By Transform Aqorau

HONOLULU (Pacific Islands Report, May 8) –The denial by the former Prime Minister and some politicians of corruption in Solomon Islands is amazing, if not, astounding. Corruption is an open secret in Solomon Islands.

Just what is it, and how does it manifest itself? Corruption is the use of one’s office for personal gain or advantage. If it is accepted that this is corruption then by logical extension, it is perpetrated by those in positions who are able to use their office for personal gain or advantage.

Examples are government ministers, land officers, fisheries, forestry, immigration, labour, Honiara Town Council officials, motor vehicle licensing officers, and education officials. There is also corruption at the community level involving so-called tribal leaders and Asian logging companies.

The scale of corruption in Solomon Islands is reputed to be comparable to African countries. Solomon Islands however, is smaller than many African countries. Therefore the comparison in relative terms means that corruption is far worse in Solomon Islands than countries in Africa.

This is a negative indictment on the nation. The practice is cancerous. It corrodes the nation’s dignity and bastardises civil order. For the majority of onlookers however, it engenders a sense of hopelessness.

Deterioration of Government Checks and Balances

The incidences of corruption in Solomon Islands unfortunately coincides with the decline in authority and responsibility of the institutions charged to provide checks on executive actions. Since independence these institutions have become ineffective through lack of funding and resources. For instance the Auditor-General’s Office did not provide audited accounts for the government for several years. Similarly, the Ombudsman Commission did not furnished annual reports for some time although it is a statutory requirement. The politicisation of important institutions is also one reason for the deterioration. People are appointment to positions for which they have limited experience and qualifications.

In a presentation to a Conference in Honiara in June 2004, Tony Hughes had this to say about corruption in Solomon Islands: -

To go in one generation from being a virtually uncorrupt society to one brought almost to its knees by corruption, extortion and plundering of public funds is a record as remarkable as it is shameful. ….. Petty corruption has affected urban land allocations, immigration and work permit matters, dealings with logging and fishing permits and export licences, and over-priced and under-delivered supply and construction contracts. The political guidance was that rules and regulations were old-fashioned hindrances to progress, and additional payments to cut corners and reward officials for extra attention were the way the real world worked. Larger-scale corruption involved the hijacking of public land and other public assets and licensing and contracting processes by those in power. The economic impact was to raise the costs of doing business, reduce the developmental impact of budgeted funds, and divert the execution of policy towards a corrupt minority

A development associated with the decline of these institutions is the increasingly non existence of government services. While this is symptomatic of trends in developing country, corruption is not. Hence excuses can be found for the decline in public services, but not for corruption bar greed. This is inexcusable and should be tackled by every law abiding citizen. Even the allocation of overseas scholarships did not escape nepotism, favouritism and corruption. At one stage, a few years ago, there were three scholarship lists. One held by the scholarship board, one by the Director of the National Training Unit, and one by the Political Adviser to the Prime Minister!

Inadequacy of the present legal framework.

The abuse of public office for personal gain is a criminal offence. However, it is quite difficult to prove these cases even though rumours abound of public officers who misuse their powers. This explains the low rate of prosecution. It would appear therefore that the present legal framework for tackling the problem is inadequate. Although the Leadership Code Act provides a somewhat satisfactory basis for dealing with public officers, it is not able to cover cases where officers have a conflict of interest between their public duties and private interests. Stories about these sorts of situations regularly appear in the Solomon Star. For instance, during the negotiations of the Townsville Peace Agreement, the Attorney General and Solicitor General (at the time) were paid $100,000 each. These payments were in addition to their salary. Other government lawyers who participated in the negotiations were paid $75,000. These payments were the subject of a list of payments issued by the Ministry of Reconciliation. Do these payments constitute corruption in office? A former Minister of the Crown upon being appointed to head a regional fisheries agency wrote to his colleague Minister responsible for taxation to exempt his salary from income tax. Does this constitute corruption in office? In 2004 students from India paid large sums of money for medical training at Kings University. Does the approval of the Kings University by Ministry of Education constitute corruption in office?

