Police Commissioner, the Military and the Faa-matai

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By Afamasaga Tole’afoa

New Police Commissioner Fuiavailiili Egon Keil is the latest government ministry head to receive the ghost letter treatment. The fact he has been in office for not much more than a few weeks has not deterred his ghost critics from putting poison pen to paper. 

But it does raise questions about the veracity of some of the allegations against the new Commissioner. After all, he can hardly be held responsible at this early stage for behaviour which we know has been part of the Police landscape now for longer than anyone cares to remember. There will be time enough to pass judgment on the new Commissioner’s performance, but it’s only fair to wait and see first what the man can do before writing him off by ghost mail.

And if the media reports are correct, a great deal has been done already. 

The Police crackdown on drugs and illegal weapons is not small change. These have been serious threats to our national security for some time; with little evidence the Police had a handle on them. That is no longer the case. The much publicized raids and arrest of suspected drug users and pushers and owners of illegal weapons have been long overdue show of force against crime. Reassurance has been given that the Police have both the will and the muscle to keep Samoa safe from the twin threats. Warning will also have been issued to those with bad intent that the law in Samoa does have a long and strong arm after all.

The willingness to use that long arm has no doubt also rubbed off on the just ended gun amnesty. In the last few weeks, we have seen weapons that have no place whatsoever in a small but potentially violent place like Samoa being voluntarily handed in and destroyed. That is no mean feat and the police deserve a bouquet for it, not the brick the Commissioner has been given.  

Changing the behaviour and Police culture the ghost letter writers complained about will take much longer than a few months, but the early signs suggest that change process is also in motion. But it is the allegation about the Police being run in military fashion and the Commissioner’s response about faa-matai being similar to the military that has caused a storm in a tea cup so to speak. According to the people the newspaper prompted and asked for comment, the Commissioner was wrong to compare something as sacred and pure as faa-matai to something as evil as the military. Accusations of disrespect and of not understanding faa-matai and worse were leveled, and nothing short of a public apology was called for by some.

In fairness to the people quoted in the newspaper, it’s possible that they were merely responding about faa-matai on the basis of whatever limited information they were given. But there is no bigger sacred cow than culture in Samoa. And any hint of disrespect or negativity will almost always attract the most vehement of defenses including no little abuse for good measure.  And that is very much the reaction Commissioner Keil’s analogy got although he also had people who thought the comparison was apt and to the point.

Samoa does not have a military tradition after all, and it’s difficult to guess how much the people quoted know about the subject. One would suspect very little other than that the military fights wars and wars kill people, ergo the military is bad. But there is much more to it than that. The military happens to be a very important part of the nation state. It has a duty – some would say a sacred duty -- to safeguard and defend (to the point of death) national sovereignty and integrity. As such, it has a special and much revered place in the nation’s hearts and minds. 

No American president will think of speaking to the American people without paying homage to the nation’s fighting men and women for example. Other countries are just as proud and patriotic about their military. In the democratic tradition, the military only do the fighting. It’s the politicians and the civilians that make the decisions that end up killing people, not the military.

As for the appropriateness of Commissioner’s comparison of faa-matai with the military, there’s an unmistakable similarity in the decision making process and chain of command in faa-matai at village government level and the military system. These are both institutions where decisions are made at the top, in faa-matai’s case by the village matai in council (village fono) and in the military by those in command. Once that decision is made, it is handed down and carried out and woe unto those who disobey or question it. In the case of faa-matai and the Samoan village system, once the matai council (fono) has decided, then the constituent village parts such as aualuma, aumaga, komiti a tamaitai and tinifu all fall into line and perform their respective roles without question. 

That is also the decision making process and chain of command in the military and in paramilitary organizations such as the Police. No room is given to question decisions by superiors except in very special situations for obvious reasons. Imagine trying to fight a war for example where in the middle of battle, the rank and file keep questioning and disobeying orders! This would be a very short war indeed which may be a good thing if one is against war, but with disastrous consequences for the side that is at war with itself. The Police are a paramilitary organization and run along similar lines which is no doubt why the Commissioner used the military analogy in the first place. 

Bear in mind in this discussion that faa-matai operates on more than one level and the decision making process is different depending on what level one is at. At the level of the extended family for example, the decision making is much more consultative and democratic. Samoa’s modern justice system today recognizes the rights of the individuals; the family heirs or suli to have a say in the decision making process on important family matters such as titles and land. The Lands and Titles court system provides adjudication when family members can’t agree and seek judicial intervention, a legacy of Samoa’s constitutional form of government today. This process is very different to governance at village level where decision making is still based entirely on the traditions and usage of each village, except in respect of fundamental human rights matters where there is also provision for judicial intervention.  

The challenges facing our Police in recent years especially at leadership level have been the subject of much inquiry and unwanted negative publicity. The record will show that the Government of Samoa and its overseas partners like Australia and New Zealand in particular, have expended considerable effort and resources to help the Police meet those challenges. The appointment of the new Commissioner appears to be an ongoing part of that process. And while the new appointee has been given a baptism by fire, not least from within the Police itself, this may not be such a bad sign after all.  

Former American President Kennedy is reported to have made an observation to the effect that in his experience of public life, when things in the office are in perfect order and harmony, it’s a sign that there is not much happening or work being done. By the same token, when there is a level of disorder and friction, it’s a sign that things are happening and work is getting done.  He ought to know being a scion himself of one of America’s families that became known for their contribution to public life. The Samoa Police has been receiving much publicity and attention lately, almost all for the right reasons which is good to see. May it so continue is all one can say and pray.  

© Samoa Observer 2016

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