Renbel premier rejects calls to resign

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Premier of Rennell-Bellona province Willie Tuhagega has rebutted calls for him to step down.

An elder in ward-three, West Rennell, Jonathan Tohuika had made this call, citing serious allegations of corruption, abuse of office and of funds meant for the province’s coffers.

Two members of Rennell-Bellona’s public accounts committee [PAC] tell Island Sun the allegations are well-known within the province’s political circle, and by the savvy of Renbel’s public.

The deputy premier [MPA for ward-seven] has defended his boss, saying the allegations are “just rumours cooked to taint the reputation of the premier”.

Three other members of provincial assembly have been willing to respond to Island Sun enquiries, provided their identities are kept confidential, citing cultural reasons.

One, who is a member of Premier Tuha’s executive, said: “Tohuika’s allegations which are based on the PAC’s findings are true, however, the others are just allegations.”

The other two, members of the non-executive, say they are aware of the allegations since it is talked about openly within their circle [among MPAs themselves].

In August this year, Renbel’s PAC published a Report revealing “issues of concern” going on in the provincial government and its admin.

These include:

  • High use of temporary imprests – PAC believes is a tactic to hide misuse of funds in budget;
  • Budgeting Inactive Head and Sub-Heads – funds allocated are utilised without any physical proof;
  • Unretired Imprests;
  • Account Payable – huge number of payments made to ghost suppliers;
  • Payment Procedures – spending of provincial funds done by unauthorised officers and paid to the wrong people;
  • Payment Vouchers without Supporting Documents – unauthorised payments raised obligating the province to unwanted financial or performance commitment, financial reporting misstatements, funds division and personal gains;
  •  Account Receivables – Revenue collected outside the province’s Financial Protocols, contradicting the Provincial Financial Management Ordinance;
  • Revenue Collection Strategy – outstanding revenue collected by unauthorised officers without knowledge of the Executive;
  • Revenue Policies and Procedures – province lacks of revenue policies and procedures;
  • Investors License Fee – most mining/logging investors didn’t pay their licence fee, some made incomplete payments but continue to carry out operations in Rennell;
  • Dual Cash Book – one records revenues collected and deposited to the RBP Bank Account while the other Cash Book is used to record Revenues collected outside the revenue collection protocols.

Following PAC’s report publication, Tohuika launched his call on Premier Tuha to step down.

Additional to some of PAC’s findings, Tohuika lists a few allegations claiming Tuha had been collecting licences, fees and other payments meant for the provincial coffers and using them for his own personal gain.

In his letter to the media, dated September 9 this year, Tohuika said the huge number of allegations against premier Tuha does not speak well of that office thus he must resign.

Premier Tuha, speaking to Island Sun last month, refuted all of Tohuika’s allegations, and demands that he provides evidence for them.

Secretary to the Renbel PAC [name witheld], tells Island Sun that Tohuika’s allegations hold a degree of truth.

He says during the course of the PAC investigations, persons working in the provincial admin as well as MPAs, both in government and non-executive, have corroborated concerns which relate to Tohuika’s allegations.

He backs revelations by the two non-executive MPAs that Tohuika’s allegations of Premier Tuha being involved in abuse and misuse of funds are well-known topics of conversation in Renbel’s political circle.

An auditor of the OAG, speaking to Island Sun on condition of anonymity, says their investigations and findings in previous Renbel governments and current, point to malpractice that is common in Renbel province.

“Renbel province officers or politicians collect revenue and use them for whatever means, then record them as imprests.

“Most, if not all, of these revenues do not get to be deposited into the province’s bank account and used properly or in the proper channel, and remain unaccounted for.

“First come, first serve is observed to be the common practice.”

Island Sun understands that the OAG are auditing the Renbel province.

Allegations and Premier Tuha’s responses:

Listed below are Tohukia’s allegations, each followed by Premier Tuha’s response.

Tohuika: Direct involvement of Premier Willie Tuhagenga in many controversial development activities in the province

Premier Tuha: I have never involved in any controversial development activities in the province. Tohuika needs to specify which activities.

Tohuika: Bintan Mining Company operation in West Rennell, as more holes and stock filings are still in West Rennell to date which also had left the land owners in limbo and total hopeless. Yet Premier Willie Tuha was reported facilitating this same failed company in the name of “Nickel Enterprises Solomon Islands Ltd”

Premier Tuha: Bintang Mining Company (BMC/BMSI) is the company that was terminated by the Mineral Board along with APID few months ago. BMC directors register a company with a new investor from Singapore, the Nickel Enterprise Solomon Islands Ltd (NESI) and they applied for the mining licence previously held by APID.  I fully understand these connections and I need wisdom to deal with matters far wider than what Jonathan Tohuika knows. It is not simple as he thinks. I see those holes and stock piles every day and what is Tohuika going to do with them? I am not ignorant about all these.

My question to you Jonathan is, who is going to pay for these holes and stock piles? If you think you know anyone willing to will pay now then I will agree with you.

We also have other outstanding landowners’ royalties, Community Development Agreement Funds, West Rennell lease, access and jetty agreements and other benefits under CDA. Tell me Tohuika, who is going to help the landowners?

