6 August 2003

Behind the Solomons Crisis: A Problem of Development:
The Malaita-Guadalcanal Conflict

In 1999, the explosive mix of economic stagnation, social tensions and political decay was detonated by conflict between people from the islands of Malaita and Guadalcanal. This conflict dates back to the creation of Honiara on Guadalcanal as the new capital of the Solomons after WWII. When the capital moved to Guadalcanal (to take advantage of infrastructure left by the US military), so too did most indigenous government employees from the old capital on Malaita. Malaitans had a history of working for Europeans, first on whaling ships, then as indentured labourers overseas and on local European-owned plantations. They became the main labour force in the growing town of Honiara and also began to lease land around the capital for agriculture. Malaitans made up 75 per cent of the police force. Rivalry and jealousy between Malaitans and the local people of Guadalcanal grew over the decades, often taking the form of disputes over inheritance and use of leased land and other divergent social customs.

The final spark came in 1999 when the Premier of Guadalcanal province made a claim to the national government for compensation for land occupied by Malaitans and for alleged crimes by Malaitans. This precipitated a wave of attacks on Malaitans and the formation of a militia calling itself the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army, which went on a spree of destruction, rape and murder. In response, Malaitan youths formed the Malaitan Eagle Force (MEF) and stole high-powered weapons from a police armoury. The resulting conflict caused over 200 deaths. 20,000 Malaitans and people from other islands fled Guadalcanal. In June 2000 the MEF took control of Honiara and forced the government of Prime Minister Bart Ulufa'alu to resign.

The situation stabilised after the formation of an interim government, which signed an agreement with the two militias in Townsville in October 2000. Under the agreement the militias agreed to surrender their weapons in return for compensation for loss of property and promises of development aid. Elections in December 2000 led to the formation of the current government under PM Allen Kamakeza.

Open conflict was brought to an end, but large numbers of weapons were not surrendered and have remained in the hands of ex-militia members and criminal elements. A corrupt and divided police force, with linkages between criminal elements, corrupt police, some MPs, loggers and businessmen, have led to the collapse of effective government and an uncontrollable law and order situation(1).


The conflict in the Solomons is not an ethnic or separatist insurgency, nor is the country in the state of near civil war that briefly prevailed in mid-2000. It is rather a severe crisis of the ability of the Solomon Islands government to enforce its rule and to maintain security across the country. The crisis is principally a crisis of economic and political development: in its short post-independence history, successive governments have been unable to establish the conditions for sustainable economic growth which are essential for political stability and personal security.

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