ASSESSING CONFLICT IN THE SOLOMON ISLANDS

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This article was published in the February 2001 edition of the Pacific News Bulletin, monthly magazine of the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre.

John Roughan of the Solomon Islands Development Trust (SIDT) attempts to place the Solomon Islands social unrest into a context.

By John Roughan

The Solomon Islands currently faces not one but three conflicts. The three conflicts do get mixed one with the other, and have been known to cross over and make matters more difficult to handle. Some combatants can be found in all three camps. It is vital, however, that donors recognize the nation’s three conflicts so that their aid packages do no harm but help the nation.

Conflict 1.

Battle between IFM and MEF

Of course the Isatabu/Eagle’s shoot-up attracted and still attracts the greatest attention. After all, much suffering, death and destruction was carried out in its name in the 20 or so months it grabbed local and international headlines. Basically, however, that armed conflict is in wind-down mode but it has the real potential of breaking out once again. The 400+ heavy duty weapons in Malaita Eagle Force hands remains a nagging worry but fortunately Honiara’s bunkers, road blocks and strutting Rambos no longer fill the local scene.

Conflict 2.

Governance and mismanagement

Two other conflicts, however, continue to plague the nation with little change except that they have become more pervasive and stronger. Conflict 2, now more than 20 years old, wages an active campaign against the majority of the nation. The leaders of Conflict 2 operate under the assumption that the government purse, national resource base and the country’s wealth belongs primarily to them, their family and their cronies. Although their policies and performances do not directly kill or wound as in the Conflict 1 situation, their misallocation of resources away from village people to themselves effectively do much the same kind of damage.

From the earliest days of independence, through the logging period in the late 1980s and middle 1990s politicians, bureaucrats, local leaders, power brokers, conmen and their hangers-on sought to milk the national treasury dry by different get rich schemes. Sometimes it took the form of inviting foreign logging firms that would bring ‘development’ to their people but especially for themselves. Provincial and local leaders as well must be counted among those who saw the local resource as somehow a personal, private good able to be converted to dollars for themselves.

The most profitable way of getting rich quickly, however, has been to tap into foreign aid monies. The World Bank Education loan in the late 1980s, for instance, featured a neat way for national leaders to siphon off development monies into their own pockets. An inconclusive court case or two proved that monies had been diverted but how much and to whom were never conclusively proven. In 1997, for instance, Prime Minister Solomon Mamaloni, publicly accused a number of senior public servants of having misused millions of dollars of public funds. To this date the court hearing of this case has yet to be scheduled.

The most recent example of this kind of mismanagement of public funds couldn’t have hit the nation, especially its village copra producers, at a worse time. The Commodities Export Marketing Authority, CEMA, ran out of money by squandering more than $33 million over the past two years by buying three rust-bucket South Korean ships, financing a Russell Islands tourist resort, and constructing a flashy Honiara office complex. Now, CEMA does not have enough money to buy copra from the rural dweller who desperately need cash for school fees, food and other essentials. It is highly unlikely that any senior CEMA official, management or board member, will suffer anything more devastating than a public humiliation.

Recently, on the last day of parliament, government distributed a million dollars to its 50 members to return to their people to talk about peace. Although each member already receives a $20,000 yearly touring allowance to do this kind of work, an extra $20,000 was given at a time of extreme national financial weakness.

Case after case of the country’s elite attracting perks over and above what the national budget can afford continues without let up. Conflict 2 groups are power brokers who drain off national resources for personal good. They continue to grow unchecked in spite of the country’s growing levels of bankruptcy. Bartholomew Ulufa’lu’s government recognized it as a cancerous growth and attempted to establish a minimum of transparency and accountability within the governmental system. It would not be far off the mark to say that the Conflict 2 group members were heavily involved in Conflict 1’s coup which brought the Ulufa’alu attempts at better government to a screeching halt. Members from this group were more than a little involved with the continuation of the unrest for more than 20 months.

An unsettling pattern of official behavior currently grips the nation. During the recent Parliament meeting, not one MP, neither from the government nor the opposition side, mentioned the need of creating an official body to examine and study the whys and wherefores of the nation’s unrest over the past two years. When 15 people lost their lives in the 1991 Solair plane crash the Mamaloni’s government immediately commissioned an official inquiry. It could not wait for parliamentary approval. Although its findings have yet to be made public, the government of the day knew that an official study of the incident had to take place to determine why 15 Solomon Island citizens and other nationals had died.

