Thursday, March 28, 2013

Development of "Underdevelopment" and Dependency in West Makira Constituency, Solomon Islands - A Perspective

I wish to share my opinion in relation to how underdevelopment and dependency has persisted in West Makira over the years, while West Makirans continue in their search for a new leader. The period I would like to dwell on is the sixteen years span after the late Solomon Mamaloni; the period when West Makira people had started on the rather unpredictable and disappointing journey to search for a new leader; a new Mwaeraha; a new Son.

The late Mamaloni came into power for West Makira and Solomon Islands for that matter as an educated and qualified elite; a pioneer of and for a new nation, Solomon Islands. He had his tertiary education in New Zealand and therefore was well prepared and ready to take up the leadership call.
As one of our elite leaders the late Mamaloni (Solo) had recognised the difficulty of bringing the people together, hence his description of the new Solomon Islands as “a nation conceived but never born” – a nation that will forever be diverse and where the concept of unity is and will forever be an ideal objective to achieve.

Despite the grand recognition and realisation, the late Mamaloni had during his reign committed his time and energy not only for the nation but also for the people of his constituency. His focus and approach of leadership was one of simplicity and humility. For that reason, he was liked, cherished, highly regarded and respected not only by his own people of West Makira but Solomon Islanders alike.

In his passing, it is undoubtedly so that there will never be another person like him. We can only strive to be like him but we will never be exactly like him. That is an undisputable fact of life – no two persons will ever be exactly alike or the same. But we should not be disappointed because with new development comes the prime need for new leadership approaches. Times have changed and new challenges have began to emerge which I believe may require a little tweaking of old styles and culture to be effectively and adequately addressed. The late Mamaloni however, will always remain our local hero of West Makira. He is THE one and only true Solomon Mamaloni; our true leader.

During the late Mamaloni’s era, West Makira strived for progress, growth and development. Back then people were content with everything that was there. Whether there was development or not, people did not care much because the late Mamaloni was able to bring happiness and peace amongst all peoples. People peacefully coexisted and the atmosphere was filled with great harmony and cooperative spirit. The West Makira Games is a manifestation of how the late Mamaloni had highly regarded the existence of harmony in society as an important prerequisite for sustainable and equitable development. He was the founder of the Games; an uniting factor for West Makira people for many years until his passing away.

When the great leader sadly passed away, a great vacuum emerged. West Makirans realise that the only person they have ever known as the most capable leader has sadly left. So the search for a new leader that can fill the very big shoes that Mamaloni had left behind began.

Because of the great grief and sympathy, it was unsurprising that the person that was voted in to replace him as our elected leader in Parliament was none other than his own brother. The high regard for the late Solo was also extended in Parliament when the incoming MP for West Makira, even though he was only elected in at a by-election later become the Deputy Speaker, having gained the favour of most MPs then to become their second boss in the Parliamentary Chambers.

So nationally, the late Mamaloni’s immediate successor was highly regarded and he had dwelled and excelled in that regard. He was himself a long-serving and experienced politician at the provincial level and had many years of political experience behind him. Unfortunately, he did not survive the next general elections, and returned to serve at the provincial political level for some time. Perhaps West Makirans did not see the leadership characteristics they expect of him; or time was too short for him to make an impact at the constituency level; or whether he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time – it was unclear. But one thing was clear; the journey in search for a new leader for West Makira has only begun.

After Mamaloni’s immediate successor was voted out of Parliament, a new face entered the political scene for West Makira. The mandate was given to a long-time educationist and public administrator. He had an agricultural background and had served for many years in his respective field, as an agriculture field officer, a teacher and school principal.

Upon becoming an MP he became a Minister and expectations were high that given his approachability and simplicity he would be the ONE West Makirans were looking for. He undertook his Ministerial responsibilities exceptionally well and was a robust and active voice for his people in Parliament.

