Reaction to last week’s prison sentences for the vast majority of MPs convicted of bribery and corruption consisted of equal parts sorrow and approval among the overwhelming majority of Ni Vanuatu. Only a tiny minority expressed glee or happiness at the downfall of some of the country’s most senior and heretofore respected politicians.
Fewer still complained of injustice.
Quoting from other judgments, Justice Mary Sey described the crime of bribery as “cynical, deplorable and deeply anti-social”, “intolerable in a civilised society”, and “inexcusable”, and wrote that “this Court, on behalf of the community, denounces the commission of the offences of corruption and bribery….”
She went on to assign prison sentences to all but one of the guilty parties.
Some people have—rightly—commended Justice Sey on her legal acumen, her refusal to allow the trial to lose momentum and, above all, her utter fearlessness in the face of intense pressure.
We can all take a little credit for her success.
In a democracy, it is impossible for a judge to stand in a position of authority over the most powerful people in society without the consent and support of the people. There has to be political will to investigate. There has to be sufficient mandate for police to press charges. There has to be popular support to ensure the case makes it before a magistrate, is considered and passed on to the Supreme Court. There has to be popular support to ensure that the trial progresses in an open, transparent—and transparently fair—manner.
There has to be the popular will to see justice done.
On the 9th of October, about a thousand people gathered outside the Supreme Court precinct to await the verdict. Among them was a Solomon Islands policeman, currently studying at USP. He reportedly sidled up to a Ni Vanuatu colleague and said something like, ‘mate, if this were Honiara, half the town would be in flames by now.’
Notwithstanding Marcellino Pipite’s dire predictions, we are absolutely not like Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea or Fiji. Not in this regard. Not this time.
Mr Pipite’s complete miscalculation of the popular response to his conviction is telling, to say the least. We don’t need a photograph to know that.
There was an unique and uncanny moment as the Police buses carrying the prisoners from the Court entered ‘container city’, as the correctional facility is commonly known. A crowd of about 500 people had gathered in the roadway. Unbidden, they cleared a lane for the vehicles.
Then they began to clap.
There wasn’t a hint of celebration. Not a single soul expressed glee, or malice toward the men inside the buses. The applause was of the kind one hears when a chief has spoken his ‘last toktok’ and a community meeting is formally closed.
There was a sense of finality, of closure, and of satisfaction.
But we’re not done yet. The solidarity of the people of Vanuatu at a time of political crisis has been commendable, perhaps even unique among nations. But now we need to tackle the harder problem: How do we ensure we don’t ever let things get this bad again?
That’s going to require careful thought, endless discussion, and finally, the political will to establish boundaries. And only the people of Vanuatu can enforce those boundaries.