VIEWPOINT: THE POLITICS OF PEACE IN THE SOLOMONS

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By Dr. Tarcisius K. Tara

SUVA, Fiji Islands (April 29, 2002)---In September 2001 I was in Honiara for the review of the implementation of the Townsville Peace Agreement (TPA). Two things that occurred during that trip convinced me of the need to reassess the Solomon Islands peace processes.

The first was the assault, on September 19, 2001, of a Civil Society leader by a senior officer of the Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP). The incident occurred during lunch break and was witnessed by about a hundred people, including the then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for National Unity, Peace and Reconciliation; other senior police officers; senior government officials; representatives of provincial governments; members of Civil Society; and other prominent citizens. The police officer was in uniform and cheered on by other officers (who were yelling, waving their fists in the air, acting invincible, and maybe imagining themselves to be Rambos).

The second incident was the brutal murder of Selwyn Saki. I remember vividly that afternoon on September 23, 2001 when I stood in the morgue at the Central Hospital and stared at the body of my wantok and friend being examined by the doctor and his assistants. I was wrapped in emotion and tears rolled down my cheeks as I embraced his body.

A few days after Selwyn was buried I was taken to the Rove Police Headquarter and assured by two senior police officers that a special unit had been established to investigate the killing and that the police knew the people involved. I was assured that justice would be administered. What saddens and frustrates me is that six months after this incident the investigation into Selwyn's murder has stalled and those responsible have not been apprehended.

I mention the above incidents not because they are more important than other similar events. Rather, it is because they highlight issues that must be addressed if real peace is to be achieved. These issues are both conceptual as well structural and political. They include: (i) our definition of peace - what do we mean by peace?; (ii) the credibility and capacity of the state; (iii) the government's inability (or maybe unwillingness) to take decisive actions; and, (iv) the corruption and greed that weaves through the fabric of our society.

First, let us look at the conceptual issue, the definition of peace. Some of you might see this as an academic exercise not relevant to situations on the ground. It is, however, useful to define and be clear about what constitutes peace: its characteristics and nature. It is only when we know what it is, can we then work out strategies for achieving it, knowing when we've achieved it, and assessing our success.

In dealing with the Solomon Islands crisis there is an underlying assumption (among both Solomon Islanders and international leaders and organizations) that peace is simply a state-of-being where there is an absence of tension and overt violence. Hence, it is often argued that to create peace all one needs to do is prevent the opportunity for tension and violence.

Such a view does not allow for "real" conflict resolution process to take place and is not bothered with addressing the underlying causes (or reasons) for a conflict. Consequently, it generates a superficial, Band-Aid, approach to resolving conflicts. There is no real "conflict resolution," only a suppression of what are perceived as "rebellious elements." It targets the symptoms of a problem, not the causes.

It is such a perception of peace that has, so far, informed and influenced the peace process in Solomon Islands. The TPA, for instance, was designed to address the symptoms of the problem: stop overt violence between two supposedly homogeneous groups. While the rhetoric of the TPA pretends to address the causes of the conflict, in reality it did not.

(In mentioning the TPA and its weaknesses I must admit that I am partly to be blamed. I participated in the TPA and had anticipated -- to a certain extent -- the problems that would follow. I am, therefore, guilty of not directing the discussions further than merely addressing the symptoms. I accept responsibility for my failures. But, even if I had wanted to, the circumstances -- the time (four days), people involved, pressing issues at that time, etc. -- would not have allowed us to explore these issues in detail. However, let me not make excuses for my failure).

Let us begin our examination of peace by outlining two important aspects of the concept. The first is the need for justice. As mentioned above, peace is not merely the absence of tension and overt violence. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."

Here, the term justice could be defined to encompass the notion of restorative justice -- note, I said "restorative justice," not "ignoring justice." This involves a reconciliation process that encourages the restoration of relationships between families, communities and our nation. The process must provide an opportunity for those who did wrong to admit their faults and be held accountable for it. Furthermore, those who were wronged must be apologized to and be given the opportunity to forgive and come to terms with their loss. Reconciliation must involve restoring relationships among people at all levels of society.

In this process, "former" militants (from all sides) must admit to the nation that they did wrong and must come to terms with the consequence of their action. This could involve the return of remains of people killed and other public expression of remorse. It should not simply be a bunch of words in parliament or from a mountaintop. The details of such a process is something that could be discussed and the more contribution we get, the better.

