8 Feb 2023

Vocal critic of Solomon Islands govt ousted in motion of no confidence

10:13 am on 8 February 2023
The premier of Malaita Province Daniel Suidani.

Daniel Suidani Photo: Daniel Suidani/ Official Facebook

There have been reports of unrest in Solomon Islands' Malaita province where the outspoken provincial premier Daniel Suidani has been ousted in a motion of no confidence.

The Malaita provincial assembly on Tuesday passed the motion against Daniel Suidani in absentia.

Celsus Talifilu a political advisor to Suidani said the ousted premier and his executive did not attend the debate as they were awaiting a court ruling on a case Suidani had brought against the speaker of the provincial assembly, Ronnie Butala, accusing him of abuse of process in assembly matters that led to the moving of Tuesday's motion of no confidence.

"But unfortunately, while they were still waiting for the decision of the court, the speaker allowed the proceedings to go ahead," Talifilu said.

He said only the non-executive members of the provincial assembly were present for the meeting, so they had the numbers.

"Only the 17 of them were attending the meeting and then the motion was moved, and it was passed and the Premier therefore lost," Talifilu said.

Meanwhile, Ronnie Butala, has declared the current deputy premier, Glen Waneta, the acting premier.

RNZ Pacific understands the nomination for a new premier will open at 8:30am Wednesday and will close at 4:30pm on Thursday with the election of a new premier to take place on Friday.

Officers at the Auki Police Station confirmed to RNZ Pacific the reports of an angry crowd clashing with police after the result of the no confidence motion was announced on Tuesday morning and that teargas was fired by police during the altercations.

However, they said they were able to restore law and order with the assistance of Daniel Suidani and members of his executive appealing to their supporters not to take the law into their own hands and return to their homes.

A heightened police presence remains in the Auki township with the Patrol Boat Gizo also to remain in the province through to the weekend.

Allegations of national government interference

There is no love lost between the national government of prime minister Manasseh Sogavare and Daniel Suidani's MARA government.

Suidani's staunch anti-China/pro-Taiwan stance has been a thorn in Sogavare's side since 2019 when Taipei cut ties with Honiara on finding out it was entertaining Beijing's advances.

Speaking in October 2019 - shortly after the "switch" was confirmed - Suidani stressed the lack of consultation and the absence of an election mandate for such a monumental shift in diplomatic relations.

"They should have explained to us what is good about China before making a decision that affects the nation," Suidani told RNZ Pacific at the time.

As a result of his stance, Suidani received overwhelming support from the Malaitan public [the country's most populous province] which created a remarkable situation where a local level government with no foreign affairs mandate stood in defiance of the national administration's foreign policy direction.

Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare (right) with Li Ming, China's first ambassador to the Solomon Islands.

Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare (right) with Li Ming, China's first ambassador to the Solomon Islands. Photo: George Herming - Government Communications Unit

To add insult to injury Suidani by-passed Honiara and maintained contact with Taiwan resulting in several diplomatic incidents over the years.

Given this documented rivalry Celsus Talifilu said he has no doubt in his mind who is behind this week's successful no confidence vote and the two previous failed attempts to oust Suidani and his MARA administration.

"From observing what has been happening, this is clearly a work of the national government, who has not been happy about Malaita's stand against China after the decision was made by the current national government to make the switch from Taiwan to China," Talifilu said.

His sentiments were echoed in a statement issued by the leader of the Solomons opposition, Matthew Wale.

"No amount of justification by the Government can brush aside the fact that the motion was planned and executed at arms-length for ulterior purposes and not to uphold democracy as they will want the public to believe," Wale said.

RNZ Pacific has reached out to the office of the Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare for comment.

The United States and MARA

Last week the United States re-opened its embassy in Solomon Islands - almost three decades after downgrading its diplomatic presence in Honiara.

Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Colin Beck (centre left) with US officials at the Embassy re-opening.

Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Colin Beck (centre left) with US officials at the Embassy re-opening. Photo: Supplied/US Embassy

Washington had announced its intentions to re-establish its presence in the Pacific nation early last year, following concerns over China's security pact with the Solomons and greater interest in the Pacific.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the opening of the embassy "symbolises a renewal relationship" between the two countries.

In December last year the United States Chargé d'Affaires to Solomon Islands Russell Comeau awarded the first four forest and development fund grants, welcomed the first American international agriculture volunteer to Malaita province and announced the first partnership agreement.

"The United States is proud to work with the Government of Solomon Islands, the Malaita Provincial Government, the traditional and church leaders, and the businesses and community initiatives to foster a better understanding of how a robust private sector and vibrant community initiatives can contribute to sustainable growth and benefit all Solomon Islanders," Comeau said in announcing the aid support.

But US aid to Malaita has not been without controversy.

The $US25 million ($SBD205.5 million) Strengthening Competitiveness, Agriculture, Livelihoods and Environment (SCALE) programme was first announced in 2020.

Washington was initially criticised both for its timing - one year after Honiara's "switch" to Beijing - and the magnitude of the funding - to date the largest single aid grant Malaita Province has ever received surpassing even the combined contributions of its traditional aid donors.

But these criticisms of political motivation were brushed off by the State Department which said the funding had been in the pipeline for two years prior and was actually a result of correspondence between prime minister Manasseh Sogavare and the then US vice president Mike Pence.

Ironically, the delay in rolling out the funding could actually have played a part in this week's ousting of Daniel Suidani.

When RNZ Pacific asked Celsus Talifilu if delays in the implementation of the United States SCALE programme had cost the former premier, he said.

"To some extent, because of the way people understand things and the way some people want to spin that information to make it look as though the US and the MARA government are incapable of these things."