Walsh School of Foreign Service
Oceanic Currents

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Perspective


Figure 1:  Point Cruz, Honiara.
(Courtesy of the Solomon Islands Ports Authority)


During the lead up to the 21 May 2022 Australian Federal election, the Solomon Islands signed a security pact in late April with the People’s Republic of China, following on from a diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China in 2019.[1] The planned new treaty had been known of since early April. Both major Australian political parties made mileage out of the new pact, and New Zealand and the USA were brought into the debate, as were some of the Pacific nations. Although Australia is the biggest aid doner to the Solomon Islands, Australia, New Zealand and the USA clearly misread what was happening, even though the Taiwan/China debate in the Solomon Islands goes back to 1980s. The Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne spoke of protecting ‘Australia’s backyard’, seemingly forgetting that there was an international border with a sovereign nation on the other side. Despite the poor choice of words, Payne proposed to double Australia’s financial aid to Pacific nations, which was vetoed by Cabinet’s National Security Committee.[2] In mid-April the Morrison Government sent Zed Seselja as an envoy to discourage Sogavare from signing the treaty. It was an occasion that required the Foreign Minister, not the junior Minister for the Pacific. Prime Minister Scott Morrison huffed and puffed and declared a ‘red line’ that could not be crossed, then failed to explain his threat. The Labor Party (now in government) took pot-shots at the Coalition’s ineptitude. The ‘China threat’ discourse from both sides was palpable.

President Biden sent Kurt Campbell, his Indo-Pacific Co-ordinator, to Honiara. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare escaped the security pact issue as discussions were limited to bilateral relationships and development projects respecting national sovereignty. America has had no embassy in Solomon Islands since 1995, managing with a local Consular Officer. Until recently, they ran everything at a minimal level out of Port Moresby, relying on Australia as their Pacific ‘deputy sheriff’’, which may not have been wise. Then China announced that its Foreign Minister Wang Yi would visit Solomon Islands, as well as Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, and East Timor between 26 May and 4 June. He offered a ‘new deal’ for these Pacific nations, which they rejected as too rushed. Then, sworn in as Australia’s Foreign Minister on 22 May, the Labor Government’s Penny Wong arrived in Fiji on 26 May, then made a second trip to Tonga and Samoa, and Solomon Islands on 17 June.[3]

The Solomon Islands has never before received so many important political visitors over such a short time, all bearing gifts, with promises of more to come. Nevertheless, these fly-in and fly-out envoys are seen as disrespectful—high pressure salesmen with no long-term engagement. In the much lauded ‘Pacific family’ of nations, permanent culturally relevant involvement is what counts most. Sogavare must be smiling at one outcome. Undoubtedly Solomon Islands will now receive more development aid than ever before. Wang Yi offered Solomon Islands a new police training centre and extra infrastructure funding.[4]

The media portrayed Sogavare, four times Prime Minister of Solomon Islands, as a Pacific bogeyman, dragging the islands further into China’s orbit. At 67 years of age Sogavare remains very fit and is a commanding charismatic figure. He is not ignorant of the risks he is taking in moving closer to China. However, is this well-educated teetotaller martial arts expert and seasoned politician, really in control of what is happening? While we try to double-guess the motivations of the governments of China and Solomon Islands, two points are missing. The first is detailed analysis of the character and political track record of Manasseh Sogavare, and his relationship with China and Australia. While we don’t have a final copy of the security pact with China, should we believe Sogavare’s denials about a possible military base?[5] The leaked draft certainly included scope for China to move in troops and police, to establish port facilities for Chinese ships, help defend infrastructure, and safeguard ethnic Chinese in Solomon Islands (some of whom are PRC citizens).

I will also discuss the site for a hypothetical Chinese base, suggesting that perhaps we are misled in our thinking around what constitutes a base, as there already are two large Chinese corporate bases close to Honiara, while two more are looming, at Yandina and possibly at Tulagi.

Relations with Taiwan and China since the 1980s

Christopher Chevalier’s  recent biography of Solomon Mamaloni, Understanding ‘Solo’, throws an interesting (reverse) link back to 1983 when Prime Minister Mamaloni went against his Cabinet colleagues who wanted to recognise the PRC. Mamaloni chose Taiwan, which was embarrassing as there were cabinet ministers waiting in Beijing to sign the protocol with China. The relationship was then bolstered by Prime Minister Sir Peter Kenilorea in 1985 when he established full diplomatic relations at ambassador level. Kenilorea’s Secretary to Cabinet refused to write a supporting Cabinet paper, leaving Sir Peter to write his own. His Cabinet offered no support, but accepted his decision, an indication of the power of Solomon Islands’ Prime Ministers.[6] There are signs of the Melanesian bigman system imbedded in the respect given to Prime Ministers, and Sogavare has benefited from this.

After a long period—1983 to 2019—recognising the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Solomon Islands Government has a newly developing relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). On many occasions the government has attempted to use the relationship to leverage larger amounts of development assistance As outlined by Jon Fraenkel in his The Manipulation of Custom, [7] in 2000 Sogavare, through Foreign Minister Danny Philip, threatened Taiwan with a change to China, and media reports in July 2006 mentioned a plan to switch from Taiwan to China, although in September Sogavare denied this and still supported Taiwan’s admission to the United Nations.[8] If the change had occurred on either of these occasions, the situation today would be very different.

The swap in 2019 and a security treaty signed between the PRC and Solomon Islands in April 2022 is at centre of the current debate. China already has bilateral relations with 13 other Pacific nations: Australia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. The arrangement in different in each nation and it is up to the Solomon Islands Government to work with China to design a suitable model for engagement.

