By Dominic Godfrey, RNZ Pacific journalist
Samoa’s prime minister has gone public with his desire to “rehouse” the University of the South Pacific (USP) in his country.
It Is a long-term vision, according to Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, one that has been resurrected by the ongoing saga surrounding the tenure of USP vice-chancellor and president (VCP) Professor Pal Ahluwalia.
In the latest chapter of his fraught presidency at the region’s premier university at the Laucala campus, Professor Ahluwalia and his wife were arrested and deported by Fiji authorities without consulting other regional partner governments.
Tuila’epa said Samoa was “100 percent willing” to make the move from Fiji happen.
“Samoa is revered in the region as a leading player when it comes to national issues benefiting not just our country but the Pacific Forum family as a whole,” he said in a statement.
Samoa did offer political and economic stability when compared with its neighbour to the west.
‘Samoa must take the lead’
The VCP’s forced eviction is the latest in a series of internal issues at the USP which came as no surprise, said Tuila’epa.
“Many big organisations have actually left Fiji in a similar fashion,” he said.
“I think Samoa must take the lead when regional issues surface that will compromise the mutual benefits and interests for all Forum countries and their respective residents,” Tuila’epa added.
He cited Samoa’s track record in providing a safe environment for regional organisations and international partners, including the WHO and the Pacific environmental agency SPREP, adding that the USP was no different.
Fiji’s unstable political history and perceived military strongman culture is well documented, Tuila’epa continued.
“Evidenced by multiple military coups over the years which has undermined democracy in that country,” he said.
The historical actions are comparable to those committed against Professor Pal Ahluwalia, according to the New Zealand-based Fiji academic Steven Ratuva.
‘Military regime mentality’
“They still have a military regime kind of mentality,” Dr Ratuva said.
“When they run out of options they just go for what they know, which is use force or some semblance of force.”
The actions have drawn widespread criticism from Fijian bodies including the Human Rights Coalition, Law Society and USP staff at the Laucala Campus who have expressed “grave concern and disgust” at the unsolicited presence of police.
With another university semester about to start, they have demanded police cease any further harassment and intimidation, saying the action against Professor Ahluwalia and his wife was “an attack on the right of staff to operate freely, with dignity and safety at the work place”.
The university’s governing body, the USP Council, is investigating the actions against Professor Ahluwalia. The council states that it has not dismissed him and expressed disappointment that it was not advised, as his employer, of the decision by Fiji’s government to deport him.
The council has excluded Fiji government representatives from the subcommittee investigating Professor Ahluwalia’s deportation.
Offered job back
Meanwhile, a council representative from Samoa, Education Minister Loau Keneti Sio, has come out in support of Professor Ahluwalia and offered him his job back if the USP relocates its administrative office there.
Australian citizens Ahluwalia and Price are in quarantine in Brisbane having been declined onward passage to Nauru, at the invitation of its president, by immigration officials.
Professor Ahluwalia told RNZ Pacific he had not been in touch with the subcommittee investigating his deportation but is looking forward to having the situation resolved.
“I’m confident that if and when I’m allowed to return to my position, wherever it is, that we [the USP] will just become stronger and stronger,” Professor Ahluwalia said.
But he said the ongoing saga was a distraction from the continued success of the USP.
Samoa is home to the USP Campus at Alafua, formerly the USP School of Agriculture and Food Technology. It was recently rebranded the USP Samoa Campus. The Samoa government states its long term vision for the Samoa campus is to broaden its academic curriculum beyond the agricultural sector.
‘Sad day for Fiji’
Meanwhile, the head of Fiji’s opposition National Federation Party has called for the USP to remain at its Fiji home.
Professor Biman Prasad said it would be a sad day for the region and Fiji if the USP headquarters were to move to another regional country because of the actions of the government.
“This university has a history which everyone in the region can be proud of,” Dr Prasad said.
“Hopefully the Fiji government representatives and Fiji government itself comes to its senses and respects the governance structure of the university, which is the council, and the charter.”
He has called on the government to acknowledge its mistake in acting against Professor Ahluwalia, and to correct it.
It still has time to make amends for its actions, Dr Prasad said.
“It is in the interests of Fiji as well as for the whole region for the Fiji government to realise that the deportation of the vice-chancellor was a mistake, it should have never happened and they still have an opportunity to correct that.”
Dr Prasad has also called out the complicity of USP Council members in the deportation of Professor Ahluwalia, saying the actions of Fiji representatives on council were wrong and against the interests of the USP.
He said the arrest and deportation of Professor Ahluwalia was the latest in a series of nefarious actions engineered against him.
Dr Biman Prasad hopes the USP subcommittee investigating his deportation will once again promptly clear the vice-chancellor and send a strong message.
“I hope that the Fiji government reps on the council now understand that what they’ve been doing is wrong, you know, it’s bringing about disunity within the regional organisation among the member countries.”
The Fiji government’s USP Council representative and education minister, Rosy Akbar, has not responded to RNZ Pacific requests for comment.
Further, the USP Council has declined to comment on what it says is a developing issue.
RNZ Pacific has asked the USP chancellor, Nauru president Lionel Aingimea who is chairing the subcommittee, about the scope, time frame and process of the investigation. The status of Professor Ahluwalia and Price’s employment at the USP has also been requested.
The USP is owned by 12 Pacific governments, including the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. It is funded largely through regional partnerships with the Australian and New Zealand governments.
This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.