Contextualizing Wantok as a Socio-economic and Political Network
Post-independent Melanesian governments are faced with challenges to govern countries that are made up of distinct wantok communities with diverse values and kastoms. Successive governments have therefore been preoccupied with combating instability rather than nation building in most of Melanesia. Henderson (2003, p. 227) attributed an absence of a sense of national identity as contributing to political instability in the South Pacific, a negative impact of the colonial creation of artificial boundaries that became current national boundaries. Others felt that the lack of a national identity in culturally and linguistically diverse countries like the Solomon Islands should be a cause for serious concern (LiPuma & Meltzoff, 1990, p. 79). Wantok groups at the local levels see themselves as people from a certain island or a certain region of the island defined by the language spoken and kastom – the wantok element. The basic national uniting force is probably the ability to communicate in a common vernacular. Other national symbols may include the national currency, national anthem and national flag. It could be asserted that the only symbols of any direct value to rural Melanesians are the modern currencies – the Solomon Islands dollar, the PNG Kina and the Vanuatu Vatu. Anti-colonial and “political kastom-wantok” groups’, like the Ma’asina Ruru and Gaena’alu Movement, influences were restricted to specific regions and at best to adjacent islands. The overall trend is that people see themselves according to their language and island groups and rarely as members of a national entity. Successive governments since independence are conscious of this and have often made decisions claiming to be in the interest of national unity and stability by appearing to address national.
needs but de facto on provincial lines. Lipuma and Meltzoff claim that “[t]he various Solomon Islands were joined not because they bore any inherent relationship or because their peoples desired to be united, but for reasons foreign and external” (LiPuma & Meltzoff, 1990, p. 83). More directly, Kabutaulaka (1998, p. 33) explained that the nation Solomon Islands did not exist naturally but was constructed by European explorers and colonialists. The post colonial nation-state of Solomon Islands exercises authority over boundaries carved during the colonial era. It is therefore imperative to recognize that different islands regard themselves as different and not related to others in the Solomon group, for example. Such sentiments become prominent when attitudes of certain segments of the country are seen as disruptive and when national wealth distribution is not seen as fair. The threats by the Western Province to secede in 1978 and the Guadalcanal Provincial Assembly’s submissions to national government both in 1988 and 1998 attested to this dominant perception (Premdas, et al., 1984; Nanau, 2008). The wantok identity that takes center stage in such political exchanges revolves around the newly created and artificial political wantok groups like provinces and constituencies.
Politicians and charismatic leaders normally use these modern wantok identities to mobilize political support. Recent experiences showed that land and land based resources usually trigger conflicts. There is a tendency that when resources are extracted, benefits normally go to other wantok groups rather than those from whose lands such resources were extracted. This sense of being neglected and exploited for other people’s benefit usually evoke sentiments like those expressed by Western and Guadalcanal provinces mentioned above. Premdas and Steeves pointed out that “… the cost/gain principle was imposed on national elites by the threat of secession by regionalists if extensive local autonomy was not conceded” (1984, p. 47). The establishment of provincial governments as agents of national government was a welcomed move on the surface but deep rooted disagreements on national wealth distribution and provincial contributions to national wealth exist. Liloqula stressed: “[s]ince we became one country, Solomon Islanders have yet to accept each other as one people. The situation has been ongoing but we ignored it in our efforts to remain united, focussing on the good and positive small things that happen and burying the big issue [of being different] as if it does not exist” (Liloqula & Pollard, 2000, p. 6). Solomon Islanders have taken and utilized the wantok system for different purposes at different levels.
The further one uses wantok away from the local towards the national the system also changes from being a subsistence and livelihood buffer to one of exploitation and corruption. This explains the identity and allegiance crisis demonstrated by the Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP) Force during the 1998-2003 ethnic crises. Officers who were supposed to be impartial took sides instead of providing protection for citizens. Arms that were supposed to be used to protect citizens were used against them. A good number of Guadalcanal and Malaita police officers ignored their national duties and affiliated themselves with militants from their wantok groups. It is this likelihood to support a fellow wantok in times of need that usually gives way to corruption and nepotism – the negative attributes of the wantok system often highlighted by commentators. One thing is certain, and that is that the existence of very strong internal bonds among and between wantok groups nationally and their effects on the idea of a united and stable Solomon Islands are immense.
The wantok system also plays an important role in sustaining livelihoods and maintaining peace and stability at the local level. It is a social structure that emphasizes respect and reciprocity. More importantly, the wantok system ensures that the ruthless exploitation of one group of people is checked continuously and
avoided. Indeed, the distinct local wantok groups ensure that their relatives are assisted economically and socially when the need arises. As such, the extreme disparity of wealth distribution is not really expansive. As noted throughout this paper, it is only when wantok is used away from the local level towards the national and sub-regional contexts that it becomes a corrupt and exploitative system.
The concepts and realities of the wantok system and kastom are important for an understanding of livelihoods, security and stability in Melanesia. The history of Solomon Islands integration into the global economy directly links to continuities and changes to the wantok system and networks at the local level. The wantok groups’ attachments to each other and within themselves changes from that of reciprocal redistributive buffer to that of exploitation and political expediency the further one moves away from the village. Despite the changes brought about by missionaries and colonization, wantok identities and kastom were maintained and continue to be the norms of operation at the village level. These local, cultural wantok concepts, attributes and realities influence other aspects of development, particularly those related to security and stability in Melanesia. Unless wantoks and the networks and relationships it provides are understood, it may be difficult to appreciate the reasoning behind some decisions made by Melanesian political leaders and contemporary political events that continue to confuse analysts. The wantok system is resilient and has evolved over time. It will continue to be influential in Melanesian social, economic and political spheres for many more years to come.