The Morrison Government did not handle relations with China well, to the detriment of Australian trade. Chinese leaders would not even return phone calls from Australian Government ministers. After allowing Darwin’s port to be leased to a Chinese company for 99 years, and other Chinese installations such as an international airport in Western Australia, the government was in no position to threaten the Solomon Islands with a ‘red line’ they cannot cross.[9] Australia has been complacent and condescending in its dealings with the Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations. There was more than a touch of neo-colonialism in the shrill cries emanating from Canberra.

There is nothing wrong with having more than one security partner. Solomon Islands is cash poor, and the Covid-19 years have added to financial woes. While Sogavare has been at pains to stress the importance of the continuing relationship with Australia, nevertheless extra Chinese aid has been welcome. For example, Solomon Islands, host of the Pacific Games in Honiara in 2023, has sports grounds but no decent stadium. China is building a large stadium, saving the government from embarrassment. China has also supplied equipment and training to the police, although there has been little discussion of the model of police training they might provide, how it connects to existing Australian assistance, and if it will be culturally appropriate for Solomon Islands.

In the war of words between Australia and Solomon Islands, Sogavare reminded the Morrison Government that they did not consult their Pacific neighbours before dumping the French submarine deal for one using USA and British vessels with nuclear technology.[10] Sogavare’s point is that arranging diplomatic alliances is a matter for sovereign nations, not their neighbours. Sogavare is a strong nationalist and is insulted that when his government chooses to assert its sovereignty they are branded as unfit to manage their own affairs.

Equally, Sogavare has been disingenuous about his nation’s 2017 security treaty with Australia. At the time of the November 2021 riots in Honiara, Australia and New Zealand put police and troops on the ground very fast, along with peacekeepers from Papua New Guinea and Fiji.[11] Sogavare has said that Australia’s response was not fast enough, even though it was done in just over 24 hours, which is about as speedy as any nation could ever manage. He also accused the Australian forces of refusing to protect Chinese infrastructure and investments in Honiara, at which Morrison accused Sogavare of parroting Chinese rhetoric. Relations between the two nations have hardly ever been worse, not since during the second Sogavare Government in 2006–07. The new Labor Government is trying to rectify the relationship with Sogavare, although is treading carefully because of China’s combatant relationship with Australia.

Sogavare is playing to his national audience in a largely Christian country uncomfortable with Communism, although most local businesses are Chinese-owned (in the widest sense of PRC citizens, business interests from Southeast Asia, and local Chinese) and have suffered severely from the riots. One local leader, Premier of Malaita Province Daniel Suidani, has been forthright in his criticism of the China pact, to the detriment of economic development in his province. Sogavare has behaved vindictively towards the Premier and his province. De facto, Suidani has become a national opposition leader in the face of a weak parliamentary Opposition. And, as explained in the conclusion, Malaitans in their home province have shown that protests and discussions can be accomplished without riots.

All of this is in the context of a new world order with Russia asserting its place in Europe, and China sailing south into Pacific waters. Is Sogavare just reading clearly what is about to occur in the South Pacific? He has promised repeatedly that there will be no Chinese military base in Solomon Islands, although what I consider here is the possibility of Chinese corporate bases with connections to the Chinese Government.

Sogavare is expert in manipulating the government apparatus. For instance, by constantly extending a Covid-inspired national security State of Emergency he has silenced any internal critics and the national media. By yelling aggressively in the Parliament he is intimidating all around him. His ranting is certainly not a Solomons way to behave. When we look at Sogavare over the last two decades he has either been Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, or Leader of the Opposition for most of these years. There is no doubt that he has become increasingly autocratic and fixated on his own political survival. He is a clever politician backed by an efficient party machine. Like all Solomon Islands Prime Ministers, he has a ‘slush fund’, first courtesy of Taiwan and now presumably China. Both have also heavily subsidised the Constituency Development Funds which parliamentarians receive to develop their electorates. The CDF’s account for 10 to 15 percent of government spending and can be used largely free of restrictions. In recent years Taiwan had decreased its commitment to subsidising the funds, perhaps another reason to switch to China. The CDF funds were always used as slush funds, but increasingly Sogavare seems to be giving, and also withholding the money, depending on if individual MPs support him in Parliament.[12]

A Chinese Military Base in the Solomons?

Foreign naval ships have been visiting Solomon Islands since the mid-nineteenth century when the British used ‘gun boat diplomacy’ to punish local people who dared to transgress British rules of behaviour, of which they had no knowledge. Ships sailed up, shelled villages as punishment, and carried out executions. During the Second World War the Solomon Islands became a key battle ground for the Japanese and American military forces, which made the Solomons newsworthy world-wide. Today, naval visits are fairly constant, with Australian, New Zealand, American and British ships calling in to ‘show the flag’, as did Taiwan until 2019. Adding the PRC navy to the visiting military ships is not a problem, as long as they stay within Port Authority regulations.

Some overseas media and political ‘experts’ who have joined the debate seem to presume that there will inevitably be a Chinese military base built in Solomon Islands. I believe Sogavare is being honest in the immediate circumstances, although not in the long-term. China currently has one overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa (the Somali Peninsula) and two in Tajikistan, with others under investigation in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and several African countries. This is in stark contrast to the USA’s hundreds of bases in over 80 countries. China uses a different model: bases in a limited number of strategic positions; infrastructure funding and large loans to client governments; global investments through large corporations with close ties to the government; and diaspora population in smaller businesses. This sounds straightforward but is all rather sanitised. We also need to remember China’s record in domestic policing—Tiananmen Square, Tibet, the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, for instance. China is now involved in policing in Solomon Islands and Solomon Islanders would be most unhappy with any similar heavy-handed actions that resulted.

