Friday, 22 April 2016

The Lessons of RAMSI (Solomon Islands) for Fiji and the South Pacific

With the Australian-led mission expected to end in June 2017, the writer provides insights and strategies on the way forward.
One of the important lessons of RAMSI is that any security mission into the South Pacific should take account of the underlying reasons for conflicts.
The conceptual framework underpinning RAMSI clearly shows that well-meaning solutions that might be best implemented in volatile regions like the Middle East or Africa may not necessarily be the best fit for an emerging democracy like the Solomon Islands.
Since RAMSI was sold as a solution put forward by Pacific island states through the Pacific Islands Forum, the second lesson is that it should have been the subject of rigorous analysis and robust discussion.
The forum leaders meeting that approved RAMSI should either have included other development partners like China and India rather than just Australia and NZ (benefiting from their collective wisdom) or excluded them altogether and allowed Pacific leaders to consider truly Pacific strategies for dealing with conflicts.
Too often, Pacific island leaders are swayed by the prospects of foreign exchange earnings (from personnel employed by RAMSI) rather than a genuine desire to bring about lasting peace and prosperity.
With about A$2.6billion (F$3.95bn) already spent on RAMSI, we now have the benefit of hindsight to appreciate that in dealing with our regional assertive powerhouses like Australia and NZ we need to develop a constructive rapport so that funds that are provided help Pacific states to strengthen governance institutions and wean them of aid dependency.
In the era of chequebook diplomacy we should now be looking at gift horses in the mouth and asking the hard questions on how best such aid empowers states to be economically viable.
In the case of the Solomon Islands there is a view that there has been no improvement in living standards since RAMSI came in.
It would still require massive inputs of aid to be able to function in a post-RAMSI milieu. The bulk of the A$2.6bn (F$3.95bn) went back to Australia through the salaries of RAMSI workers, the majority of whom come from there.
Most products and services used by RAMSI in the Solomon’s are also sourced from Australia. Additional benefits will accrue to Australian companies through lucrative mining deals after RAMSI concludes.

RAMSI was formed in 2003 because of an urgent request from the Solomon Islands Governor-General for outside assistance to deal with rogue elements that had caused a law and order situation.
In 1998, disaffected youths from Guadalcanal began intimidating some Malaitan settlers. In 1999 many Malaitans went back to their island of Malaita or to Honiara which has a large Malaitan population. In 1999, the Malaita Eagle Force and the Marau Eagle Force were set up as a means of defence against some Guadalcanal landowners who had formed a group called the Isatabu Freedom Fighters aka the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army.
The then Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu (a Malaitan) tried to bring about reforms and showed true diplomacy by initiating policies that would benefit all Solomon islanders irrespective of their tribal affiliations. He tried reconciling the warring factions but to no avail.
The perception in the global media was that this was an ethnic conflict especially between landowners on the island of Guadalcanal and Malaitans who had migrated there.
This was an oversimplification of a problem that dated back to British colonial times dealing with land alienation issues that had not been solved then.
After Independence, it had been allowed to fester and then reached a saturation point when there was conflict between landowners around Honiara and Malaitan immigrants in the late 1990s.
As the situation worsened in 2000, the Commonwealth Office in London appointed former Fiji PM Major-General Rabuka as a mediator. There had been concerns that Rabuka lacked mediation skills and experience; the Commonwealth Secretariat’s strategy was to appease the Guadalcanal landowners by meeting most of their demands for compensation.
This included demands for all their lands leased by government and private developers to be returned. They also wanted a government within a government arrangement.
The mediation failed to tackle the root causes of the conflict and to take account also of the grievances of Malaitans. After the signing of the accord, there was an uneasy peace that faltered and the conflict resumed. In June 2000, Prime Minister Ulufalu was kidnapped by elements within the Malaita Eagle Force who felt he was not doing enough for them. He resigned as a condition for his release and Manasseh Sogavare took over. In October 2000, theTownsville Peace Agreement was signed by the warring parties and the Solomon Islands government.
Yet another peace agreement was signed in February 2001. This was not effective as a key bandit had refused to sign,
In December 2001 Sir Allan Kemakeza was elected Prime Minister. However the crime situation had not improved especially in Honiara.
In 2002, the Finance Ministry was often surrounded by a few armed bandits and on one occasion the Finance Minister was forced at gunpoint to sign a cheque for a bandit. Law enforcement was ineffective. This was the impetus for Parliament to seek outside intervention. RAMSI came in 2003.

The Solomon Islands trouble came after the 9/11 Twin Towers tragedy in the US and throughout the world there was concern about terrorism and similar incidents happening especially in developed countries like Australia and NZ.
Prime Minister John Howard in selling the idea of a costly mission to Australian taxpayers said that if the Solomon Islands became a failed state it could be used as a safe haven for transnational criminals and terrorists.
To be fair, the Solomon Islands was not the only country where corruption and poor governance existed. Other countries like Fiji had gone through upheavals far worse than the Solomons. On December 5, 2006, there had been reports of a possible military intervention by Australia and NZ in Fiji.
Fiji however found local solutions to the issues it faced that materialised in an affirming constitution, the setting up of an anti- corruption agency and strengthened democratic institutions.

