It was Sir Peter Kenilorea, then Prime Minister, who declared at the flag raising ceremony outside the United Nations’ Headquarters in New York that as of July 7, 1978 Solomon Islands stands equal with all the other UN members.
That was when Solomon Islands gained political independence from Britain after 83 years.
Things were looking up. But that was then. In the 35 years since, the nation had gone through a rather tumultuous period, which culminated in a coup that has changed the political, economic and social landscape of this once idyllic South Pacific archipelago. Today, a multi-national regional force, which, a decade ago came to restore law and order is preparing to leave.
As RAMSI is packing, there’s an eerie kind of feeling within that trouble is once again on the horizon.
“You can feel it in the air, can’t you?” one senior public servant told me. Such a view is not unfounded. In fact, the feeling of insecurity is sweeping the nation that the departure of the Australia-New Zealand sponsored Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) will leave a vacuum the nation’s police force will be ill-equipped to deal with.
Outward signs are that governance is not holding up in every sector. In the nation’s urban centres, law and order appears to be on the verge of collapse. Take for example the case of two men on Malaita whose arrests were ordered by the court more than two years ago. They are still on the loose.
In May, the two were seen having a betel nut lunch with police officers who knew that warrants of arrests were issued for the two men since 2011. But they were never touched. Police were unable to arrest the two men because the criminals were armed and police were not. A local businessman known for systematically misleading the High Court on landownership and other issues is allegedly using the two men to engage in criminal activities in the logging industry.
“They have terrorised and threatened to murder our employees,” a representative of an Australian company engaged in the development of rural agriculture plantations on Malaita, said. There were unconfirmed reports these criminals even have dynamite amongst the cache of weapons they have at their disposal. “They want to blow up the company premises, fuel and equipment,” the Australian firm representative, who wished to remain unnamed, said.
Sadly, not only is the businessman using the criminals, he handpicks rogue police officers from Honiara and Auki without authorisation to help these criminals in their activities. Three of the officers are related to the businessman and are said to be on Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo’s security details known as the VIP Police Protection Unit. Whether the Prime Minister is aware of their involvement, no one knows. In May for example, five police officers used a falsified High Court order to supervise the criminals in removing heavy equipment and machines from the company’s camp. Each police officer was paid SB$5,000. An Asian businessman tricked into buying the machines and logs for more than SB$1 million almost suffered a heart attack when shown court papers that he had been conned.
A few days after the machines and equipment were removed, the company’s water supply line was cut, a fuel tank was slashed and two large solar panels removed. The difficulty local police have in dealing with the criminals is that hundreds of guns including sub-machine guns and ammunitions stolen from the Rove police armoury on the night of June 5, 2000 are still in the hands of the so-called ex-militants. It is feared that the moment RAMSI leaves Solomon Islands, law and order would collapse and criminals would take over.
These fears are compounded by claims in May that corruption which stemmed largely from illegal dealings in the forestry and logging industry sectors have permeated even the nation’s judiciary. This prompted the industry to call for a total clean-up of the judiciary, saying unless this is dealt with promptly, the bad guys would take over. Furthermore, industry sources warned that the web of corruption is forcing foreign investors to look elsewhere as the cost of doing business in the Solomons is becoming prohibitive.
In the nation’s health sector, the story is the same. The system is crumbling under the weight of increasing demands for services, particularly in the urban centres. The National Referral Hospital, otherwise known as Number 9, now records an overage of four deaths a day from preventable causes.
Outside the Taiwan-built hospital, the scene resembles a can of sardine. The sick are left lying on bare concrete, some times for hours, waiting to be attended to. Space, it seems is a rare commodity. A contributing factor is that government doctors have been allowed to set up their own private clinics in the hope of easing overcrowding and cutting waiting time. The opposite is true.
“Doctors engaged by the government appear to spend more time in their private practice than at the hospital during official hours,” one official complained.
In the rural areas, the situation is even more pronounced. Some hospitals have gone without doctors for months.
Atoifi Adventist Hospital in East Kwaio on Malaita is a classic example. When the Peruvian doctor working there went on annual leave, the hospital was without a doctor for more than six months. In Temotu Province in the nation’s east, the hospital in Lata was without a doctor for some time after its doctor took his own life earlier this year, reportedly because of stress.
RAMSI’s departure is also having an impact on businesses, resulting in some having to shed staff.
“It’s something no one wants to talk about, but it is happening,” one businessman said.
One sector expected to take a direct hit is the real estate industry, which had flourished during RAMSI’s 10-year presence, with monthly house rentals of up to SB$40,000 a month.
“This no doubt will start coming down,” one industry representative said. But this should stabilise quite quickly as there other programmes that will take care of things,” she said.
By Alfred Sasako
Writes in The Island Business magazine