Where would any bases be established and what would be their nature? The logic of supportive infrastructure and past events suggest a base or bases close to Honiara. Previous civil unrest (1989, 1996, in the Tension years 1998–2003, 2006, 2014, 2019, and 2021), suggests that future unrest will probably occur again in Honiara. It is also home to the majority of the ethnic Chinese. Let us explore Honiara and other possible sites as a way of getting to understand the Solomon Islands.

The Solomon Islands population is around 750,000. There are 900 islands, small and large, many surrounded by reefs; 150 islands are inhabited. Many of the others are too small or too isolated to be considered for bases. Two of them are unlikely candidates because they have active or dormant volcanoes, and one has an underwater volcano nearby. There are good deep water ports and sheltered lagoon areas, although many of them are too exposed to the weather to be useful. It makes most sense to add to existing infrastructure with quick access to Honiara. Other than Honiara and the old capital Tulagi in Central Islands Province, most of the land is under customary ownership and is not owned by the government. The strength of the nation lies in this traditional community ownership, although the system always frustrates national development plans. No post-Independence Solomon Islands Government has ever forced land alienation on its people. If they cannot be persuaded, the attempt lapses.

Honiara, with its 160,000 people, is on the north coast of Guadalcanal, the largest island in the nation. The only existing legal international port facility on Guadalcanal is Honiara’s Point Cruz, developed since the 1950s and now full up. Honiara already extends into surrounding land under customary ownership. The entire area is known as Greater Honiara. One glance at maps of Honiara shows that there is virtually no space for a substantial Chinese military base anywhere within Honiara’s boundary.

Two possible sites just outside of Honiara are already in Chinese commercial hands. The most likely coastal site is Lee Kwok Kuen’s Leroy Wharf Port at Lungga, on the eastern edge of Honiara not far from Henderson international airfield. This wharf, 180 metres long and 30 metres wide, was built between 2010 and 2014. Over the last 18 months the wharf has been used unofficially to service PRC container ships. It acts as an informal international port, much to the dismay of the Solomon Islands Ports Authority (SIPA). There is deep water access (better than at Point Cruz), and the shore precinct is larger (19 hectares) than the SIPA’s Point Cruz site. The wharf could easily be expanded. A fully laden aircraft carrier draws about 13 metres of water depth, which could be accommodated, with some extra dredging. The wharf is owned by a local Chinese company, so development would depend on a sale or some other deal. Perhaps this is all China requires initially: its own private wharf, where the Ports Authority and Customs cannot easily pry.

The other close-by location is Gold Ridge, the 3,000-hectare gold-mining lease in the mountains inland from Honiara. Since 2019 this has been owned by Chinese companies China Overseas Engineering Co. Ltd, China Railway Shanghai Engineering Bureau Group Co. Ltd, and Wanguo International Mining Group Co. Ltd. The local guards wear PRC-flagged uniforms. We need to widen our military mind-sets away from the coast as Gold Ridge has plenty of space for barracks, training, and military facilities. Why not have a mountain base as well as a coastal wharf facility? Gold Ridge has quick road access to Honiara and is a short helicopter ride away. It never was a great success as a mine, which is probably not the only motivation for these large Chinese corporations.

Doma, further along the northern coast, which has long been designated as a future independent provincial centre and urban area for Guadalcanal Province, is already an area of Chinese investment. Perhaps the provincial government will not welcome any further Chinese development, and there would have to be further negotiations with customary landholders. Also up for sale is Patrick Wong’s Russell Islands Plantation Estates Ltd (RIPEL) at Yandina in the Russell Islands. RIPEL (once a major Levers copra plantation) has plenty of land, with its own port and a private airfield. Several Solomon Islands Governments have tried to reopen Yandina, and in May 2022 Attorney-General John Muria Jr. and Sogavare’s nephew and chief of staff Robson Djokovic were said to be negotiating its sale to a Chinese corporation.

It would also be possible to take over one or two of the various defunct coastal mining leases around the country. The ex-Axiom Mining leases at San Jorge and Kolosori in Isabel Province springs to mind, with the extra advantage that they cover large nickel laterite deposits. It would take some legal manoeuvring to convert any mining lease, but it is not impossible as these areas are already marked for alienation over the next several decades. Thousand Ships Bay between San Jorge Island and Isabel was named by the Spanish in 1568 because of its commodious harbour, although admittedly galleons require less water clearage than aircraft carriers. There are many other possible sites, as long as the infrastructure begins from scratch and the customary landowners agree.

After Honiara, there are only two other urban centres of any size. Gizo (7,000 people), capital of Western Province, is a small island in the north. Its harbour is shallow and it has an odd airfield which fills a neighbouring even smaller island. Munda on New Georgia has an international airport, the second largest after Honiara, dating back to the Second War and recently upgraded with New Zealand aid funding. The fishing cannery at Noro is nearby. Gizo and Munda are too far away from Honiara for quick access. The only other town of any size is Auki (also around 7,000 people), the capital of Malaita Province on the west coast of Malaita. Given the poor relationship between the national government and Malaita Province, no Chinese base is likely to be built there in the foreseeable future. Malaita is also the most populous island, and its people are notorious for not making their land available for development projects.