However, despite his good undertaking of national responsibilities as a national leader, his focus on the development woes of West Makira constituency was minimal. He continued with the undesirable “ballot box” politics of free handouts, nepotism and cronyism. There was no evidence of a Constituency Development Plan and development therefore was unguarded and was thus handled and decided more or less on a case by case, adhoc basis.

Hopes were gone and discontent began to intensify amongst West Makirans. Harmony faded and the atmosphere began to shift from one that was filled with happiness and joy to one that was filled with frustration and despair. He was voted out quite dramatically in the next general elections as a result of a ‘block vote’ by people of a particular part of the Constituency, the very people who were credited to have backed him to victory in his previous election success.

With his unsuccessful defence of title, a not-so-new face entered the scene to be the not-so-new political voice for West Makira. One of the longest serving public officers, the new MP for West Makira was a good representative of the people on the floor of Parliament. Given his experience throughout the colonial administration era, at the executive public service level, and as a former MP but for another Constituency in Makira, he was well-versed with his day to day duties and as the voice for his people in Parliament.

In fact, apart from the late Solo, his work rate in the chambers of Parliament is next to none comparably. He always contributed with his heart on the floor of Parliament and does not worry much at all about whether he is talking in or out of Order. He was initially appointed a Minister but later became the Deputy Opposition Leader after the coalition government he was part of was voted out in a no confidence vote.

But like his predecessors, he did not commit enough time or focus on matters of importance and priority for his constituency. Like those before him, he rarely visited his people by touring the constituency. He opted to remain in Honiara throughout his whole four-year term and rented a house despite that fact the under the Parliamentary Entitlements he was not entitled to rent a house in town. By doing so, he invited pressure upon himself and was alleged that throughout his term as an MP he was using funds meant for the development of the constituency for the rental of the house he was living in.

He was a strong leader; but perhaps too strong a leader. He usually disregards advices from his constituents and decided instead to have around him people of questionable agendas; people whose dubious characters are well known to most ordinary West Makira constituents.

Perhaps the most controversial point of his term as the MP for West Makira was his firm and unwavering decision to purchase a vessel using constituency funds. He told West Makirans that the MV Hausori was purchased with RCDF. Almost half of the four-year RCDF allocation was committed to purchase the vessel. That was what he told constituents but he never publicly revealed the price of the vessel in Solomon Islands Dollars. Perhaps the real cost was more than half of the RCDF or even more because even at the dawn of the next general elections there were rumours that the payment for the vessel was still incomplete and there were orders from the supplier for the vessel to be tendered to recover the outstanding money.

The purchase of the vessel did not change the development situation in West Makira. People were still struggling and the vessel was rarely running given its constant visits to the slip-way as a result of unsound management. There was no proper management in place to oversee the running of the vessel. If people had benefitted at all from the running of the vessel it would be his family, close friends, and cronies. No other people from West Makira had benefitted because the vessel was run as a private asset and its takings similarly so.

During his term as MP for West Makira nothing substantial occurred. He was alleged to have misused funds allocated for constituency activities and development. Thus, development remained stagnant and the level of discontent and disillusionment with government intensified. Leading to the next general elections back then, some West Makiran voters were even alleged to have put their ballot papers on sale announcing their intention in the media, an indication of the embedded lack of confidence they have on our democratic system and processes. Their argument is that even if they go to the polls to vote, the outcome will not be different as whoever they would vote for and win will still be a bad leader.

So in the midst of their search for a new leader or THE Leader, West Makirans were starting to give up. They were starting to realise that indeed it is not easy to fill the shoes of the late Mamaloni, and the fatigue was starting to show.

Unsurprisingly, the only MP responsible to have ever purchased a vessel for West Makira constituency was voted out of Parliament in the most unprecedented fashion. During the campaign period he was not even allowed in some of the villages. In others he was able to campaign; he often faced furious crowds of people who were there only to tell him off; some even physically confronting him.

So even when he was voted out his misdemeanours did not leave him. He was summoned in court for allegations of misappropriation of public funds; a case that is yet to be judged by the courts.