[PIR editor’s note: Kings University, promoted by an Indian national, advertised on the Internet that it was offering medical degrees for US$4,000 at its campus at Gizo, Western Province. However, when the students turned up at Gizo to see nothing was there, they realized that it was not true. See story.]

In these circumstances, it is not clear whether charges can be laid under the Leadership Code Act.

Why has corruption grown?

Corruption need not be a problem. It can be tackled and ought to be confronted. It has flourished because it has been allowed to. Not all politicians are corrupt, neither are all civil servants. Furthermore, not all Ministers are corrupt (one prominent leader however has noted that they seem to be united in that direction). In order to be corrupt one has to be in a position wherein one is capable of exerting authority. Some clear examples in the public service in addition to those cited above, are the Commissioner of Lands, Commissioner of Forests, Director of Fisheries, Commissioner of Labour, Town and Country Planning Board, Director of Immigration, etc.

These are examples of positions which wield considerable influence over their areas of responsibility. Their authority derives from statutes that create them. Without this authority they are powerless. People turn a blind eye to corruption because of a number of factors. First is unfamiliarity with legal requirements and administrative procedures. Responsible officers are not checking if the proper legal requirements and procedure are followed. Secondly, responsible officers acquiesce to failures to comply with procedures by turning a blind eye. Thirdly, responsible officers are not familiar with the legal requirements and procedures, and fourthly the diminishing role of constitutional entities is undermining check and balances mechanisms. For instance, the political appointment of individuals who otherwise would be unemployed has undermined the independence of the public service and made a mockery of the Public Service Commission. Finally, investigation of fraud and corruption require skill and experience not available in Solomon Islands. All these contribute in one way or another to the present state of affairs.

Agenda for Reform

The system of government is based on the idea of responsible government. Responsible government is premised on principles of transparency, that is, that governments are accountable for their acts and omissions. Corruption can be tackled. Firstly, if politicians cannot be made accountable, ministerial powers and discretion should be curtailed. Ministerial powers should be subjected to checks entrenched in legislation. A good system should be one whereby Ministerial decisions are affirmed only after broad based consultations.

Under such a proposal, the Minister for Forestry for example can only issue logging licences after the forestry council has consented to an application. Alternatively, Ministerial powers can only be exercised if the Minister fulfils criteria listed in the relevant legislation. If any one of the criteria is not met, the minister’s actions thereby become void. This allows aggrieved persons to challenge the Minister where the Minister has not complied with the correct procedures. The disadvantage is, it prevents swift action in circumstances where urgent decisions are required. The disadvantage, however, is outweighed by the community benefits. Moreover Ministers and members of their families should not participate in businesses in areas falling under the minister’s portfolio. In fact they should not engage in any businesses since most complaints hitherto raised relate to conflict of interest because ministers get involved in businesses under their portfolios.

A system of transparency in government decisions must be introduced. After all, a representative government should reflect the views of its constituents and be accountable to the electorate. There should be public consultations before major projects are undertaken. The public should be able to demand public servants and ministers to explain why and how decisions are reached. For example, the Commissioner of Lands should report annually on land allocations, who received allocations, and why they were allocated to the individuals or companies concerned. The report should be mandatory which means failure to provide the report will result in loss of office. The integrity and functions of various constitutional organs should be restored. The Public Service Commission must restore its independence, and the DPP, and Auditor General’s Office strengthened.

The Ombudsman must be more pro-active in investigating corruption. The general public must condemn corruption. The Solomon Islands public is not accountable to politicians. Politicians are answerable to the Solomon Islands public. Nor are we accountable to civil servants. They are subservient to the public. Trade Unions must take action and so must Church groups. Higher penalties must be imposed for corruption, and officers who are suspended while being investigated should do so without pay. The last bastion of public security, the Attorney General should play a more active role in redressing ministerial acts that are ultra vires.

Laws must be enforced and those charged with corruption should automatically lose office. If there is political will, corruption can be tackled.

Dr. Transform Aqorau is currently Legal Counsel of the Honiara based Forum Fisheries Agency. He is a specialist in international fisheries law. His interests include development issues affecting the Pacific Islands.

May 9, 2006

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