The only other easy possibility is Tulagi, the old capital in the Ngela Group opposite Honiara, and now the headquarters of Central Islands Province. It is a small island (320 hectares is size, 5 kilometres long and 0.8 kilometres wide) on an excellent sheltered harbour, but hardly ideal for quick access to Honiara. The Tulagi-Gavutu harbour is big enough to hold naval fleets, as the Japanese and Americans discovered during the Second World War. Back in 2019, AVIC International Project Engineering Co., and the China Sam Enterprise Group wanted to arrange a 75-year lease over Tulagi. In their negotiations with the Premier, AVIC and China Sam said they wanted to study the ‘opportunities to develop naval and infrastructure projects on leased land for the People’ Liberation Army Navy’.[13] The Chinese bid was rebuffed, although this may well have been the first attempt by a Chinese corporation acting on behalf of its government. Tulagi is unusual as it is Crown land purchased by the British in 1896 and remains the property of the national government. In May 2022 the Solomon Islands announced that Tulagi’s wharf was to be expanded. The reasons were not clear, although accommodating larger vessels was mentioned.[14]

Other islands in the Tulagi enclave are held on long term leases and have deep water access. One is Double Island that has a long-term lease and is controlled by the Leong family of Pacific Casino Hotel. The downside is that the islands are small and distant from any area that could house an international airfield, although the nearby larger Ngela Islands could be used for this. Tulagi could easily be joined to the mainland by a causeway, although this would silt up the harbour. Another stumbling block, of course, is customary ownership of the surrounding land.

There are lots of choices. My conclusion is that, de facto, the two necessary bases—Leroy Wharf Port and Gold Ridge—already exist and are in Chinese corporate hands. Yandina or Tulagi may follow.

Manasseh Damukana Sogavare

Who is this man who has caused a Pacific frenzy? Manasseh Damukana Sogavare was born on 17 January 1955 in Oro Province in Papua New Guinea, of Choiseul Island parents who were working as Seventh-day Adventist missionaries. He left Honiara’s Betikama High School in 1974 to work as a clerk in the Honiara Consumers Co-operative shop, before moving on to another clerical position, in the Inland Revenue Division of the Ministry of Finance. He rose through the ranks until he became Commissioner for Inland Revenue and Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance in 1994. Sacked by the Mamaloni Government in 1996 when he disagreed with their shoddy economic management, he resigned and studied accounting, management and economics at the University of the South Pacific. His parliamentary career began when he won the East Choiseul seat in the August 1997 elections and became Minister for Finance and Treasury in the Ulafa`alu Government. As a young politician he was mentored by Solomon Mamaloni, the nation’s most unpredictable and devious political leader (until Sogavare got into power). Sacked by Ulafa`alu in 1998, Sogavare became deputy to Mamaloni who was then Leader of the Opposition. During this time he completed a flexible delivery Master’s Degree in management studies from New Zealand’s Waikato University.

In the late 1990s, Mamaloni helped shape Sogavare’s core ideas and after Mamaloni died in January 2000 Sogavare, then Leader of the Opposition, kept in touch with him in the spirit world. There are plenty of references from later years to Sogavare communicating with Mamaloni’s spirit. In the rational Western world this would probably be interpreted as Sogavare thinking through issues that were troubling him, and wondering what Mamaloni would do. Solomon Islanders do not find this to be unusual behaviour; and indeed, Christian prayer is similar. Add to this that some on Makira (Mamaloni’s island) believe that he is still alive and well, living in an underground cave network with his secret army.[15]

Sogavare absorbed Mamaloni’s unpredictability, anti-colonial and anti-Australia attitudes, and willingness to play the sovereignty card. Mamaloni also influenced Sogavare’s interest in social credit theory, a now largely discredited distributive philosophy which attributed economic downturns to discrepancies between the cost of goods produced and the compensation of workers, which required government intervention through debt free money to alleviate. As his political philosophy matured in the 2000s, Sogavare mixed in social credit economic ideas, obvious in his Solomon Islands Social Credit (Socred) Party, along with a strong belief in nationalism.

Sogavare’s 2000–01 and 2006–07 Prime Ministerships

A series of circumstances hardened Sogavare’s resolve. Sogavare is second longest-serving Prime Minister (after Mamaloni) and the most significant Solomon Islands leader of his generation. He is very much a bigman and chief in the tradition of ‘Man Choiseul’, a distinct cultural entity from the north of the nation. His alliance with China now places him in the forefront of Pacific and regional affairs. Other than the early Mamaloni influences, I do not believe he had a constant ‘game plan’ right from the beginning.

Like any Prime Minister he has learnt on the job and reacted to situations he faced. Political machinations and confrontations, particularly with Australia, have shaped and hardened Sogavare’s resolve. Nevertheless, he is the only Prime Minister to come to power through violent circumstances, and he has done so twice.[16] Sogavare took over after Prime Minister Ulafa`alu was deposed in late June 2000 in an armed coup during political unrest called the ‘Tension’, which had begun in 1998. He was elected as Prime Minister, serving for a little over a year during the very difficult ‘Tension’ years. Events and the power of the militant groups were stacked against him. He lost his prime ministership in a general election in December 2001 and resumed the role of Leader of the Opposition. I distinctly remember his opposition to the arrival of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in 2003, on the grounds of erosion of national sovereignty.

The Pacific Forum’s RAMSI remained until mid-2017, never a government but always an alternative source of power and finance, and headed by Australia.[17] Sogavare retained his seat in the April 2006 national election, failed to be elected Prime Minister (obtaining only 11 of 50 votes), and switched his support to Snyder Rini, who was elected. The crowd outside Parliament forced Rini to flee and he resigned after only eight days in office. He was seen as closely allied to corrupt Asian logging interests. After the short Rini prime ministership, Sogavare stood again and gained 28 votes, becoming Prime Minister.

