Solomon Islands decides whether to stick with ‘master of mayhem’ Manasseh Sogavare

Solomon Islands decides whether to stick with ‘master of mayhem’ Manasseh Sogavare
  • PublishedApril 14, 2024

It was a vintage performance.  

Dressed in a signature Cuban-style short-sleeve suit, Manasseh Sogavare strode on stage.

In front of him a few hundred high school students looked on, struggling to concentrate as the stifling Solomon Islands heat suffocated the auditorium.      

Mr Sogavare, a naturally gifted orator, could seemingly sense the disinterest. Off the cuff, he launched into a biographical tale; telling the audience about how, when he was their age, a teacher told him he would be a “Mr Nobody”.

A man in a maroon suit on stage pointing dramatically
Manasseh Sogavare giving his speech to high school students in 2017. (ABC News: Nick Sas)

He regaled them about his first job “cleaning toilets and making tea” for the country’s British colonial masters. Now, he told them, he was prime minister of Solomon Islands.    

To finish, he talked about Winston Churchill’s “never give in” speech — a man he described as his “idol”.    

This was 2017 — during his third tenure as Solomon Islands prime minister. A month later, Mr Sogavare was booted out of office.

Fast-forward to today and he is nearing the end of his fourth tenure as leader after scrambling back to power in 2019. 

And it’s fair that within that time his “idol” may have changed; these days, it seems, he’s much more likely to praise Xi Jinping than Churchill.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Solomon Islands' Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Mr Sogavare in 2019, just weeks after “the switch”. (AFP: Xinhua/Yao Dawei)

The man Solomon Islanders know as “Soga” drove the country’s switch from recognising Taiwan to China, later signing a secretive security pact. It made global headlines, influenced Australia’s federal election and thrust the small island nation of 750,000 into the middle of a geopolitical tussle between the superpowers.

Despite violent riots in the capital in 2021 and attempts to oust him as leader, Mr Sogavare stood firm.

And late last year his pièce de résistance came to fruition: hosting the 2023 Pacific Games — majority-funded by China.     

The country heads to the polls on Wednesday in what experts are calling the most important election in its history. 

On one side there’s opposition candidates pledging to realign Solomon Islands away from China. With them are Western democracies such Australia, which are privately anxious about Mr Sogavare securing another term.   

In the middle there are the people of Solomon Islands, who continue to face entrenched poverty, mass youth unemployment and a health system on its knees.

And then there’s Mr Sogavare.

He wants to add to his legacy, continue his China-focused “look north” policy and become the first Solomon Islands prime minister to serve a full term and be re-elected.  

And he wants it badly.  

A ‘very deceptive’ PM

For Regina and Georgianna Lepping, it’s a catch 22 situation.

Two Solomon Islander young women smiling
Regina and Georgianna Lepping say young people are fed up with false promises.  (ABC News: Gabriella Marchant)

Both filmmakers and well-known youth leaders, the twin sisters represent a disproportionate chunk of Solomon Islands’ population: young people. 

Seven out of 10 Solomon Islanders are under 34 years old. And some say, if they vote, they could decide Wednesday’s election.

Speaking about Mr Sogavare and the direction of the country, they say it’s complicated: On one hand they respect Mr Sogavare’s “strong” leadership as “the only way to get things done”.   

For example, they say hosting the Pacific Games was a great moment for the country, generating a wave of national pride. 

A man proudly holds a sign reading Team Solomon, as he and other wear blue, yellow and green colored uniforms.
Solomon Islands was buzzing during November’s Pacific Games.(ABC: Huge Hodge )

Yet, as look around the country — which went backwards in its human development ranking last year — they say they wonder where all the development money has gone. 

And, they say, there’s another problem. 

“So many decisions are made without consultation,” Regina, who has volunteered for an opposition party, says.

“And when people are not aware of what’s happening, there is fear.

“If you keep people out in the dark, they are going to assume the worst. 

“We can’t have a leader that leads by himself, knowing what’s ahead, whilst everyone else is in the dark.” 

For Western allies such as Australia — and Mr Sogavare’s critics — these decisions made “in the dark” are part of a worrying trend. 

Solomon Islands is a Westminster-style democracy, yet critics have labelled Mr Sogavare a “budding dictator” and “China’s puppet”

The country’s Opposition Leader Matthew Wale says he’s been a “very deceptive prime minister”.

Matthew Wale on the big screen
Opposition Leader Matthew Wale says the time for change has come. (ABC News: Gabriella Marchant)

“It’s been government by deception,” he says. “The time has come time to stop it — and only the people can.”

Mr Sogavare’s latest tenure has been shrouded in moves to stifle media freedom, and at one point his government tried to ban Facebook.

Wednesday’s elections were pushed back by almost a year, with the prime minister saying the country couldn’t afford to host the Pacific Games and an election at the same time. 

