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Prime Minister Derek Sikua, who assumed office in late 2007, took steps in 2008 to remedy some of the worst excesses of the Solomon Islands’ previous government, led by the controversial Manasseh Sogavare. Several members of parliament were charged with misappropriation of government funds, and Sikua appointed a new ombudsman in July to investigate alleged government abuses.
The Solomon Islands gained independence from Britain in 1978. Tensions between the two largest ethnic groups—the Guadalcanalese of the main island of Gaudalcanal and the Malaitans of the province of Malaita—over jobs and land rights erupted into open warfare in 1998. Scores were injured or killed before peace was restored with the Townsville Peace Agreement of 2000, brokered by Australia and New Zealand. Order was maintained initially by a UN mission and after 2003 by the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).
No single party secured a majority in the April 2006 parliamentary elections, with independents winning 30 of the 50 seats. The new chamber chose Snyder Rini to replace Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza. Allegations that Rini had used money from Chinese business allies to bribe lawmakers into supporting him sparked two days of riots in the capital. Australia and New Zealand sent in hundreds of troops to restore order, and Rini resigned after just eight days as prime minister. In May, Parliament elected Manasseh Sogavare in his place; Sogavare had previously held the post between 2000 and 2001. In his first months in office, the prime minister showed little commitment to improving government accountability, security, or economic development, inciting domestic and international criticism. Given the ongoing insecurity in the country, Sogavare in August asked RAMSI to stay on for another year.
The most glaring source of friction between Sogavare and his foreign and domestic critics was the September 2006 appointment of his close friend Julian Moti, a Fijian-born Australian citizen, as attorney general. Moti was wanted in Australia for alleged sex crimes against a minor in Vanuatu, but Sogavare refused to extradite him. Moti fled to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and was arrested there, but he jumped bail and reentered the Solomon Islands without a passport on a PNG military flight in October 2006. The police arrested him for improper reentry, but a local court cleared him of these charges. RAMSI then raided Sogavare’s office for evidence of involvement in Moti’s unlawful return. In retaliation, Sogavare declared the Australian-born police chief an “undesirable” immigrant, forcing him and his family to leave the country, and also expelled the Australian high commissioner after he spoke out against the police chief’s termination. In addition, the government subsequently threatened to repeal the law allowing RAMSI to operate in the country.
In 2007, Sogavare blocked a PNG inquiry team from visiting to investigate Moti’s 2006 military flight and threatened to file criminal defamation charges against anyone who criticized the attorney general. Moti assumed his post in July 2007, pledging to pursue all those involved in delaying his appointment. The opposition, labor unions, and civil society groups continued to call for Moti’s resignation and extradition to Australia. The opposition tried to remove Sogavare from office with another no-confidence vote in August, but failed again.
Separately, Sogavare had drawn additional criticism by creating a Peace and Integrity Council (PIC) to replace the National Peace Council (NPC) in January 2007. The Australian-funded NPC had a mandate to foster peace and reconciliation, encourage the surrender of weapons, and facilitate consultation between the national and provincial governments and with civil society groups. Critics charged that the PIC, which would be directed by the cabinet, would not have the independence of the NPC. Strong public outcry against this change forced the government to retain the NPC. Nine ministers withdrew from the government in November 2007, and the opposition forced a no-confidence vote in December, removing Sogavare from office. Lawmakers then chose Derek Sikua, the education and human resources development minister in Sogavare’s cabinet, as prime minister, and by year’s end, the new government had extradited Moti to Australia.
Since assuming office, Sikua has pledged to attack official corruption and abuses, a major source of public resentment and international criticism. In January 2008, Sikua pledged that the number of cabinet seats would be reduced from 21 to 11, and that salaries for political appointees would be reduced from $72,000 to $37,000 annually. In February 2008, Jahir Khan, the country’s police commissioner, was dismissed from his post; Khan’s appointment by former prime minister Sogavare had been controversial for not having gone through the prescribed process for senior officials. Also in February, Peter Shanel, the former immigration chief in the Sogavare cabinet, was charged with aiding Moti’s unlawful reentry to the Solomon Islands.
The Solomon Islands are not an electoral democracy. Recent elections have been marred by fraud allegations. A governor-general, appointed on the advice of Parliament for a five-year term, represents the British monarch as head of state. Members of the 50-seat, unicameral National Parliament are elected for four-year terms. A parliamentary majority elects the prime minister, and the cabinet is appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister.
There are several political parties, but independents heavily outnumber their representatives in Parliament, and political activity is driven more by personalities and clan identities than party affiliation. To promote political stability, Parliament in 2006 passed a law to prevent legislators from easily switching parties.
Rampant corruption at all levels of government is a major source of public discontent and a hindrance to economic development. With the formation of the new cabinet of Derek Sikua, the government requested former cabinet ministers and senior officials in the Sogavare administration to return their government-owned vehicles; while 12 initially refused, 3 continued to do so throughout the year. In July 2008, a member of Parliament was sentenced to 18 months in prison for misappropriation of government funds. In October, two officials were suspended over the alleged misuse of more than $200,000 in aid funds, and more than $287,000 in relief funds for earthquake and tsunami victims in 2007 were unaccounted for. Sikua appointed a new ombudsman in July to investigate alleged government abuses.The country was ranked 109 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedoms of expression and the press are generally respected, but legal and extralegal means are sometime used by politicians and elites to intimidate journalists. Prime Minister Sikua threatened to sue a local newspaper for an article alleging that he had been drunk and misbehaved while attending meetings at the United Nations in October 2008. The print media include a daily, a weekly, and two monthly publications. The government operates the only radio station. There is no local television station, but foreign broadcasts can be received via satellite. In November 2008, the government announced a review of the telecom monopoly. Internet penetration is low, mainly due to technical and cost barriers; authorities do not restrict or monitor usage.
Freedom of religion is generally respected. Academic freedom is observed, but the lack of public funds severely undermines the quality of education.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the government generally recognizes this right. Organizers of demonstrations must obtain permits, which are typically granted.Civil society groups operate without interference. Workers are free to organize, and strikes are permitted. Wage earners make up 10 to 15 percent of the workforce; the rest engage in subsistence farming and fishing.
Threats against judges and prosecutors have weakened the independence and rigor of the judicial system. Judges and prosecutors have also been implicated in corruption and abuse scandals. A lack of resources limits the government’s ability to provide legal counsel and timely trials. Traditional chiefs have sought more funds for traditional courts in rural areas to ease the strain on the formal court system. The constitution provides for an ombudsman tasked with investigating complaints of official abuse or unfair treatment. The ombudsman’s office has potentially far-reaching powers, including the use of subpoenas, but generally lacks funds to do its work.
There is no military. Domestic security and law enforcement are provided by a civilian-controlled police force of about 1,000 people, but poor training, the widespread abuse of power, and factional and ethnic rivalries have undermined public trust in the service. Prison conditions meet minimum international standards.
Growing anti-Chinese sentiment was a central factor in the April 2006 riots, which destroyed nearly 80 percent of Chinese-owned businesses in the capital. Chinese businessmen’s increasing dominance of the domestic economy, in a broader atmosphere of rampant corruption, stokes public suspicions that they use their wealth to influence politicians. In February 2008, Sikua formally apologized to the Chinese community for damages caused during the riots.
Discrimination limits the economic and political roles of women. No law prohibits domestic violence, but rape is illegal. Lack of funds for public education and health programs in the face of traditional attitudes hinders efforts to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. An estimated 16 percent of the population now carries the virus in the fastest growing population in the Pacific. The Church of Melanesia cites expansion of thelogging industry as contributing to the rise in prostitution, abuse, and exploitation of children.