I would argue that Sogavare is an intelligent, energetic and extremely able leader who has pursued a calculated policy that has enabled him to assume more political power than any other Solomon Islands leader has ever possessed. During his second term as Prime Minister, Sogavare was able to take control of key positions within the legal system, and he worked towards obtaining a three-quarters majority in the Parliament, which would have enabled him to alter the Constitution. This goes against notions of parliamentary balance and the basic principles of the division of power in the Westminster system, leading to a more dictatorial form of leadership. He continues to pursue this goal and is hoping to alter the National Constitution to defer the national election (due in 2023) until 2024, after the Pacific Games in Honiara.

Sogavare soon realised that there are key posts that, if controlled, can make governing much easier. I have previously called this a creeping coup. The list of officials he removed or did not reappointed is impressive: the Attorney-General (the position is not held by a parliamentarian), the Solicitor-General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Legal Draftsman (who creates the legislation), the Police Commissioner, and the Ombudsman. The Speaker of the House (again, not a parliamentarian) opposed Sogavare over procedure and came close to being removed. Sogavare manipulated all of these positions.

The most memorable of these legal moves was Sogavare’s involvement with Australian lawyer and citizen Fiji-born Julian Moti whom he appointed as Attorney-General, even though he had been deported in 1994 for giving wrong advice to the then Governor-General.[18] There was concern that the intention was to get Moti to interfere in the inquiry into the 2006 riots, shifting blame towards RAMSI and away from two gaoled parliamentarians Charles Dausabea and Nelsen Ne`e. Transparency Solomon Islands and the Bar Association opposed the appointment as Moti had had a professional association with one of the parliamentarians. The Australian Federal Police issued a warrant for Moti’s arrest for an alleged child sex offence in Vanuatu in 1997. Moti was arrested at Port Moresby airport, had bail arranged and ended up sheltering in the Solomon Islands High Commission until he boarded a PNG Defence Force plane to Munda. Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and the Solomon Islands High Commissioner denied all knowledge of how this occurred, but indirectly Somare was compromised.

Moti served as Attorney-General for two terms, in 2006 and 2007. Sogavare saw Australia’s actions as a deliberate plan to frustrate his efforts to establish an independent inquiry, and an attempt by Australia to interfere in the sovereign decisions of the Solomon Islands Government. Matters kept getting worse and eventually the Australian High Commissioner Patrick Cole was made persona non grata in September 2006, although there was ample reason.[19] Extraordinary correspondence in August 2007 between the Solomon Islands and Australian governments has been published online, including 666 questions (a biblical reference to the mark of the beast, a symbol of the Antichrist).[20] Naturally, the Australian Government viewed the Moti appointment, the Cole expulsion, and a threat to its position in RAMSI as provocative. Sogavare’s enemies (particularly the Australian Government) tried to write him off as unstable. In October 2006 he survived a no-confidence motion, largely brought on by his deteriorating relationship with Australia.

Sogavare eventually lost the prime ministership in a vote of no-confidence on 13 December 2007, 25 votes to 22. He continued as caretaker Prime Minister until 20 December. The next day a warrant for Moti’s arrest was issued in Brisbane. The new Cabinet allowed Moti’s deportation to Australia, and after a legal battle he was removed on 27 December. Sogavare was humiliated by Australia and the new Sikua Government.

Eventually, in 2011, Moti was found not guilty by the Australian High Court, which found that Australian officials in Honiara facilitated Moti’s deportation from Honiara to Australia, knowing that they were acting illegally under Solomon Islands law. There can be no doubt that Sogavare’s relationship with Mamaloni and the ‘Moti affair’ were influential in shaping his attitudes towards Australia.[21] 

Sogavare, 2014–17 and 2019–2022

Sogavare served as Leader of the Opposition during the prime ministerships of Derek Sikua (2007–10), Danny Phillip (2010–11) and Gordon Darcy Lilo (2011–14). In 2010 Sogavare and eight other MPs established yet another political party, the Ownership, Unity and Responsibility (OUR) Party, which won three seats in the 2010 national election. The Political Parties Integrity Act became law on 12 June 2014, an attempt to stop politicians switching sides mid-term and to develop a stable party system. What it achieved was an increase in the number of Independents who remained outside the parties to have the maximum ability to negotiate, and Sogavare was one of them. He contested the 2014 election as an Independent, then joined the United Democratic Party to form government, resuming as Prime Minister on 9 December 2014. Although he remained Prime Minister until November 2017, there were complaints from Cabinet members over Sogavare’s leadership style and performance. Infrastructure projects were delayed and Sogavare accused some ministers of being more interested in safeguarding their seats than governing. In November 2016 he was sacked from the party by its president Sir Tommy Chan, although the breach was repaired not long after. His criticisms released a ‘grasshopper plague’, the Solomons term for politicians who hop from side to side with remarkable agility. At its core is a long term lack of ideological beliefs or allegiance to political parties and a dependence on bigmanship, strength of personality and ability to survive by bestowing gifts.

