Polynesia in Review: Issues and Events, 1 July 2007 to 30 June 2008: Sāmoa

The Contemporary Pacific Volume 21, Number 1, Spring 2009, pp. 175-181

Unasa L. F. Va'a

During the year in review, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) maintained its dominance over the unofficial minority parties. However, the introduction of several controversial policies led to some fragmentation of the party following the defection of two HRPP stalwarts. With the breakup of the Samoa Development United Party (SDUP) the previous year, there was no official opposition party in the Samoan Parliament, so effective opposition to government measures was missing. The year may be described as one where the Human Rights Protection Party, principally through its leader, the effervescent Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, attempted to test the limits of its political power. The result was the emergence of people power, but will that be enough to halt the HRPP juggernaut?

The most controversial issue, which has led to some fragmentation in the HRPP political machinery, was the adoption of a policy that banned left-hand-drive motor vehicles, and changed the side of the road on which traffic travels from the right to the left. Horse carriages and motor vehicles have been driven on the right-hand side of the road in Sāmoa since 1899, so it was a shock when the country learned in early September 2007 that the Tuilaepa government was drafting a bill to change that. Perhaps it was not so much the policy itself that prompted public opposition, but the manner in which it was introduced: There was no consultation with stakeholders, no proper scientific study to determine the effects of such a change, rejection of expert opinion by the Chamber of Commerce and the Institute of Professional Engineers, Samoa (IPES), and inattentiveness to public opinion. In other words, there was a perceived lack of transparency and accountability in the formulation of the new government policy, leading to charges of recklessness and possible underhanded dealings. Public accusations against the prime minister over the issue were simply laughed off, which made public relations even worse.

The reason the prime minister gave to the Samoa Observer for implementing the policy was the need to align with neighboring countries, namely New Zealand and Australia (SO, 18 Sept 2007). Of course, it was only the first shot fired in a propaganda war that pitted the prime minister and his Human Rights Protection Party against some of the most powerful civic forces in the country—a war [End Page 175] that was to last the better part of a year. Never has an issue dominated the editorial section of the Samoa Observer for so long, with the great majority of letter writers opposed to the switch. In response, the government used its own newspaper, the Savali, and the government-owned SBC TV and SBC Radio to counter the arguments of its opponents.

The immediate reaction to the announcement came from the Samoa Rental Car Association, which opposed the switch. There was no doubt in the mind of the association president that such a change would have dire consequences for the carrental business in Sāmoa, the belief being that tourists would feel uncomfortable because they were used to driving on the right side of the road. The switch would also pose a major problem to the association's members, because all their new vehicles are lefthand drive. Above all the association condemned the government's failure to consult with stakeholders (SO, 19 Sept 2007). Other areas of concern to the association were the high cost of conversions (which could amount to millions), potential lawsuits, death, and compensation.

The next round of opposition came from a group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) made up of the Samoa Chamber of Commerce, the Samoa Umbrella of Non-Government Organizations (SUNGO), the Samoa Association of Manufacturers and Exporters, Women in Business, and the Taxi Association of Samoa. These organizations argued that the switch would cause enormous hardship to all Samoans, and they expressed concern about the potential for more car accidents and serious injuries; the high cost of changing infrastructure (roads, signage, traffic lights, etc); and the environmental impact of scrapped left-hand-drive cars. They estimated that the total cost to the economy would be at least 790 million Samoan tala (SO, 5 Nov 2007). (Currently, one Samoan tala [SAT$] equals approximately US$0.38.) The nongovernmental organizations called on the prime minister to withdraw the decision, to engage in a process of public consultation, to release any reports that had informed the government's decision, and to establish a commission to look into the issue. Another prominent opponent, the Institute of Professional Engineers, Samoa, warned that the switch could cost the country one billion tala, a figure approaching the entire gross domestic product (SO, 16 Dec 2007). Representatives of the Samoan insurance industry also asked the government to properly research the social and economic impact of the switch, indicating that it would take years before the proportion of left-hand-drive vehicles on the roads would diminish significantly.

