The Bigman Syndrome

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Friday’s Daily Post featured a story that would be comical if it weren’t true. Vanuatu Ombudsman Peter Taurakoto released a report recommending the prosecution of 188 public figures for their failure to submit financial reports for the year 2007. Taurakoto also recommended that the Clerk of Parliament be prosecuted, apparently for not performing due diligence with regards to these reports.

According to the Leadership Code Act, ‘leaders’ include Members of Parliament and their political advisors, the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs, the VMF Commander, various officers of the provincial and national governments, as well as town clerks and the Ombudsman himself.

Given the astounding number of leaders listed in the Ombudsman’s report, one is led to ask if any leaders actually did submit a statement.

The plain fact is that the Ombudsman’s report is little more than a futile gesture. The odds of everyone being prosecuted are lamentably small, and it’s almost inconceivable that some could be taken to task for this failure while others are not. It is nonetheless a useful and timely document. If nothing else, it seems calculated to make a mockery of the decorative trappings of western democracy that are draped like so much faded bunting around our national institutions.

188 leaders. That’s basically all of them. What we have here is an effective consensus among the national leadership that financial transparency is neither desirable nor necessary. And you know what? If everyone’s fine with that, then it’s going to have to be okay. Let’s at least be honest about it.
The system, such as it is, rolls on as it always has. Taken in the context of recent positive economic reports as well as obvious signs of progress throughout the country, the disclosure of this systemic failure seems almost innocuous.

This month’s bye-election in Efate Rural indicates that, for now at least, society at large is perfectly content to conduct politics as usual. In spite of sporadic efforts to build a unified and genuinely representative political presence in North Efate, those few who managed to make their way to the polls voted overwhelmingly for the status quo.

The very same ‘gift-givers’ whose judicial chastisement brought about the bye-election in the first place were returned with hardly a raised eyebrow.

But before we acquiesce completely to the knowledge that – law or no law – our leadership’s financial habits will remain hidden from public scrutiny, we need to know what we’re buying.

The main lesson to take away from these two events is that formal systems are trumped easily and effectively by the moral force of the ‘Bigman’ syndrome. This phenomenon is somewhat amorphous, so it’s something of a simplification to say it this way, but fundamentally, once a man (women only rarely get here) achieves ‘rank’ in Vanuatu society, the rules change. He can say one thing and do another, and provided that he is consistently capable of bringing wealth and opportunity to his community, nobody really cares particularly how he manages to do it.

It’s a moral force, albeit exposing a morality that differs fundamentally from that described by Enlightenment philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire. But it works.

At a certain point, people are going to have to accept what they’re not willing to change. If people can’t – or won’t – unite in order to get genuine representative democracy, then maybe they should make the best of what they’ve got.

The fact that people are buying votes is not offensive in and of itself. It’s just as easy to call the Vanuatu tradition of vote-buying (very) direct democracy as it is to call it bribery. Indeed, gift-giving has been integral to kastom since… well, since forever.

What really riles me up, though, is that these votes are sold so cheaply.

All it takes to buy a person’s vote these days is a few bags of rice, a saucepan or two and perhaps some sugar. When I hear about the prices paid for political support, I find myself thinking, ‘gee, if people only knew how their MPs and Ministers were making out, they’d expect a lot more than that!’

But the only way people will be able to measure what their vote is worth is if their leaders actually let it be known how wealthy they are. That would require something like, say, an annual report to the Parliamentary Clerk listing all their assets and liabilities.

Small wonder that our leaders don’t want to submit to this reporting regime.

The failure here isn’t in our leadership. The failure lies in society’s readiness to allow the situation to continue. For whatever reasons (and I confess they’re unfathomable to me), people seem content to sell their votes for a pittance while at one and the same time rewarding their big men with riches well out of scale with their own.

That runs counter to kastom as I’ve always understood it. Where is the communitarian spirit? Where indeed is the gleeful delight people take in making sure no one ever gets too big for his britches?
Apparently, for Vanuatu’s Bigmen, these rules no longer apply.