The next phase of the political journey of West Makira was lead by a young leader. In their leadership search West Makirans chose a young leader; a science-educated young leader. He has a science education background, with years of teaching experience at the former SICHE now SINU. He was a former political appointee under the Sogarave-led government and later became the Director of SICHE.

In both occupations as a political appointee and SICHE Director, he was removed from Office allegedly due to under performance. This was quite unsurprising for many who know him closely. They have described him as a good talker but a not-so-good undertaker. In other words, he is only good in talking but rarely carries out what he talks about. This has been evident in his current leadership as the MP for West Makira constituency in that up to this day he has not fulfilled most of the promises he had given to the people during his campaign.

He became a Minister; and a good one too because he is a Minister in his area of specialty: education. SINTA members, students and some parents however, may think otherwise given the current failure of his Ministry to adequately deal with teacher’s re-levelling issue.

Consequently, given his hectic ministerial responsibilities he had not been able to resolve many of the issues that are affecting or holding back development in West Makira. Discontent is still rife and only a certain component of the society is being given close attention and repeated assistance. The cunning behaviour of his Constituency Development Officer (CDO) is not helping at all in this situation; nor is the use of his own brother as shadow CDO, or the fact that his spouse is the secondary signatory to the West Makira Constituency account (the MP is the primary signatory). All these are only adding salt to the wound.

In his term as MP, the disconnectedness between MPs and the people has widened, as he continues to overlook small but underlying aspects that are held close to the wellbeing of West Makirans. There are many proofs to this observation. For instance, while the West Makira Games has never been held since 2010, the year of general elections due to financial difficulties, the SDA Games has continued undisturbed since his coming into power. As a result people are claiming that because the current MP is an SDA, he is only focusing his support and assistance to the West Makira SDA communities. And while many people are yet to receive any material assistance from him, his home village or settlement at Boro’oni continues to be built into a settlement of another class as compared to all the rural communities of West Makira. Thanks to the flow of public funds that are at his disposal to freely disburse. His family; associates and cronies are the only ones reaping the benefits of the materials that are being purchased with the monies that are meant for development of the whole West Makira constituency and its people.

The current MP had opted to purchase vehicles and solar panels – the new phenomenon in the politics of Solomon Islands which is driven by free handouts from Taiwan. His supporters call this development. I personally disagree. This is not development. These materials are tools for development. These are materials meant to aid or boost development and should never be confused as actual development. The purchase of these materials is not development. It is their use that should result in easing of tangible development. What is happening now is that even with the vehicles and solar panels, development continues to remain stagnant and West Makira remains one of the worst developed constituencies in the whole of Solomon Islands.

What is worst is the continuous under-utilisation of the potentials for development. Money is being handed out freely with no genuine intentions for positive outcomes. Despite the millions of dollars available every year since 2010, nothing tangible is happening in West Makira. People continue to suffer and encounter the same problems over and over again- the same old unaddressed development woes. Instead of progress the general development situation in West Makira is actually deteriorating. This is happening in our West Makira while in many other constituencies development is occurring robustly with progress and improvement in people’s wellbeing and livelihood, and thus people are directly benefitting from positive change.

As a matter of fact, West Makira Constituency is very ill or sick. The sickness is embedded in part to the lack of sound leadership, which is prevalent due to lack of guided or planned development and unsound decision-making. The result is repeated political leaderships that are concerned only on how they are to get re-elected in the next general elections. Thus, cronyism and nepotism or favouritism are the main components of the norm of the day. People are given assistance only because of who they are, not because there is any genuine intention to develop the constituency.

For instance, late last year 2012, a good number of farmers from West Makira were given SBD$2,500 each in the pretence of assisting them to rehabilitate their farms. But they were also told that the money was just to thank them for their hard work all year round in looking after their farms, and that they can use the money for whatever purposes they may wish. So guess what the recipients do? They pay themselves Christmas presents. And how can we blame the innocent farmers – what can one do with $2,500 these days, especially when it is for the ongoing upkeep of coconut and cocoa plantations? $2,500 is the labour cost for only a single week’s work to maintain a standard sized farm in West Makira. After that everything returns to square one.