The administration of justice could also be a legal one. It could involve, for instance, the investigation of those who participated in (either planning or executing) the coup of June 5, 2000. This is particularly pertinent now given the body of jurisprudence established by the George Speight case in Fiji. As a nation we cannot continue to pretend that it is proper to forcefully overthrow a civilian government. To do so would be to set a dangerous precedent. It implies that if one disagrees with political processes and outcomes all one needs to do is put a gun on the Prime Minister's head and force his government out of office.

In his press statement on June 5, 2000, Andrew Nori alluded to a "group" that was involved in planning and executing of the coup. I wonder who they were and where they are.

Some will argue that those involved have been given amnesty under the TPA. Note, however, that the amnesty provision of the TPA is based on the condition that arms were returned. That has not happened. Those people involved in criminal activities are, therefore, not entitled to an amnesty.

The second aspect of peace I want us to examine is the relation of power in a state of peacefulness. There is a tendency to assume that peace is a state-of-being where everyone has equal control over society or exercises an equal amount of power over society; that there is a balance of power. Such an assumption is misleading. Peace is a state-of-being where: (i) there is an unequal balance of power; and, (ii) a general acceptance of that unequal relation of power.

Peace negotiations involve the bargain for power -- control over society. In cases where the state is involved, state representatives usually attempt to convince citizens (and other groups contesting for control of society) that the state is the best institution to monopolize control and that the state could be trusted to look after their interests and welfare. Consequently, citizens are persuaded to give up certain rights to the state. What we then regard as peace and stability is, in fact, a situation that comes about when the state claims monopoly over violence and the citizens generally accept it. That monopoly could be acquired either by convincing citizens or by repressing them.

With the present situation in Solomon Islands, we cannot have peace because many citizens cannot trust the state and the present government. Consequently, if one does not trust the government, then why should one give up his or her rights for the "common good." Indeed, one could ask whether the government in Solomon Islands represents the "common good."

The questions that follows from the above discussion are: (i) why is it that many people do not trust the state, or, at least, the present government?; (ii) why is the current peace process unsustainable?

The implication of the above statements is that many Solomon Islanders do not trust the state and government. Unfortunately, I do not have the space here to explore this. But, assuming that my assertion on the general lack of trust in the state (and the current government) is correct, then let me answer the above questions.

To answer the first question, one needs to examine the credibility of the state and government. The Solomon Islands state is relatively weak. It is unable to maintain social control, ensure societal compliance with official laws, preserve stability and cohesion, encourage societal participation in state institutions, provide basic services, manage and control the national economy (or what is left of it), and retain legitimacy.

This is due to other related factors: (i) corrupt leadership; (ii) the hijacking of the state to meet personal interests; (iii) poor economy; and (iv) the government's inability (and in some cases unwillingness) to take decisive actions.

What evidence do I have to make these claims? Well, it is common knowledge that our country's economy is deteriorating. I do not need to elaborate on that. Let me begin by looking at the issue of corrupt leadership. Here, the term corruption is used generally to refer to the use of public office for private gain. There are extensive examples of this in Solomon Islands.

Let me examine the incident where the Prime Minister, last year, paid himself $800,000 in compensation payment. The Peoples Alliance Party, in nominating him as their candidate for PM, argued that he was rightly entitled to this payment. But, in case the PM forgot, at the time when he paid himself that money there were also hundreds of other Solomon Islanders waiting to be paid compensation payments that they were rightly entitled to. Unfortunately for them, they did not have access to (and control of) a public office that they could use for private gains. That was what the PM did: used a public office for private gain and jump the queue ahead of other citizens. Furthermore, the $800,000 came at a politically convenient time; just before the election campaigns begun.

It is well known in the country who were the ones benefiting from the government's compensation scheme. After you finish reading this article, sit down and make a list of those who had, so far, benefited most from the scheme. You will be amazed with the kinds of names that jump out. I could go on and discus other examples of corruption. But, I think you already get the point.

Related to the issue of corruption is the fact that certain individuals and groups have "hijacked" the state and manipulated it to meet private interests. Hence, the locus of power is no longer vested in the state and its institutions, but has shifted to the hands of individuals and groups who use the state to legitimize the assertion of their interests.

The coup-makers and militants, for instance, continue to influence the state by intimidating its officials with guns they had stolen from the police. In another example, Andrew Nori, (through his law firm) made more than $500,000 in legal fees for representing the MEF, a non-state organization. Don't you think its weird that the state should be paying the bills of a non-state organization? In his public relations campaign -- an attempt to reinvent himself -- Nori said there was nothing wrong with that payment since it was the MEF that requested it from the government. Well, that argument is not convincing. What the Bigman from Areare did not say was that the payments were made by the government that he helped put in place, and kept under duress through the guns that his clients possessed and used to intimidate the state.