The prime minister and his ardent supporters were just as vociferous in their announcements in public and through the government-owned media. In an interview with Savali (SO, 11 Nov 2007), Prime Minister Tuilaepa dismissed all the opponents' concerns as trivial or based on incorrect assumptions. His primary justifications were saving energy by doing away with gas-guzzling American cars, and helping ordinary people whose families live in Australia and New Zealand acquire affordable cars from those countries. A week [End Page 176] after Tuilaepa's Savali interview, Minister of Works, Transport and Infrastructure Tuisugaletaua Sofara Aveau announced that the cabinet had approved the new policy, opening the way for drafting the legislation and parliamentary discussion. Moreover, the government had estimated the cost of the switch to be SAT$5 million and called the ngo estimate "way out of kilter." Addressing safety concerns, the minister noted that the government planned to implement a driver-training program for those who needed it, and that bus stops and one-way streets might be introduced in the city. He also rejected any suggestion that the road switch had to do with economic pressures from Sāmoa's overseas development partners and donor agencies.

Shortly after the minister's announcement, a citizen's group called the People Against Switching Sides (PASS) emerged, with prominent lawyer Toleafoa Solomona Toailoa as convener and later chairman. Toailoa called a public meeting on 30 November 2007 to discuss the issue. Toleafoa said that the issue should have been put to the public first, and that he had decided to take action only after seeing all the letters to the editor and hearing people's complaints. The swiftness of the government's action also gave the appearance that the decision was a fait accompli. Toleafoa had called the meeting, he said, on his own initiative and was not doing it because he was against the prime minister. He also asked politicians to not attend the meeting so that they could not use it for their own political purposes. The crucial issue, Toleafoa explained, was that the public was not convinced by the government's arguments for the switch, and that the claim that the change would cost only SAT$5 million "just shows how silly that sort of statement is as it lacked any basis." Key decisions require consulting the public, he added, and not doing so runs counter to the culture and democratic ideals on which Samoan society is based (SO, 27 Nov 2007).

Hundreds turned up to the meeting, and it was decided to hold a protest march to Parliament. On 17 December, an estimated 15, 000 people marched, and Speaker Tolofuaivalelei Falemoe Leiataua adjourned Parliament to enable the prime minister and members to meet them. Toleafoa presented a petition with more than 33, 000 signatures to the Speaker. The Speaker said the petition would be presented to Parliament that day, but reminded the marchers that the legislation had not yet been tabled in Parliament, and that the petition could not be considered until it was (SO, 18 Dec 2007). The next day, the pass petition was tabled in Parliament, along with a second petition from the Institute of Professional Engineers, Samoa.

Parliament appointed four government members and three independents to form a petitions committee. Toleafoa warned that if the petition did not receive a favorable reception, he would resort to legal options. He promised that the measure would not become law. However, the PASS rhetoric fell on deaf ears. On 10 March 2008, the petitions committee tabled a nineteen-page report in Parliament. The report recommended that the government carefully consider the concerns of the petitioners, but reminded members that they represent their constituencies and are authorized [End Page 177] to make laws for the benefit of the country. They also noted that the cost estimates by the petitioners conflicted with those of the government (SO, 11 March 2008). While the pass membership responded with shock, its chairman, Toleafoa, was not surprised. He described the report as a farce, since four members of the committee represented the HRPP majority and only three represented the unofficial minority parties, independents, and the Samoa Development United Party. While the committee sought the views of the nation, these views were not reflected in the report, Toleafoa said.

The PASS group did not remain idle while the Road Transport Reform Bill worked its way through Parliament. It carried out a second protest march on 14 April 2008, when Parliament was scheduled to reconvene to discuss the bill. The estimated number of people who joined the march was higher than before (18,000 this time), causing Toleafoa to declare that the great majority of the population was against the switch (SO, 15 April 2008). Nevertheless, the bill was eventually passed on 18 April 2008. The legislation puts an end to the importation of left-hand-drive vehicles (as of 2 May 2008), and drivers will be required to travel on the left side of the road beginning in the second half of 2009.

PASS chair Toleafoa said the day the Road Transport Reform Bill was passed would be remembered as Black Friday, a day when the government ignored the voice of the people to pass a law that would cost lives and cripple the economy. Citing unconstitutionality, in March the pass group filed a legal action in the Supreme Court against the bill.

