Kiribati - Sociopolitical Organization

Kiribati is a democracy with a popularly elected president and House of Assembly.

Social Organization. Chiefs were present in the central and northern Gilberts, but on several islands no single chief managed to hold undisputed power for very long. The most stratified societies in the late precolonial and early colonial periods were Butaritari-Makin and Abemama, which had conquered the neighboring islands of Aranuka and Kuria. The Butaritari-Makin hierarchy, which resembled those of other Micronesian societies to the north, was headed by a high chief who was a focus for redistributive activities. Below the high chief and his siblings and children were aristocrats, commoners, and descendants of strangers from other islands. Since the 1970s life-styles have reflected differences in family incomes, even in the villages.

Political Organization. The government of the republic provides a system of courts and health, educational, and agricultural services on the national and island levels. Elected island councils are responsible for repairing roads, maintaining schools, granting permission to build new houses, and filling some off-island jobs. Lands courts approve the inheritance and transfer of real property and resolve disputes over boundaries and the rights of coowners. Especially since independence, many of the powers of the island councils have been assumed by unofficial bodies of village elders that developed out of the traditional councils of heads of descent groups. The elders legislate on matters ranging from trips by the local soccer team to the prohibition of alcohol. They punish violators with fines, beatings, and occasionally exile. Wider consensus is reached by inviting delegates from other villages to a joint meeting or, as on Nonouti in the late 1960s, by organizing a single council for the whole island.

Social Control. The Kiribati ethos holds that an adult should be prepared to fight if challenged and be ready to avenge an injury or insult against himself or a member of his family. On the other hand, the wisdom and control over the passions that comes with age gives some older people the Status of acknowledged peacemakers. Any assembly is thought to assert social norms over the selfish or shortsighted impulses of individuals. The fear of gossip and of secret or open mockery by neighbors are commonplace checks on deviant behavior.

Conflict. In the past, villages and intervillage factions fought to avenge offenses, to seize land, and to gain a chieftainship for their candidate. Wars became more destructive in the nineteenth century, when steel weapons and firearms were widely available and the activities of labor recruiters, traders, and missionaries weakened the social order and created new causes for conflict. In the presidential election preceding independence, the voters of Kiribati decided against having an army.

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