Solomon Islands: Teetering on the edge of a precipice

By Graham Reid

An incendiary brew of gunmen, tribal rivalry and corruption has driven one of our Pacific neighbours to the brink of anarchy. Graham Reid and photographer Alan Gibson report from the Solomon Islands.

Ethnic violence and endemic crime have undermined the Solomon Islands. Photo / Alan Gibson
Ethnic violence and endemic crime have undermined the Solomon Islands. Photo / Alan Gibson

So this is where our clothes come to die. In the harbourside market of Honiara, the dusty and humid capital of the Solomon Islands, women squat beside meagre piles of peanuts, bananas and root vegetables wearing dirty, threadbare cast-offs from Sydney and Auckland.

On the street old men wear filthy T-shirts with incongruous Nike and le Coq Sportif logos, a middle-aged man ducks through the traffic and fumes wearing a heavy overcoat in the 40C heat, and everywhere there are the menacing looking young guys hanging around in groups with Bob Marley and reggae dominating their clothing preference.

In Honiara - the town centre little more than a couple of hundred metres long and two dirty lanes deep - vendors wearing T-shirts from Australian universities or in once "smart-casual" shirts sit on low stools selling betel nut, single cigarettes and the dark, damp local tobacco rolled in pages from an exercise book.

This is a battered country dressed in last decade's cast-offs and living at subsistence level.

The red juice of betel nut stains the ground, rubbish is raked into high piles, lanes turn to mud after a tropical downpour and the few footpaths are frequently broken. Roads beyond Honiara are pitted with deep potholes and almost impassable. Fewer than 50km are paved in all the islands together.

In a doorway a young man, slightly drunk on 4.7 per cent SolBrew beer, is singing a Bob Marley anti-imperialism song, "We're gonna chase dem crazy baldheads outta town". Then he mutters his own coda directed at us, "Get outta the Solomons".

But it was a rare hostile comment in this place once known as "the Happy Isles".

For complex reasons - not least an inherited connection to this former British colony which achieved independence in '78 - New Zealand has a visible presence supplying key personnel as well as money.

There are nine New Zealand police advisers who, unarmed and without the power of arrest, are acting as frontline mentors for the local guys who are frequently reluctant to exercise their authority.

"Wantok" - one talk, or a common culture - is the tradition and custom requires you help someone from your wantok, not a recipe for impartial policing.

The Solomons also hit New Zealand headlines earlier this year when deputy high commissioner Bridget Nichols received a fatal stab wound (an Auckland coroner returned an open verdict).

A fortnight ago a local man was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of ex-pat Kevin O'Brien on a Fletcher Construction site in February.

Behind the aid and assistance runs a deeper agenda. The Solomons are part of an arc of instability in this region which has edgy Bougainville and Papua New Guinea, combustible East Timor and fragmenting Indonesia to its north, all potentially volatile countries where the political systems are fragile or dysfunctional.

A fortnight ago a report prepared by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Beyond Bali, said unless Australia was prepared to become more involved, countries such as the Solomons could become run by criminals more than legitimate governments and provide a haven for hostile groups operating from bases there.

It is in everyone's best interests - not just those in this confluence of colliding Melanesian, Polynesian, Asian and European cultures - that the Solomons be stable, but according to the CIA World Factbook, "ethnic violence, government malfeasance and endemic crime have undermined stability and civil society". It is a failed state where gunmen recently ruled.

The Solomons, specifically Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal, ripped itself apart three years ago in what is euphemistically referred to as "the ethnic tensions" between those from Malaita Island living around Honiara and locals.

Malaitans have a reputation for being hardworking and are ambitious. Since World War II, when they came to Honiara to assist in the American war effort, many have risen to influence in business and politics. Some on Guadalcanal resented them for that.

A bigger problem was land.

Sitting in the sweltering heat of his tidy, attractive and welcoming village near Malaita's main town of Auki, Henry explains: "On Malaita a boy inherits, but over there [on Guadalcanal] it goes to the girl. So when a Malaita boy marries a girl over there he gets land. Then maybe his brother comes to live with them and he marries, or an uncle who marries, and they get land, too."

Malaitans were inheriting Guadalcanal "kastom" (customary) land, some Guadalcanal locals objected and started to harass Malaitans.

Big mistake. Malaitans also have a reputation for being volatile and feisty.

"Push one and two will push you back. Twice," says Henry with a laugh.

This is not to say they are unfriendly, you just don't mess with them. But some did and then the Malaitans fought back. The Malaitan Eagle Force was especially ruthless and effected a coup at gunpoint in 2000.

