BEYOND ETHNICITY: UNDERSTANDING THE CRISIS IN THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
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By Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka,
Pacific News Bulletin, May 2000 --- Written by Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka. This article was published in the May 2000
edition of Pacific News Bulletin, the monthly magazine of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement, before the
latest escalation. --- IT WAS late afternoon when we approached the militants' checkpoint. The sun was beginning to
crawl down behind the gently waving fronds of the oil palm trees. Apart from the rattling of our vehicle's engine, there
was an eerie silence that canvassed the oil palm plantation around us - an elusive peace.
We had been driving for about 40 minutes east of Honiara, the Solomon Islands capital, into the heartland of the
Guadalcanal militants: the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) as they call themselves. This is the organisation at the
centre of the eighteen-month-old Guadalcanal crisis.
It is here, in the oil palm plantation abandoned by the Solomon Islands Plantation Ltd. (SIPL) that the IFM's "eastern
troop" (as they refer to themselves) have made their headquarters.
In the past eighteen months many things happened here. The oil palm trees are mute witnesses to horrifying events. In
February this year, an officer of the Royal Solomon Islands Police, Scriven Ngatu, was killed during a shootout with
members of the IFM about 200 metres from where our vehicle came to a halt. But there are many more untold stories of
people going missing, most probably killed, families displaced and a country unable to deal with the enormous impacts of
So far, the public media, government officials and commentators on the crisis have taken the easiest explanation and
described it as simply a result of ethnic differences between the peoples of Guadalcanal and Malaita. But, while
ethnicity should not be completely disregarded, mote a nationalist sentiment in the country. This projection of identity
creates tensions between the so-called nation builders - those who want to promote the ideology of the nation - and the
nation buildees - those who will be caught up in the nation-building process, willingly or not, but whose participation
in, acceptance of, and, ideally, identification with the values of the budding nation will be essential to the
legitimacy of the national enterprise."
Despite this, Jourdan argues that amongst the younger generation of Solomon Islanders, especially in the urban areas,
there is a new sense of national consciousness in the making. She identifies three factors - (i) the education system,
(ii) pijin (pidgin) as a common language, and (iii) popular culture - as the "stepping stones" toward a national
consciousness; elements that are crucial in conveying to citizens of Solomon Islands a sense of shared values and
expectations, out of which a sense of common purpose in the future is developing.
But, the relative weakness of national consciousness itself does not provide an adequate explanation for the Guadalcanal
crisis; it does not tell us why there are violent tensions between groups of people who have been interacting with each
other for more than a hundred years.
Apart from issues of nationalism, the British left behind a group of islands largely undeveloped and an economy
dependent almost entirely on the exploitation of natural resources by foreign multinational companies. Infrastructure
development concentrated around Honiara, the national capital, built out of the remains of a former World War II US Air
Honiara was also where most of the formal employment opportunities are concentrated. Between 1971 to 1981, for example,
while Isabel, Makira/Ulawa, Temotu and Malaita Provinces accounted for 49% of the country's population, they had only
15% of formal sector employment. This difference was especially true of Malaita with 31% of the national population and
only 7% of the employment. This imbalance was worsening and in the subsequent decade formal sector employment in those
provinces scarcely increased. In 1981 when overall employment increased, the level of employment in both Malaita and
Santa Isabel fell. Thus, the
provinces that were already better provided with job opportunities and generally have higher levels of development, have
experienced the most growth. In terms of job opportunities the regional disparities since independence have worsened;
one of the results has been the greater migration to employment centres such as Honiara.
Furthermore, by the time of independence the country's economy was dependent largely on agriculture and large-scale
natural resource development projects. The distribution of benefits accrued from these developments became an issue in
the decades after independence. Mamaloni, in 1992, stated that: "our natural
resources are rapidly being depleted, not for the welfare of those who own them but to finance a government system that
is far remote from the masses." Ironically, much of the rapid exploitation of the country's forestry resources took
place in the 1980s and 1990s when Mamaloni was Prime Minister for an extended period of time.
The oil palm plantation in the Guadalcanal plains is a classic example. It attracted people from all over the country.