I am a landowner myself and I have some outstanding rentals that someone has to pay. My first task is to negotiate with NESI because this is the company that the mineral board will screen next and they have given the assurances that they will manage these outstanding accounts.

Any other company will not be liable for these outstanding payments. This will be one of the conditions for NESI to enter new negotiations and new agreements and new benefits. This is the wish of many landowners in West Rennell who have signed their support for NESI.

We have learned our lesson and we hold the same view as our MP and I quote; “we don’t want to stop mining, we want a better mining operation, better benefits to contribute to our development”, end quote. We now have the opportunity to review all mining activities then make a decision.

Landowners still hold the power to change the whole scenario. Our executive will advise and facilitates better negotiations and agreements for the landowners.  

There are no hidden agendas, all these issues are discussed in our executive meetings and we are all clear on this.

Tohuika: Tuha was very instrumental in approving and making arrangement for many other investors returning to West Rennell including; Gulf Three, New World, Solomon Resources

Premier Tuha: There is only one company that is operating in West Rennell that we approved last year which is Solomon Resources Ltd and one this year which is New World which came in about four months ago. There is no left to right. We budgeted for two companies and follow that through. Jonathan please if you don’t know these things then it’s safe to come and discuss with me.

Tohuika: Province was operating two separate cashbooks. Premier Willie further confirmed that one book was recording the payments that was collected on hard cash, outside of the system, while the other account was recording those payment that was procedurally paid to the province. His lame reason was this is the normal practice in Renbel Province

Premier Tuha: There are NO two separate accounts. PAC should know better than that. There is only one operating account at BSP. What I explained is that the province under the former Premiers operate two cash books.

The second cash book records the small portion of cash paid by the companies. All cash received are receipted and expended on our operation as mandated. All processes are followed. 

I advise PAC that the current system will continue temporarily until we get our finance team settled in our new office. With the current leadership of our new PS Acting Aubrey Saueha, all cash collected are deposited and I am happy about this.

Right now we still don’t have a fully functional accounting system. Most of our team work outside of our office at Tigoa HQ putting things together ready for our new set up. In few months’ time we will have our administration and financial processes in place when our team no longer need to take our work outside of the office. This issue is now resolved.     

Tohuika: Premier Tuha misused the internal revenues of $100,000 to keep his executive members, before the motion of no confidence, especially the member for ward-7 who was reported receiving the highest offer of $40,000

Premier Tuha: The 100k my staff administer these funds and have been accounted for. The 40k, I have no knowledge of this. I deny paying any money to MPA of Ward 7.

[MPA for Ward-7 (Deputy Premier) has denied this claim to Island Sun].

Tohuika: $150,000 was collected direct from the Gulf Tree in November 2020, as part of the business license till now, no one knows as how that money was used

Premier Tuha: This fund was administered by my staff and have been accounted for. All provincial funds are accounted for and are used according to our plans. As the Premier of the province, I have a discretionary fund passed in our budget that I expend using my best judgement and according to financial regulations.

These funds are used in the best interest of the Office of the Premier, support to urgent ward needs through their MPAs, community activities, welfare of the Premier and many more. This fund is under my discretion and Jonathan you have no part in this and you don’t question my mandated authority.

Tohuika: 2019/20, the province was collecting a total of $4.9m, in its internal revenues, while in 2020/21, the Province was recorded collecting a total of $4.4m. The very disturbing part was that of this total $9.3m, only $250,000 was recorded pay through the provincial account while the rest was paid cash outside of the system. In other word, $9,050,000 was paid outside of the provincial account

Premier Tuha: These figures are false and we know Tohuika is trying to gain points. I have no knowledge of the 250k. The figures stated by Tohuika are incorrect and I have no idea where he got his figures from. These figures include SIG grants, PCDF Project funds and very little internal revenue actually collected. Our revised budget was only $5m include all funding, where did we collect $4.4m in cash? I cannot reconcile your figures. These figures are incorrect, may be from the time of the former Premiers.

Tohuika: The fishing arrangement made by Premier Willie Tuha in the name of the Provincial Executive has put the province further down in its effort to progress and advance into the future. Inside source confirmed that this Premier had approved a mother fishing company from China to harvest the marine resource in Renbel particularly in the indispensable reef. Prior to the approval, report confirmed that the Premier and his cronies had collected the sum of $300,000 hard cash, as part payment of the provincial business licence

Premier Tuha: I have no knowledge of this payment and there was no such payment received. Jonathan Tohuika must provide evidences to prove his claim.

Tohuika: Construction of the road from Tegano to Hutuna, in the lake was also involving some payments which was reported shared among by the premier and his executive member for ward-one

Premier Tuha: This is another false claim, we know the province is yet to be compensated for the work we did. I confirm that nobody was paid for this work. Check with MID to confirm. Jonathan must provide evidence to proof his claim.

The provincial government spent quite a big amount to complete the road to Hutuna and MID promised to deliver a new vehicle to the province and we are still following up.

Finally we passed our assessment twice since we came in. These allegations are the opposite.