Sogavare rode out the final years of RAMSI, and when the end came in mid-2017, the name Moti never passed his lips. The police force had been rebuilt and a security agreement was made with Australia to give aid in any emergency situation. Soon after RAMSI left, in August 2017 Sogavare sacked three of several ministers who had criticised his Democratic Coalition for Change Government for inactivity, mismanagement and corruption. They were replaced and six other ministers were reshuffled. In October, nine ministers walked across to the Opposition, expecting to receive portfolios in a new government. Sogavare was advocating an anti-corruption bill, the results of which some Members feared would see them removed to Rove Prison. The inertia caused frustrations and there were cash-flow problems in the Treasury, the result of which was that bills were often left unpaid for months. There was also criticism of Sogavare’s chief of staff, his nephew Robson Djokovic. Sogavare seemed to have mastered the art of balancing disparate forces but had lost the ability to govern and progress his nation. [22]

On 6 November 2017 Derek Sikua again brought a motion of no-confidence, claiming that Sogavare was fixated by conspiracy theories. Sikua also made allegations that Sogavare had received ‘donations’ from Huawei, the Chinese telecommunication company which had contracted to provide an undersea fibre optic cable. Australia moved quickly to replace Huawei, providing the undersea cable, to ensure that Chinese technology could not compromise Australian security. Rick Houenipwela became the seventeenth Prime Minister in November 2017, serving until 2019. Rick Hou (as he is usually known) entered Parliament in 2010 as Member for South Malaita. An ex-governor of the Central Bank, and an ex-senior adviser to the executive director of the World Bank, he became Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Finance and Treasury. The ‘grasshoppers’ settled for a while, as three parties united to form government. Sogavare, now a member of the Kadere Party, became Deputy Prime Minister.

In the April 2019 National Elections no single party held more than eight seats in the 50-seat Parliament, and there were 21 Independents. In the usual post-election jostling Sogavare managed to gain the votes of 34 Members. His ploy was to relaunch the Ownership, Unity and Responsibility (OUR) Party a week after the election, in an attempt to get the Independents to group together. Matthew Wale applied to the High Court to challenge the legality, but the Governor-General ruled that the election for Prime Minister was legal under the National Constitution, and the High Court supported him. A large number of MPs, including the Deputy Prime Minister John Maneniaru and other ministers, abstained from voting. Matthew Wale and 15 Opposition supporters walked out. Frustration boiled over in Honiara, with a general feeling that the public no longer had any power to change the government through elections. They decried the change from Taiwan to the PRC, and that Chinese and Malaysian Chinese interests had taken control of the logging industry, plus investments in the mining and fishing industries, as well as much of the retail trade. The government was seen as far too close to logging interests, which were destroying the forests of the nation. Cronyism and corruption is rife in the government.

After Sogavare’s re-election as Prime Minister a riot outside Parliament, which also moved to newer large Chinese-owned businesses. Sogavare had to flee from Parliament, making his way via back roads to safety at Rove police headquarters. It was not as ignoble as Snyder Rini’s debacle in 2006, although the event would clearly frightened Sogavare, who has previously expressed fear of assassination.[23] He knows that he needs a strong police force and will happily combine Australian and Chinese assistance.

There were more serious riots from 24 to 27 November 2021, which began as peaceful protests against the decision to recognise China. The initial protests were linked to a group called ‘Malaita for Democracy’, opposed to the switch to China. Malaitan Premier Daniel Suidani had declared that his province would maintain links with Taiwan. The demonstration turned violent when protesters attempted to storm Parliament to depose Sogavare, who had refused to speak to them. The police were called in, who used tear gas on the protesters, and the riot spread to Chinatown and Ranadi, leading to massive burning and looting. A house in Sogavare’s compound at Lungga was destroyed. Sogavare introduced a 36-hour lockdown and called on the 2017 security treaty with Australia. In late December the Solomon Islands also requested help from China, which supplied batons, shields and helmets for help in any future riots. A motion of no-confidence was put to Parliament on 6 December: 32 parliamentarians voted against, 15 voted for the motion and two abstained. Leader of the Opposition Matthew Wale claimed that Sogavare was ‘in the service of a foreign power’. Sogavare,[24] Wale and Suidani condemned the violence.

Sogavare is a political survivor. He presents as logical and forthright, but fears losing power and has no problems with destroying the basic principles on which the nation was founded. So far his majority in the Parliament is not large enough to enable him to delay the national elections until 2024. If he succeeds he will have perverted the four-yearly election cycle, a basic tenet of the founding National Constitution. However, money talks in Solomon Islands politics and he has been liberal with his rewards.

Sogavare is adamant that there will be no military base. Nevertheless, he may be just playing with words. It is what constitutes a base that is important. It can be argued that China can gain total control of Lee Kwok Kuen’s Leroy Wharf Port at Lungga, and already has control of the old Gold Ridge mine site in central Guadalcanal. The question is how will China develop them?

Despite RAMSI and other assistance, Sogavare and his government are well aware of the Australian Government’s arrogant shortcomings and refuse to be lectured to by hypocrites. Safeguarding their environment is crucial for Pacific Islanders and they look askance at Australia’s ducking and weaving on this issue, that if unchecked will make whole islands and even nations uninhabitable. Over many years, Australia used PNG’s Manus Island, and Nauru as dumping places for refugees did not go down well. Australia’s Pacific guest worker scheme, which now brings 3,000 Solomon Islanders into Australia each year, with some success, has also been exploitative at an employer level.[25] Australia would do well to better regulate the guest worked scheme, and to consider making general access easier for all Pacific Islands nations. ‘Pacific Family’ rhetoric is still being used by the new Labor Government, seemingly without understanding that the days of being the controlling ‘big brother’ are over.

Solomon Islander Frustration

As Honiara observer Anouk Ride reminds us, the riots are not irrational and occur at key periods of political transition. They are symbolic, usually led by a small number of activists, target key areas, and have clear purposes. Most of Honiara’s residents do not participate.[26]

Solomon Islanders are frustrated by domestic politics but feel powerless as they watch their Parliament and government behaving badly. This is not what they expected as their future after independence in 1978. Faced with growing poverty and a leadership that will not listen and is dragging them down what they see as wrong roads, many urban-dwellers, particularly marginalised youths, feel they have no other choice but to resort to destructive behaviour. There is also opportunism as not everything gets burnt in riots and there is plenty of stolen property circulating. This minority of urban Solomon Islanders have been their own worst enemies. Many have yet to realise that protest by rioting is wrong, destructive and counterproductive.