Established in the 1971, the
plantation is owned by the Solomon Islands Plantation Limited (SIPL). For the indigenous landowners, the benefit from
the plantation was marginal. They own only 2% share in SIPL, compared to 68% share by the British-registered
Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) and 30% by the Solomon Islands Government. In addition to shares, landowners
receive SI$100 per hectare per annum as land rental and SI$500 per hectare as premium.
Despite persistent efforts by landowners to improve their benefits, the government and CDC have been reluctant to
Instead, in 1997 when the government led by Bartholomew Ulufa'alu came to power, it proposed to sell 20% of the
government's 30% share to CDC. The remaining 10 per cent of government shares would be sold to Solomon Islanders but
managed by the Investment Corporation of Solomon Islands (ICSI), the national government's investment agency.
The Guadalcanal Provincial government, however, demanded that instead of selling its shares to CDC, the national
government should give it to the Guadalcanal Provincial government. But, pressed by the need for quick finance, - prior
to the crisis SIPL was contributing to 20% of the country's $585 million GDP - the Ulufa'alu government did not respond
positively to this request.
Related to these developments was the issue of land. In the past decades many Guadalcanal people (predominantly males)
sold customary land around Honiara to people from other provinces. This is in spite of Guadalcanal's matrilineal society
where females are the custodians of land. Furthermore, many individuals were selling land without consulting other
members of their laen (tribe). This often caused conflicts within landowning groups and between them and the new
"owners". The sale of land has, over the years, been resented by women and a younger generation of Guadalcanal people
who view the act as a sale of their "birth right".
The issues of land and natural resource development are not confined to Guadalcanal. In the Russell Islands, Central
Islands Province, for example, the acquisition of land by the Levers Pacific Plantation Ltd. in the late 1800s, also
contributed towards disputes when Marving Brothers Timber Ltd., a Malaysian-registered logging company began logging
Pavuvu Island in 1985. Prior to that, in 1981, the Levers Pacific Timber was involved in another violent confrontation
with landowners at Enoghae in North New Georgia. The issues became especially pronounced in the 1980s and 1990s when
industries such as logging became prominent and saw collaborations between state officials and multinational (mostly
Asian) logging companies.
It was also at this period that the country's deteriorating economy saw the government accumulating debts well over its
ability to repay. By the end of 1997, for example, the government had accumulated SI$1.2 billion in debt, more than
double its 1998 budget. This was due partly to poor management practices such as uncontrolled spending and
non-collection of revenue. For example, millions of dollars in potential government revenue was foregone through tax
remissions on log exports, amounting to $109 million from 1995 to 1997.
The period also witnessed substantial fraud and theft by public servants and huge amounts of money were given to Member
of Parliament through the Constituency Development Fund (CDF). In many cases the CDF money was used as "handouts" to
gain and retain the political loyalty of people who, as a result, became more dependent than before. Consequently, a
majority of the country's population suffered; a few became very rich at the expense of nation-wide development.
Another issues that aroused major discussions at the time of independence were that regarding the system of government.
There were concerns that the provincial system of government was expensive and ineffective. Many people proposed that a
federal (state) system of government would be most appropriate for Solomon Islands. The assumption was that federalism
would cater for the devolution of power and the equitable distribution of development benefits. In the report of the
1987 Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) one of the major recommendations was the establishment of a federal system of
government. That, however, was ignored by successive governments.
There were other issues raised by the 1987 CRC report. One of the most important was that relating to the freedom of
movement and settlement. Although the Solomon Islands Constitution guarantees to every person the "freedom of movement .
. . [which] . . . means the right to move freely throughout Solomon Islands, the right to reside in any part of Solomon
Islands . . .," the CRC report highlighted the need to control the movement and settlement of people. On Guadalcanal the
issues of migration and settlement were compounded because of the rapid growth of Honiara and the expansion of squatter
settlements in areas around Honiara.
