Nauru: cut the crap!

by | Dec 21, 2009

A tragic tale from the Khaleej Times of the UAE:

At long last there is a foreign minister on the international scene with ice-cold blood in his veins and an uncomplicated, unemotional comprehension of national interest. His name is Kieren Keke. He carries the flag for Nauru, an eight-square-mile island-nation of 11,000 inhabitants in the South Pacific famous on two counts.

It is the smallest republic in the world, and its principal source of revenue was through the export of phosphates formed by bird droppings [guano]. That was undoubtedly the most valuable bird waste in history, but the republic killed the local version of the golden egg by selling more phosphate than the birds 
could drop.

When the money ran out, Nauru’s imagination blossomed. It invested millions of dollars from its national saving in a London musical. The musical flopped, wrecking the country’s bank balance. It then tried to solve Australia’s troublesome problem by providing a base for immigrants en route to the Pacific El Dorado, in return for suitable compensation. Regrettably, the refugees wanted refuge in Australia rather than amidst lost bird droppings.

But Nauru’s imagination remained fertile. In 2002 Nauru took $130 million from China to break relations with Taiwan. In 2006, presumably after this sweetener was exhausted, it reopened links with Taiwan. It is not known whether there was a financial angle to this decision, but the track record tells its own story. This year Nauru recognised Abkhazia [population: 215,000], one of two “nations” that Russia “liberated” from Georgia in 2008. The price: $50 million. Mr Keke has also paid a visit to the second region, South Ossetia, possibly with an accountant as travelling companion. The message has gone to every chancery: if the price is right, Nauru, a full member of the United Nations, will oblige.

$50 million? The NYT’s Grist blog thinks that’s a bit rich:

If Russia did pay that much, it got robbed, said Jason Sharman, a specialist in South Pacific islands. He said Taiwan, whose sovereignty China rejects, pays $5 million a year for recognition from Nauru, which has offered diplomatic recognition for cash since its chief source of income, phosphates formed by centuries of bird droppings, is nearly exhausted. “I would have thought the Russians would have gotten a better deal,” said Mr. Sharman of Griffith University in Australia.

What are they going to do with all that money? Let’s look back to that failed London musical, 1993’s Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love. How does a country get involved in such a thing? Here’s the Independent’s explanation from the 1990s:

Leonardo tells of a romance between Leonardo da Vinci and the Mona Lisa. Almost as improbable, but actually true, is the genesis of the show: it was the brainchild of Duke Minks, a 47-year-old Liverpudlian, an adviser to the Nauruan government and road manager to the Sixties one-hit wonder pop group Unit 4 Plus 2.

Minks took tape-recorded extracts to Nauru, played them to most of the Cabinet, who were so impressed they stumped up pounds 2m, partly to widen knowledge of their country, partly to make what they believe is a good investment which might still be showing returns when their phosphate reserves run out in five years. On this they might find they are better informed about the enriching powers of fertiliser than of a West End musical.

The result is frequently cited as one of he worst West End shows ever. So, from a crap-based economy, Nauru went on to crappy theater… so what would you expect its current diplomatic stance to be like? Erm… I leave you with a classic image of guano-mining on the island that may hint at the answer…


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