Following the June 1 celebration of Sāmoa’s independence, Moeata Keil, who was born and raised in Sāmoa and now lives in Aotearoa New Zealand, reflects on what Sāmoa’s independence means to her in light of the proposed changes to Sāmoa’s constitution.
I can still remember the first time I read the Sāmoan constitution. I was 16, and in my sixth form year at Robert Louis Stevenson School in Apia, doing a history project on the Mau — the movement that had advocated for Sāmoa’s independence from New Zealand colonial rule.
We were on the cusp of the internet revolution in Sāmoa so I had to do research the old-school way by taking pen and paper to the library. I was in the special collections room at the O F Nelson library in Apia, which is named after one of the prominent figures and leaders of the Mau, enjoying the full blast of the aircon, a reprieve from the heat and humidity.
Under the watchful eye of the librarians, I sifted through precious archives, making written and mental notes of our rich history — a history that I hadn’t learned much of at the time, because our education system, even our history classes, were often more preoccupied with the history of the West.
Everything I knew about our story, I had learned by talking with my parents. In school, I’d studied the World Wars, even the Vietnam and Cold War, before I learned anything about the unique history of my own country. And so, when I was given the opportunity in my final year of high school to do an independent research project, I jumped at the chance to do mine on the Mau Movement.
I grew up in the village of Vaimea, and every day on my way to school, we’d drive through Vaimoso, passing by the reconstructed Mau headquarters, a visual symbol of our history and of our resistance.
Reading through the personal accounts and testimonies of life in Sāmoa in the 1920s and 1930s, old and original newspaper clippings, and photographs that brought these historical records to life, I imagined and appreciated the sacrifices made by our forebears, some of whom were exiled from Sāmoa for their resistance against the New Zealand administration. I realised then how our independence from colonial rule was the taken-for-granted norm for me. I’d never thought about our independence as being achieved — it was always just “normal”.
Browsing through the history of our resistance, resilience, and resolve, I had an overwhelming feeling of awe and indebtedness to our forebears for their perseverance and for my “normal”.
It was on one of my library visits that I first stumbled on our founding constitutional document. A constitution that commemorates and honours the efforts of the Mau movement and our independence from colonial rule. A document that celebrates our sovereignty over our unique place in this world and pays homage to those that came before us, bringing to life the notion used as the cornerstone of the Mau’s perseverance, “Sāmoa mo Sāmoa”, or Sāmoa for Sāmoa, and Sāmoa by Sāmoa.
Independence Day is therefore a celebration of sovereignty.
In what I would describe as the foreword of our constitution, it reads:
we the people of Samoa . . . do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution.
These words gave me goosebumps — and still do — because I had never thought about our constitution as a gift that we, the people of Sāmoa, had given to ourselves.
In these simple words, our forebears captured the culture and heart of Sāmoa and Sāmoans. A people, culture, and place where the individualism of the West has not replaced the practices of fa’a-Sāmoa, or the Sāmoan way. Forebears who understood and recognised that Sāmoan sovereignty shouldn’t reflect the values of western protocols and practices, but the value systems of Sāmoa, thereby enshrining in our constitution the sentiment of “Sāmoa mo Sāmoa”.
Almost 60 years on from when we gifted ourselves our constitution, the Sāmoan government has proposed significant amendments to this constitution in an effort to, as outlined in policy-related documents, “make the Constitution a Samoan Constitution in light of today’s context” and “to give more recognition of our customs in our Constitution”.
However, there haven’t been any clear guidelines on how these abstract (and highly admirable) principles and goals will be achieved through the proposed constitutional changes.
Rather, the intended changes appear to give the Sāmoan government more discretionary privilege, create a space for the Lands and Titles Court to exist as a separate entity (operating outside of the purview of the Supreme Court), as well as reduce the reach and power of the Supreme Court to protect the fundamental human rights of Sāmoans — which are safeguarded under the constitution as it stands today.
Changes to our constitution — big or small — raise many issues and questions that Sāmoans individually and collectively should reflect on, regardless of whether or not we support the changes.
Reading the proposed changes outlined in the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, as well as the four-page explanatory memorandum, I wondered: What gift are we giving ourselves with these constitutional changes? And, how is “Sāmoa mo Sāmoa” being reflected and represented in the constitutional changes?
How might changes to the constitution alter the social, cultural, political and legal landscape of Sāmoa and the people of Sāmoa?
Are matai and village leaders being adequately represented in parliamentary and panel discussions and negotiations? Are the views of the general public being heard, considered, and reflected? Are the voices of those living within Sāmoa who will be directly affected by these changes being heard?
These are just a few of many questions that I believe are important to ponder deeply over, especially because a change in the constitution alters our fundamental rights as Sāmoans.
And perhaps of vital importance to me is the question: Are “we” gifting these constitutional changes to ourselves, or are they being imposed in a top-down way, with the Sāmoan government charging ahead, rather than leading the way forward and taking the Sāmoan people along with them?
I refer to the constitution as “our” constitution, because it’s intended to serve, protect and safeguard the interests and rights of Sāmoa and the people of Sāmoa. Although it exists as law, it was intended to represent and advocate for the rights of all Sāmoans. As a document and a law, it belongs to both no one and everyone.
Yet, the rationale for the constitutional changes isn’t at all clear. Nor has there been any explanation for how the various changes might increase the recognition of the customs of fa’a-Sāmoa in the constitution. With any changes to legislation, law, and especially to our constitution, you would expect that there would be more answers than questions.
The fact that the government released only a four-page “Explanatory Memorandum”, with only one and a half pages bullet-pointing the rationale for the changes, tells me that more work is needed to be done researching, crafting and developing changes — if changes are warranted at all — so that they continue to uphold, as outlined in our constitution, “the integrity of Samoa, its independence” and the rights of Sāmoans.
As a parting question, and in the spirit of our forebears who gifted the constitution to us, I ask: Are these proposed changes the gift that we wish to give to the future generation of Sāmoans?
We owe it to them to make sure we get this right and not mortgage their tomorrow to the mistakes of today.
Submissions to Sāmoa’s government on the constitutional amendments, should be sent to this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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