THE VILLAGE EXPLAINER: By Dan McGarry in Port Vila
One of the key characteristics of Melanesian politics is its ability to remain formless and chaotic right up until the point where, after a strange and often obscure catalysing moment, it abruptly transforms itself.
More than a few people will attribute Solomon Islands’ recent tragic political confrontation to Manasseh Sogavare, his decision to end diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and his intolerance in the face of Malaitan grievance.
Sogavare has a reputation for intransigence. He can be downright pugnacious when confronted. More than a few people have laid at least part of the blame for the 2000 coup at his feet.
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But that misunderstands who he is, and how he’s managed to remain one of the most enduring characters on the Solomon Islands political scene.
Sogavare began his career as a tea boy smartly saluting the White-socked British administrators. He is extremely proud to have become the one they salute.
The diplomatic switch
Those who insist on seeing the current crisis in geopolitical terms misunderstand his role in the diplomatic switch, and his approach to politics.
Sogavare is two things:
- He is headstrong. His rise to power is punctuated by confrontation and inflexibility. He entered politics because the PM of the day sacked him from his role as Permanent Secretary of Finance. His first term as Prime Minister was fraught with violence and hatred.
- He is a technocrat. He will seek pragmatic solutions that are conspicuously absent of ideology, or even consistency, when circumstances dictate.
When Solomon Islands held the chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group in 2015, he played a decisive role in brokering the awkward compromise that saw the MSG simultaneously elevate Indonesia’s status in the organisation and welcome the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, or ULMWP, into the fold.
If he had allowed it, the matter of membership would have gone to a vote, and the vote would have split the organisation irrevocably. Instead he found a consensus solution, albeit one that defies an intellectually consistent explanation.
This is precisely the pitfall that, if backchannel accounts are accurate, Australia led the Pacific Islands Forum into when they called for the selection of the next secretary-general to be put to a vote.
Always an outsider
Born in Papua New Guinea to missionary parents from Choiseul province, he’s always been an outsider and an individualist. His lack of constituency has become his stock in trade. It’s precisely because he’s not burdened by party or policy that he continually bobs to the top of the Solomon Islands political elite.
If you had asked anyone about his stance toward China in the lead-up to the diplomatic split from Taiwan, you would likely have heard that he opposed recognition of China. But that didn’t stop him from unreservedly attacking Taiwan for its failure to address his country’s development needs.
The critique wasn’t unmerited. For decades, Taiwan elevated its ties to the political elite over its role as a development partner. The much-maligned Constituency Development Funds that have gained outsized influence over national politics were seeded by Taiwan.
CDFs are one of the key drivers of electoral corruption in the country. A close observer of Solomon Islands politics recently told me that to get elected in Solomon Islands now, you have to be either rich, or an MP.
Incumbency rates increased markedly since the CDFs were made a core component in the budget process.
It took Taiwan years to begin unhitching itself from this albatross. When they did, they left an opening for China to fill. And, in spite of their own reluctance to become stuck in the same corruption and mire that Taiwan had only just emerged from, the prize was too big to forego.
Claiming that Sogavare drove this process ignores the power of Parliament. He knew which way they were going, and he knew what he had to do if he was going to keep his hand on the wheel.
And that’s why he did what he did.
Distrust of Malaitan politicians
His distrust of senior Malaitan politicians, and his apparent willingness to use dirty tricks to remove them, are well known. It’s hard to defend many of the decisions he’s made along the way.
But it is possible to understand and explain them.
Manasseh Sogavare is a party of one. He retains his hold on the highest office not in spite of this, but because of it. He presents no ideological or policy threat to any of the other MPs.
It’s precisely because of his mechanistic, arguably amoral approach to politics that he remains one of the most enduring faces on the Solomon Islands political scene.
That hardly raises him above criticism. But it should serve as a caution to anyone who naively thinks that removing him will solve the nation’s problems — or that the nation’s political problems can be solved by a policy, a party or a single man.
The question is not who can salve this wound afflicting Solomons society, but how these peoples can heal themselves.
The divisions that have fuelled this most recent rupture are deep. They span decades. To think that a bit of parliamentary musical chairs will be sufficient to fix it is folly. To think that some other smart, independent man of deep conviction is going to be able to put things to rights is to ignore the evidence right in front of our eyes.
How will history judge Sogavare? I’ll leave the last words to him. When I asked him back in 2015 about the prospect for continued violence and unrest, he said:
“We’ve been through this three times now. And if I haven’t learned anything from 2006, then… I have myself to blame.”
Dan McGarry was previously media director at Vanuatu Daily Post/Buzz FM96. The Village Explainer is his semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics. His articles are republished by Asia Pacific Report with permission.