From the vaults: Vanua’aku Pati declares provisional government – struggle for independence grows in New Hebrides/Vanuatu (1978)

The article below is part of our ‘From the Vaults’ series and first appeared in the fortnightly left-wing NZ paper, Socialist Action, February 10, 1978.  We hope to be expanding our Pacific coverage in future.  The Republic of Vanuatu came into existence in 1980.

by Philip Ferguson

November 29, 1977 marked a new stage in the independence struggle in Vanua’aku (New Hebrides). On that day the most popular political group, the Vanua’aku Pati, declared the formation of a People’s Provisional Government (PPG). This amounted to a declaration of independence from the British and French colonial administrations, which were still trying to rule the country at that time.

Independence leader and first prime minister of the Republic of Vanuatu, Walter Lini

The formation of the PPG came as a high point in six years of struggle since the Vanua’aku Pati – originally called New Hebrides National Party – was founded in 1971 to provide a new and clear anti-colonial voice.

Having been ruled by the British and French since the early 1900s, the 80 or more is – lands which comprise Vanua’aku present a fairly typical colonial picture. Eighty percent of the arable land is owned by a few hundred European planters, on whose plantations many Vanuaakuans work for around $5 a week.

All aspects of the economy are controlled by Europeans. In 1975 the country had a huge trade deficit with exports totalling $A7,875,000 and imports $A24,960,000. Many firms had also moved in with the establishment of a tax haven in 1971. Such businesses, along with the big plantation owners, have a vested interest in preventing real independence. Some of the plantation owners come from the former French colonies of Algeria and Indochina. They regard their copra plantations as their kingdoms and, possessing arms caches, are determined to hold on to what they have stolen from the Melanesian people.

The British and French governments also tried to delay independence. The French, in particular, were worried that it might further inspire the growing movements for independence in New Caledonia and Tahiti.

Therefore, the colonial powers and big business interests worked to create divisions amongst the Melanesian people by building up parties which they could easily manipulate.

While they have not been without success in this, the Vanua’aku Pati is clearly the most popular party. It won around 60 percent of the vote in the 1975 elections but, because of an unfair voting system, received only 21 of the 42 seats. Following this, it persistently tried to democratise the so-called Representative Assembly by calling for, among other things, the abolition of the six seats reserved for the Chamber of Commerce.

When it became obvious that the administration would not relent and reform the Assembly, the Pati withdrew from it, and boycotted the November 1977 elections, raised independence flags and announced the formation of the provisional government.

Control over wide area
An idea of the situation that followed is given by Geoff Chapple in The Listener (January 21, 1978). Writing from Vanua’aku, he reported that hundreds of villages were refusing contact with any official oi the British or French administration. Chapple states:

“Father Walter Lini, meanwhile, was claiming support from 75 percent of the population. Administration officials conceded his control of about half the archipelago and considerable restrictions in the movement of their officials. About 30 rebel government ‘passports’ were being issued daily for travel around the islands. . .”

The provisional government was also busy building up a stable administration.

It was in this situation that the British and French did what on the surface appears a complete about-face – granting self-government on January 11. However, the government recognised by the colonial powers is one formed by the anti-independence forces who took part in the November elections.

The main group is Tan-Union, a coalition tied to the planters and other big business interests. It maintains close relations with the colonial powers, particularly the French.

Unable to compete with the popularity of the Vanuaaku Pati, this bogus regime is trying to gain support from other countries in the Pacific. In late January representatives of this ‘government’ visited New Zealand for talks.

But any attempts by New Zealand to give support to this new government should be opposed. Instead full support must be given to the right of the Melanesian people of Vanuaaku to determine their future without outside interference.