ON THIS DAY 36 years ago Vanuatu, known then as the New Hebrides, was gearing up for its freedom from colonial rule on the 30th of July 1980. On this same day the then stateless people of the islands of the New Hebrides were counting down the hours as they looked forward to be adorned with their new Ni-Vanuatu Citizenship.
The social atmosphere then was a blend of excitement, patriotism, eagerness and happiness. The people were more than ready to embrace independence and to rejoice in their new world of freedom.
It is there important that all citizens of the Republic of Vanuatu take the time this weekend to remind ourselves of the reasons why we struggled for independence. To name a few, our independence granted us the access to freedom, including the right to enjoy life, the right to move around, to express our thoughts, and the right to own land.
For those of us that were not there in the 80’s to witness those historical events that accumulated up to the 30th of July 1980 we have parents and older relatives who were there. Ask them to tell you about their experience, do not let this weekend go by without learning a part of Vanuatu’s history.
Transparency International Vanuatu (TIV) had had the opportunity to talk with some of the nation’s founding leaders and record their experiences. Some of their stories were published in a series of articles titled ‘From Statelessness To Freedom’ in 2015 through to early 2016.
The following below are interesting extracts from the mentioned series that TIV would like to share with you;
The symbols that confirms Vanuatu is an independent and sovereign nation are the National Flag, the National Motto, the National Anthem, and the National Constitution.
Mr. Ati George Sokomanu was one of those that actively took part in struggle for independence. He said this about the National Constitution when TIV spoke with him.
“When God send Moses to Mount Sinai and He gave him two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them. The National Constitution is like Vanuatu’s Ten Commandments…to guide us”.
“Between 1979 and 1980 the group (founding leaders) formed the constitution and legislations to prove to the colonial powers that Vanuatu is capable of looking after itself” explained Mr. Sokomanu, “1979 and 1980 were two very important and formal years because we tried to form legislatures on how to move forward independently… (we) wanted to protect our values, beliefs, cultures, faith and be free”.
“We had nothing to protect us. If we did something wrong, whether it be in the French or English Court, you had to face it,” Mr. Sokomanu explained. “My house in Mele was codenamed the ‘Blue House’. By orders of the British administrator my letters in my mail box, which was P.O Box 478, were being opened and checked at the Post Office. Once I was informed of this through my sources within the British government I revised my plan and began writing and receiving my letters in Fijian…I am fluent in the Fijian language” he said.
It is hard to imagine now that over 36 years ago the people of Vanuatu were considered as a ‘stateless people’ – which meant that the people had no country of their own therefore their rights were very limited. Even though colonized by two very powerful nations the people were not citizens of either one of them.
“Being stateless did not empower us to claim our land, and even claim ownership of our own indigenous lands, when we wanted to travel abroad, the British or the French resident commissioner will issue travel identity documents” added Sokomanu.
The current Ombudsman of Vanuatu Mr. Kalkot Mataskelekele was an energetic young man at that time and he also participated in the events leading up to 1980.
He smiled while reflecting back on that period of Vanuatu’s history, and he let out a few laughs when mentioning some of the activities that they did back then; composing a protest song for the Queen, and then singing that song in front of the Queen.
Mr. Sokomanu confirmed that there were those within the independence movement that were tough, they did all sorts of activities to promote independence and freedom in their own ways. He continued to say, with humor, that “(Kalkot) Mataskelekele and (Barak) Sope were the two of the tough ones within our group.”
When 1980 came Mr. Mataskelekele was overseas, “I was in PNG during that time” he said. “I was finishing my studies. I used to work then with the Vanua’aku Party between my studies, I received a plane ticket from the government of Vanuatu to attend the independence celebrations”.
Mr. Mataskelekele added, “I took part in the independence march in 1980, I had a camera and I was filming. I was sitting with the crowd. My tears fell when the new national flag went up. I was filming on my camera but my hands were shaking. I was proud and very emotional”.
The Deputy Prime Minister of Vanuatu Hon. Joe Natuman was a member of the National Constitution Committee that was formed in the late 70’s.
“Before we achieved Independence in 1980, Chiefs had no say in the decision makings of the country, they only had a say in their nakamal’s,” Hon. Natuman explained when he met with TIV.
While they were formulating ideas on what should be included in the new Vanuatu Constitution they made sure that customary governance was not excluded. “We decided that another institution should be created to recognize the traditional government system in Vanuatu, that is why we created the National Council of chief or Malvatumauri (in Chapter five),” Hon. Natuman told TIV, “this is to ensure that the Parliament can work together with the National Council of Chiefs”.
“This national umbrella brings chiefs together to discuss and promote their chiefly roles and responsibilities as well as work to protect our traditions and cultures,” Hon. Natuman said.
Mr. Robert Jovi, who performs the role of the Chiefs Messenger at Matanvat Community, North West Malekula, also participated in the events that led up to Independence.
“We were given the flag prior to the flag raising ceremony in 1980. We were supposed to celebrate at Tondar (North West Malekula), but at that time a conflict arose here between the different political factions. People from Vao came here to attack us but we also stood our ground. There were people that held guns, military types, they blocked the roads”.
When they came we told them not to enter the gates, they must stand outside. Because if they came inside there will be a problem.
Mr. Robert was operating a tele-radio inside the dispensary at that time, and was in contact with Father Walter Lini.
“So I talked with Olfala (he used the term Olfala, meaning ‘elder’ in Bislama language, when referring to Father Walter Lini) in Vila, and he said ‘Chief, do not let the shedding of blood happen. Leave the flag, if you want to give it to them then give it’. So we took the flag, prayed over it, and gave to them. I then took the tele-radio and came to my house and contacted Olfala and he asked me if I had done everything that he had asked me to do and I said ‘I have done everything that you asked me to do’.”
Still the situation on North West Malekula was tense, so Mr. Robert contacted Fr Walter Lini again to ask so security personals, “I then asked for a chartered flight to come to secure us during the time of independence but Olfala said ‘no that will not be possible. But we will just pray that God will stay with you, because as long as the (Vanuatu) flag reaches all the islands, then we are independent”.
Those are a few of the many accounts that talks about the workings of different individual’s, who at different places and times, participated to make sure that the transition from colonial rule to freedom was possible.
Sadly, as time went by, year after year, the yearly Independence Anniversary Celebrations has moved away from reminding citizens of the struggles and the values that forged the nation’s independence, especially people that were born in the last 36 years.
Dr. Willie Tokon, the Chairperson of Transparency International Vanuatu, says that “it is good to take this time now to show respect to the people that fought for our independence. Young people need to show respect to their seniors and likewise.”
“The integrity of Vanuatu must also be uplifted and maintained. Teach our values to our younger generation so that they can continue to practice and promote the values that we fought for”.
TIV believes that the courage, commitment, and the bravery shown by our founding leaders should be used as motivational resources for good and honest development in our nation and in the communities.
Happy 36th Independence Anniversary to people of Vanuatu.