Under the leadership of a newly elected coalition government, many Solomon Islanders hold hopes that 2015 will emerge as a period of unprecedented reform.
As the legislature prepares to debate potential frameworks for economic stimulus and the consolidation of law and order, international attention will be concentrating on whether the state can continue to chip away at its former reputation as the Pacific “failing state.”
Whilst commonly remembered as the site of the first Allied push back against Japanese occupation in the bloody Battle of Guadalcanal (1943-1943), the Solomon Islands’ political trajectory since its 1978 independence from Britain has been marred by corruption, dysfunction, and civil unrest. Tensions over increased rates of inter-island migration in the 1990s, alongside continued resentment over colonial land appropriations, led to outbreaks of violence within Guadalcanal and the capital Honiara. Armed militias emerged from both the Guadalcanal and Malaita ethnic groups, turning the capital into a war zone and causing businesses, schools and local governance institutions to grind to a halt.
The crisis came to a head when Australia led the deployment of the 2200-strong Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in 2003, in response to official calls from SI leadership for assistance in restoring law and order, pacifying ethnic violence, and tackling endemic corruption. Whilst the deployment swiftly stabilized the islands and began developing procedures for superior governance practices, the level of cooperation between government figures and RAMSI officials began fluctuating as time wore on. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (2000-2001, 2006-2007, 2014-) expressed strong criticism of the open-ended timeframe of the mission and the ramifications RAMSI’s presence held for Solomons’ sovereignty, coming into direct conflict with Australian authorities.
After a three-year program of phased withdrawal, as of 2015 RAMSI’s Participating Police Force now serves as the last outpost of international authority within SI. Solomon Islanders voted for the first time since the RAMSI withdrawal in November 2014, electing Sogavare to the leadership with a pledge to focus on tackling corruption. Criticisms of rampant misuse of funds and cronyism in the allocation of new Cabinet ministries continue to dog the third term prime minister, with SI’s Chief Justice Sir Albert Palmer and the Office of the Auditor-General expressing concern after random audits from 2012-2013 revealed a missing $8.6 million (AUD) in government funds. Sogavare’s announcement of an impending Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has done little to dispel these fears.
The RAMSI deployment stabilized a state on the verge of collapse. After ten years of occupation and an estimated expenditure of $2.6 billion, however, Australian policymakers remain perplexed as to how best to support the delicate process of state-building, without exacerbating the Solomon Islands’ already pronounced aid dependency. SI is now the third highest recipient of Australian aid. Whilst Julie Bishop’s concentration on developing private sector investment and exchange between the two countries has been met with unreserved enthusiasm by the formerly recalcitrant Sogavare, it remains to be seen whether the Solomon Islands can sustain long-term investor confidence.