Political survival is the real contest in Solomon Islands as Sogavare prepares for Pacific Games

Political survival is the real contest in Solomon Islands as Sogavare prepares for Pacific Games

Originally published in The Guardian


There’s excitement in the air when you ask about the Pacific Games coming to Honiara this November. Everyone loves sport, a party and time with friends and family. Yet, having just returned from Solomon Islands, it seems that the real contest involves the political games occurring in the run up to the next elections, likely early next year.

Last year, prime minister Manasseh Sogavare postponed national elections, claiming that the financial drain of an election and the Games in one year was too great. Not all were convinced, but parliament passed the deferral.

Political survival in Solomon Islands requires money and that is in short supply. How Solomon Islands will fund and provide the security and policing needed during the Games and through to next year’s election is still being determined, bringing ties with China, Australia and others into renewed focus.

The Games, which involve 24 countries and are held every four years, require sports facilities that most Pacific countries don’t have. Preparations are considerable – building, finding funds, with donors competing for favour. The $75m dollar stadium funded by China isn’t finished yet but it will be a great showpiece to go with many other gifts of infrastructure in China’s rapidly expanding support after the switch of recognition from Taiwan. Australia is also contributing to the Games but more modestly, concentrating instead on pressing development issues. Many worry about who will care for the Pacific Games “white elephants” when the party is over.

The Sogavare government, more than others in the region, has ramped up relations with China. Western concerns escalated to new heights when a security agreement was signed with China in 2022. The agreement includes Chinese police training, equipment and assistance to maintain “social order” if requested. That’s a big departure from the past when security back-up came from the ‘Pacific Family’- Pacific islands countries, Australia and New Zealand.

Police from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea will be in Solomon Islands until the Games finish. But it is unclear what will happen after the Games, and Solomon Islands government has not committed to maintaining the ‘Pacific family’ forces in town after the event – and into next year’s election.

Elections are historically the time when the risk of social unrest is high, and next year will be no exception. No one wants a repeat of the 2021 riots and its estimated AU$150m damage bill. Solomon Islands’ police force of about 1,400 struggles to manage law and order in a country of over 700,000 – about half the Australian per capita force. If there are troubles it’s unclear how Pacific forces – who work well together, most recently in the 2021 riots – would operate alongside Chinese security forces. The approaches to security are different and there are no well-rehearsed coordination mechanisms.

Australia’s deputy prime minister Richard Marles is in Solomons Islands this week and will put an offer on the table for Australian police to stay longer – Sogavare will be weighing up his options.

As the elections near, the demands on government will climb. The 2024 election campaign will mainly be about local issues and access to services, education and shelter. The country is still recovering from Covid, needs to fix broken health systems, connect rural-urban areas and boost employment. Debt is climbing and the costs of living are high. For the person on the street, food costs are soaring, and even basic medical supplies are scarce, including Panadol and antimalarial tablets.

Climate change is taking a toll too. Floods, storms and droughts are more severe and frequent. About 70% are reliant on declining fisheries and agricultural systems. Climate finances are simply not enough to plug rising pressures.

In the face of rising financial burdens, ramped-up relations with China divide opinion. For some it is a betrayal of the 36-year relationship with Taiwan and an unwanted thorn in the side of traditional donors who remain the “first responder” during disasters, and the largest development partner. For others, China provides additional development assistance in tough times and new development options.

Political reform is needed to meet the needs of a rapidly growing country that is suffering from inequitable resource distribution and service delivery gaps. Youth lack opportunities for education, work and political participation, and often become participants in damaging unrest.

But with a government focused on survival, reform is not top of mind.


Areas of expertise: Pacific Islands development and security, resource management, human security and resilience.