In 1988, Guadalcanal people held a demonstration after the multiple murders at Mt. Austin behind Honiara. They demanded,
amongst other things, the establishment of a federal system of government and that "immediate steps be taken to reduce
the pressure of internal migration." Increasingly in the late 1980s and 1990s, Honiara became a town that manifested the
country's national problems. In 1989, for example, there was a riot in Honiara after confrontations between Malaita
youths and those from Rennell and Bellona. Police records indicate that most of those involved in the rioting were
Another 1990s phenomenon, which goes a long way in explaining the Guadalcanal crisis, was the Bougainville migration due
to its ten-year war for independence from Papua New Guinea. Upwards of 9,000 Bougainvilleans fled to the Solomon Islands
with a vast majority of them settling in Guadalcanal for long periods of time. They have definitely influenced Solomon
But, the highlight of the 1990s was the 1997 national election. For the first time in the country's electoral history,
voters dismissed more than half of the sitting parliamentarians and elected two Chinese businessmen. It was the first
time in four national elections that people had dismissed so many of its highest elected officers. The former government
which had been in power for more than seven years was soundly defeated. The election results sent a strong message to
politicians that people would no longer accept "business as usual." They were demanding change, and quickly.
The Current Crisis
By the beginning of 1998 a group of young Guadalcanal men, disgruntled with successive governments' failure to address
developmental issues and the demands of the Province, plus the presence of settlers from other islands (especially
Malaitans) on their island started collecting arms: licensed rifles around the island, old Second World War rifles and
ammunition and home-made guns.
In November 1998, following a speech by the Premier for Guadalcanal Province, Rt. Hon. Ezekiel Alebua, demanding
"respect" for their Guadalcanal "hosts", rent to be paid to the province for Honiara and compensation for Guadalcanal
people murdered in Honiara, a group of armed men attacked Malaita settlers in areas west of Honiara. Within months, the
violence escalated and in December 1998 a
Guadalcanal youth, Ishmael Pada, was shot by police. This incident attracted more Guadalcanal men to join an armed group
who were by then referred to by the media and government official as "militants". By late 1999, the tensions had
escalated to a stage where at least 50 people were killed and more than 20,000 people (mostly Malaitans) were forced out
of settlements on Guadalcanal, especially in areas around Honiara.
The government first played down on the crisis. Many state officials referred to the tension as a result of the work of
a "few" disgruntled people. The Minister of State, Alfred Sasako, for example, was reported as saying that, "so far as I
gather, there are actually two and at the most three very small groups of perhaps a total of 50 people. Some of those
arrested on arms charges were disgruntled former police officers. Most other trouble makers appear to be young people
who do not take it seriously, but who want a bit of fun and adventure."
Throughout 1999 there were continuous confrontations between the Royal Solomon Islands Police and the IFM. By April 2000
the police had killed about thirteen IFM members. The movement quickly attracted supporters from all over the island and
an organisational structure was established to regulate the work of the militants. Although this has not functioned
efficiently and there are dynamics within Guadalcanal, the general feeling throughout the island is that of
agreement with the IFM.
By the beginning of 2000 a group claiming to represent displaced Malaitans was formed and called itself the Malaita
Eagle Force (MEF). This group's concerns centre around demands for compensation of properties damaged and destroyed by
the IFM, the killings of Malaitans and the protection of Malaitan interests in Honiara.
The Search for Peace
Since early 1999, a number of attempts have been made to bring an end to the crisis. These processes involved attempts
to address the underlying issues of the crisis and to deal with the demands of the various parties.
These attempts at resolution included a kastom (custom) feast ceremony held in Honiara on 23 May 1999 and four "peace
talks" that have resulted in the signing of various documents: the Honiara Peace Accord (28 June 1999), the Panatina
Agreement (12 August 1999), the Buala Peace Conference (4 - 5 May 2000), and the Auki Peace talks (9-10 May 2000).
If anything positive is going to come out of talks, all the parties involved in the crisis must be represented and the
underlying socio-economic and political issues must be addressed. In the past attempts militant groups have not been
fully involved in the peace process. Furthermore, there is a need to look beyond ethnicity as the only cause of the
crisis. We must explore the socio-economic and political issues that underlie the issues raised by the various actors in
the crisis. In a way, there is legitimacy in many of the issues raised by Malaitans, Guadalcanal and others who are
involved. Ethnicity is merely the avenue through which people's frustration becomes manifested. -PNB
© Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka and Pacific News Bulletin
(Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka is a lecturer in History/Politics at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji. The
views in this article are the author's, and do not represent those of the USP)
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