Federalism, respect and identity

Gordon Leua Nanau

Hopes are pinned on a new federal constitution that will acknowledge and respect tribal differences, and encourage unity and reconciliation as the basis for the building of a reformed state. 

In 2000, as politicians desperately sought solutions to raging wantok (tribal) tensions, Solomon Islands provincial premiers asserted their desire to adopt a federal government system. The following year, the minister responsible for the provinces, Nollen Leni said it was time to correct the system of a single national government and parliament that had been introduced by past colonial masters and that had so far proved unsuitable for national interests and state building. 

The current ruling coalition has reaffirmed its commitment to developing “a sensible policy on federalism which will take into account the conflicting demands by our people”. A nationwide consultation has been promised for early 2012, before the final draft of the proposed federal constitution is presented and discussed in cabinet later in the year. 

Among themes that the constitution will need to address are key issues such as the incorporation of indigenous values into modern institutions, the movement and settlement of people, decentralisation, unity and reconciliation, and the rules governing political behaviour. 

There is an impression that ‘traditional’ leaders (bigmen and chiefs) ought to be more engaged in national legislative processes. In this way, conflict between indigenous values and modern laws or institutions would be assuaged. Ideally, national unity is facilitated when people perceive government structures and institutions as their own. 

There is broad agreement that a major instigator of the 1998-2003 wantok tensions was related to the free movement and resettlement of islanders on other people’s land. Consultation reports have agreed that the right to move freely must be defended but that the freedom to settle anywhere, especially on customary land, should include basic controls that respect indigenous traditions. 

The importance of political and economic decentralisation is widely accepted. The draft federal constitution seeks to expand the tax base and sources of revenue for the proposed states. Political and fiscal decentralisation would ensure that no wantok group becomes disadvantaged by the reformed constitution. 

Two notable reconciliation initiatives include the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Prison Fellowship International’s Sycamore Tree Project. Their efforts have resulted in meetings, truth telling and public apologies from ex-leaders of former militia groups. The TRC supports state-building efforts, especially those that promote national unity and reconciliation, determine the root causes of the conflict and give victims and perpetrators of the tensions the means and the dignity to voice their concerns, share experiences and provide an opportunity for reconciliation. The TRC also promotes accountability for human rights abuses. 

Clearly, citizens are frustrated by the political culture and behaviour of their national leaders – the country has had six prime ministers over the past decade. Given that grievances cannot confidently be channelled through MPs, civilians have, on occasion, vented their frustrations over leadership deficiencies on private property and businesses, thus destroying other essential state-building efforts. 

Successive governments since independence in 1978 have tended to address the symptoms of conflict rather than the root causes. Understanding the challenge of state building in the Solomon Islands requires an appreciation of the inherent ethnic and inter-wantok complexities that exist. A federal constitution that recognises and appreciates wantok differences would help to nurture stability and strengthen the modern state apparatus. If differences are acknowledged and respected, efforts towards state building and peaceful co-existence could be better propagated. The ongoing reconciliation efforts could also help lay the foundations for a reformed and more stable Solomon Islands state.

About the author:

Gordon Leua Nanau teaches at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji


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