All this is happening while hundreds of thousands of dollars are available within the ministry of agriculture for cocoa and copra rehabilitation projects. These are budgetary allocations which were to a certain extent at the discretion of MPs in their disbursement. Had these funds were utilised I am sure that the amount of money that was to be given to the farmers would have been more than the lousy $2,500.

To make it worst, we continue to focus on purchasing material things even when we know too well that these things are not development but are tools to boost development. And how can development be guided and boosted if there is no plan at all in place – at least a plan that all West Makirans are aware of and are part of in its formulation. These material things will not get us anywhere but will only add to the sickness that is affecting our constituency. What is happening now in actual fact is the creation or the development of underdevelopment in West Makira. It is not development that we are witnessing but underdevelopment and continuous dependency.

The sickness that is affecting us must be resolved. We need the right doctor to give us the right prescription and medicine for the sickness.

But we need not just any doctor; we need a specialist. By specialist I mean the right person and people to lead us into a new era of leadership; a new legacy. Everybody – a village elder; a builder; an educationist; an agriculturist; a fisherman; a farmer; a mechanic; a church pastor; a student – and you name it– can be a politician if they have the support of the majority of voters. But the problem we have now is deep and serious and we need the right person to solve it. Lest we forget that despite our different qualifications sound political leadership is not just about qualification. It is about having the right qualification, specialty and qualities to be a good and effective leader. There has to be a balance between one’s knowledge of the political and governance context of Solomon Islands and the challenges affecting us at the rural, grassroots setting.

Remember, a mechanic is qualified but he or she won’t build a house. A carpenter, even though qualified in his or her own right can build a house, but they won’t fix a vehicle. The sickness that is affecting us is about development and governance: it is about politics and that requires a person that is trained to be a good politician. That is, a person who is a trained politician and had some firsthand experience of the problem at hand. We need a person that is well versed with the problem at hand; who has felt this problem and has suffered and struggled just like any other person in West Makira. A person who is energetic and committed with their whole heart and mind to focus only on the problem at hand; a person who knows what this is all about. A person that is knowledgeable about our culture, politics, governance and development issues – a person who can bring back harmony and peaceful co-existence within our society. That is the kind of specialist we need – not just any qualified person. We do not need any more political wannabes – enough of them.

We need a person that goes in Parliament not because he or she is enticed or attracted by the millions of dollars that are at the discretion of MPs; or a person who wants to go in there just to build up their wealth or ego at the national level. We need a person that goes in there and focuses not only on himself and his family, friends or religious community but the whole of West Makira; a person who will have time for his people and put the affairs and concerns of his people first than anything or anybody else. A person who will be able to heal our illness or sickness and take us forward prosperously with harmony, humility and humbleness. That is, a person that does not need more time to learn to be well-versed about the workings of government and parliament but a person who already understands these processes and procedures. That is the kind of person we want. A person who will never tell lies to us again and is serious about his role as a law-maker, a national leader and a representative of his constituency – all the people of his constituency and not just his voters, friends and family.

So as the next general elections draws nearer our search for good political leadership continues. The choice is on us to decide – whether we want to continue to suffer or should we make some tough decisions and change the leadership of West Makira forever for the better. We have searched enough – today is the time for us to appreciate and acknowledge that the leadership we have been looking for all along is ready to take us forward. We only have to recognise that and allow that to happen. The time has come for that change to happen. The ball is in our court and whether or not we are happy or suffer tomorrow is a decision we have to make today.

You make your choice, and make sure it is the right choice! For a wrong choice today will be your suffering tomorrow!

God Bless West Makira. God Bless Solomon Islands.

Mr. John Saenitoro
Concerned Voter, West Makira Constituency

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