TWO of the most revered institutions in the Pacific suffered life-threatening injuries last week. What this means for the future stability and prosperity of the region remains unclear. Also unclear is whether these events are isolated or merely the tip of the iceberg of regional strife that will result in Pacific collapse.
The first blow was dealt to the Pacific Islands Forum, a 50-year-old governing organization that represents the interests of eighteen island nations. In a fractious 9-8 vote (one abstention), the Forum elected Henry Puna of the Cook Islands as its Secretary General. This went against the traditional practice, a “gentlemen’s agreement,” of rotating the position among the three regions represented by the body, Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia.
It was to be Micronesia’s turn at leadership, and that faction united behind Gerald Zackios of the Marshall Islands. Yet, after a long night of meetings, speeches, handshakes and deals, the man from Polynesia took the chair. The disrespected members from Micronesia made good on their threat to walk out if they were snubbed, the controversial selection of Puna splintered the body, and the subsequent withdrawal of the five Micronesian states left no member nation above the equator. It is no stretch to say the Forum is facing the greatest crisis since its inception.
The second blow was dealt to the University of the South Pacific. While the region focused on the crisis at the Forum, Fiji President Frank Bainamarama had USP Vice Chancellor Pal Ahluwalia deported. Ahluwalia was hired several years ago to reform the multi-state institution, and reform he did. In fact, he was so successful at uncovering corruption and financial mismanagement that he made many enemies, from the office of the president down to the college administration and faculty, many of whom were taking bribes and illegal cash payouts. The university community sharply divided over Ahluwalia, and it was clear either he or the president would have to go, and since Bainamarama supported the president, the outcome was not in doubt.
After these setbacks, important questions emerge. What is the future of the Pacific Islands Forum? The organization has long held promise of uniting the Pacific family into a solid advocate for regional interests. In terms of square mileage, no political entity covers as much of the globe. The Forum has been a champion of environmental causes such as climate change, pollution, nuclear testing and sustainable fishing and has been a potent force in the U.N. Now, it is a fractured mess, and its credibility has been called into question. It appears to suffer from the same internecine squabbling and backroom dealing as any other such political organization. With no member above the equator, can the Pacific Islands Forum justifiably claim to represent Pacific interests? Reconciliation is essential, along with a house-cleaning of self-serving politicians.
What is the future of University of South Pacific? This may be harder to answer. While I can see a future where there is a place for the Pacific Islands Forum, the future of USP is murky. The institution has lost all credibility with the public and with students. What is college credit or a degree from USP worth now? In higher education reputation is everything, but faculty and students are rushing for the exits as more corruption is uncovered. Teaching suffers because money that should have been used to hire good teachers, upgrade facilities, and improve learning has been siphoned off by greedy opportunists. What was once a beacon of regional unity and advancement has become a punchline.
What is the future of Pacific unity? As the world struggles to recover from the Covid pandemic and the China-U.S. rivalry heats up, the last thing the Pacific family needed was a one-two punch to the gut. The PIF and USP were integral parts of the mosaic that made up island life and both are now in crisis.
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.