Sir Peter Kenilorea - Prime Minister
Former teacher Peter (later Sir Peter) Kenilorea led Solomon Islands into independence as first Prime Minister and held that post until defeated by Solomon Mamaloni in 1981. He led the country again from 1984 to 1986. Born in 1943, he founded the Solomon Islands United Party and after being Prime Minister, served as Director of the Forum Fisheries Agency (1991-1994) and Speaker of the Solomon Islands Parliament (2001-2005). Since 2000, he has chaired the Peace Monitoring Council. Like Mamaloni, he went to school in Honiara and in New Zealand. This interview was recorded by Ian Johnstone in 1995.
Sir Peter Kenilorea: I’m a Malaitan, from the southern part of the island of Malaita, had the privilege of having high schooling on Malaita, before being fortunate to be given, under the Commonwealth Colombo scheme sponsored by the NZ government, a scholarship in New Zealand. I was in NZ for four years and came back home as a schoolteacher.
IJ: Which school in NZ?
PK: I went to Wesley College then on to Wanganui Boys College and ended up doing teacher training at Ardmore College. Both in Wesley College and in Wanganui College we were in hostels and we had a lot of islanders, from Fiji, W. Samoa, Cook Islands and Vanuatu – and I rubbed shoulders with them.
IJ: This may be to one side, but maybe not. Was there talk of the future of your countries? Did you compare notes and say, in the Solomons we're happy with British rule, whereas others might have been more anxious to achieve independence?
PK: There was some talk about independence then – because you might remember W.Samoa in 1962 had already had their independence and the idea of independence was around the school corridors and that sort of thing.
IJ: We take it back then: you came home and became a very successful public servant.
PK: After school teaching I was asked to join the Public Service and in 1976 I was invited by my own people in south Malaita to run for the General Election to represent them.
IJ: This would have been the period of self-government?
PK: Yes, we already had our self-government in 1974. At the time I was
Secretary to Cabinet and Secretary to the Chief Minister.
IJ: Interesting - you were under two prods, two requests. Your own people back home, who would be happy for you to become their MP, and also from your colonial superiors.
PK: Yes, that's very true. In 1975 I was approached by my own people to stand for them in the 1976 General Election and I also received from the colonial administrators, my superiors, a letter asking me to go in for diplomatic training, because they were talking about independence and wanted me to look after our foreign affairs.
Then, given these two opportunities to serve Solomon Islands… I'm a Christian and I prayed much about these two important opportunities to ask if the Lord wanted me to serve the country or the state. I really put a please, I said well, if politics is your will for me to serve my country at this time, I'd like you to show it to me in a real tangible practical way, because at that point in time there were six people. I came into Honiara and asked if anyone else was interested in standing for my constituency, and a friend of mine said "There were six interested, but they heard you were also interested, they've all declined, all pulled out". So I took that as a definite lead and that's how I entered politics.
IJ: Yes, yes. A country of quarter of a million people with only a dozen or so (leaders) … the British hadn't done a very good job of getting you ready…
PK: That's right. In the early seventies we were only about a dozen, and it's right too, in my view, with due respect in hindsight, it's obvious the British hadn't done very much at that time for Solomon Islands. Their main emphasis was on law and order, no emphasis on economic development – that was almost nil – they had only one school, most education was in the hands of all the churches. The colonial administration had only one school, the King George VI school.
IJ: Did you have a sense the British just wanted to wipe their hands of the place and move out?
PK: Well, we didn't have to fight for our independence so you can take it from that that they had had enough of the Solomon Islands and just wanted to go away. I told them so during the independence constitutional negotiations in London. I said "We want this extra money, above what you've already agreed for, because you haven't done anything and we'd like to do something ourselves after you've gone".
They wanted to include in our constitution that anyone who had been here for a continuous seven years should have "belonger" status and equal rights to land ownership. I said that's not possible. Land is owned by tribes under traditional land rights and with belonger status some of our expatriate friends do not really feel and understand our customs about land ownership.
IJ: Did you have to fight hard for that?
PK: Yes, I had to fight hard for that. It was a very important issue and I thought they were going to force it on us that other friends who would be our citizens here but were not indigenous Solomon Islanders might be given equal rights with us in terms of land ownership and that was just not on as far as I was concerned. They were also trying to make it very easy to have citizenship here and I said there's no problem in having citizenship but please do not relate that to land ownership.
IJ: So you were happy to grant, given certain conditions, that people could become Solomon Islanders, but land ownership is presumably to do with being born on this soil?
PK: That's right. Land ownership is something to do with our own traditional affinity and affiliation to our own custom rights and traditions.
IJ: Just before we leave colonial days, Sir Peter, what about as individuals? Was there racism or were there friendly relationships between you and your white-skinned colleagues?
PK: We were equal in terms of our designations and positions, but the attitude that "some are more equal than others" was always there. It was very obvious that there were certain places one was not able to go to – like the hotel – you don't go there, you don't have permits to drink – no bother for me, I didn't drink anyway. There was a sense of that attitude. You could see that. You know, your superior opens the door without knocking and bashing into your office. And when you do it to him, he doesn't like it. That kind of attitude. There wasn't mutual respect in that area. There was, in my view, at the official, professional level, but the element of colour, race, and differences in understanding was still very much there.
