Sogavare Stands Down as Dust Settles From Solomon Islands Election

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Sogavare Stands Down as Dust Settles From Solomon Islands Election

The four-time prime minister says he won’t contest for the top office, with the election results repudiating in part the geopolitical direction he’s led the Solomon islands.

Sogavare Stands Down as Dust Settles From Solomon Islands Election
Credit: Solomon Islands Prime Minister Press Secretariat

There will be much rejoicing in parts of the Solomon Islands and throughout the world, with the glaring exception of Beijing, following news that Manasseh Sogavare has taken himself out of contention to be reinstalled as prime minister following the nation’s April 17 election. On April 29, Sogavare fell on his sword and acknowledged the bruising election results that repudiated the direction he has taken his nation over the past five years. 

Sogavare handed over his Ownership, Unity and Responsibility (OUR) Party leadership and the caretaker prime minister role to Jeremiah Manele, who has served as Sogavare’s minister for foreign affairs and trade since 2019. With this move, Sogavare has “thrown his total support” behind Manele in the hope he will instead be a viable candidate for the nation’s leadership, to be decided by the newly elected parliament in a ballot on May 2.

The pro-Sogavare newspaper, The Solomon Star, is now gunning for Manele or Peter Kenilorea Jr., who is one of several leadership candidates from the coalition of parties joining forces to form government. 

The biggest problem for Sogavare’s succession plan is that his party, despite fielding 43 candidates in the election, won only 15 seats in the 50-seat parliament. 

Sogavare’s forceful political agenda since he abruptly switched his nation’s allegiance from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China in September 2019 and set about making his nation a South Pacific client state of the PRC, has had myriad substantial impacts at home and abroad. 

The coming days will show how much Sogavare’s agenda has united his political opponents, who are currently forming complicated coalitions to get the requisite numbers to form government. If they manage to achieved this, the world will be watching to see how far a new government will go to temper Sogavare’s stance as a champion of Beijing. 

A number of the prime ministerial contenders, like Kenilorea, stated during election campaigning that they would jettison the relationship Sogavare has built with China, and reestablish ties with Taiwan if they won office. Matthew Wale, who has been leader of the opposition throughout Sogvare’s most recent leadership term (he has been prime minister three times previously), has consistently attacked Sogavare for the ties he forged with China.

When Sogavare secretly entered into a game-changing security deal with China that came to light in March 2022, triggering global panic and a deluge of attention to Pacific geopolitics and the neglected needs of Pacific peoples, Wale also stepped into the international spotlight as Sogavare’s dogged opponent. The security deal, Wale maintained, would only hurt his nation and the Pacific as a whole by escalating tensions and diverting attention and resources away from the dire needs of the region’s people. 

In November 2021, deep popular despair and dissatisfaction with Sogavare’s government layered with his China allegiance, sparked deadly riots in Honiara. Sogavare’s prime ministership at the time was barely saved by the arrival of security forces from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea.

The recent election results clearly show that the people of the Solomon Islands wholeheartedly agreed with Sogavare’s opponents: Geopolitics should be a low priority compared to domestic needs. While Sogavare campaigned on the merits of a “look north” strategy that was all about augmenting relations with China, opposition parties instead focused on Sogavare’s failures to address the underlying causes of popular discontent.

The sudden shift to China has not delivered discernable benefits to the Solomon Islands’ people, who still struggle with the lack of basic needs like adequate healthcare, affordable and adequate education for their children, and economic opportunities, especially for the large youthful population.

Sogavare has also stridently opposed many overtures offering human development assistance, especially those devised by the United States since March 2022. He maintained the talking point that Australia was the Solomon Islands’ partner of choice, despite all evidence to the contrary.

When U.S. VIPs ventured to the Solomons to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal in August 2022, Sogavare would not appear with them them in public. Sogavare did attend the Biden administration’s first Pacific summit in September 2022 but pushed back on signing joint resolutions. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy returned to the Solomons in August 2023 to mark 80 years since her father, President John F. Kennedy, was rescued by coast watchers Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa. Again, Sogavare gave her the cold shoulder and Kennedy could not disguise her frustration that U.S. aid projects were being blocked by the government.

When a U.S. congressional delegation arrived in Honiara, Sogavare refused to meet with them, in part because of the support the U.S. had shown ousted pro-Taiwan Malaita premier, Daniel Suidani. To further display his antipathy, Sogavare did not attend the September 2023 U.S.-Pacific Islands summit in Washington.

In the end, the most important people Sogavare ignored were the people of the Solomon Islands who, with their votes, have voiced a powerful desire for change.

There are many takeaways from what has transpired since April 17. Ahead of the election, which Sogavare postponed because the Solomon Islands hosted the Pacific Games in November 2023 (an event inexplicably given precedence over democratic processes) many thought Sogavare, aided by Beijing, might corrode the electoral system, skewing it in his favor. Contrary to these fears, the elections were an orderly affair thanks to the integrity of local officials aided by foreign assistance.

To his credit, Sogavare has not taken the path of blaming rigged elections for his party’s defeat (though he did retain his parliamentary seat), a tactic we have seen in the United States and other jurisdictions since 2020. Democracy has worked well in the Solomon Islands, despite the many forces mitigating against it.

For all the angst Sogavare has caused at home and aboard, perhaps his greatest legacy will be that his embrace of Beijing finally woke the world to the dire needs facing people in the Pacific. Since Sogavare signed the security agreement with China in March 2022, attention to the Pacific has skyrocketed. Before this point, many people in capitals around the globe had little to nothing to do with the Pacific in their line of work before this watershed moment. This is no longer the case.

The test for these nations and their Pacific outreach, the U.S. being chief among them, is to stay the course in the Pacific even if leadership in the Solomon Islands redirects their attention away from Beijing. There is no room for complacency. Promises made over the past months offering alternatives to China’s funds must be not only honored but expanded.

One thing is guaranteed: China will stay its course in the Solomon Islands despite this considerable setback. Beijing has invested much in Sogavare. Just how much became apparent in an Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) report released just ahead of the election. Sogavare, unlike his constituents, appears to have done very well financially from his allegiance to China. Despite earning a salary equivalent to about $50,000 (Sogavare gave himself and other politicians a 39 percent pay increase effective April 2024), Sogavare’s family now owns eight properties around Honiara valued at many millions of dollars.

Emmy Sogavare, his wife, decried the “unethical” report, claiming the properties were all mortgaged and the finances behind them legitimate. 

A reckoning on Sogavare’s apparent personal benefit from his geopolitical stance may well follow him out of the prime ministership, but considering Sogavare a spent political force would be a mistake. As is the case with many Pacific political careers, including his own, Sogavare may rise up the leadership ranks again, and China will no doubt be happy to aid him.

In the near term, how Beijing manages political leaders who have pledged loyalty to Taiwan instead will be keenly watched. Everything depends on the man who ultimately wins the prime ministership. The next leader would be well advised to ensure that his ears remained tuned to the voices of his constituents rather than those in Beijing.