31 Oct 2017

Sogavare govt near collapse as anti-corruption bill tabled

4:21 pm on 31 October 2017

Politicians camping out in a hotel in Honiara can only mean one thing: the numbers game is back on in Solomon Islands politics.

The national government of Manasseh Sogavare is on the verge of collapse after a series of resignations by ministers at the weekend.

Manasseh Sogavare

Manasseh Sogavare Photo: RNZI

Nine ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Manasseh Maelanga, tendered their resignation at the weekend, while a number of backbenchers have announced that they too are leaving the government.

Among the defectors are former prime ministers Danny Phillip and Snyder Rini, lending weight to moves to change government. The group is basing its lobbying at the Honiara Hotel, and has been joined by a number of government backbenchers.

As lobbying among MPs gets into full swing, the Honiara Hotel group is claiming a majority of MPs in the 50-seat parliament. It plans to oust Mr Sogavare in a vote of no-confidence next week.

The defecting ministers claim the current government, the Democratic Coalition for Change, has lost trust in the leadership of Mr Sogavare. There are also grumblings about the influence of Mr Sogavare's nephew, Robson Djokovic, as cabinet's chief of staff.

Mr Rini, the former Fisheries Minister, said he and the others resigned because the prime minister had stopped listening to others, and had been straying from core government policy of governance and sectoral reforms.

"He changed his approach. He was diverting from our main policies, and he has listened too much to the outsiders, instead of listening to us ministers. So that's why I don't have any confidence with him, and why I resigned."

Solomon Islands finance minister Snyder Rini is sworn in by Governor General Sir Frank Kabui as Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare looks on.

Snyder Rini is sworn in as cabinet minister in 2014 by Governor General Sir Frank Kabui as Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare looks on. Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

But the Minister of Infrastructure Development, Stanley Sofu, said it was not entirely clear why the members resigned, suggesting there was more to it than Mr Rini was letting on.

"We are trying to find out what are the reasons that made them resign from the government. I think it's something to do with the anti-corruption bill. I am still with the government, and I am committed to the anti-corruption bill."

The anti-corruption bill, a revised version of earlier legislation that Mr Sogavare's government controversially withdrew, was tabled for its first reading yesterday. It will still have to go through parliament's Bills and Legislation Committee for consideration before MPs can debate it in parliament.

The jilted history of this legislation, including the modifications it has already undergone, underlines how a number of MPs remain uneasy about the legislation.

According to another former prime minister, and the leader of parliament's group of independent MPs, Derek Sikua, the bill could yet be delayed again.

He said some MPs fear that the passing of the bill will entail a jail term for them, since their names were already with police for investigation for corruption allegations.

Manasseh Sogavare

Manasseh Sogavare has faced resistance in parliament to anti-corruption legislation his government has introduced. Photo: RNZ/ Koroi Hawkins

Snyder Rini denied that he had any problem with the anti-corruption bill. He also dismissed any suggestion that Mr Sogavare should be given another chance, given the prime minister was only a year out from completing his first full four-year term in office.

"I've given him a lot of chances," said Mr Rini.

"In 2016, there were other members of our government that ran away, and I kept on supporting him. And then we got the number. So we gave him a chance, but he's not taking that chance very seriously, and is just listening to his cronies, and his nephew."

The Communications Minister Peter Shanel is another MP who has pledged his support to Mr Sogavare. He also claimed that those who resigned did not like the government's intention to pass the anti-corruption bill.

Mr Shanel named Mr Rini and Mr Phillip as two central figures, accusing them of using personal grudges against Mr Sogavare and his nephew to hold government to ransom.

Robson Djokovic was described by Mr Shanel as the driver of government reform programmes.

"It did not go well with some of the ministers because they don't like to be pushed," said Mr Shanel. "Things here in Solomon Islands are slow, but as government we can't have a slow government in providing services to the public."

He was outwardly confident that Mr Sogavare would have majority support in the 50-seat parliament come next week's vote of no-confidence.

"The government has 24 at the moment. I believe the other side has at least 26. There are in some quarters people who misled each other. So we are looking at those who we can get back to government before the weekend."

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Photo: RNZI/Koroi Hawkins

The defections come just before this week's visit to Solomon Islands by president Dr Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan which is a key aid donor.

A spokesman for the Taiwan embassy in Solomon Islands, Oliver Wang, said while they are aware of the political situation, the visit's schedule was set.

"So our delegation will come in as planned. Our president's visit, there's no change. So the president's delegation will arrive on November the 1st, and leaving on November the 3rd."

Taiwanese development money has played its part in numerous changes of Solomon Islands government over the years. The lobbyists of Solomon Islands political circles could well have anticipated the opportunity presenting itself with a large Taiwanese delagation in town for the next few days.

The hotels of Honiara will be busy this week.