IJ: The British weren't very good… part of the pattern…
PK: Well, they had some mature attitudes, but individuals, you know. We're talking about individuals, not about the system.
The only one complaint - we still hear it today – is about dealing with land… when the traders and colonial masters came and bought our land with empty bottles, a piece of cloth, a bush knife, that sort of thing.
IJ: Does this mean you had to found or join your own political party?
PK: Yes. Since 1976 elections have been on party politics. There were individuals as well, our constitution provides for that, but mostly elections are on party lines since 1976.
IJ: Did you like that?
PK: I see it as important for purposes of political democratic decision – you've got to make decisions somehow and if it has to be done along party lines, so be it. I think party politics isn't the real problem here. It's understanding the principles party politics operates on, and getting out of personality in politics. That's the area we need much more here.
IJ: Did you have a philosophy – other than Melanesian, being committed to land and so on - of government? Left winger or right winger, or do those things fit?
PK: I personally am a conservative right winger. But knowing that we are in a Solomon Islands communal system, which also hinges on a socialist lifestyle – we live for each other, communally, so maybe I'm right wing in terms of democratic principles, I believe in democracy…
IJ: Freedom of opportunity and so on. Did living in NZ affect that? I'm not asking you say if you're a National party or Labour party man, but going to school there…
PK: I think going to school in a free atmosphere situation must have given me reasons for my position. But essentially, it's my own Christian principle – every man is born free.
IJ: Was it hard changing from being a public servant to a politician?
PK: Very important question. I was pretty young for leadership in our traditional society; leadership belongs to the chiefs and the old people.
I think we have not decried or denigrated our traditional leaders in any way because they themselves know their traditional leadership is confined to tribal respect for that leadership whereas when you talk in the context of the nation, quite honestly that is beyond the bounds of traditional leadership.
They should not feel they have lost leadership opportunities, they should continue to know they are well and fully respected in their own traditional situation. But at national level they must give way to people with some education who can think widely.
IJ: Were you conscious, as you moved into the time for the first general election, of the Solomons as a nation? Was there national unity?
PK: We do have a lot of different island thinking and isolation which play against our national identity and feeling and views. It was difficult to think nationally at that time and that is why our national thinking has to be safeguarded in a written document, and we have tried to encourage that in our constitution because we know our natural differences in our islands, tribes and communities make it difficult; to create a nation out of these diversities it has to be guarded and allowed for in a written form. I thought we accomplished that in our written constitution.
IJ: Was it something you were aware of? Oh, they're looking… here's another Malaitan… big island, big powerful…
PK: Yes, I was very much aware of that at that time. And I think, truthfully, island thinking is still true at this time.
IJ: So it's island and home first, Solomons second?
PK: Solomons second, yes.
IJ: When it came to that first election, sir, what was it… you head to head against Mr Mamaloni? Was that the battle?
PK: Yes, Mamaloni was Chief Minister then. He was also in the running for the leadership at that time. After he wasn't successful at that time he got into the Opposition side and eventually resigned, then came back in again after a term away from politics.
IJ: So when you became first Prime Minister you were ousting the man for whom you'd worked. What was that like as a human?
PK: I felt very much for him personally. We'd been close together, went to NZ for schooling at the same time and then in our working life we were very close and just to oust him, he was my boss a month ago as it were and when the General Election included me as a politician we had to race against each other for the leadership of this country.
I'm sure as a person who'd been quite some time in government, he knew the competition was not personal competition, it was for the leadership.
IJ: A good deal of maturity required from everybody!
PK: That's right. To have a sense of maturity is very important specially in terms of leadership. We have our personal relationships and affiliations, but in terms of leadership that is an issue that the nation owns and its not our property.
IJ: You must remember that first day of Independence. There you were, first Prime Minister of a newly independent state. What was going through your mind as one flag came down and the other went up?
PK: It was a very joyous moment, but also a very challenging one. We had never been alone before, ever. There's always a fear of the unknown, the uncertainties of the unknown. But the leaders were very hopeful in terms of political independence now, or in future. You are as much prepared for it now as you will ever be.
IJ: There was no argument that it came too early, or too late?
PK: There was no argument among the political leaders. The mass of people were saying "Are we doing the right thing?" There were comments and songs about "We're not ready" and "We don't have enough money" But I felt then that independence is not about money, but deciding about being yourself – which is your right. As I said, every human being is born free and to be shackled by a system which is outside of yourself is not human in my view.
IJ: As you went through those early years, where did you look for help? Other Pacific leaders?
PK: New Hebrides – which was then a condominium - was very close to us and I was very close to Walter Lini. We wrote to support each other and I remember him ringing me up when his independence was coming up. "How did you do this?" and so on. And we looked to PNG because they had independence before us. And if Nauru, which is a smaller country, could have its independence in 1968, I didn't see why Solomon Islands, better blessed in terms of resources, couldn't go the same way.
Overall, in terms of resources, I think we have great potential and it's only ourselves, Solomon Islanders, who can spoil it for themselves. We'll either make it or break it ourselves now. We've been going now for 17 years and we're still together despite our diversities and it can be a very successful country. It has beautiful happy people and I think that's a great advantage for us and I hope we'll continue to build on that. It’s a strong aspect of a strong nation.
Sir Peter Kenilorea