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Solomon Islands - Era of Profound Uncertainty

Solomon Islands - Era of Profound Uncertainty.

By John Roughan, Honiara. April 2001

Solomon Islands has entered the Era of Profound Uncertainty. In the nation's previous two years there existed a rather perverse kind of certainty (unrest, fighting and major suffering confined to a single area: Guadalcanal) but there was little fear that the whole nation could actually fold. Our present situation, however, is one of an anxious wait and see whether the nation will actually survive or not. Civil Society's recent statement "How bad do things have to get in the Solomons" summed up well the feelings of many. We experience a serious crisis mode while the Captain and his Boat's Crew seem oblivious to the mounting economic meltdown facing the ship of state heading for the rocks.

In my last posting I used a Three Conflicts division to help readers understand how society's different sectors had responded to and were affected by the militants' fighting. I will use the same three divisions here hoping that it might help clarify what is happening to the nation and how these three same groups are responding to the present crisis.

The Isatabu Vs Eagles Conflict

As mentioned last month, the armed conflict between foot soldiers guarding set positions in Guadalcanal is not simply on the wane but is currently irrelevant. Less and less is it spoken about and even more importantly, the actual militants, on reflection, are recognising the basic futility of their militaristic efforts and how in many case they were used for others' agendas. The monies promised them hardly materialised and in the end the very thing many were fighting for, e.g. compensation for lost relatives, goods and houses, now seem further away with the collapse of the national economy. Yet, the danger posed by the 500+ guns remaining in militant, paramilitary and police hands is very real and frightening. The Townsville Peace Agreement signed off in mid-October made no allowance for this kind of gun possession. ALL weapons were to be turned over and locked away in containers under guard. The Agreement made no room for a gun to be retained by the paramilitary nor the police and certainly not the militants. The lure of a general amnesty for all militants for past deeds done during the unrest period has fallen on deaf ears. In the eyes of the gun holders, they already have attained amnesty: police work is only just becoming evident, the courts have sentenced a handful to prison and UK has invested some millions to renovate the prison cells. Until all these elements are working more robustly and within all regions of the Solomons and the public recognise their effectiveness, then the amnesty pardon remains vague with little meaning for most militants. The Marau area in southern Guadalcanal has finally signed off on their own separate peace treaty and many of the same provisions of the Townsville agreement are the same. However, there is a noticeable lack of returning the guns to the proper authorities in this area as well. The question that is being asked: "Why aren't the guns being returned?" As long as these weapons remain at large it is difficult for the donor community to assist the Solomons with much needed funding. Yet, in the Bougainville situation where the conflict has gone on without final solution for more than 12 years, the guns have not been handed over as well. It would seem that without giving up the drive to have all weapons returned it is necessary for the Solomons to set its goals on other do-able objectives, e.g. strengthening the law and order components across the country, creating a new investment climate, slowing down compensation claims, etc.

Good Governance Vs Business as Usual

The Governor of the Central Bank, Rick Hou, has gone on an information and awareness blitz to publicly inform members of parliament, aid donors and the country at large on the seriousness of our economic tailspin. In his considered judgement the nation has approximately 6 weeks of external reserves. During the Easter period, 15 April 2001, if the $5 million weekly outflow continues without a serious intervention, then the nation's overseas cash reserve will have dried up and it would be impossible for it to import fuel, food, medicine, etc. At the nation's recently convened Economic Summit, 26 February, all its major donors (World Bank, IMF, ADB, bi-lateral donors--Australia, New Zealand, UK, etc) were informed of this dire economic meltdown. Solomons' Central Bank Governor informed the gathering and yet even in that serious setting the government had not yet created its Peace Budget 2001 which would have spelt our for donors where their monies would be going. Donors are willing, no, anxious, to help but it seems government does not read the present situation with the same seriousness. Rather than cutting back expenditure, introducing cost-saving measures, eliminating import remission concessions and placing the nation on an emergency footing, it runs its affairs as 'business as usual'. At this stage 6 major ministries are required, not the 18 that currently draw down funds on a bankrupt treasury. Creating posts for failed politicians and business cronies as well funding an Office of the Caucus at the same level as a major ministry daily drain an already weakened economy. It failed, for instance, to collect import duties on cigarettes (more than $2 million). It behaves more like an insurance company paying out claims e.g. compensation demands, 'danger' allowances, etc. when its senior education institutions, e.g. SICHE, national secondaries and the National Referral Hospital as well as many rural clinics are without critical and essential medical supplies. When government finally does respond to villagers desperate need to have their copra purchased by Commodity Export and Marketing Board (CEMA), it makes no demand on the organisation to give a full account of how, where and why CEMA claims to have lost $9.5 million during the Social Unrest period. Copra producers are not making compensation claims, nor seeking 'danger allowances' but only plea that their copra be purchased, the one product that the country can still export. Our oil palm, gold production and fish canning industries no longer work. Only round logs and copra generate any kind of overseas earnings. Aid donors are ready and willing to help but not wholly on government's terms. Taiwan, for instance, has not abandoned the Solomons in spite of its failed blackmail attempts with mainland China late last year. But it seems now that its aid is fine tuned, e. g. $3 million for printed text books, transportation for Solomons winning football team for the Formosa Cup and no longer an open ended cheque book. UK has targeted primary education for its assistance to the country. Is this the wave of the future where donors focus tightly where their aid dollars will flow and less and less to open ended funding?

Thieves, Thugs, Conmen Vs. Civil Society

Although the level of violence and crime has been reduced in Honiara, it has increased in other sections of the country. Auki and northern Malaita are suffering from a gun culture which is rooting there. Other areas, e.g. Choiseul, Marau, Munda are also plagued by unlawfulness but slowly police presence is beginning to exert itself. In Honiara, for instance, the traffic control division's check-up on drivers license, vehicle registration and third party insurance coverage sends a clear and precise message: stay within the law and you can operate a vehicle on Honiara's roads. The traffic control's on-going street presence has driven a number of unregistered and unlicensed drivers off the road. More importantly, however, such public police work reinforces the message that law and order is currently making a come back. Coupled with police investigation work on break and entry crimes, cracking down on public display of guns and public disorder has begun to break the climate of immunity these crimes enjoyed in 2000. The UK High Commissioner's funding Rove prison's repair and the courts sentencing of criminals to prison has once again become part of the local scene. Summary A number of institutions, structures and organisations are becoming more and more involved in the good governance of the nation. Once a week, for instance, Civil Society Institutions--Chamber of Commerce, churches, NGOs, Women's groups--meet to map out strategies to help the nation get back to normality. Last week's fifth meeting was deeply impressed by the Governor of Central Bank's briefing to the group on the economy, the same report he had shared when briefing the international donor's earlier in the week. Immediately action was taken. The report would be featured on a SIBC program and the local TV slot if at all possible. Civil Society Institutions began to inform their own people so as to get the message down to the village sector. At present doing some thing positive to the deteriorating economy is essential to the continuance of the nation. Continued insistence on compensation payments, failure to understand the serious of the issue and lack of leadership converge to form a powerful weapon destroying Solomon Islands. Demanding compensation even legitimate claims at this time is akin to demanding lunch on a sinking Titanic. The government, church communities, Civil Society and all sectors of society must pull together at this time of high crisis. Whether we do so will give a good indication how the nation will survive this Era of Profound Uncertainty.


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