RAMSI birth
RAMSI was born on the July 24, 2003 and 2200 soldiers and policemen from Australia, NZ and six other Pacific countries were deployed. There was a view that the decision to send 2200 armed soldiers and policemen was an overreaction, especially as the militants were  a small group of gangs armed with archaic rifles and homemade weapons.
The Pacific Island Forum states readily agreed to this deployment because it provided employment and much-needed foreign exchange for their small economies. RAMSI attracted very highly- capable professionals from most South Pacific countries. They worked in the civil service, the judiciary and security areas.
Unfortunately RAMSI does not have a dedicated programme of mentoring especially young Solomon islanders to take over when RAMSI ends.
Certainly it has trained the Royal Solomon Islands Police to be armed after they leave. What is urgently required in the 18 months left before RAMSI pulls out is the training of locals to run the courts and various arms of government.
Worse still RAMSI personnel (from Australia and the Pacific) and their families rarely mix with local Solomon Island civil servants or professionals. This is a pity as the Solomon Islands has the brightest and most talented cohort of academics and professionals who if given the opportunity can work to take their nation to the next level of socio- economic growth.
RAMSI has special shopping centres, restaurants and hotels with stratospheric prices. Goods and services are priced in Australian dollars so there are two parallel economies operating simultaneously especially in Honiara.
Solomon Islands civil servants, for example, live in ramshackle accommodation and make do with the small shops and canteens that cater for them.
The joke about RAMSI policemen for example is that the best places to find them during office hours are the sleek coffee shops where flat whites and iced mochas flow in abundance. Given its excesses, I have yet to meet a Solomon Island professional who speaks positively of RAMSI.

Relationship with the Solomon islanders
To be fair to RAMSI, the civil service in the Solomon’s is often plagued by high absenteeism and Pacific time is in vogue.
It is common in some ministries for workers to congregate over extended recess or lunch breaks to exchange pleasantries over betel nuts.
With so much resources pumped into the Solomon Islands, there was incredulousness that no attempts were made to assist in civil service reforms or to set up a dedicated anti-corruption agency.
Solomon Islands political leaders and RAMSI barely tolerate each other and the lack of trust and the absence of constructive rapport mean that systemic reforms cannot be effectively implemented.
RAMSI has had a kind of love-hate relationship with Solomon islanders especially with Prime Minister Sogavare who was Prime Minister from 2000-2001, 2006-2007 and in 2014. In 2007 he accused RAMSI of being dominated by Australia and of undermining Solomon Islands’ sovereignty.
When RAMSI was mooted, the then Solomon Islands government feeling rather desperate had signed on to the Mission Framework without taking time to understand its implications.
Since independence there had been no clear plans in the Solomon Islands on developing basic infrastructure like gravelled roads, Irish crossings or bridges, water supply tanks, jetties etc. RAMSI had provisions to facilitate the construction of basic infrastructure.
It was supposed to work closely with Government in facilitating small and micro enterprises especially in agriculture and fisheries amongst grassroots people. Primary health was pointed out as another area that could be covered through RAMSI public education initiatives. RAMSI was implemented mainly as a security initiative with the bulk of the funds channelled towards law and order provisions.

In terms of security, RAMSI has tended to be a showpiece mission that has been unwilling to take proactive action. A case in point was the riot of April 2006 where parts of Honiara were burned down and looted and 90 per cent of Chinese- owned shops were razed.
RAMSI personnel have not understood that the cause of conflicts has its roots in disaffected young people with few employment prospects and the perception of corrupt politicians and civil servants.
There is a view amongst some Solomon Islands academics that instead of Australia and NZ sending an additional 250 soldiers and troops (as they did immediately after the riots) these resources could have been utilised for seed funding for example to promote SMEs and informal economic sector projects to promote grassroots entrepreneurship. (By September 2013 RAMSI soldiers had been withdrawn.)
To be fair to the Australian government, RAMSI had a framework that was constantly being fine-tuned.
Since 2003, successive Solomon Islands governments have not been able to build up a constructive rapport with their Australians counterparts to enable the Solomon Islands narrative to be reflected in policy decisions.

Has RAMSI been beneficial?
The perception in the Solomon Islands is that law and order has not markedly improved. Another flaw of RAMSI is that it has not facilitated interpersonal trust between Malaitans, Guadalcanal islanders and Solomon islanders from other provinces into an integrated effective force.
In the 18 months left before RAMSI exits, there needs to be proactive strategies on civil service reforms and the training of Solomon islanders to effectively run all machineries of government.
New bilateral aid from the donor community should also look at the construction of basic infrastructure, support for grassroots SMEs and provisions of primary health care.
One of the lessons of RAMSI for Fiji is that the conceptual framework of all donor funds that emanate from the EU or other development partners must clearly reflect the realities on the ground and must actively involve those who will be directly affected by the aid that is provided.
There are strings attached to donor funds and Pacific states should decline offers of help if the assistance benefits the donor more than the recipient.

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