By Kalafi Moala
One year after the death of former Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva, his family, close friends, and loyal supporters, remember him with fondness. They talk about him as the man of vision who engineered and brought to Tonga political reform, making Tonga more democratic. They credit him with the 2010 reform. He is still a hero in their eyes.
Those who are his critics, and opponents, remember the day he died with fondness as well. But it is fondness for the fact he is no longer around. They see his death as “good riddance” and an “act of God” to end an executive administration that has brought more harm to the country than any other in recent decades.
Laumanu Petelo, one of the senior journalists in Tonga, called him “the Great Satan” because of his oppressive policies and actions against journalists, and especially those of the Government-owned TV and Radio whom he did not like because “they ask hard questions.”
Viola Ulakai, who was recently made CEO of TBC, and Laumanu Petelo used to be the ones who “ask hard questions” to former Prime Minister Pohiva. Laumanu is now the head of FM Radio 88.1 and the Taimi ‘o Tonga newspaper. But both her and Mrs. Ulakai were marginalized during the time Mr. Pohiva was Prime Minister. They were conveniently moved out from the newsroom without their consent to do marketing, which they’ve had no previous experience.
Mr. Pohiva did not believe that TBC should be independent in their journalistic duties. “They should be supportive of Government, and air positively Government policies and activities,” he used to say on many occasions.
One of the major newspapers in the country called the late Prime Minister, the worse Prime Minister ever. It cited him as a leader who promised much and gave hope to people. Yet, he did the very things he criticized former governments for, and broke his promises, destroying hope among many of Tonga’s populace.
In a recent interview with Semisi Sika, MP for Tongatapu II, and former Deputy Prime Minister under Mr. Pohiva, he paid tribute to the late Prime Minister, saying he was a good man who, despite his faults and mistakes, was working for what he felt was good for the people of Tonga.
“In the latter part of his life, before he passed away, he had matured in his leadership, and was very mindful of the key values important to the development of Tonga,” Mr. Sika said.
On the early morning before Mr. Pohiva was flown out to New Zealand in September 2019 for a final attempt at treatment, Mr. Sika was called in by the late Prime Minister to come see him at the hospital. He wanted to tell his deputy something important.
“It was at about 3am when I received a message at my residence that the Prime Minister wanted to see me,” Mr. Sika said. “I went over immediately to the Vaiola Hospital ICU. I saw how weak he was, but I was still hopeful something would happen, and that he would recover.”
“As we talked he told me three things that I must do: Firstly, to always do what is right and just; secondly, always be mindful of, and serve the people; and then thirdly, to have courage in all that I do. I will never forget his words of wisdom.”
Mr. Sika said that at about 5am the same morning, he was also summoned to the hospital to see the late Prime Minister for the last time. “He wanted me to draft a letter of resignation for himself. He said he was no longer capable to continue because of his health, and that those of us in Government could do the job well…”
Because of a mixture of sentiments among those who were advising the late Prime Minister, the requested letter of resignation was never drafted. Mr. Sika cautioned Mr. Pohiva to focus on his health and not to be concerned about work, as they will be doing their best to fulfill his wishes.
Choked with emotion, the former deputy to the late Prime Minister said: “The greatest memory from our conversation was his strong urging that we should keep a close relationship with the King and the Queen, as well as with the nobility.”
“In his own way the late Prime Minister was emphatic that the pathway forward, was the pathway of working peacefully together, and building relations with the Royal leadership, and with the Nobility; that it was essential to the future of Tonga,” Mr. Sika said.
As we look back and reflect on the life of ‘Akilisi Pohiva, in the first anniversary of his passing, there is one thing that everyone agrees on, irrespective of which side we are in the political divide: “this man, for better or for worse, laid the groundwork over the past 30 years which defines politics in the Kingdom of Tonga, more so than anyone else.”
He will live in all our memories as the one politician whom we loved to hate or hate to love. He is no longer with us. May he Rest in Peace. But he is definitely the man who defined our political past and may continue to define our political future.
The words of Nelson Mandela, who was a hero of ‘Akilisi Pohiva, may be appropriate to end this memorial to this very unique and colorful politician. Mandela wrote: “Our world is not divided by race, color, gender, or religion. Our world is divided into wise people and fools. And fools divide themselves by race, color, gender, or religion.”