Since the Townsville Peace Agreement two years ago there has been a touchy truce and violence is becoming rare. Jimmy Rasta and his thugs may have quietened down, but you still can feel the tension.

The day we arrive the notorious Harold Keke - who didn't sign the TPA - has sent another policeman home for burial from the southeast of Guadalcanal where he is holed up.

Keke is a messianic madman as much as rebel warlord and seems determined to hold out on the Weather Coast, named for its lousy climate. He or his supporters have killed almost a dozen police dispatched to arrest him.

Two days previous the Prime Minister's special adviser and local businessman Robert Goh was the target of an assassination attempt as he drove to a meeting in town.

But violence is now largely confined to those "special constables" created after the TPA who are ex-militants on the country's payroll. If the money is there. When it isn't - and it often isn't - they get tetchy. And in a country where the armoury is empty, they have an advantage. They have guns.

On the final day of our fortnight in the paradise which has been through hell, a few dozen disaffected special constables came to town for an angry rally. It is just another sign that undercurrents can surface with unpredictable rapidity and that the Solomons teeters on a political precipice.

A young man sadly says an Australian newspaper wrote bad things about the Solomons recently and that affected tourism. But aside from great diving in the Western Province, there's no tourism industry to speak of.

"Tell him to read the website," says Ian, an Australian back here to work for the first time since '98.

"Same warning as Bali this place. Don't travel there unless you have to."

While Honiara is generally safe - there are no visible guns despite the occasional shots in the night - it is not a model of calm.

Heather Riddell, our high commissioner, says she doesn't feel it is dangerous, but she is appropriately diplomatic: "The risks to expatriates are not excessive, although it is certainly an environment in which care needs to be taken, and we do advise people to be aware the situation can change."

Down at White River market, the advised limit of safe passage to the north of Honiara - a 10-minute mini-bus ride from the hub of Mendana Ave - the road runs out and a palpable sense of menace hangs heavy in the thick tropical air.

Two guys make a point of standing on either side of me, not responding to a greeting, and accepting the offer of cigarettes without a spoken response. There is chill despite the humidity and it seems foolhardy to go further.

Back on Honiara's streets the young men who appear to be glowering behind wraparound shades brighten and respond to the standard "gudmoning" or "gud aftanun".

Solomon Islanders are friendly, intelligent conversationalists and - given the paucity of political information available - well informed through the "coconut telegraph" of the machinations of politicians who are almost universally mistrusted. They live behind razor wire and are seldom to be found.

At parliament - an odd squat concrete bunker on the hill above town but with beautiful Melanesian designs inside - I am provided with a list of phone numbers for politicians, their permanent secretaries and press secretaries. It is worse than useless. The numbers either don't connect or no one answers.

For days I hear: "Your call cannot be completed at this time."

On the rare occasions when someone does answer I am often given another number. And the fruitless cycle begins again.

Government ministers aren't in their offices either. The few people who are faithfully take my business card and promise to call back. Not one does.

The following day I repeat the round of ministers' offices - most are careworn houses or prefabs. Many are closed, empty or staffed by different people today. I give up and go to the Point Cruz Yacht Club, a seafront bar favoured by locals, expat officials and rogue traders, entrepreneurs and cash-only businessmen.

"Politicians? They keep moving all the time," snorts Kenneth over a SolBrew.

"A moving target is harder to hit."

New Zealand born Lloyd Powell, permanent secretary to the Minister of Finance Laurie Chan, says while that might sound dramatic there's an element of truth about it.

"It's not that they don't want to talk to you, it's just that we've all evolved a pattern of behaviour that rightly or wrongly we believe is prudent. I can't work in my office because there's a non-stop stream of people and the culture is you stand close to someone and watch. So that means you might have 20 people in your office and you cannot produce anything.

"Part of the role is to be seen, but I keep moving. People don't want to be near me, but we must continue to operate as if there's an element of normality. It's a very fine line. When I'm moving about and someone out of group comes at you, you have to make a judgment. Do they want you to sign something for them, or are they up to mischief?

"It's an interesting life and I'm getting quite good at peripheral vision."

Powell or his minister sign all the Governments cheques, around 300 a day. He signs three while we talk in the lobby of parliament.

"I've had guns poked at me and knives pulled on me and I am regularly invited to contemplate all manner of inducements that might suggest my pen comes out, and thus far I've avoided it. But you'd be pretty silly if you took it too lightly.

"Fundamentally we cannot run the ministry and no one has been able to. It's not possible when you are overrun by people pretty well every day. While local people have cheque-signing capabilities none are left alone at night, their wives and children and family are harassed.