In a well functioning democracy, `governments are only removed by votes of no-confidence or elections, not by rioting mobs. However, with the parliamentarians either Independents or having only loose alliances to political parties, many of them can be bought when it comes to leadership votes. Given the devastating success of the various riots, these will probably not stop unless there is either concerted police or military action, or an Opposition leadership develops that is capable of standing up to Sogavare’s political machine and its finances. Although the RSIPF was deliberately left weak and gutted by RAMSI between 2003 and 2011, the Force has now been rebuilt and is recovering its self-pride. The RSIPF now has Chinese as well as Australian advisers, although any attempt to use Chinese police or armed forces to control public disturbances would make the situation much worse. The chances of Chinese police or military forces behaving in a ‘Pacific Way’ is remote.

In conclusion, we should not presume that the Honiara riots are typical of the way Solomon Islanders seek to disagree or protest. When there were tensions late in 2021 in Auki, the capital of Malaita Province, there was a peaceful crowd of 20,000 people. Sogavare had instructed the police commander to arm his men and ‘break the crowd’ which he refused to do. Sogavare later called him ‘useless’, but the commander’s decision was quite correct. Both sides engaged in debate and the political leaders were assisted by the police to maintain a constructive relationship. The outcome was lawful and reflected the will of the people.

One could argue that this crowd was made up of Malaitans on their home ground in support of their Premier. However, the point is that Solomon Islanders can and do carry out public debate with decorum. That is at the base of all local communities. Like many a capital city Honiara is a cauldron for discontent. No one wants another riot, certainly not Sogavare, as riots debilitate Honiara and the nation. Regardless of my views on the importance of observing government processes, it is always possible that another riot could mark the end of his prime ministership. Sogavare is already unpopular (exhibited by the 2019 and 2021 riots) and probably operating on borrowed time. There is a general feeling that he has stayed too long, and that without him the security treaty with China may collapse. Yet, his access to funds has now been strengthened and is set to increase as other donors try to regain influence and bolster strategic interests. Predicting the future is difficult, however, the national election, anything that disrupts the Pacific Games, or any consequent upswing in Covid-19, may be the wildcards of 2023.




I wish to thank several colleagues and friends in Solomon Islands for their advice on this paper. Given various sensitivities, I have decided not to name individuals.


Biographical details:

Clive Moore has been an historian of the Solomon Islands since the 1970s, and is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at The University of Queensland. In 2008 he edited Tell It As It Is, the autobiography of the first Prime Minister Sir Peter Kenilorea. During the last decade he has published an online Solomon Islands Encyclopaedia, 1893-1978 (2013) and three monographs through ANU Press. The first was Making Mala (2017), a history of Malaita the most populous Island. The second, Tulagi (2019), is a history of the first capital. The third, Honiara: Village-City of Solomon Islands (2022) is a history of the second capital.



[1]  Bill Birtles, Stephen Dziedzic, and Evan Wasuka (20/4/2022). China and Solomon Islands sign security pact, Beijing says it is ‘not directed at any third party’ amid Pacific influence fears. Australian Broadcasting Commission.  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-04-19/china-and-solomon-islands-sign-security-pact-says-chinese-foreig/101000530

[2]  Daniel Hurst (20/5/2022). Cabinet committee blocked plan to double Australia’s support to Pacific, election-eve leak reveals. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/may/20/cabinet-committee-blocked-plan-to-double-australias-support-to-pacific-election-eve-leak-reveals

[3]  Senator Penny Wong, Press Conference, Honiara (17/6/2022). https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/penny-wong/transcript/press-conference-honiara#:~:text=Penny%20Wong%2C%20Minister%20for%20Foreign,Thank%20you%20for%20being%20here.

[4]  Statement by the Prime Minister Hon. Manasseh Sogavare on switch to China. Solomon Times (20/9/2019). https://www.solomontimes.com/news/statement-by-the-prime-minister-hon-manasseh-sogavare-on-switch-to-china/9362; Amber Wang (24/5/2022). China’s Foreign Minister to Visit Pacific Islands Nations including Solomons. South China Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3178953/chinas-foreign-minister-visit-pacific-island-nations-including?module=perpetual_scroll_0&pgtype=article&campaign=3178953

[5]  Evan Wasuka (4/4/2022). Solomons’ Prime Minister reassures Australia over proposed security treaty with China. ABC Pacific Beat. https://www.abc.net.au/radio-australia/programs/pacificbeat/solomons-pm-reassures-australia-over-china-treaty/13825204

[6]  Christopher Chevalier (2022) Understanding ‘Solo’: A Biography of Solomon Mamaloni. Self-published online: downloadable for free (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0), 148–50; Peter Kenilorea, (2008) Clive Moore (ed.), with Foreword by Chen Shui-bian, President of the Republic of China. Tell It As It Is: Autobiography of Rt. Hon. Sir Peter Kenilorea, KBA, PC, Solomon Islands’ First Prime Minister. Taipei: Centre for Asia-Pacific Area Studies, Academia Sinica, 285–88.

[7]  Jonathan Fraenkel (2004). The Manipulation of Custom: From Uprising to Intervention in the Solomon Islands. Wellington NZ: Victoria University Press, 124–25.

[8]  Solomon Star (12/7 2006; 14/9/2006).

