The Prime Minister defends his roadworks debacle
By Kalafi Moala
“He is full of lies. What he says is not true. He is so full of it!” that is the reaction that came from Tongatapu 2 MP, Semisi Sika, concerning the Prime Minister, Rev. Dr. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa.
The subject of the publicized conversation… you guessed it, was the Prime Minister’s road works; an agenda that is of the greatest priority to him, hence the term “the Prime Minister’s Road Works.” In Tongan, “tanuhala ‘a e Palemiá”.
But, as complaints start pouring in about the poor conditions of the roads of Nuku’alofa, the defensive Prime Minister who is sensitive to any criticism coming his way, took to the broadcasting media to shift the blame elsewhere. It is never his fault, or his Government’s fault about anything.
In an interview with the Government owned TBC’s CEO and leading interviewer, Viola Ulakai, Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa said that it was the fault of companies who have been contracted to fix the roads. It is not the Government’s responsibility, but the contractors that have already been contracted to do the road works.
He then went on to identify five companies that have been contracted during the previous administration, since 2018. And their contract is not up until May 2021. In other words, the Government can’t do anything concerning road repairs until May.
Without mentioning his name, the Prime Minister pointed out, among other things, that it was the former Minister of Infrastructure (MOI), Tongatapu 2 MP, who was responsible for the contractors, and he signed the contracts with them. The former Minister of MOI is Semisi Sika.
He also intimated that one of the five companies contracted from the previous Government was Five Star Construction, a company belonging to the Sika family, and operated by Sika’s brother.
But Semisi Sika took exception to the Televised broadcast of the Prime Minister. He call the Prime Minister a liar, and in a social media post called him “full of lies… he is so full of it.”
Sika, who was also interviewed on radio the following day, expressed in shock that the Prime Minister was deliberately lying and his facts were so far off from the truth.
It is untypical of Sika, who is the leader of the Opposition in Parliament, to react like that. It is not in his nature to fight or argue about things. Yet it is quite typical of the Prime Minister not only to get his facts wrong but also to blatantly lie publicly about anything or others in order to justify his actions, and that of the Government.
Playing the blame game In almost every public speech of justification and self-praise, the Prime Minister would often lay blame on the previous Government, and especially the late Prime Minister, ‘Akilisi Pohiva, for the problems of the current Government.
Prime Minister Pohiva often forgets he was a major leader in the former Government, holding the powerful position of Minister of Finance and National Planning.
Sika firmly stated in his interview that the Prime Minister lied, and was deliberate in misinforming people.
He says, the Minister of Infrastructure was not involved in the selection of contractors. “They bid, and it is the Ministry of Finance which oversees procurement that checks and makes the final decision of who should be selected to do the job.”
“I have never signed a contract with any contractors,” Sika said. He explains that once a contractor is cleared by procurement, if the work has to do with roads then it comes to MOI, and it is the CEO that works with the contractor to carry out the work.
And if the work contracted is in the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, then it is the CEO of that ministry that works with the contractor in facilitating and allowing them to carry out their job, says Sika.
He says that the current Prime Minister was the Minister of Finance supervising procurement from the previous Government. “For him to deny any knowledge or involvement is just not true,” Sika said.
He is just one of quite a number of community leaders who have called the Prime Minister a liar. But it does not seem to make a difference in the way the Prime Minister communicates.
Trust for Tu’i’onetoa and his Government has begun to grow thin even from the beginning of his administration when he seemed to have embarked in a new career of always being on radio ,TV, or at special events to make speeches. Most of those speeches majored on defending himself from criticism, and lauding praises on himself and his Government.
The comments by the Prime Minister are seldom fact-checked, and you get the idea that he rarely speaks from the mind but rather from a damaged emotional condition from which he launches baseless attacks on people deemed to be in opposition or “the other side.” And in an election year, it is not surprising that these political leaders have employed nasty tactics in their campaigns for re-election.
The road works project and the worsening conditions of the roads from the beginning of his administration, the Prime Minister announced that his Government has chosen to focus on road works and Government built housing as priorities of the Government. It’s investing on the physical infrastructures of the country.
The Government claims that in surveys they’ve conducted throughout the country, the overwhelming response from people as to what they need most urgently, is the construction and fixing of roads.
It is reported that the Government plans to tar-seal 2,149 kms of roads throughout Tonga. It is also estimated that this will cost up to $300 million over a period of four years, according to Hekisou Fifita, Acting Director of Civil Engineering of MOI and Manager of Government Projects. But the current work has started with the allocated budget from the 2020/21 financial year of only $15 million.
This massive road works project would include works on 1020 km of roads in Tongatapu, 5050 km in Vava’u, 244 km in Ha’apai, 245 km in ‘Eua, 135 km in Niuatoputapu and Niuafo’ou.
At present, according to Fifita, road works have started in Tongatapu, and the priorities are for Tongatapu 10, the constituency of the Prime Minister; ‘Eua 11, the constituency of the Minister of Finance; and Niua 17 constituency of Hon. Vatau Hui, Minister of Internal Affairs.
Much of the complaints on the road works come from residents of Nuku’alofa. A vital point is being made, that the majority of people in Tonga live in Tongatapu, and most of Tongatapu’s population live in Nuku’alofa. There are more vehicles in Nukualofa than the rest of Tonga put together, yet the road conditions of Nuku’alofa are the worse.
It cannot be argued against actual experience of drivers who drive daily on wrecked roads in Nuku’alofa, with potholes in most places being a common sight. And even in main roads such as Taufa’ahau Road there are potholes, so dangerous that vehicles could be damaged if they are not avoided.
The chief complaint is why are we fixing roads that are not used as much as those that are daily being used on a daily basis. Why is Tongatapu 10 road works a priority and yet most roads in Nuku’alofa need urgent repair?
Let’s get one thing straight about the Government’s road works plans. It is in trouble. Simply because it was poorly planned, poorly communicated, poorly executed, and poorly managed.
Does it surprise anybody that the whole road works was planned from the beginning as the premium election campaign ‘carrot’ for the ‘poor’ people of Tonga?
The words ‘poor people’ have been used so many times by this government to describe the people they are supposed to be serving or at least working for. It’s the ‘poor’ that really matter, a term that has become synonymous with ‘voters’.
The previous government used the term ‘people’ to define everything they did. We are serving the people, they say. Our government is for the people. We must be accountable to the people. When asked, “what people are you talking about?” they usually come back naively with “the people that voted for us.”
The current Government thinks it has done one better than the previous one, by adding the word ‘poor’ to the ‘people’.
In the meantime, the Government has stopped road works in Ha’apai that started late last year. This was done by a contractor, Sione Foaki Fifita. Minister of Finance cited the need to complete appropriate contracts before the work can go on.
Vava’u road works are held up due to road works equipment that have not arrived.
As we await further news from the Government, one thing is for sure. The road works is in trouble. The roads of Tonga, especially Nuku’alofa are worse than ever.
People do not want more excuses and finger pointing from the Prime Minister. People want the problem fixed.