Distribution of Chinese funds by Solomon Islands PM raises questions

By Thomson Reuters Aug 25, 2022 | 3:33 AM

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The Solomon Islands Prime Minister’s office distributed Chinese government money to 39 out of 50 members of parliament twice last year, a budget committee was told, prompting criticism the payments were politically motivated.

Prime Minister Manesseh Sogavare, who switched the Islands’ diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, survived a vote of no confidence last December after deadly anti-government riots saw buildings burnt in the capital, Honiara.

Before the no-confidence vote, opposition leader Matthew Wale accused Sogavare of using money from China in a national fund to prop up his position.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s Office said SBD20.9 million ($2.49 million) was provided by China for a fund spent at the prime minister’s discretion in 2021, and two tranches of payments were made to 39 lawmakers in November and December.

A request for SBD9.75 million ($1.16 million), or SBD250,000 per lawmaker, was made on Nov. 22, and distributed equally to the 39 lawmakers, Jimmy Rodgers, secretary to the prime minister, told a livestreamed committee hearing.

Another payment of SBD831,000, or about SBD20,000 each, was made on Dec. 13, he said.

Rodgers said China had agreed in 2019 to pay the funds to the Prime Minister’s Office for three years, continuing a practice established by Taiwan.

Sogavare’s office and the Chinese embassy in Honiara did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement on Wednesday, Sogavare’s office rejected allegations it was using money from China to maintain power.

The United States, Australia and other Pacific countries have expressed concern about a security pact agreed this year between the Solomon Islands and China, which they say has regional implications as China seeks to extend its influence.

Rodgers said aid partners want the system for the allocation of funds reformed so that money goes to projects and not politicians’ offices.

Former deputy prime minister John Maneniaru said the policy to distribute money at the prime minister’s discretion was “not good for unity in this country”.

“He is the prime minister for 50 constituencies, not just that handful of constituencies,” Maneniaru, a committee member, said in the hearing.

Sogavare was elected prime minister of a coalition government on the floor of parliament with 34 votes in 2019.

He survived a no-confidence motion in December with the support of 32 members after an anti-government protest on Nov. 24 led to rioting, which saw Sogavare seek international police help to restore order.

Sogavare is seeking parliamentary approval to delay elections due in mid-2023.

($1 = 8.4034 Solomon Islands dollars)

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Robert Birsel)