The ABC has been attempting to interview Mr Sogavare for the past five years. He has denied all requests.

The ‘master of mayhem’  

For long-time Solomon Islands watcher Jon Fraenkel, there is no doubt Mr Sogavare has “authoritarian proclivities”. 

“He is ruthlessly intent on keeping power,” he says. 

“And he’s been quite effective at it. After all, he’s only the second Solomon Islands prime minister to serve a full term.”

Yet Dr Fraenkel, a professor in comparative politics at the Victoria University in Wellington, says the “dictator” tag is overblown.

“‘I’ve seen some absurd Australian commentary [making] all sorts of preposterous claims suggesting the country is about to become some kind of Stalinist dictatorship,” he says. 

“These are laughable and ridiculous claims by people who have no idea about context.” 

Rather, he calls Mr Sogavare a “master of mayhem”.    

“I don’t want to suggest he deliberately orchestrates turmoil,” he says. 

“But in each of his four terms in office, there’s either been a crisis just beforehand or a crisis triggered by his accession to the prime ministership.”

McKell Institute chief executive Ed Cavanough agrees. He spent the past five years researching Mr Sogavare and the reasons behind the country’s switch to China. 

He says the dictator narrative is “simplistic”.

“I don’t think it’s fair enough to just say, ‘Yep, he’s an autocrat,’ because he wants to remain in power. I mean, a lot of leaders around the world want to do the exact same thing.”

Instead, Mr Cavanough labels Mr Sogavare a “nationalist”.   

“There was certainly a narrative that in embracing China, Sogavare got a lot of personal dividends from that,” he says. 

“But at his heart he’s nationalist, and he’s sceptical of outside forces, basically telling the country what to do.”

A main road with potholes
The main road in Solomon Islands capital Honiara is in a constant state of disrepair. (ABC News: Gabriella Marchant )

According to Dr Fraenkel, Mr Sogavare is promoting a “hope and expectation” that the link with China will secure greater development possibilities.  

“But I’m not sure whether he’s right,” he says. 

“There seems to be a kind of addiction to overseas aid as the solution to all the development problems of the country, whereas really, more likely the longer term solutions are going to come from within.” 

Story time 

Solomon Islands is a country where a good story travels far.

Across the hundreds of islands and atolls that make up the country, having a yarn — or storying as it is known locally — is a national pastime.

There’s kastom stories, similar to Australia’s Indigenous Dreamtime stories; stories based on cultural knowledge passed down from generation to generation. 

And then there’s just plain gossip, known in the Pacific as the “coconut wireless”.   

Older pacific women smiling
A good story travels far in Solomon Islands.  (ABC News: Gabriella Marchant )

It is no surprise then there’s a treasure trove of stories centred on Manasseh Sogavare, a man that has loomed large over the country — and its direction — for the past 25 years.  

There’s one about how Mr Sogavare told an American academic that he saw the ghost of his mentor, former prime minister Solomon Mamaloni, who “returned from the grave to offer him guidance”. 

The guidance was for him to adopt a strident “nationalist agenda”.        

Mr Sogavare’s paranoia and fear of assassination are also the source of many stories around Honiara.

One local media report from 2006 even claimed Mr Sogavare consulted a fortune teller who told him about an impending assassination. However this story has never been corroborated.    

Today, the most potent story — some would say narrative — is that Mr Sogavare is blindingly pushing Solomon Islands on a path welded to China, neglecting the democratic roots of the country. 

In a recent campaign speech, he rejected that notion, instead calling it a “new political reality”. 

“We registered this country on the map because of powerful decisions and important decisions that we’ve made. We’ve become relevant,” he said in the speech. 

“For the past 45 years we have been struggling to make headway in development under [the previous] arrangement.

“We need all development partners because we are a developing country.”

A major rival to Mr Sogavare, Peter Kenilorea Jr, leader of the United Party, rejects that notion. 

Peter Kenilorea sitting opposite Amy Bainbridge on a deck, speaking.
Peter Kenilorea Jr sees a different future for Solomon Islands. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

The son of the country’s first prime minister says the decisions Mr Sogavare has made are “not in the best interest of the nation”. 

“I always say, Solomon Islands development will always fall on the shoulders of Solomon Islanders,” he says.

“And it’s not Taiwan, it’s not China that will develop Solomon Islands. It’s not the US. It’s not Australia. It’s us ourselves.”

For the Lepping sisters, just two of the 750,000 people that make up Solomon Islands’ population, they just want a brighter future for all.

“[We think] the future’s bright with young people now finally aware with the issues that are at hand. They are aware with [the election] coming,” Jojo says. 

“People are fed up of all the promises [to give] them better lives. Everyone here just want a better life.”

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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