The government's intransigence over the traffic issue led directly to the later resignation of two key HRPP members, Safata MP Palusalue Faapo II and Aleipata Itu I Lalo MP Muagututia Siaosi Meredith. A third HRPP associate minister, Hans Joachim Keil, opposed and voted against the right-hand-drive bill, but chose to remain with the party. Keil, one of two representatives of the Individual Voters' Roll, said his constituency opposed the switch and pointed out some major shortcomings in the petitions committee report. Palusalue also stated that his constituency opposed the switch, and that the Human Rights Protection Party had failed to take into account its immediate impact. He predicted that there would be deaths on the road as a result. Muagututia said that as a member of the Institute of Professional Engineers, Samoa, he supported the IPES position and was disappointed that the report of the petitions committee did not adequately address the problems of cost and safety. That only two HRPP members defected from the party as a result of these events is certainly a credit to the management skills of the prime minister. There was no mass exodus, as some critics of the bill had hoped.

Another major consequence of the road transport reform issue was the formation of a new political party made up of those members of Parliament who opposed the switch, including the independents, members of the Samoa Development United Party, and the two members who defected from the Human Rights Protection Party. Lealailepule Rimoni Aiafi, the chairman, said the party was formed due to the immediate need for a strong [End Page 178] parliamentary opposition, and to gain power in the 2011 general elections. But despite having the requisite numbers (fourteen), the new party cannot yet be recognized in Parliament because, according to the Standing Orders of Parliament, registration of members and the formation of a new party can only take place after a general election and before a new Parliament is formed.

The second major issue that confronted the governing Human Rights Protection Party during the year under review was the Land Titles Registration Bill 2007. The bill was controversial from the start due to the provision that ownership of customary land must be registered under the name of a family chief. Traditionally, ownership of Samoan customary land was vested in the primary heirs (suli tau toto) of a title, which means a family corporation. For any major activity requiring the use of a family's customary land, all the primary heirs had to be consulted for their approval. Under the new bill, ownership would be vested in the name of individual matai (chiefs) and not under the title representing the family corporation. As critics of the bill have argued, this means that the named chief could will the land to his own descendants, begging the question: What about the property rights of the other heirs, such as those connected through collateral lines?

When the bill came up for discussion in Parliament, Prime Minister Tuilaepa said that passing the bill would in no way affect rights over customary land. Such rights, he stressed, were already in the Samoan constitution and HRPP members were well aware of the need to protect them. What the bill would do, he went on, is provide for registration of freehold land. (There is much uncertainty in the ownership of freehold land under the current deeds system, even if a person holds a deed to confirm ownership). The prime minister pointed out that the bill introduces the Torrens system for registering freehold land—under which ownership would be more secure—and only deals with customary land with regard to leasing it. If a person or a business defaults in repayment of a loan, the bank is not authorized to take customary land as compensation. Instead it can only take over the lease of a person who defaults on repayments, and advertise for another person to continue the lease. In his comments, however, the prime minister did not address the main question relating to registration of customary land under the name of an individual chief.

The SUNGO chairperson, Vaasiliifiti Moelagi Jackson, said that Land Registration Bill 2008 was unconstitutional, unethical, and un-Samoan. She reasoned that customary land in Sāmoa is not private; holders of matai titles are trustees, not owners, of Samoan customary lands; and matai titles, not individual chiefs, are vested with proprietorship of such lands. Therefore, private property registration systems cannot be applied in principle or practice to Samoan customary land, unless there is consensus from all of the heirs (SO, 10 March 2008).

Sua Rimoni Ah Chong, leader of the Samoa Party, said the registration of customary land under any matai's own name would signal the death of the fa'a-Sāmoa because it would transfer authority over customary [End Page 179] land from a group title to that of an individual. This was inconsistent with article 102 of the Samoan constitution, and if the prime minister wanted to change the constitution, then it would have to be done properly (SO, 18 May 2008).

The government appointed the Task Force on the Economic Use of Customary Land, which visited villages around the main islands of 'Upolu and Savai'i to canvass people's views about the bill. A member of the task force, Masinalupe Tusipa, chief executive officer of the Justice Ministry, said it was not the function of the committee to explain the contents of the Land Titles Registration Bill but rather to obtain the views of the country regarding the leasing of customary land, to explain that leasing of customary land was not new, and to counsel people about where to obtain help if they wanted to lease their land.