Oh, I nearly forgot. Of course he will argue that he and his counterparts did not put the Manasseh Sogavare-led government in office. It was done legally through a parliamentary process. But, what he will not admit is that the previous SIAC government was forced out of office and that the subsequent government was elected under duress. Indeed, those who put the government in office virtually influenced it, and could instruct it to pay people like Nori enormous amounts of money in legal fees.

Let me now discus what I mean by the government's inability (and in some cases unwillingness) to take decisive actions. This is related to my notion of a weak state. The government's inability or unwillingness to do anything is due to both institutional as well as personal reasons. Institutional factors include the poor economy, the inefficiency of the public service, etc.

I want to dwell on the personal factors in some detail. Let us be blunt about this: there are some individuals who are benefiting from the crisis. It is, therefore, not in their interest to change things. They will, consequently, compromise the common interest for their personal interest.

To illustrate this, first, let us look at the role of the police, the law enforcement institution (well, that was what it was supposed to do). Let me first say that I give due respect to the police officers who genuinely struggled to uphold the law both during and after the crisis. You know who you are. I am also conscious of the fact that my statements here could earn me a place in the prestigious list of "Solomon Islands Most Wanted." But, whether I make it into that list or not isn't important. What is important is that Solomon Islanders must publicly ask questions such as: (i) Whose interest does the police serve?; (ii) Who controls the police?; (iii) Can the police be trusted?

Generally, the RSIP is corrupt, undisciplined, biased and dysfunctional. Ooops!! I shouldn't have said that! Well, I said it already, so let me continue. If a senior police officer could assault a member of the public and get away with it, then it leaves a lot to be desired. If police officers could participate in the forceful overthrow of a civilian government and then be promoted, then it means that something is terribly wrong. If police officers could threaten public officers and demand the payment of their salaries -- including danger (from themselves) allowances -- then it means that we have a force littered with criminals. How could we then expect them to contribute to the peace process?

The coup also involved police officers who took an oath to protect the civilian government of our nation. They were supposed to be the ones to uphold the rule of law. Yet, they were the ones who enthusiastically raided the police armory -- a property of the state -- and helped in executing the coup. How could the public then be expected to trust the police? We must let police officers know that coup making is not part of their duty.

Another reason why we cannot trust the government is because those in positions of power have either violated the trust of the nation or collaborated with those who did. A classic example is a statement by the PM. Hours after his election as PM, Allan Kemakeza declared his friendship with militants: "I am a friend of the militants." That is a politically convenient statement, but one that subjects the government to the criminal actions of militants.

The PM did not define the term "militant." But, it would not be absurd to assume that he was referring to every gun-tooting Tom Dick and Hurry who has made a career out of demanding compensation, looting, and generally refusing to conform to the law. The same laws that the Prime Minister was supposed to represent.

So, in case you haven't realized, what the PM was saying was that his friends include those people who tied Percy McSweeny, the son of Lino and Ghoreti, and stoned him to death on the Weather Coast late last year. His friends also include those who killed an old man at Suava, North Malaita last year, as well as those who regularly visit the treasury office with guns and demand for salaries they never worked for. His friends also include those who tortured Reginald Billy on the Weather Coast and left him without food for a week. Or, yes, his friends also killed Selwyn Saki. The PMs friends were also involved in the shootout at the Fishing Village earlier this month.

When you come to think about it, it's frightening. We have a PM (and possibly a government) that has, as friends, people who had plundered our country. So, one could assume that the PM and the militants belong to the same group. For, if the PM is really interested in peace then he would have asked his good friends -- the militants -- to give up their guns and start contributing productively to our country. But, maybe that is not in the PM's interest.

So, if the militants are the PM's friends then what about the rest of us. I suppose, we could be their enemies. Or, maybe we are subjects needed to justify their existence as leaders. Or, better still, we are citizens needed to attract aid funds that would then be redirected to fill the pockets of the PM and his friends.

Given the fact that the above issues have not been resolved, we cannot expect the current peace process to succeed. Furthermore, our thoughts about peace must be redefined to include justice and building citizen's trust in the state and the government in power. How do we do that? This is a question I intend to answer in my next piece.

For now, I will leave you in peace to reflect about peace, for our country needs peace, before it falls into pieces. For me, I shall temporarily retreat into the abyss and pray to Qareghoba, Chacha, Tuimauri, Marama, and the tarunga of Vatupochau and Tatuve to guide me in my reflections.

* Dr. Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka is a lecturer in politics at the University of the South Pacific. The views expressed here are his personal opinion and do not represent the USP where he is employed.

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