By Catherine Wilson, a freelance journalist and correspondent reporting on Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands region
Popular aspiration for a federal government in the Solomon Islands was not forefront in my mind as I sat under a tree in a squatter settlement on the edge of the capital, Honiara, three years ago. A community leader was recounting with anguish the atrocities that occurred during the five-year civil war (1998-2003), known as 'the Tensions', and describing his frustration about the failure of authorities and leaders to quell the violence before the Regional Assistance to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was deployed in 2003.
But soon after that conversation, Reuben Lilo, Director of Peace and Reconciliation in the Solomon Islands government, told me constitutional reform was key to long-term stable governance and sustainable peace.
Public debate about changing to a federal system, driven by doubts about the suitability of the current, Westminster unitary system to an extremely diverse Melanesian nation of 610,800 people scattered across more than 900 islands, dates back to 1978 when the Solomon Islands gained independence from Britain.
'Our current system is foreign; it is part of the British system coming in and being imposed...our constitution is a photocopy,' Lilo told me back in 2013.
The failure of the central government to resolve rising socioeconomic grievances on Guadalcanal Island, the principal island in Guadalcanal Province, and prevent all out war, as an economic downturn and rising unemployment began to bite in the late 1990s, accelerated efforts to bring government closer to the people. Thus the Townsville Peace Agreement, finalised in October 2000, advocated the granting of state government and devolution of powers.
After more than a decade of consultations and many drafts, a final Federal Constitution is expected to be finalised this year. It is expected there will be at least nine states - corresponding to the existing nine provinces - that will have jurisdiction over such areas as land management, internal migration, raising revenue, and delivery of public services including health, education and law enforcement.
Whether federalism will help mitigate future conflict will depend on various factors including: the capacity of state leaders to promote more inclusive political participation; improved trust by the populace in politicians; and success in tackling local grievances before unrest escalates.
In 1998 the central government failed to quell problems on Guadalcanal Island that began when the indigenous Gwale-led Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) began evicting internal migrants from Malaita, a poor and heavily populated province to the east, claiming they were taking land, resources and jobs.
The socioeconomic problems were exacerbated, as described in the Women’s Submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, by 'other tribes who sought prosperity on Guadalcanal [who] came with different values and practices. This often led to a clash of cultures and resentment by Gwales of others imposing their values on them as the host community'.
Lack of timely and appropriate government strategies to deal with the crisis opened the way for armed warfare. One view is that this type of situation could be better addressed if traditional chiefs, who wield significant influence and respect at the community level, are given more recognition. In the 2014 draft of the Federal Constitution, the latest publicly available, states have defined responsibilities in the application of customary laws and customary dispute resolution.
'That is the way to go, to empower traditional leaders. This is how we can sustain peace,' Lilo declared in our 2013 conversation.
But whether the greed and political corruption, also identified by those who lived through the conflict as contributing factors, will diminish under federalism is a more difficult question.
'The conflict was not caused by land issues, it was caused by human jealousy and envy of other people’s success, jealousy of those who have the ability to succeed by those who sit back and watch the grass grow...greed is at the centre of it. Greed in the leadership was also a factor,' Simon Mannie, a former Malaita Eagle Force combatant, told me in a cafe on Malaita Island.
It is hoped that state governments will be better able to generate economic development in areas remote from the capital. This is vital for the Solomons, where there are marked inequalities between the country’s centre and periphery and persistent low human development. An estimated 23% of the population live below the poverty line, youth unemployment is around 45% and literacy, according to independent studies, ranges from 27% in Honiara to 7% in Malaita Province.
Rhoda Sikilabu, an Isabel Provincial leader, has highlighted during various discussions in recent years the challenges her rural islanders face in accessing adequately equipped health clinics and economic opportunities.
'Parents struggle with money and they have big problems that they cannot handle, unless we implement income opportunities. Now I see there are resources available, [for example] we have the fisheries sector, we just need to improve on these things,' she said.
Significantly, the 2014 draft constitution asserts the right of customary landowners to decide how customary land and natural resources are used and developed and their substantial entitlement to royalties and related revenues. This is an important move in a Melanesian country where rural livelihoods built on clan-owned customary land have provided socioeconomic security for generations.
However, a challenge is the corruption that has been associate with resource exploitation over decades. It is widely prevalent in the forestry industry, where collusion between politicians and, in some instances, local parties, and foreign logging companies has undermined rural development and entrenched grassroots poverty.
The present government has demonstrated a will to address the issue with an Anti-Corruption Bill (2016) and Whistleblowers Bill (2016) set to be debated in parliament in February. But any new laws still have to be effectively implemented both nationally and locally.
The signs are that federalism will bring more positive than negatives to the future of this beautiful, but still struggling, Pacific Island state. However, success will depend on a commitment to political transparency, accountability and development. This will require those in power at all levels to put national goals ahead of self-interest.