Despite widespread opposition to the bill, the government approved it on 13 June 2008 under its new title, the Land Act 2008. True leasing of customary land for development has been in the law books for at least thirty years, yet there has been very little sign of any extra boost to agricultural development. It remains to be seen how successful this act will be in fulfilling the government's intentions of promoting development through the use of idle customary land.

Asiata Saleimoa Va'ai, leader of the unrecognized Samoa Development United Party, believes the Land Act resulted from pressure by aid donor countries and international financial institutions. This is also the popular view among the public. Like the right-hand-drive legislation, the Land Act may return to haunt the Human Rights Protection Party in the next general election.

The government has also been grappling with other land issues. Due to land-related grievences, the people of Satapuala village occupied government land located opposite the International Airport terminal at Faleolo. Violence was narrowly averted as a result of face-to-face meetings between the village matai and the prime minister. The compromise reached was the formation of a joint committee made up of representatives from the village and the government to discuss concerns about boundaries, compensation, priorities in lease grants within the government's proposed township at Faleolo, and so on.

A similar event occurred when persons from a village in the Siumu district occupied private land several miles inland. Again, the occupation had to do with grievances against the government over land matters. Eventually, the squatters were removed and charged by the police. The occupation was not as serious as the Satapuala situation, however, because most people in Siumu district were against the action of the squatters, preferring instead to continue their fight in the courts.

Further, the government decision to relocate the inhabitants of Sogi village, just behind the Kitano Hotel, Apia, has led to resentment among the residents, who have been living there for generations. Eventually, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Faumuina Tiatia Liuga told the thirty families involved that they had to relocate from public land to an inland site at Falelauniu [End Page 180] because the government needed to protect the mangrove environment, prevent flooding, and accommodate population increases. Each family was entitled to one quarter acre of land at a reduced price, a generous repayment period without interest, a 15 percent discount if the entire amount is paid in one lump sum, and relocation costs of SAT$3,000 per family (SO, 9 April 2008). In addition, the government agreed to donate two and a half acres at Falelauniu to the Congregational Christian Church in return for its quarter-acre section at Sogi, and the Samoan Land Corporation would provide SAT$100,000 for the construction of a new church and a residence for the pastor.

In July 2007, the Land and Titles Court declared invalid the bestowal of the Malietoa title on Papali'i Fa'amausili Moli, son of the late head of state, and ruled that the protocol of a court decision in 1939 must be followed in choosing a successor. The protocol applies to the three main lineages (Malietoa Moli, Malietoa Natuitasina, and Malietoa Talavou) when they reach agreement on a candidate. However, some observers are of the opinion that it may take a long time for such a consensus to be reached.

The Electoral Committee, which was tasked to look into the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the 2006 general elections, recommended that the Individual Voters' Roll be abolished before the 2011 general election. It also recommended the prosecution of individuals who make bribery payments to others in order to influence them not to lodge, or to withdraw, an election petition, as well as those who extort money for the withdrawal of petitions. Finally it recommended the creation of additional parliamentary seats for Vaimauga Sisifo and Faleata Sisifo, in keeping with population trends (SO, 13 Nov 2007).

Hans Joachim Keil, as current representative of the Individual Voters' Roll, argued that there is no need to legislate away the existence of the roll, as it will die a natural death. He pointed out that currently there are only two members, while previously there were five. The number of people who qualify for the roll will gradually diminish, and the number of those who take on matai titles will increase.

CSS, Centre for Samoan Studies. 2006. Samoa National Human Development Report.

Papaigalagala, Apia: CSS, National University of Samoa.

Islands Business. Monthly. Suva. http://www.islandsbusiness.com

Newsline Samoa Newspaper. Three times a week. Apia.

Savali. Weekly. Prime Minister's Department, Apia.

SO, The Samoa Observer. Daily. Apia. [End Page 181]

Unasa L F Va'a (MA and PhD anthropology, the Australian National University) is currently associate professor of Samoan studies at the National University of Samoa. His doctoral research on Samoan migrants in Australia has been published by the Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, under the title Saili Matagi: Samoan Migrants in Australia (2001). His main research interests involve international migration and language and cultural studies of Sāmoa and Polynesia.

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Add new comment