BUSA JEREMIAH WENOGO
An entry in the 2015 Rivers Award
for Writing on Peace & Harmony
THE recent spate of ethnic tensions and fights that have swept certain parts of Port Moresby’s settlements, most notably Hohola, 8 Mile and 6 Mile, have brought to light the need to police the movement of people in and out of towns and cities.
This is important to maintain law and order and protect human lives and public property.
In Papua New Guinea, discussion on rural-urban drift often raises the issue of the Vagrancy Act. While there is a definite and serious need for the government and city and town authorities to look into ways of controlling the movement of people, the Vagrancy Act will have to be a measure of last resort.
This is due to the fact that most urban dwellers are second or third generation migrants (especially from Gulf and Central provinces in the case of Port Moresby) who live, work and do business in towns and cities.
Such an exercise would have a devastating social and economic impact on our towns and cities. Furthermore, the implementation of such a law would not be in the interests of national unity as it would only lead to bigotry and animosity among Papua New Guineans and add fuel to any lingering feelings of regionalism.
The National Capital District, under the leadership of Governor Powes Parkop, seems to have moved away from the vagrancy idea preferring instead to upgrade squatter settlements.
In the corner of Erima settlement where I live, a section of the road leading to my house has been expanded and sealed. This project, which I presume is part of an NCD settlement upgrading exercise, has changed the image of the place by portraying to the public a more progressive outlook.
In addition, a couple of months ago, the electorate’s MP reconnected water into the settlement after several years of struggle. And earlier this month, Labi Amaiu MP commissioned the Erima water project, making it known to the community that he plans to issue formal land titles to settlers and build a proper sewage system into the settlement.
Erima is like the pocket of Port Moresby, hidden away from traffic jams and the hustle and bustle of the city.
While its isolation has provided refuge to its more than 1,000 residents, to those living outside Erima is seen as a hotbed of criminal activity. Furthermore, like other settlements, it has suffered from years of ethnic tensions and fighting.
Other settlements at Morata, 8 Mile and 9 Mile are reported to be undergoing a similar transformation to that we are witnessing in Erima. Yet most of these settlers lack formal employment and resort to the informal economy, mainly plying betel nut to sustain their needs.
The betel nut trade is worth millions of kina and is the most successful agricultural commodity with a huge domestic market.
The lucrative nature of the trade has seen the city commission’s betel nut ban constantly face stiff opposition from producers, distributors, sellers and consumers alike.
Even enforcers of the ban have been reported to have smuggled bags of betel nut into the city to take advantage of the price hike.
With the commission recently doubling its effort to enforce the betel nut ban and with no proper betel nut market in the city, vendors are becoming ever more territorial, fighting for space in an already crowded environment.
From this perspective it is easy to see how a petty issue involving vendors tussling over betel nut (buai), lime (kambang) or mustard (daka) can quickly escalate into an ethnic fight.
People tell me that the Hohola and 8 Mile ethnic fights were a direct result of disagreements between vendors of betel nut and mustard.
A couple of weeks prior to this, the temporary Erima betel nut market at the old Hugo Sawmill reported an incident involving men from the Eastern Highlands and Tari.
It does look as if betel nut related fights are on the rise.
Unfortunately most of them fights have proven fatal, with participants either critically wounded or killed.
The situation has been made worse by the commission’s decision to clamp down on all informal economic activities in the city, which has made it almost impossible for vendors to switch to non-buai activities.
I have seen the devastation of these actions on families who literally survive on them for their daily needs.
Where I live, families are going without food for days. As a result most are now opting to sell betel nuts as a means to sustain themselves. Subsequently, the number of betel nut vendors in Port Moresby is steadily increasing.
Youths from these households have no choice but are forced to go onto the streets doing whatever they can to survive. This has led to an increase in petty crime such as pickpocketing, harassment, hold ups and carjacking.
This indicates the dire need for the government to quickly come up with measures to ease the pressure before it gets out of hand.
Settlement upgrading is one strategy that may address some of these issues, however it will not do much if it advocates creating settlements for each ethnic group.
Settlement upgrading must entail the integration of different ethnicities. Settlements in cities like Port Moresby, Lae, Mt Hagen, Goroka, Kokopo and elsewhere should have a mixture of people from all over Papua New Guinea living together.
An integrated and diversified community ensures that transparency and accountability is maintained when it comes to community policing with leaders chosen on merit and decisions based on law rather than ethnicity.
Secondly, such a multi-ethnical community ensures that flare-ups or fights are quickly neutralised unlike a settlement comprising people of homogenous ethnicity where disputes quickly snowball into an all-out ethnic fighting.
I have seen in my community how suspicions of sorcery and jealousy have held back a lot of the folks from venturing into small business for fear of losing their own or their families’ lives.
Highly educated people do all they can to appease whoever they suspect may be capable of taking their lives (sometimes their own family members) through black magic.
In a big city like Port Moresby and Lae people must learn to live in peace and harmony with their fellow citizens because these are fundamental for nation building and development.
Squatter settlements which house the bulk of urban dwellers should take the lead in this endeavor.
This means that any attempt by relevant authorities to upgrade squatter settlements should focus on creating an integrated and diversified community rather than a homogenous community of a single ethnicity.