Politics In Kiribati


Kiribati: An Introduction

The Republic of Kiribati, formerly the Gilbert Islands, lies astride the equator in the central Pacific and consists of 33 islands divided into three main groups: the Gilbert Group, the Phoenix Group and the Line Group. The capital is on the island of Tarawa where almost one third of the country's total population of nearly 60,000 now reside. Except for Banaba (Ocean Island) which is of raised limestone origin, all the islands are coral atolls, including Christmas Island (Kiritimati), the largest atoll in the world with a land area of 363.4 kilometers, however, taking into account the 320 kilometer economic zone which the Republic claims in the waters surrounding the islands, the total surface area comes to more than 3 million square kilometers.

The 17 islands which make up the Gilbert Group have been inhabited for over 3,000 years by people who today are included in the greater Micronesian cultural area. The Phoenix and Line islands, which were never permanently inhabited, became part of Kiribati during the period of colonial rule. Although there was regular contact between the islands of the Gilbert Group, a single national entity never emerged until the colonial period. Slight cultural differences existed between the islands, which are still evident today. Each island has its own set of myths and legends to explain the origin and settlement of the inhabitants, variations exist in traditional social and political organisation, and minor differences in dialect can still be detected, especially between the North and South of the group.

Following their discovery by European explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries, the islands were visited regularly in the 19th century by whaling ships and traders and were converted to Christianity by Protestant missionaries. In the late 19th century Catholic missionaries arrived and today the population is about equally divided between the two faiths. Unlike the rest of Micronesia, which experienced colonial rule under Spain, then Germany, then Japan and finally the United States of America, Kiribati came under British rule in 1892, when Captain Davis proclaimed a protectorate over the group. In 1916, the Gilbert Islands, as the group was then called, were joined with the Ellice Islands, a group of eight Polynesian islands known today as Tuvalu, to form the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. The administrative headquarters for the colony was established on Banaba (Ocean Island) until after the Second World War, when it was moved to Tarawa. The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony came under the jurisdiction of the Western Pacific High Commission in Fiji until 1971, when the Resident Commissioner was replaced by a Governor responsible directly to London. In 1976, the Ellice Islands separated from the Gilberts to eventually become the independent state of Tuvalu, and on 12 July 1979, the Gilbert Islands gained its independence as the Republic of Kiribati.

During the period of colonial rule, the main source of foreign income for Kiribati was the export of phosphate. The mining, however, is expected to finish by 1980, and after that time the country will have to develop alternative sources of income. The British Government agreed as part of the independence settlement to make up the difference between income and expenditure in the recurrent budget for five years. It is hoped that by that time, income from the licensing of foreign fishing boats and the development of the country's own fishing industry will provide sufficient funds to meet financial requirements. It is likely, however, that Kiribati will still have to rely for at least part of its overseas earnings on such traditional sources of income for at least part of its overseas earnings on such traditional sources of income as the export of copra and handicrafts and the remittances returned to the country by its people employed overseas in the phosphate industry on Nauru and on foreign owned merchant ships.  

The focus of the chapters which follow is on the election of 1978 and some of the important issues which face the new independent Republic of Kiribati. The first two give the background to the election and an analysis, while the remaining five are comments by prominent political leaders including the President, Ieremia Tabai, and the former Chief Minister, Naboua Ratieta. In addition, three current ministers who were also candidates for the position of President in the 1978 election have contributed their thoughts: Taomati Iuta, Babera Kirata and Roniti Teiwaki.

Unfortunately, it was not possible to undertake a complete study of the 1978 election, but it is hoped that this small publication will provide its readers with some insight into the issues and record for history this very important event.

--- to be continued ---


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(E-mail: -- Rev. 17th July 2012)