Constitution, contradictions and lethal weapon called the Village Fono Act

This much is undeniable. The outrage over Tuasivi and Fogapoa’s decision to banish a candidate, who contested the Fa’asaleleaga No. 2 by-election against the wishes of the Village Council, is justifiable.

But it is not as straightforward as it seems. Ladies and gentlemen, in the wonderful world of Samoa, it’s complex and complicated.

You see this is not the first incident of its type and it will definitely not be the last time we hear of this issue. We say this knowing that as long as the Village Fono Act 1990 exists, it will always inevitably clash with the Constitution of Samoa.

This has been happening from time to time and we have seen so many incidents as a result of it – including the loss of lives. So what is going on?

On one hand we have the Constitution of Samoa, which exists to protect all Samoans, empowering them with fundamental rights such the freedom to choose and in this case, the freedom to contest an election, providing the candidate satisfies the criteria.

On the other hand, the Government has armed the Village Councils with a lethal weapon called the Village Fono Act, which allows them to do what they deem necessary to protect peace and harmony within the village.

In an ideal world, perhaps one where everyone is a lawyer, there shouldn’t be any clashes between the two laws. Everyone would know the parameters and that the Constitution is the supreme law of Samoa, which means any other law becomes secondary.

But we live in an imperfect world and one where there are only a few lawyers, who really know how to interpret these things. The problem for Samoa is that the Government has given the Village Councils the Village Fono Act with very little instructions – if any at all – on how far their powers can go.

Which is the root of all these clashes we have and will continue to see. By arming Village Councils with such strong powers, it is almost like asking a five-year-old to drive a car. The outcome is quite predictable.

Indeed, big powers come with bigger responsibilities. To know what those responsibilities are, understanding is critical. Where there is little or no understanding at all, strife and problems are guaranteed.

The issue at Fogapoa involving Samoa First Political Party candidate, Lema’i Faioso Sione, is a classic example. While Lema’i as an individual has every right to do whatever he wants – including his decision to contest the by-election – inside Fogapoa, he belongs to the village and is therefore subjected to village laws.

The village is the fa’asinomaga for all Samoans. It goes without saying that no man is an island. Every family in this country belongs to a village.

Now during an interview with the Samoa Observer, Fogapoa’s Mayor, Namulau’ulu Sefo said Lema’i ignored the Village Council’s decision to support Namulauulu Sami Leota, who represented the Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.).

“He is free to exercise his right to run in the election,” Namulauulu Sefo said. “But the reason why he has been banished is because he was aware of the Council’s decision to support Namulau’ulu Sami and he too agreed to it.

“Despite the fact that he was aware of the Village Council’s decision, he went ahead and ran in the election but did not inform the village of his intention to make it official. That said, this village does not oppress him from running but that was the issue.”

One can be forgiven for thinking what on earth is Namulauulu Sefo talking about, but this is exactly what we mean when we say it’s complex and complicated. There are contradictions all over Namualuulu Sefo’s statements. In one breath he says Lema’i has the freedom to do what he wants and in the very next breath he says something completely different.

Is he just hypocritical? Not necessarily but he is a typical example of what is happening in the villages when it comes to the issue of how far Village Council decisions can go under the Village Fono Act.

Interestingly, further down the interview, the Village Mayor pointed out Lema’i could have avoided the banishment. If he used the chance he was offered to make things right, when the Village Council fined him 100 sows or the equivalent of $5,000.

This again is another contradiction. Why exactly was Lema’i fined? For exercising his Constitutional right to contest an election? For exercising his fundamental freedom of choice?

We can go on and on but there is an important lesson here for everyone in Samoa. And take this from me as a matai; this issue is not confined to Fogapoa. It is quite common in many villages across the country, with decisions affecting the lives of hundreds of people.

Looking at what is happening today, there is clearly a need to educate Village Councils about what they can and cannot do when it comes to the Village Fono Act. Used appropriately, the law can be a very useful tool to maintain order and stability within villages. There are many wonderful examples of this.

The problem is that such powers are often abused, especially at the hands of chiefs, who only want boxes of mackerel so they can sell it for some beer money. That’s when it becomes ridiculous.

In moving forward, the views expressed on the front page of yesterday’s Samoa Observer by former District Court Judge, Tauiliili Lefau Schuster, are critical.

“There should be no parameters by anyone on your right to run in the election or on which political party or no political party you believe in,” Tauiliili said.

“This is a God-given right for you and no village council should take that away from you. It is a God given right and there should be no restriction either by law or from village council to restrict people from running in election. It is either we are free or not.”

Well said Tauiliili. Perhaps the Government should come up with a new law requiring every matai in Samoa to read the Constitution like their Bible.

Which brings us to some questions worth considering today. Can the fa’asamoa and democracy co-exist? Can we afford to have both the Constitution and the Village Fono Act?

Don’t be shy, write and tell us what you think.

Have a peaceful Sunday Samoa, God bless!

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