By Sri Krishnamurthi, contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch
The Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Dame Meg Taylor, is the latest figure to support Nauru’s call to convene a special meeting of the University of the South Pacific Council in the long-running leadership saga.
In a letter to incoming chancellor of the USP, Nauru President Lionel Aingimea, she has declared: “As a council member, I confirm my support for your proposal to convene a special meeting. I will await further advice of the details of the meeting, in due course.
“Thank you for your astute leadership on this matter.”
The letter was posted on social media, which is widely used in the Pacific, by New Zealand journalist Michael Field, who broke the story about the controversial contents of the BDO Auckland report into alleged mismanagement at the USP.
Islands Business news magazine today published a full report which Field said was leaked to him and it outlines details of mismanagement of funds and cronyism at USP.
Suspended vice-chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia believes he is the victim of a witchhunt at USP after he exposed an alleged system of rorts and questionable contracts in late 2018 when he took up the post.
“I have no doubt that this is a byproduct of that initial report that I took. Since then, I have been vilified and as a whistleblower, in most places where I come from in the world – including Australia and the UK where I’ve lived – whistleblowers are protected,” he told RNZ Dateline in an interview.
“Here I have been thrown under the bus.”
Professor Ahluwalia also found himself locked out of his office and his email account at the university has been disabled.
Senior academics and staff at USP in Suva are accused in a special audit report of manipulating allowances to pay themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars they were not entitled to, as several Pacific governments say Fiji is using the covid-19 emergency as a cover to take over the university, according to Field’s report in Islands Business.
“The scale of allowance abuse has outraged Pacific member nations of USP, including Nauru, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand. USP staff are accused of helping themselves to money intended to educate the people of the Pacific,” Field wrote.
“The payments took place under the leadership of Fiji vice-chancellor Professor Rajesh Chandra. They were revealed by his replacement, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, on November 1, 2018.
“Since then, vice-chancellor Ahluwalia and USP pro-chancellor Winston Thompson have been at loggerheads, with their opposing factions rallying behind them.”
The international accounting firm BDO was engaged to investigate and provide an independent report. However, the report which names 25 individuals at the university has remained under wraps since last August.
Professor Ahluwalia was suspended on pay and privileges this week by the USP Council’s executive committee in what critics say was a breach of protocols to investigate allegations against him.
Vendetta a “nonsense”
Samoa’s Deputy Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, described the executive committee’s decision as “irregular” and that pro-chancellor Thompson’s vendetta was “nonsense”, according to the Samoa Observer.
“It is our view that the University Council had determined how it would deal with these issues and the council asked the pro-chancellor and vice-chancellor to work together and keep to their own mandates, but it had become very obvious that the pro-chancellor is very obstructive,” said Fiame.
Pro-chancellor Thompson today claimed that the executive committee acted within its powers to investigate allegations of material misconduct against Vice-Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia and to suspend him pending an independent investigation.
Thompson told a media conference at USP claims that the executive committee had acted illegally on Monday were incorrect.
He said he and acting vice-chancellor Professor Derrick Armstrong had offered to meet the students but this was rejected by the University of the South Pacific Students Association (USPSA) while the staff had agreed to meet this morning.
However, this morning the staff told him and Armstrong that they were not available to meet.
He claimed the staff asked about the press conference but they were told they had lost the opportunity as the meeting scheduled prior did not eventuate.
Australia and NZ ‘diplomatic’
Both Australia and New Zealand – the two largest donor countries for the 12-nation regional university – have reacted diplomatically over the crisis.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said her government was concerned about the “leadership issues” at USP, reports FBC.
Payne said Australia recognised USP as an important and highly valued regional institution and tertiary provider in the Pacific.
She added that Australia was a longstanding partner of USP and it was strongly committed to supporting education in the region.
Payne said she had also called for a special meeting of the USP Council.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) spokeswoman told Pacific Media Watch:
“MFAT is closely monitoring the situation and has nothing further to say at this point.”
New Zealand was the 12-country USP’s second-largest funder behind Australia, contributing US$3.5m ($NZ5.3m) in 2017.
Australia contributed $US13m to the USP in 2017, the European Union $1.5m, Japan $2.3m and other partners $2m, according to the USP’s accounts for that year.
Established in 1968, USP is jointly owned by the governments of 12 member countries – Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Samoa.
Fiji is USP’s biggest member contributor.