Since late 1998, however, at least 100 of our citizens have been killed, thousands hurt and literally tens of thousands made homeless and yet the government remains silent on its causes, who did what and why were these things done. The present-day Amnesty Act merely shields certain people who have committed serious criminal acts from prosecution. It passes no judgment on those who have betrayed their people, destroyed a nation and brought the country into international disrepute.

The 2001 national elections must be contested by leaders who have not betrayed, destroyed and ridiculed the soul of the nation. Solomon Islanders must be clearly informed about those who have sold their country out for personal gain and those who acted for the good of the nation. Parliament, as the people’s servant, owes it to them to clearly identify which leaders willingly destroyed the nation and those who are innocent of such a charge.

CONFLICT 3.

Lawlessness

Conflict 3, as old as humanity itself, wages war against Civil Society and is conducted by thieves, thugs and opportunists whose work has been immeasurably strengthened by the nation’s lack of an effective police force, limping court system and non operational prison service. Society’s lawless sector daily mocks ‘law and order’ basics by acts of blatant intimidation, outright thievery and the growing use of violence, e.g. the use of the ‘poor man’s bomb’, arson, to meet its demands from banking and business houses.

Aid must do no harm

All three conflicts, moreover, interact with each other but should be understood as separate realities that aid, both developmental and emergency, must distinguish one from another. For instance, initially developmental aid must focus on Quick Impact Projects that make a direct difference to village lives.

Villagers remain the heart of the nation but over the past quarter of a century have been the least helped, their life-style has deteriorated markedly and today’s health, education and social services to them have fallen from already low levels of the late 1970s. Such steep village deterioration provides a powerful explanation of the country’s current social unrest.

Yet government post-crisis plans concentrate on road, wharf and airfield projects that will have little direct impact on village life, will take years to complete and allow the Conflict 2 group to siphon off their usual cut. Government constantly talks about BTOs (Big Time Operations . . . building up of provincial headquarters, mining on Isabel, new oil palm plantations on the Western Province, new port of entry in southern Malaita) being the answer to the country’s unrest problems.

However, unless village life is significantly up graded with better access to water, food and preventative health strategies, e.g. treated mosquito nets, family toilets, primary health care, then the quality of its life will continue to drop. Young militants returning to village life had better find a better scene than the one they abandoned during their war days. If not, then the heavy-duty weapons which many still have access to will once more come into use.

Civil Society’s church groups, women’s organisations and NGOs could act as the organizational underpinnings of this reach out to the village. It would be difficult to find a village that does not interact with one or more of these organizational networks. These organisations would be well placed to carry out the investment of funds needed to raise the quality of village life.

Once direct village investment becomes a reality, the next level of aid assistance is better education opportunities, well stocked rural clinics and a network of close-by markets, access to social services of post office, banking and government information centers. Once these service outlets begin to emerge and grow in rural areas, then the multi-million dollar project the BTOs of airfields, roads and wharves will find a place, but not before.

Summary

This Civil Society plan focuses on enhancing the quality of life for the majority of people. The Solomons recent social unrest underscores national government weaknesses since independence. The re-structuring of direct investment into people’s lives and calling upon Civil Society to be actively engaged in this work underscores the reasons why Conflict 1 combatants took up arms in the first place. Further, a village investment plan should dry up Conflict 2 groups wealth source, and help build up the security system of police, courts and prisons to combat those waging Conflict 3.

Conflict 2 leaders are recognized as corrupt and incompetent by the international community. If aid is directed initially to villages, away from BTOs, aid donors are both addressing the roots of national malaise as well as weakening the position of Conflict 2 leaders. Hopes for the democracy that New Zealand, Australia, UK, etc. seek so desperately, rest with national leaders who do not rely on aid exploitation to maintain their lifestyles.

John Roughan has been in the Solomons since 1958 when he arrived as a Catholic priest from the United States. After 18 years working as a priest, he married a woman from Malaita and then went off to the University of Hawaii and East-West Center to finish a Ph.D. in Political Science. On his return to the Solomons in 1980 he founded the Solomon Islands Development Trust (a local NGO), and has been working with the organization as Advisor ever since.

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