[9]  Daniel Hurst and Paul Karp (6/5/2022). Scott Morrison denies Solomon Islands ‘red line’ rhetoric puts Australia more at risk. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/06/scott-morrison-denies-solomon-islands-red-lines-rhetoric-puts-australia-more-at-risk

[10]  Joe Kelly and Will Glasgow (30/4/2022), ‘Lack of support’ blamed for the deal with China. The Australian, 7

[11]  Michael E. Miller (26/11/2019). ‘Nothing left’: Solomon Islands burn amid new violence as Australian troops arrive. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/solomon-islands-riots-china-australia/2021/11/25/afcde8ce-4dc6-11ec-a7b8-9ed28bf23929_story.html; Zoe Zaczek 5/5/2022). Scott Morrison grilled over when he last spoke to Manasseh Sogavare and how he would repair Solomon Islands relationship. Skynews. https://www.skynews.com.au/australia-news/politics/scott-morrison-grilled-over-when-he-last-spoke-to-manasseh-sogavare-and-how-he-would-repair-solomon-islands-relationship/news-story/63d5652d99c2445e14fc664280a29d75

[12]  Rowan Callick (7–8/5/2022). Neglect fuels our Pacific Family feud. The Weekend Australian, 33, 38. https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/neglect-fuels-our-pacific-family-feud/news-story/7b94a1ffa7315467a835c8a29318bdb7

[13]  Kathrin Hille (14/4/2022). The Chinese companies trying to buy strategic Pacific islands. Financial Review. https://www.afr.com/world/asia/the-chinese-companies-trying-to-buy-strategic-pacific-islands-20220414-p5adhs

[14]  Robert Iroga (24/5/2022). SOG and CIP sign Tulagi wharf MOU. Solomon Business Onlinehttps://sbm.sb/si-and-cip-sign-tulagi-wharf-mou/

[15]  Michael W. Scott (2013). ‘Heaven on Earth’ or Satan’s ‘base’ in the Pacific? Internal Christian Politics in the Dialogic Construction of the Makiran Underground Army, in Matt Tomlinson and Debra McDougall (eds), Christian Politics in Oceania. ASAO Studies in Pacific Anthropology (2). Oxford, UK, Berghahn Books, 49–77. Available through LSE Research Online, http://lse.ac.uk/38451/ or


[16]  Clive Moore (2008). Uncharted Pacific Waters: The Solomon Islands constitution and the government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, 2006–2007.  History Compass, 6 (2): 488–509; Clive Moore 2008. Pacific View: The meaning of governance and politics in the Solomon Islands. Australian Journal of International Affairs 62 (3): 386–407; Clive Moore (2008). No More Walkabout Long Chinatown: Asian involvement in the Solomon Islands economic and political processes, in Sinclair Dinnen and Stewart Firth (eds), Politics and State Building in Solomon Islands. Canberra: Asia Pacific Press, 64–95; Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, 2003–17. https://www.ramsi.org/

[17]  Clive Moore (2004). Happy Isles in Crisis: The Historical Causes for a Failing State in Solomon Islands, 1998-2004. Canberra: Asia Pacific Press. https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:40809; Jon Fraenkel, Joni Madraiwiwi, and Henry Okole (2014). The RAMSI Decade: A review of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, 2003–2013. https://devpolicy.org/pdf/blog/Independent-RAMSI-Review-Report-Final.pdf

[18]  Sir Peter Kenilorea to editor, Solomon Star (18/8/2006); Solomon Star (23,25/8/2006).

[19]  Julian Moti and the raid on the Prime Minister’s office. Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability. https://nautilus.org/publications/books/australian-forces-abroad/solomon-islands/julian-moti-and-the-raid-on-the-prime-minister2019s-office/

[20]  Moti 666 Docs (2007). Questionnaire for the Australian Federal Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Damian Bugg QC. https://blakandblack.com/moti-666-documents/


[21] Hank Nelson (2007). The Moti Affair in Papua New Guinea. SSGM Working Papers, No. 2007/1. https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/142155/1/07_01wp_Nelson.pdf; High Court of Australia 7/12/2011. Julian Ronald Moti v The Queen [2011] HCA 50.  https://www.hcourt.gov.au/assets/publications/judgment-summaries/2011/hca50-2011-12-07.pdf

[22]  Clive Moore (2018). The End of Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (2003–17). Journal of Pacific History 53 (2): 164–79.

[23]  First mentioned by Alfred Sasako in Islands Business, July 2007, the story was repeated in Sydney Morning Herald 2/8/2007 as ‘Sogavare spoke to dead Solomons PM’.

[24]  Kirsty Needham (6/12/2021). Solomons PM survives no-confidence vote. The Leader. https://www.theleader.com.au/story/7539492/solomons-pm-survives-no-confidence-vote/ ;

Opposition Press Release (11/4/2022). Security treaty is PM’s personal; deal with PRC: Opposition leader. Solomon Times. https://www.solomontimes.com/news/security-treaty-is-pms-personal-deal-with-prc-opposition-leader/11782


[25]  Nick McKenzie (28/3/2017). Australia: Pacific Islands seasonal farm workers allege slave-like conditions in govt. aid programme; recruitment agent unlikely to pay fine or compensation. Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.


[26]  Anouk Ride (2019) Riots in Solomon Islands: The day after. Australian Outlook https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/riots-solomon-islands-day-after/; Anouk Ride (2021) Solomon Islands’ long summer of discontent: Security challenges. Development Bulletin 82: 156–58. https://crawford.anu.edu.au/rmap/devnet/devnet/DB82-final-manuscript-23-02-21.pdf

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies, Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.