TAIWAN PAYMENTS CLOUD SOLOMONS DEMOCRACY

Commentary

By Ashley Wickham

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (May 18) - The Solomon Islands (SI) remains in a state of flux as the fallout from the political turmoil of two weeks ago has yet to settle. Most people are puzzled, and many are downright embarrassed (if not ashamed) that the new Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, has appointed two MPs, who are currently in police custody, to key ministerial portfolios.

On 18 April, the so-called Kemakeza group (named after former PM, Sir Allan Kemakeza) returned to power with the election of Snyder Rini (Kemakeza’s former Deputy) as Prime Minister. Rini was stoned by an enraged crowd as he tried to leave Parliament, several police vehicles were torched and most of old Chinatown in the capital, Honiara, was burned down.

When Parliament convened a week later, the Opposition revealed that another former Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, had led a small group of Government MPs across the floor to join them. With these defections, the Opposition had the numbers. Rini resigned with barely a whimper, a new election was held among MPs, and Sogavare became Prime Minister.

The crowd outside of Parliament seemed very happy on the day, but this soon gave way to despair. Our national reputation has lurched into another hole. In return for their support for Sogavare, Charles Dausabea and Nelson Ne’e, the two MPs being held in custody in connection with the violence of the previous week, were appointed Minister for Police and National Security and Minister for Culture and Tourism, respectively.

The irony was not lost on anyone — these two portfolios are crucial to the country’s security and its economic well-being. What was Sogavare trying to say? What implications does it have for the immediate future?

For the last two weeks of the election campaign, Charles Dausabea focused his speeches on the Chinese influx into the country and their influence in politics. He also made it known that he would work towards ending the presence of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) if his group came to power.

On Easter Monday 17 April (the day before the vote that made Rini PM), radio announcements told of a huge feast at a beach outside of Honiara. Many pigs were slaughtered and cooked, and a hundred of cartons of beer given to supporters. The next day a huge crowd, mostly of youths from the outskirts of East Honiara, waited to hear who had been elected Prime Minister. The rest is history. Dausabea’s camp lost and Chinatown burned.

Not much is known about Nelson Ne’e’s politics, but for someone who is charged in connection with events that set back tourism in SI another five years, his appointment as Minister for Culture and Tourism makes no sense at all. The only possible rationale is that tourism is on hold and he cannot do it any further damage.

The new Opposition (led by Fred Fono and including Snyder Rini) is seen as the standard bearer for the Kemakeza solution to governance in SI, which is to allow foreign advisors (RAMSI) and foreign businessmen (the Chinese and the loggers’ lobby) to influence policies. In doing so, they by-pass local professionals, local businessmen and community leaders. By contrast, the group that has consolidated around Sogavare and Job Dudley Tausinga is seen to be more in tune with locals.

Manasseh Sogavare was in the Solomon Islands Alliance for Change (SIAC) coalition that won power in 1997 and began the reform of government after the disaster of the years when Solomon Mamaloni was PM, Australia/Solomon Islands relations were at an all time low and the SI Government was virtually bankrupt.

As Finance Minister in the Government of Bartholomew Ulufa’alu, Sogavare was a key person in the planning of the Reform & Restructuring Program supported by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, but he fell out with Ulufa’alu who fired him in 1999.

Sogavare became Prime Minister immediately after the coup of June 2000 with the support of those, mainly Malaitans, who had instigated the coup. As PM, he oversaw the passing of an Amnesty Act to prevent the prosecution of the police and others who were implicated. When this proved insufficient, he proposed an amendment to the national constitution (www.paclii.org/sb/legis) that was approved by Parliament in February 2001. He lost power (to Kemakeza) in December 2001.

In the current Parliament, his Socred Party has two seats and two ‘independents’ lent him their support. Sensing that public approval would be high, he struck a deal with Tausinga and Ulufa’alu to oppose Rini, and hey presto, Manasseh was back in the hot seat.

What do we think here in Honiara? The contest has been about raw, unadulterated money politics.

Overseas aid to SI this year will be close to SID$1 billion (about AUD$200 million). This includes SID$74 million (AUD$14.8 million) from Taiwan. This may seem like a small contribution, but Taiwan also has the least number of citizens living here — probably 12. Most Chinese here are from Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia or Malaysia. A good number were born here, and have parents, children or close relatives living in Australia. Many local Chinese felt that they suffered as a result of Taiwanese aid to SI Government coffers.

The aid secures Solomon Islands support for Taiwan’s campaign to re-join the United Nations. While the chances are very slight, Taiwan fights a rear-guard action each year — keeping a number of countries onside by ensuring their politicians have access to what are large amounts of money for small island countries.

This year, SID$20 million of Taiwan’s aid will be paid directly from the Government into the accounts of the 50 Members of Parliament as Rural Constituency Development Funds (RCDF). As far back as the 1980s, parliamentarians have voted themselves funds to ‘deliver development projects’ in their electorates. The MPs are in charge of the administration, disbursement and acquittal of these funds.

SID$10 million is also provided by Taiwan for community projects in a Micro Grants scheme, but to obtain any assistance, community leaders and other applicants must have their MP’s signed endorsement on the application form. This is a Cabinet requirement, not Taiwan’s. Another SID$44 million is budgeted for various other projects — all tied to approvals by either the Prime Minister or Cabinet.

Just over a year ago, at a conference at Queensland University, I and several other panelists were asked to identify the source of any future threats to our security. I suggested it was Taiwan because of the way it provided funds to our politicians. No one took up the discussion.

Shortly afterwards, a delegation from the Solomon Islands National Council of Women visited the Taiwan Embassy in Honiara to enquire about funding for some of their projects. When told they needed MPs’ endorsements, their Chairperson Mrs Hilda Kari accused the Embasy of corruption and went public. She and many others believe Taiwan’s support of MPs through the RCDF is distorting the democratic process.

As I write, MPs are making arrangements to draw down their first quarter payments from the RCDF (SID$100,000 per quarter). Some have already collected their annual SID$75,000 Micro Grant for community projects. Among those who must endorse the latter are village chiefs. So, traditional leadership in villages is being compromised to the detriment of good governance.

In the view of an increasing number of Solomon Islanders, the money Taiwan gives has a broad and heavy impact and it certainly is not contributing to good governance.

May 19, 2006

Ashley Wickham of Munda is a Solomon Islander with a long media career. In 1998 he was appointed as a Permanent Secretary in the Government that was deposed in the June 2000 coup. He now operates as a private consultant in media, management and education and is co-owner of a video production house: TVS Productions. Active in civil society networking, he contested the recent general elections and is petitioning the outcome, which saw the incumbent Minister of Finance — scion of a logging family — returned.

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