In 2019, Malaita Province in Solomon Islands made geopolitical headlines when its former premier, Daniel Suidani, came out against the country’s closer bilateral relations with China. As a result of his stance, Suidani was removed from his position in February 2023.

Daniel Suidani, then-premier of Malaita Province, at his office in Auki, Solomon Islands. August 10, 2022. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)
Daniel Suidani, then-premier of Malaita Province, at his office in Auki, Solomon Islands. August 10, 2022. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

In the West, Suidani is mostly understood through the prism of being a leading anti-China, pro-Taiwan voice from the region. This is an oversimplified understanding, as Suidani’s stance is about much more than China. For a long time, Malaita has been a symbol of conflict — between British colonization and Indigenous peoples, between the West and China, a side in militant conflict between Malaitan and Guadalcanal men from 1998-2003, and political friction between provincial and national governments. Suidani represents the latest in this long history, which calls for a deeper contextual understanding of the situation.

Malaita’s History of Resistance

Malaita Province — which is centered around the island of the same name — has a long history of interaction with, and resistance to, powerful outsiders. For centuries, Malaitans survived off the land and sea, self-governed by chiefs, warriors and priests. They first became known to the outside world primarily through the accounts of missionaries and traders.

These early accounts often portrayed Malaitans as innately violent and hostile. However, in many instances the violence was provoked — such as their violent resistance to blackbirding, a colonial practice where Malaitan men were enslaved or coerced into forced labor on colonial plantations in Australia and elsewhere.

In addition to the collective suffering endured from blackbirding, Malaitans also formed the bulk of the plantation and extractive industries’ workforces. This gave rise to collective grievances among Malaitans, who saw themselves as laborers contributing to the fortunes of a system that took their labor, but denied them self-rule and wealth.

This political consciousness began to manifest in the form of mass movements in the late colonial era, such as the Ma’asina Ruru movement of the 1940s and 1950s that advocated for local customs and self-rule.

The movement itself was violently repressed by the British, but its collective grassroots vision aimed at political decolonization survived. The first local council at ‘Aimela in West Kwara’ae, established in 1950, served as a model adopted by every district in the Solomon Islands, paving the way for national independence in 1978.   

Provincial Versus National Governance in Solomon Islands

But despite the popularity of the Ma’asina Ruru and other movements, it became a foregone conclusion in the lead up to independence in 1978 that the new Solomon Islands government would be modelled on the British parliamentary system — with many of the country’s laws replicating British law even to this day.

Demands for local autonomy and self-rule weren’t initially addressed, and it wasn’t until later that provincial assemblies formed to represent and govern local wards. However, because the national and provincial systems were developed almost independently of one another, the relationship between the two became the subject of tension and debate.

Currently, each provincial government, including Malaita, is headed by a premier and governed by a local assembly. With the lack of clarity between local and national governance unresolved, the premiers of larger provinces that advocate for more provincial autonomy have enjoyed significant popular support and higher media profiles in recent years.

However, this often leads to political confrontations between provincial and national authorities, since the national government still controls the hiring and firing of provincial officers, has the power to increase or cut provincial budgets, and can make larger policy decisions without provincial government participation.

The Rise and Fall of Daniel Suidani

The 2019 decision to switch Solomon Islands’ political allegiance from Taiwan to China was made exclusively by the ruling political coalition at the time without the participation of other political parties in the National Parliament — yet alone input from provincial and local leaders.

There were conflict factors that were bound to arise from the switch, as seen by popular protests and riots criticizing the decision. Amid that contentious period, a man relatively unknown outside of his home province of Malaita, Daniel Suidani, was elected in June 2019. His election and the dialogues that arose regarding what Malaita should be opened the door of long-simmering grievances.

In Malaita itself, Daniel Suidani is known primarily for two traits: his plain-spoken demeanor and a reputation unmarred by past corruption or involvement with militants in the civil conflict from 1998-2003. After the conflict, several former militants from Malaita became members of Parliament and wealthy, with questions following them about the role of force in their rise to power. Suidani, on the other hand, emerged as a leader associated with principles and is admired by many Malaitans for what they characterized as tenacity — that is, his ability to stand firm on and pursue his operational agenda.

Suidani’s 2019 candidacy for premier was refreshing for many Malaitans, many of whom were yearning for a change from what they perceived as the chronic timidity and malleability of his predecessors. His campaign and early days in office mimicked a grassroots organizer more than a government official. Suidani traveled often, building networks of support among local chiefs, women and youth leaders through a message and platform deeply anchored in Malaita’s Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being.   

Shortly after the national government switched recognition to China, Suidani and the Malaitan provincial assembly issued the Auki Communique. While the document itself is a wide-ranging list of grievances with the national government that wasn’t limited to China, key provisions against “unscrupulous” investors and a declared moratorium on “investors connected directly or indirectly with the Chinese Communist Party” received the most political heat and media commentary.

The prime minister’s office promptly refused dialogue about the Auki Communique in its entirety, and the saga of disputes escalated. The national government sacked Malaita’s provincial secretary, and provincial assembly members were reportedly offered money to advance a motion of no confidence against Premier Suidani. On a second attempt, Suidani was successfully removed from office in February 2023. Additionally, three popular Malaita leaders were arrested for unlawful assembly and breaches of emergency regulations stemming from their role in riots that took place more than a year prior, in November 2021.

After losing office, Suidani was hosted by U.S. and Japanese institutions and political actors to visit and talk specifically about his resistance to and experience with Chinese interference.

Where the Situation Goes From Here

At the moment, Suidani and his supporters are on the outside looking in. However, as history indicates, repression of popular Malaitan-led movements is unlikely to last, and may even give rise to a larger resurgence — just as the Ma’asina Ruru movement set a precedent for future grassroots efforts.

However, the tension and disconnect between the national and provincial governments will still need to be addressed. Peace will necessarily involve a degree of compromise between national politicians and Daniel Suidani and his supporters.

The parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2024 could provide an opportunity for voters to help smooth out issues. Suidani will likely stand again for at least some provincial office, and a victorious campaign may confirm his mandate.

However, there are also worries about election interference, and whether indeed there will be attempts to stop Suidani from running, to influence voters with cash payments, or to truck in paid supporters from Honiara to stack numbers in local electorates. Interference is likely to be met with resistance, including protests, legal battles, media campaigns and potentially renewed claims for Malaitan independence from a Solomon Islands state that they are largely estranged from already.

Whether Suidani wins or not, national politicians need to engage with provincial-level politicians in a dialogue of partners, rather than of contestants or hierarchies. This way, synergies can be identified, cooperation across institutions fostered, and bilateral partnerships can be more sustainable as they focus on positions created across parties, individual politicians and political coalitions.

Finally, the Malaitan people themselves, as well as those from other provinces, need dialogue and debate to decide on future directions for governance. The inherited British system of government, and the vagaries of provincial government, is not ideal for a culturally diverse country where people harbor a strong sense that governance must be locally responsive. Alternatives will need popular, as well as political, support at local and national levels in order to be lasting solutions to conflict.

Rather than remain a symbol of conflict, now is the time for Malaita to instead become an example of how Indigenous ways of organizing and shaping governance can create peace by bringing together national and provincial leaders to work toward re-building trust, respect and understanding. 

David Gegeo is a professor at Solomon Islands National University.

Dr. Anouk Ride is a peace and conflict researcher currently working as a research fellow at Australian National University and Solomon Islands National University.

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