COMMENTARY: Politics Solomon Islands style
Commentary By Dr. Transform Aqorau Rakutu
I recently witnessed firsthand for the first time the vagaries of Solomon Islands politics. As a former Parliamentarian who studied politics once told me, all the theories of politics science he learnt at USP went out of the door when he became an MP. He said there was little correlation between what he learnt from his politics lecturers at USP and the realities of political life in Solomon Islands when he became an MP. I think a lot of us are quite opinionated about the way our politics has morphed, but I would posit that our political landscape has morphed into an unrecognisable monster far removed from that envisaged by the framers of our Constitution.
On Friday, November 3 while checking in for the flight to Munda, I noticed Hon. Stanley Sofu dawdling in front of me in a black sulu. I thought it was an unusual sight as I had hardly noticed MPs at the domestic terminal during my transits to Munda. It did not dawn on me why he would be there until I had checked in and went with my colleague John Maefiti to the hut at the domestic terminal when we saw someone very busy on his tablet by the entrance to the domestic terminal car park. He was obviously engaged in an animated discussion perhaps on a very important matter. I thought he was Alfred Ghiro; his body shape and slightly protruding stomach and sunglasses made him look just like Alfred Ghiro. He was pacing up and down the road and eventually ended up by the small tree at the entrance. Thinking that it was Alfred Ghiro, I waved at him, but he did not notice so did not return the gesture. John said that “it must be Andrew Manepora.” He recognised him from their time at USP in Fiji. John and I debated whether it was Andrew or Alfred. Eventually, he recognised me and walked over to the hut. As he got closer we saw it was indeed Andrew. He was still talking on his tablet as we greeted each other.
I had read a speech he gave during his first stint as Minister for Lands and had admired him for what I had thought was a very good speech. I thought he had made all the right kinds of policy pronouncements. His Masters in Business Administration and experience at the Central Bank obviously made him stand out, at least in my estimation. Anyway, we eventually met and our conversation naturally turned towards the events of the day; the pending vote of no confidence. In his smiling demeanour, he said that they were waiting for Alfred Ghiro who was on the flight from Kirakira. There was still uncertainty and even though the Opposition claimed they had the majority, there were still four unfilled Ministerial portfolios that the Government had up its sleeve. Andrew was there with Alfred’s brother, Nestor Giro, who is also an MP. They were going to offer Alfred the position of Fisheries Minister. Andrew said that if Alfred was willing to join them, they would have him sworn in by 3 p.m. It was 1:30 p.m. when we spoke. We spoke about the political situation in Solomon Islands, its uncertainties and idiosyncrasies. In my mind, I was hoping that there were better alternatives; a better way of governing for the people in the way Sir Peter Kenilorea told me; that people should serve with leadership, not politics. While we were talking Andrew’s phone rang. I overheard him say “ae me falla lo hia tu yia; if olsem no need for me falla wait nomoa, by me falla go back!” Who was it I asked? It was Bodo Dettke. They didn’t know Bodo and Matthew Wale were also waiting outside the door where arriving passengers come out of the departure lounge. I smiled and said, “it looks like it will come down to who will be able to grab Alfred when he arrives.”
I walked over to Matthew and Bodo and exchange pleasantries. I have a healthy respect for them although I don’t invariably agree with their methods, but that is part of the way politics has evolved in Solomon Islands and they were just doing what any Solomon Islands politician would do in the circumstances. Bodo and I go back to primary school where we were cohorts at Woodford School. Those were the best days in Honiara. It was clean, laden with flame trees, where people left their cars and homes unlocked; where you always shared a plate of food with your neighbours. This was the Honiara I grew up in with Bodo. His father owned a hardware shop just across the road from the VSO office where the Kingsley building is now located. In actual fact we called him Horsy when we were at primary school. His eldest sister Judy is still best friends with my sister, Rosalind. A legacy from the golden days of Honiara. Matthew and I have been members of the IUCN Green Growth Alliance, a grouping of like-minded Pacific Islanders who believe in the ideals of ‘Green Growth’ and the ‘Blue Economy’. We have been meeting at various venues since 2013 with other Pacific Islanders like Dame Carol Kidu of PNA Kaliopate Tavola of Fiji and Garry Juffa, the Governor Oro Province and champion of social justice in Papua New Guinea. Matthew is probably one of our better performing MPs who actually reads the bills, understands Parliamentary processes and invariably ask the right questions. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about the impending vote of no-confidence, the uncertainties of Solomon Islands politics, and the tuna industry in Solomon Islands and the region.
It was interesting, intriguing and in some ways sad to see how Solomon Islands politics was being played out in the eyes of the travelling public who by then noticed what was evolving. It was during that conversation that I noticed what is arguably a trend that could potentially make Solomon Islands politics explosive. I could see that we were surrounded by heavy hitters; strongmen; with muscles who were there to obviously escort Alfred Ghiro and prevent the Government side from whisking him away. It was disconcerting; and quite intimidating and certainly not a situation that I would like to personally find myself in. They were obviously under instructions and were not just there by coincidence. I wondered about two things a) what if the Government camp had also brought a similar group of strong armed, young men with similar intentions. That could be a recipe for a physical confrontation; b) poor Alfred Ghiro may as well have had his preference but having a group there to escort him in case he changed his mind almost bordered on proscription on his freedom of movement, and may almost constitute kidnapping. The Solomon Star newspaper aptly illustrated the tussle in a comical cartoon the next day, but the seriousness of the particular facet that Solomon Islands politics is entering cannot be ignored nor underestimated. It might be the way Solomon Islands politics is now, and one can only assume that when politicians are holed up in different hotels, there must be those so-called strong armed men present to check on their movement. This is almost tantamount to imprisonment and certainly does not provide for a conducive environment to select the Government.
I have often been a critic of the current system and have at times been commentating on it from afar, but after seeing it firsthand, I am even more convinced that it needs changing. I recall on New Year’s eve 2014/15, I met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and told him that the political uncertainties and the vagaries of our politics were not sustainable. Politicians cannot be seen to behave like cowboys, grabbing and holding each other up in hotels. The respect and sanctity of the institution must be respected, and they must be able to move freely, interact with whoever they want and not be restrained on account of others by having mafia-type operatives monitoring their movements. The country deserves better, and the people of Solomon Islands should demand for a better and higher standard of conduct from their politicians.