Last Wednesday 21 November, in the Solomon Star, Malaita Ma'asina Forum (MMF) warned NPF that if it did not come clean on certain actions it has taken on the use of Members' private Fund, MMF would prosecute the Board of Directors and Management for having contravened the NPF Act and for usurping the constitutional rights of the owners.
One can, indeed, support the sentiments expressed by MMF. No doubt NPF has for too long been getting away with too much: it has too many skeletons of crooked and broken-down ventures in its cupboard. So it is about time it was subjected to a thorough investigation by a Commission of Enquiry, which only the Prime Minister can put in place.
Such a Commission, if launched, should look into the entire range of investment portfolios that NPF has been building up since day one. From investments in large corporate entities such as Our Telekom, Soltuna, BSP and others, to the overtly dubious and controversial ventures such as the NPF Housing Scheme, the Solomon Islands Mutual Insurance Scheme (SMI), the South Pacific Oil and Sasape Marina International Ship Yard equity structures, to the Brisbane office-block investment and, finally, to Tavanipupu Resort's slimy Loan - there is much the owners of the Fund should know about. In what way exactly, for example, has their money been used in the said undertakings?
What rates of return on investment has NPF locked in when it put Members' money into those ventures? What positive difference have the incomes derived from the said investments made to Members' Accounts in terms of interest granted? Has the NPF Board of Management ever given Members a savings rate of above seven per cent? if not, why not? After all, the existence of the $600m in the name of NPF, which the commercial banks are currently lending to citizens and non-citizens alike, at 15 to 17 per cent per annum - could easily accommodate an increase in the rate of interest applied to Members' savings. Has NPF taken on as partners any local companies or individuals to whom it has loaned money from the Members' Fund? How many groups of business people from countries other than Solomon Islands have secured NPF's support? If any, what grounds were given for such support? What kinds of equity contributions has NPF secured from them? Will NPF make adequate financial returns from such relationships? As partners, have those groups or entities actually put in cash contributions to NPF to comply with the shareholding arrangements? What has been the management's role in all this? Do members of the Board or the Management have any vested interest in any of the said projects? If so, Members of NPF have the right to know. For at the end of the day a nagging question will remain: by using the Members' Fund, with or without their knowledge, and with or without the Finance Minister's written approval, who is NPF really helping, Members or non Members? If NPF had been a publicly listed company, Members as shareholders would have been able to take the managers of their money to task, and they would have been able to fire the Chairman of the Board and the CEO. But the NPF Act seems to deliberately make the Members voiceless and powerless, and the plunderers of the Fund know it!
Obviously, there are many more questions that the Government and NPF Board and management could answer in a Commission of Enquiry: Government (because of the NPF Act it administers) and NPF Board and Management (because of the responsibility they have as Trustees/Managers of the Members' Fund). I may be uninformed, but in the last 30 years I have never seen an audited yearly Financial Report issued by NPF to inform Members of the status of their Fund, regardless of what the Act says or doe not say. Do I then have to state the obvious that NPF is one of the most non- accountable and non-transparent fund-custodians in this country? But wait a minute. Aren't other semi-government entities like the State owned Enterprises supposed to publish Financial Statements as well, which must, as a matter of convention, be tabled in Parliament? Does this, therefore, not indicate that an ambivalent political government that turns a blind eye on dysfunctional corporate governances can actually aid and abet public institutions to treat stakeholders with disdain, burdening them with excessive and, quite often, inexplicable electricity and water charges, or to plunder the only social security Fund that Members have?
The course of action currently contemplated by MMF to hold NPF to account is commendable. Regardless of whether or not Malaitans are the biggest contributors to the Fund, as stated by a Mr. Daukalia of MMF, the aim to make NPF accountable to Members and to press it to be law-abiding is of national interest. The apparent recklessness demonstrated by the NPF Board and Management and the impunity they seem to enjoy in their handling of the Members' Fund must be stopped. A surgical strike at the heart of the organization would therefore be justified, as it could very well uncover a dangerous cache of crooked business practices and wicked decision-making processes.
While much has been said about the management of NPF in recent months, to get to the bottom of the rot in order to clean it up, however, would first require a Commission of Enquiry or a proper legal challenge, or both. The latter is being pursued by MMF. The former is in the hands of our PM. Yet for the sake of NPF Members, I would suggest that both be pursued without fear or favour.
By Warren Paia