MANY of the Autonomous Bougainville Government’s (ABG) leadership challenges are inherent in the general situation of Bougainville in 2016.
In a real sense it is a post-conflict situation – in that Bougainville’s violent, destructive, and deeply divisive nine year civil war ended almost 19 years ago, in mid-1997.
It’s hardly surprising that, in the aftermath of such a violent, bitter and divisive conflict, that many opposing factions and divisions exist in Bougainville, and that consequentially, there is still much mistrust.
Many of the issues here involve some continuity with problems that occurred during the violent conflict, 1988 to 1997. But there are also significant new developments.
While the mainstream former Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and Bougainville Resistance Force (BRF) elements that supported the peace process now largely work well together, at the local level there remain many unresolved divisions where reconciliation is still required.
While the BRA and the BRF no longer exist as armed militias, since about 2010 former combatant organisations have emerged as significant political voices in Bougainville.
To some extent this development reflects uncertainty for some former senior leaders about whether President Momis, elected in mid-2010, was too much a Papua New Guinean nationalist, and not sufficiently committed to the holding a referendum on independence for Bougainville.
While that concern has now reduced significantly, I think it contributed to a number of pressures that saw the former combatants become more politically active.
A complicating factor here is the various business and other economic interests of several key former combatant leaders. Some of them use their ex-combatant networks to advance such interests.
Of course, there are other sources of significant division and tension. They include several different Me’ekamui factions, none of which participated in the weapons disposal process under the Bougainville Peace Agreement and so remain in possession of numerous firearms.
Another source of tensions is a group led by former BRA leader, Sam Kauona, who has long had interest in establishing mining operations in association with dual Australian/Canadian citizen Lindsay Semple and who - whenever they fear their mining interests are not sufficiently guaranteed – attacks the ABG as being under the control of Bougainville Copper Ltd and its 53% majority shareholder, Rio Tinto.
In general the ABG faces grave difficulties because of the weakness in administration and policy capacity in both Bougainville’s Public Service and Police Service.
It was one of the great tragedies of the Bougainville conflict that the remarkable capacity of the North Solomons Provincial Government administration, built up over the 15 years from 1974, was almost entirely destroyed. It could not simply be re-established after the conflict.
The very much weakened administration of the Bougainville Interim Provincial Government was taken over by the ABG in mid-2005. But during the conflict, management, planning and accountability mechanisms had been severely weakened.
While the Bougainville Peace Agreement and the Bougainville constitutional laws make a remarkably extensive range of functions and powers available to the ABG, there is a transfer process involved.
It involves the ABG initiating the transfer process by request to the PNG national government. Negotiation is then required to develop necessary transfer plans within a year.
The plans are required to take account of the need to build the necessary ABG capacity and provide it with the necessary financial resources to take over the functions and powers in question.
The transfer process for many functions and powers has become bogged down in problems, misunderstandings and inertia. In general there’s been a failure to address ABG capacity and resources needs.
The much slower than anticipated progress in transfer of powers has resulted in frustration, and contributed to widespread criticism of the ABG for lack of performance, and failure to meet expectations.
If the ABG is to achieve real autonomy, or to have independence available as a real option in the future, achieving fiscal self-reliance is essential. But the challenges of achieving that goal - so strongly emphasised by the Bougainville Constitution - are immense.
It is the need to explore realistic means of achieving that goal that has been a major factor leading the ABG to consider the possibility of permitting strictly limited large-scale mining.
However, any such mining must be on a dramatically different basis from the grossly unfair conditions under which BCL operated the Panguna mine.
There are critics of ABG mining policy. The main ones are a few noisy outsiders. They include the NGO Jubilee Australia and close associates of Jubilee that post endless ‘anonymous’ postings on the PNG Mine Watch and PNG Exposed blogs.
They refuse to in any way recognise the grave dilemmas facing the ABG. They have no understanding of the realities of Bougainville and the complex leadership challenges facing us.
Little more needs to be said here about the referendum, other than to emphasise that the ABG has heavy constitutional and political responsibilities in relation to referendum preparations. It is now increasingly likely to be held in 2019.
Following the conduct of the referendum, the ABG will need to shoulder even more significant responsibilities, in terms of negotiating with PNG on implementation of the outcome and managing the ensuing situation.
An unexpected challenge for the ABG has been the sometimes amazing extent of deeply misleading public commentary on Bougainville, the ABG, its mining policy, and related matters. This commentary began mainly in 2012 as the ABG moved to develop its own mining laws.
The main attacks have come from two sources. One involves small groups in Bougainville. The other is a closely linked external network. Their main ‘message’ is that - in some way never explained and with no credible evidence ever provided - the ABG is under the control of, or part of a conspiracy with, Rio Tinto, BCL, Australia and PNG.
This conspiracy (or so they say) is intended to force the re-opening of the Panguna mine against the united opposition of the people of Bougainville.
The small group inside Bougainville involves a few foreign adventurers seeking control of mining resources. They do so by fostering links with Bougainville factions. The adventurers and their local supporters fear that ABG mining policy and legislation will limit their opportunities.
The external network centres on UK-based Australian academic activist, Kristian Lasslett. His network comprises his close associates, including: the NGO, Jubilee Australia; the two blogs run by the PNG-based Bismarck Ramu Group – PNG Mine Watch and PNG Exposed; the Bougainville Freedom Movement; a group of criminologists supposedly studying ‘state crime’, calling itself the ‘State Crime Initiative’; and an Australian activist journalist, Anthony Loewenstein.
All network elements have their own ideological positions that they project onto Bougainville. They do so with virtually no understanding of, or interest in, what is really happening in Bougainville.
They do not need much in the way of evidence, mainly because they have no interest in understanding our complex reality. Rather, they pick and choose a bit of information here, an opinion expressed there, and twist what little they have to fit their own pre-conceived theoretical or ideological position.
The misinformation that they put out has very little impact in Bougainville. But the internal and external contributors are mutually reinforcing. The external network undoubtedly provides encouragement to the foreign adventurers and their associates in Bougainville.
The misleading commentary does also perhaps influence perceptions of Bougainville by uninformed observers outside Bougainville. So while not a major leadership challenge, it is certainly one that we would prefer to do without.
While undoubtedly the ABG faces many complex and difficult leadership challenges, we are facing them honestly. We constantly explore our best options for dealing with them. Although our resources are extremely limited, we work hard to change that situation, and to face our challenges head on.
I can say little more than that.
Full version of Mr Nisira’s speech - Download 'Challenges facing the Bougainville Government' by Patrick Nisira
Patrick Nisira is vice-president of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. This article is extracted from a speech given late last week at the Australian National University in Canberra