Campaign for Justice (C4J) is deeply concerned, not least saddened by the manner in which our Governments, since 2014, have been handling one of the most controversial, and yet underreported issues, which strikes at the very core of this country. The matter relates to the sale of a key national identity and citizenship — passports. We believe that if there was one particular issue to make our forefathers turn in their graves, it has to be this one. Here is why.
Last week, Daily Post a report ‘Passport sales skyrocket’ made heads turn once again, most disconcertedly because of the secrecy and lack of transparency in the administration of the citizenship schemes. One of those who was with the founders at the very beginning of our nationhood, Mr Shem Rarua also joined in the chorus, demanding that the government of Prime Minister Charlot Salwai put an end to such foolishness.
C4J has so far established that there were/are four different schemes focused on raising Government revenue through citizenship. The forerunners of these were the infamous Capital Investment Immigration Plan (CIIP) and the Real Estate Option (REO). Under CIIP, one applicant was to pay in an amount of Vt24 million to be paid through commercial banks and held as a bond. As a backgrounder, many may still recall that in September 2014 the Government took a decision to deport one foreigner — lawyer Robert Herd — caught meddling in the internal politics of the country by colluding with national leaders to try and change the former Natuman government. The very same person, according to preliminary investigations conducted thus far, was allegedly behind the Real Estate Option (REO). This plan was to involve an investor, investing in a real estate business and then selling ‘real estate options’ to potential investors in exchange for citizenship. This scheme has since been canned — at least on the surface —mostly because its key masterminds seem to have ran into difficulty with government.
But since 2016, the government endorsed further programs — Vanuatu Development Support Program (VDSP) and Vanuatu Contribution Program (VCP). These two are reported to be operating well, generating about Vt13 million per applicant into the Government’s coffers. The two schemes are directly under the responsibility of the Citizenship Office, but managed from the Hong Kong office.
Agents are paid between seven and eight million per applicant. According to our investigations, the Citizenship Office approved 38 agents in 2018 alone. The 38 include some of the most prominent members of the community. There is a set of requirement that each must fulfil in order to retain a license, one of which is that they must at least bring in five new citizens within a year of operation, or risk their license being cancelled.
As explosive as it may sound, it would be appropriate to set the right context for what we mean when it comes to citizenship and nationhood; and bring up some history for the younger generations who might not necessarily be in the know.
Firstly, a passport, according to the Vanuatu Passport Act is a document from one’s country of origin containing specific details of one’s personal information. It is the symbol of one’s identity that gives citizens their sense of being, value and self-worth. Similarly, citizenship could be defined as a legal recognition of where someone belongs, and for the purpose of this blog piece, a country.
Not anymore with current amendments to the Citizenship Act under Section 13. The Act now lists a whole lot of new categories to cater for the new ‘citizens’ who come through the government approved schemes.
In the days when founders like Father Walter Lini, Donald Kalpokas, Peter Taurakoto, Father John Benette Bani, and others were thinking about political emancipation, while return of alienated land back to the indigenous custom owners remained the driving force, C4J believes that citizenship also played a key role. Mr Taurakoto records and prominently features this in his autobiography recently published in 2016.
Our peoples – indigenous peoples from these islands were simply “stateless” before 1980. They lacked any form of identity as a people, despite being under the condominium rule in their own motherland for 74 years.
It is fair to say they were once treated like slaves — a commodity, capable of being traded for goods and services. It sounds extreme and/or exaggerated but such was the backdrop that provided the motivation towards self-determination.
From 1906 until 1980 there were three broad categories of people. Firstly there were the French settlers, the English traders and then the New Hebrideans; sandwiched in between the two broad classes of people residing in these shores. Of course you had other mixed groups of people who had their own allegiances depending on where they came from and who brought them here in the first place. Strangely, New Hebrideans – the indigenous natives were neither French, nor English. Consequently, travelling, even locally was difficult. One would have to obtain special permission in order to do so.
Such was the situation before condominium rule was finally crushed in 1980 — giving New Hebrideans their stolen lands back, but equally important; restoring their proper place and identity as Ni-Vanuatu citizens. As recounted by Taurakoto in his book, these struggles were real and at times meant blood, sweat and tears — symbolised in our national emblems and the red colour on our flag.
