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). Fourteen countries have contributed forces to RAMSI: Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and Marshall Islands. It currently includes around 250-300 police officers (the Participating Police Force), 120 civilians and a contingent of military personnel working across all of Solomons provinces. Its mandate is to create “a safer Solomons” by restoring security, maintaining law and order and rebuilding the local police force. It is also rebuilding the public service and working to achieve electoral reform and public education about government. Its final goal is in the area of government finance, aiming to stabilise spending and manage debt repayments.

RAMSI has been a qualified success. It largely restored law and order, removed many weapons from the streets, and got the government machinery moving again. However its credibility was severely tested by the riots in April 2006. The riots occurred after newly elected Prime Minister Snyder Rini was alleged to have used bribes from Chinese businessmen to buy the votes of members of Parliament. This unleashed deep underlying resentment against the minority Chinese business community and led to a 2 day mass riot and the destruction of Honiara’s Chinatown. RAMSI officers were overwhelmed and over 30 were injured in the violence. In response, Australia, NZ and Fiji dispatched extra police and defence personnel to the capital. On 26 April, Rini resigned before facing a motion of no confidence in Parliament. The news caused celebrations in the streets of Honiara. His successor, Manasseh Sogavare, took office on 4 May. It is Sogavare’s second term in office having served as PM for 18 months between the middle of 2000 and the end of 2001. Sogavare controversially appointed the two MPs facing trial as government ministers. Corruption remains endemic throughout the islands while prosperity is elusive. The three year civil war left the country almost bankrupt, and the April riots quashed some of the advances made since 2003. Similar to its fellow Melanesian neighbours PNG, Timor Leste and Papua, the future remains uncertain for the Solomons.

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