"One guy was obliged to sign a cheque at three in the morning, when he was in hospital on a drip, at gunpoint. So I have withdrawn some of that. We get cabinet to set priorities and try to defend ourselves with the collective responsibility of cabinet.

"There are some very capable people here, contrary to what some might believe, but their ability to operate and contribute is enormously constrained by what is a complete breakdown in law, and that's not just in criminal behaviour."

The extent of high-level corruption makes a mockery of the country's motto, "To lead is to serve". Self-service has been the way of it.

Prime minister Sir Allan Kemakeza - who has links with the MEF - was dumped last year amid allegations of corruption. But in the fluidity of the Solomons' systems, where party loyalties are less relevant than aligning yourself with a person of influence, he is back - and promoted.

During "the tensions" big business pulled out, so now the country is broke. Civil servants often go unpaid for weeks, power and water supplies are erratic, and the credibility of the police is crippled from within because of the number of "special constables".

There is little confidence in the Government which is seen as endemically corrupt, irrelevant or out of touch. Parliament rarely sits - you can't have a vote of no-confidence if the house isn't sitting - and some cynically note the PM will have served a year, which entitles him to half salary as a pension for the rest of his life.

Noah sits at a plastic table in an airy, cool streetfront shop which sells drinks and sandwiches. The handwritten sign on the table says "Reserved for eat". He doesn't eat and the guy in the shirt emblazoned with "Security" ambles past leaving the many non-eaters unhindered. Noah is a carver from the Western Province who came to Honiara to see his three children.

"The government can't operate because it responds to all these pressure groups who put guns to their heads," he says wearily.

"The whole thing is tainted with corruption. We need foreigners to come in and take charge."

What would he ask the Prime Minister if he could?

"Why don't you just resign," he says with a shrug of his old shoulders.

It's Saturday when we arrive in Auki, the capital of Malaita. The mini-bus to town detours down the grass landing-strip to pick up abandoned beer bottles.

It's the morning after masked men have broken into a store on the main street. That they were armed indicates they were police from the nearby station where there are three police cars, not one with a full set of wheels.

According to some, the store owner hadn't paid some rent, so the police took matters into their own hands and encouraged others to join the looting.

Later we are told she is Chinese - as are many store and business owners in the Solomons - and was agitating with local politicians to be allowed to buy land.

Down at the market in the late afternoon a welcome, cool breeze is whipping through the now-deserted stalls. David bounces on a bulldozer and babbles incoherently. Clive shakes hands and explain there is no money for the mental institutions, so people like David wander aimlessly.

Clive's eyes are yellowed, his teeth red from betel nut and his hands and bare feet like gnarled, blackened oaks. He is fifty-something at a guess and, like many, keen to talk politics. We start with the looting and he switches to the influence of Asians.

"They own the businesses," he says with quiet resentment, "and because they have supported this Government they expect favours in return. Like this woman here."

The PM's adviser who was shot at is Chinese, and the Minister of Finance is called Chan, he notes with a knowing nod. We hear this opinion often, but also that Solomon people are just as bad.

"Corruption is everywhere in Solomons," says Clive, "and the people are greedy.

"This market was kastom land but has been sold by politicians who keep the money for themselves."

That afternoon we fly back from Malaita in the dodgy looking eight-seater which splutters up the landing-strip with all the speed and commitment of an old motor scooter. Kids from the nearby village wave and Malaita spreads its tropical beauty below.

Thirty-five cramped minutes later we are back in Honiara, matted in sweat. At the Quality Motel the power has been off most of the day, but there is water for a shower.

The following day there is neither and the temperature arcs towards 40C.

I've been told if I'm at the office of the leader of the opposition, Patterson Oti, on Monday at 8am he will be there. I get there. He doesn't. His press secretary doesn't know where he is. He might not come here today, he might be in a meeting, he might go directly to parliament.

In the late afternoon I'm in the clean, empty restaurant of the motel which looks over the video store to the azure ocean beyond. One of the barboys, Philip, has gazed for hours out the window towards his home island of Florida. Another boy says he is saving the $S60 ($18) to go home to Malaita for Christmas.

They love their country but are sad for it. They just want peace. And things to work again.

South African reggae singer Lucky Dube is on the tapedeck: "Dem don't build no schools anymore, dem don't build no 'ospitals anymore... " In the alley below a woman lights a damp pile of leaves and plastic bottles, the acrid stench filtering through the window.

Somewhere in a Government office a phone rings and rings.

"Your call cannot be completed at this time."

A rat runs across the window sill. In the alley two bored boys throw stones at a sleeping dog.

The power goes off again and an unsettling silence descends on the Happy Isles.

* Next week: Is there a road to recovery?

Herald feature: Feature: Solomon Islands

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