Solomon Islands: A fragile calm

Chris Pritchard

Regional assistance keeps the Solomon Islands government in business while the economy is finally on track to recovery after years of inter-community violence and lawlessness. 


Pessimists sometimes refer to the Solomon Islands as a failed state. But optimists take a different view, putting their faith in the 15-nation Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI). While its policing and military functions have garnered much publicity, RAMSI experts are embedded in all government departments. Their aim – to make government work efficiently. 

Australia calls the shots in RAMSI, having dispatched more than 2,000 peacekeeping troops, police and civil servants – followed by the region’s other developed nation, New Zealand. However, Canberra’s officials are careful not to downplay contributions by small island entities: two of Niue’s 16 police serve in the Solomon Islands; the Cook Islands is represented; and even the small-island state of Tuvalu is involved in the mission. 

The Solomon Islands is a South Pacific archipelago of 992 islands (347 of them inhabited) with an estimated population of 525,000. A democracy where 75 percent of adults are subsistence farmers, the country was British ruled until independence in 1978. Initially, the future seemed promising. The so-called ‘Hapi isles’ lived up to their name. 

But the country’s recent past has been far from happy. The Solomon Islands became the scene of one of the world’s small but nasty wars after ethnic conflict flared in 1998. Politicians lived in fear both of gangsters and the police. Foreign loggers plundered shiploads of timber from remote islands and went unchallenged because the administration had broken down. The government declared a state of emergency in 1999 – but the situation deteriorated further. 

Violence was worst on the island of Guadalcanal – where the country’s capital, Honiara, is located. The unrest was mostly between people from the nearby isle of Malaita and Guadalcanal residents. The latter asserted that too much land was being used by settlers from Malaita. Both sides in this ugly civil war had self-styled revolutionary militias with small arms, and both sides committed atrocities. A favourite killing method was beheading; on one occasion, human heads were dumped at Honiara’s market along the capital’s main street, Mendana Avenue. 

Some analysts say the bitterness was compounded by a widely held belief that Malaitans are more hard-working and ambitious than the people from Guadalcanal. Whether true or not, such views fuelled complaints that Malaitans were snaffling up too many jobs in Honiara. Criminality exacerbated the violence, with the commercially important Chinese community among various targets of robbery and extortion. Elsewhere in the country, there was a settling of scores in smaller-scale fighting between the different ethnic groups, or wantoks (literally, ‘one talk’ or ‘people of the same language’). 

The economy was shattered. Streets were increasingly lawless. Some government departments were barely functioning. Tourism, which had grown steadily and seemed destined to challenge nearby Vanuatu, collapsed. Air and sea links with some outer islands grew tenuous. The line between so-called revolutionary politics and simple banditry became increasingly blurred. 

Furthermore, the government couldn’t pay its bills. In desperation, it sought outside help. RAMSI was quickly put together and started work in 2003. Initially, it was mainly a military and policing operation. There were hiccups. In 2006, mobs torched much of Chinatown – Honiara’s commercial heart. But, after the flames died down, the situation suddenly began to improve. 

By any measure, RAMSI’s efforts have been a success. Political violence has ended and policing is now largely in the hands of well-trained Solomon Islanders. Government departments, with RAMSI advisors in key roles, are beginning to function properly, while budget-draining ‘ghost workers’ have been culled and corruption reduced. No date has been set yet for RAMSI’s exit but one of its senior officials recently said he expects the mission to still be there in 2013. It will leave when the Solomon Islanders – and RAMSI itself – decide its presence is no longer needed. 

The economy has shown rapid improvement and the IMF predicts GDP growth of 5.6 percent in 2011 and 6.1 percent in 2012, although other sources suggest more sluggish growth, perhaps even as low as 1.5 percent for 2011 and 2012. 

Much attention is currently focused on the projected Tina River hydropower scheme, which is intended to bring more affordable and reliable electricity to Honiara and other parts of Guadalcanal. A feasibility study was conducted in 2009, World Bank support has been agreed and the local officials have held discussions about possible technical support with Fiji, an island nation with dam-building expertise. The project is due to be commissioned in 2015, though some analysts warn that delays, attributed to the country’s current post-conflict recovery mode, can be expected.

A major economic challenge is presented by the decline of logging, as some natural forests have been logged out of existence. “We’re actually going backwards,” says Rick Hou, former governor of the Solomon Islands Central Bank. Other analysts are more sanguine, noting gold exports are set to increase and suggesting there’ll be more emphasis on the country’s copra, cocoa and palm oil exports. 

Fishing is recovering from unrest-related interruption. However, while fish exports have started up again, these don’t include canned fish. The nation’s only cannery – partly owned by Japanese interests – shut down in 2000 because the owners decided operations were impossible amid ongoing violence. There are, however, plans to reopen it. 

There has also been an upturn in tourism. It hit a high of about 16,000 visitors in 1999 (when deteriorating safety hadn’t yet impacted on arrivals), dropped to negligible numbers in the early 2000s and is currently close to 10,000 a year and rising. A large new hotel has opened in Honiara and others have been refurbished. Small resorts in outlying areas are once again welcoming guests who are no longer afraid to leave the capital. Attractions include the breathtaking natural beauty, friendly and welcoming islanders, and the superb diving sites, particularly near Gizo (the country’s second largest town). 

With a return to tranquillity, elections were held (successfully and peacefully) in 2010, and Danny Philip, a political veteran and founder of the Reform Democratic Party, became prime minister. Powerful, broad-based political parties are not a feature of the local scene. Instead, politicians – whether independent or representing political parties – must work with each other to stay in power. Political observers say this situation is unlikely to change. Nothing illustrates this more graphically than Philip’s resignation on 11 November 2011, a few hours before a no-confidence vote that opposition MPs were expected to win. The following week, 46 year-old Gordon Darcy Lilo – a long-time politician and former ally of his predecessor, a vocal supporter of RAMSI and a graduate of the Australian National University – was chosen by parliamentarians as the new prime minister. No significant policy alterations are expected, but the wheels of economic, social and political recovery will continue to turn for the people of the Solomon Islands.

About the author:

Chris Pritchard is a Sydney-based journalist who monitors the South Pacific


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