[Island Business] Fighting Corruption



As the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) scales down its operation, the country it came to rescue 10 years earlier from a deadly ethnic social uprising appears to be tethering on yet another.

This time though it is shaping to be the people versus politicians. The increasing ugly face of greed being openly demonstrated by politicians today is fanning the anti-politicians feelings and is daily gaining momentum.

So much so that educated Solomon Islanders have been driven to form an anti-corruption social network called Forum Solomon Islands International (FSII) on the internet to lead the fight.

In January, FSII President, Redley Solomon Raramo, issued a broad call on all churches and the people of Solomon Islands to stand with FSII in their prayers.

“If there is a time that you have been praying and interceding for, it is now. If there is a moment in history that Solomon Islands should rise up to its divine call, it is now. If there is a time that Solomon Islands should manifest its hearty values and potential, it is now,” the appeal posted on the net, said.

“I call on all churches, Christians and those who believe in the true fundamental principles of a vibrant society to stand with FSII,” said Raramo Jnr, who is studying in Australia.

He went on: “We are fighting a battle that (had) never been fought before. We are constructing a society that is to come.”

FSII’s call has gained broad and increasing support from some senior public servants.

“People are getting disenfranchised because of what the politicians are doing with public funds. And the people’s anger is waiting to go off any moment and it could be deadlier than the so-called ethnic tension of 2000,” one senior official told me in Honiara recently.

“My best guestimate is that it could happen any moment, but it would not go beyond the next three years,” the official predicted.

“But don’t you think the next social uprising would be Solomon Islanders versus Asians?” I asked him.

“No, I don’t think so. The Asians would be caught up in it, but the main anger would be directed at politicians and senior public servants. It will be the masses versus their very own, the very people they elected to represent them in Parliament.”

Next wave of uprising

Unlike the first ethnic tension which erupted in 2000 and the subsequent incident in 2006 in which shops in the capital, including Honiara’s Chinatown, were torched, the next wave of uprising could be more deadlier because it would no longer be localised. It would be nationwide.

“I am actually considering my options whether to continue as a public servant or quit now because I could be a target,” he said.

The official is referring to the modus operandi used by Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo’s administration since he took office in November 2011.

In 2012, for example, politicians took control of project funding in the nation’s Development Budget. Until now, funding in the largely donor-funded Development Budget is controlled and used by government departments to implement their annual national work programmes. Not anymore.

The change in tack meant that politicians now have access to discretionary powers over where the funding goes. In the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2012 for example, SB$28 million (about US$4 million) appropriated by Parliament for tourism-related projects was removed from the department and shared equally by the 50 constituencies. A Member of Parliament for each constituency had the discretion over his constituency’s SB$560,000 (about US$70,000) share of the loot.

A SB$20 million (about US$3 million) appropriated by Parliament for the ministry faces similar fate this year.

Black hole

In fact records of politicians’ expenditures from the Ministry of Rural Development show the 50 Members of Parliament shared $145 million (about US20.7 million) in discretionary funding in 2012. But, like the Pacific paradox though, there is little or nothing at all to show for, if at all by way of development.

“It’s a black hole out there. But while the people are getting deeper into helplessness, politicians are thriving in businesses and personal wealth accumulation. One politician, according to some, is now into building his fifth house in Honiara, not to mention the number of buses and taxis he also owns.

All this is going on while the nation’s health system is in a crisis with some hospitals being without doctors for months on end. In education, the story is the same, with teachers threatening a nation-wide strike over pay. The strike was narrowly averted when the government was reminded that it has some K20 million a year budgetary assistance over five years sitting in Port Moresby since October 2011.

Senior public servants have been quietly critical of the government’s raid of the Development Budget. Not only has it denied them undertaking their annual work programmes, it relegates technocrats to the sideline.

Miuse of public funds

Others see the government’s move as unconstitutional as it undermines Parliament, which approve annual appropriations for all government departments. Still others contend that this is a blatant misuse of public funds to consolidate political power base.They may have a point.

An analysis of the 2010 election outcome shows only 30 percent of the population voted for the wining candidates. Based on a population estimated at 580,000, this means only 174,000 people get to see any benefits, if at all, from the public purse.

“What this boils down to in terms of financial benefits is that only 174,000 people or 30 percent of the population get to see the grants intended for each constituency each year. And this happens year in, year out for the next four years.

“Given the state of the nation’s health system, education and so on, 70 percent or 406,000 people who voted for the losing candidates never get to see any benefits at all,” one observer said.

“If there is such a thing as marginalisation, this is it—it is intended to produce a pre-determined outcome at the next election.

“In this case, it is intended to force people to vote in a certain way and for a certain individual, which is not democratic at all,” the observer said.

Today, it is becoming rare to walk into a government office and get something without paying an officer. It is worse in some government departments than in others.

Take the Ministry of Lands for example. A couple told me that they spent SB$10,000 (US$1,429) paying officers to get their application for a piece of land in Honiara approved.

“We actually spent $10,000 from the time we submitted our application to approval time,” they told me in Honiara recently.

“Every time you checked on the status of the application, you have to pay someone something. No one does something as a paid public servant anymore. They expect you to pay or get nothing.”

Veteran politician and statesman Sir Peter Kenilorea wants to see a thorough clean-up in the Ministry of Lands and Housing.

Serious concern

Sir Peter said revelation that up to 85 percent of crown land are in the hands of Asians is a serious concern.

“The government must find a way to put a stop to this and one practical way is to thoroughly investigate and clean-up the ministry,” he said in a recent interview with one local newspaper in Honiara.

“Public servants must serve with integrity and be strong with their leadership to abide by the law despite outside influence of money to lure them to do the opposite.”

Sir Peter urged responsible authorities not to be reluctant “because it is extremely visible from Henderson (in the east) to White River (in the west) that foreigners have occupied land and established their businesses”.

“The ministry must take some responsibility and immediately put a stop to this because in the future, our future generations will reap its repercussions.

“We need officers that won’t compromise their positions to ensure good governance and transparency prevail.”

The former speaker said there are laws in place but there is also need to update the laws as there could be loopholes whereby some people are taking advantage for their own gain.

“Today, we need people who fear God and live up to Biblical principles and values to work in public offices.

“As a matter of fact, if we have the right people in place, we will see fairness and developments where Solomon Islanders will enjoy.”

Similar practice is said to be endemic in the Ministry of Finance and Treasury.

“To get your payment processed, it’s a must you pay someone or at least promise him or her that you will pay them once your payment is given priority,” is a common comment from people waiting for their payments.

“Paying someone is the only way to get your payment on the top of the pile. If you don’t, no one looks at it,” someone told me. So while 2013 holds out much in terms of challenges and opportunities for others, the people of Solomon Islands are looking down the barrel of RAMSI-type invasion Mark II. Only time will tell.



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