For more than 73 years the Melanesian people of the group of Pacific islands known as the New Hebrides lived under a shared and shoddy Anglo-French rule. They never really knew if they were Peter or Pierre. But all that was to end on 30 July when the New Hebrides became the independent republic of Vanuatu. Or was it?
Few observers thought the birth of Vanuatu would be easy. But equally few foresaw the big power antics which were to come.
At the centre of it all was the rebellion on the northern and largest island of Espiritu Santo by the Nagriamel movement, a cargo-cult type organisation founded in the late sixties and still led by Jimmy Tupou Patuntun Stephens, a local chief of mixed origins. Delightedly spurring Stephens on were French colonists (suffering unfounded fears that they would be dispossessed of their large landholdings by the incoming Anglophone government of Father Walter Lini’s Vanuaaku Party) and an American organisation known as the Phoenix Foundation. (Phoenix is a rightwing business group with dreams of setting up somewhere, anywhere, a free-enterprise utopia uncluttered by government controls or taxes. It failed in 1972 to establish its own ‘republic’ on Minerva Reef - which is a metre below sea level - and to foment revolt on an island in the Bahamas in 1973.)
The Nagriamel rebellion came into the open in late May. Initially French troops were flown in from nearby New Calendonia and then withdrawn. Then Britain flew in a couple of hundred commandos who were later joined by a French contingent. They sat around doing nothing in Vila, the capital, for some weeks, before, on the eve of independence, flying to Santo to regain control of the rebellious island. Nagriamel elements slipped away into the bush. Soon after independence two strategic bridges were blown up on Santo and there were reports of American yachts delivering arms to the rebels. In August troops arrived from Papua New Guinea, invited by Father Lini and backed by Australia. Jimmy Stephens was finally captured after his son was shot dead in early September.
But it was not so much the actions of the rebels or of their American and French backers which angered the new Vanuatuan government. It was more the words of the French and the lack of action of the British. In the days before independence there were two quite amazing statements - the first by French Resident Commissioner Jacques Robert, the second by French Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Olivier Stirn. First, Robert accused Australia of planning to ‘massacre’ rebels and French colonists on Santo. The following day, Stirn warned that independence or not, France would not tolerate military action against French citizens backing the Stephens rebellion. Britain, obviously not wanting to offend its EEC partner, said nothing.
Tension still reigns on Vanuatu. Only one thing is certain: Father Walter Lini can have learned nothing from Britain, France and the United States about how to conduct responsibly and maturely affairs of state.