Until 2013 —the year when Vanuatu Constitution was amended under quite disturbing circumstances, ni-Vanuatu identity was closely guarded and defended. One only needs to look up historical accounts to see how far our forefathers went to in order to ensure that their hard-fought struggle was respected and honoured, most evidently in the management of their foreign relations. Straight up deportations and ‘green letters’ were so often the norms, as soon as leaders sensed betrayal, or if national security and/or identity were compromised.
But barely thirty-three years on, it would appear ideological differences and political gamesmanship; and most probably a thriving hunger for political power, look to have seriously impaired the vision of many of our leaders.
Today, almost 40 years on, the public, including the Government are split three ways when it comes to the issue of citizenship and passport sale.
The first group are the conservatives who directly oppose any outright sale of such national identities because they believe a passport and citizenship symbolises who we are as a nation. To them there are no two ways about citizenship. Anyone who wishes to become one must ensure normal regulations are adhered to, including the 10-year continuous residence requirement which was the law prior to the amendments of 2013.
The second class of citizens take a more liberal and, albeit a laissez-faire attitude towards such issues. To them there is nothing morally obscene with selling citizenship. After all, it is generating a healthy income into the government coffers. So why all the fuss?
Then, there are, for want of a better description, the free riders who mostly take the middle line. Such people do not have any sense of morality and do not feel offended and will hardly blink an eye, even if the captain at the wheel was running the ship aground, so long as they have a seat at the table and share in the pie. This group belong to the category of peoples (either knowingly or not) who share the worldview that with globalisation and internationalisation, everyone is moving towards a world that knows no border. They know no boundaries or territories. National sovereignty has little meaning, if any.
And in an era of digital technology, they are hoodwinked into believing that ni-Vanuatu can find their place in the imaginary e-nation and/or e-citizenship. We will discuss these ludicrous concepts in a future blog which C4J already has interesting information on.
When the Carcasses government orchestrated the amendments to the Constitution and the relevant laws in order to pave the way for dual citizenship and sale of citizenship in 2013, some within the very political force that were meant to be guardians of our hard-won struggle were sadly also dancing to the tune of the harpers.
The bait was apparently tied to an outrageous promise: amendment to the Constitution (which would require 2/3 majority, and the government at the time did not have this support) would reward politicians handsomely. The extra money earned from passport sales would ensure that MP allocations were increased to Vt10 million from Vt4 million. The monies, it was promised, would be used to develop local constituencies. The justification was that the government was in ‘dire straits’. Everyone now knows that the promise never materialised to the disgruntlement of all but damage had been done.
The Carcasses government was toppled in May 2014, albeit with some serious consequences to everyone concerned. All of these happenings (of 2013 and 2014) challenged the very fabric of our society and threatened the very livelihood of this country. Even the police were powerless to do anything. Orders and decisions were highly compromised.
We’ve so far seen some jailing of almost half the members of the 10th legislature and few other a tit-for-that between leaders (This game is still playing out today) while the real culprits go into hiding.
It has emerged from preliminary investigations by C4J that the amendments were passed after tough negotiations to win the hearts of both the government and the opposition, as the government alone at the time did not have the mandatory 2/3 majority required to change the Constitution.
Negotiations happened within the corridors of power at the Council of Ministers level and at Parliament. Even one meeting was held at the VNPF Conference room to convince parliamentarians into accepting the deal.
We do hope that the Office of the Ombudsman can conclude its own investigations soon into how this all came about, particularly to establish the real masterminds behind these schemes and hopefully bring them to account. We sense a lot is not right with this business.
What C4J can tell you is this. Amendment to Article 13 of the Constitution, in a nutshell, was the work the arch enemy— hiding behind leaders —some of whom either had short memories and therefore were oblivious to our past, or were just plain willing and culpable in selling Vanuatu’s birth right for a bargaining price, regardless of the consequences to Vanuatu as a nation.
Currently, the Government’s wallet is said to be bulging with an estimated Vt10 billion sitting somewhere in the National Bank of Vanuatu. Bizarrely, all of that money has not been transacted through any of the commercial banks. Funds are wired in via Western Union and then deposited into the NBV account. And they say it is with FIU (Financial Intelligence Unit) clearance.
The big question is, if there is nothing untoward and the schemes are bona fide, why use Western Union and not any of the commercial banks, or the even the Reserve Bank?
There is clearly so much to this than meets the eye.