Humble Beginnings

In an exclusive interview, Manasseh Sogavare describes his long personal journey to the top

Asked how he started his career, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare laughs wryly.

“I entered public service as a toilet cleaner and tea boy,” he chuckles. It was, he says, “a tough, rough beginning.”

“And I learned from that.”

If Mr Sogavare’s example is any guide, there are few shortcuts in life. “What I got is through hard work, and basically I worked my way…. I worked my way up through public service…

in all my life in public service, I worked in the Inland Revenue division.

“I started as toilet cleaner in the Inland Revenue Division and localised the Commissioner of Inland Revenue post in twelve years.

“I got all the degrees along the way, and all the promotions.”

He smiles in recollection. “The people that I’d salute along the way: ‘Good morning, sir!’ … the people with white socks—these were colonial days—I’d welcome them into the building and direct them to their desk.

“Three remained when I became Commissioner of Inland Revenue, and the role changed to ‘Good morning SIR!’”

He snapped a smart salute, mimicking how they would receive him, and then allowed himself an amiable laugh.

“It’s a good feeling, after twelve years, that these people that I served coffee and tea… and cleaned their toilets… every morning called me ‘sir’.”

‘All the promotions’ that Manasseh Sogavare has received in his career is a long list indeed. Enviably long.

In addition to working as Commissioner of Inland Revenue, the Solomon Islands parliamentary website states that he has held the position of First Class Magistrate, Chairman of the national provident fund, Director of the central bank and Permanent Secretary in the ministry of Finance.

But good fortune was accompanied by some harsh lessons.

“I got sacked,” he says bluntly, speaking of his two-year tenure as (not so) Permanent Secretary to the Minister of Finance, “again, for taking tough decisions for what I believe is right. I was removed because I had different views from the Prime Minister then…. [It was] over forestry issues.

“Coming green from the administration, I wrote a nasty letter direct to the Prime Minister. And you don’t do that.”

Not twice anyway.

He recalled saying to himself, “I need to face this man… see eye to eye, at the same level. So I entered politics.”

Every success, it seems, has been sparked by a setback. Describing the time leading up to his first election as Prime Minister, he began with a familiar refrain: “I was sacked too. Again, for taking tough decisions.”

Governing in the Solomon Islands in an unenviable task at any time, but looking back the crisis of state facing Mr Sogavare in his first days as Prime Minister—indeed, in many since—it’s a wonder he still has a taste for the job.

His recounting of the circumstances is a master class in understatement.

“There were guns all over the place, and nobody would like to move on the vote of no confidence at that time, so I completed the half of the term, and got re-elected as Prime Minister.”

The turbulence of his various tenures seems to have washed past him, like water off a wave, but he allows himself a half-sigh when he’s asked about recent rumblings in favour of Malaitan independence.

“Unity will remain a challenge. But what will happen tomorrow… well, that’s for tomorrow.” He chuckles momentarily, then is suddenly earnest. “But we’ve been through this three times now. And if I haven’t learned anything from 2006, then… I have myself to blame.”