By Kalafi Moala
At age 84, Sir Michael Somare of Papua New Guinea died this week from pancreatic cancer. Called the Father of the Nation or in local pidgin, “Papa blo Kantri”, Grand Chief Somare was a political giant, a hero in his country of 8 million people, the most populous of the Pacific Island nations, including New Zealand.
He was elected to Parliament in 1968 after founding the Papua New Guinea United Party (PANGU Party) in 1967. But his major accomplishment is leading his country in a peaceful transformation from colonial rule to independence in 1975, becoming its first Prime Minister.
It seemed an impossible task at the time to unite a country with 800 tribes, and 860 spoken languages. But a nation was born, and a diverse country with its diverse peoples became one, under the leadership of Sir Michael Somare.
He served four terms as Prime Minister, a total of 17 years in office, the country’s longest serving leader.
On a midnight radio address on the first day of independence, Sir Michael said: “I wish to remind all that this is just the beginning. Now we must stand on our own two feet and work harder than ever before. We are indeed masters of our own destiny.”
Sir Michael comes from district of East Sepik, even though he was born in Rabaul, New Britain, before he moved back with his parents to his ancestral village of Karau.
Still in national mourning for his death, Sir Michael is survived by his wife, Lady Veronica, and five children.
But the death of this tremendously popular and loved leader despite one or two controversial issues about his political career, marked the end of an epoch in the Pacific. This was an epoch in the Pacific when leaders were in office for a longer period than usual, and these leaders were more concerned about their country, more so than their own political welfare.
From the 1970s onward, Pacific Island nations were successfully being led peacefully from colonial rule to independence by effective leaders, Somare being one of them.
The late Sir Peter Kenilorea was the first Prime Minister of an independent Solomon Islands from 1978 to 1981; and then again for a second term in 1984 to 1986. He died in 2016 at age 72.
Father Walter Lini, an Anglican Priest became the first Prime Minister of Vanuatu since independence from 1980 – 1991. He died in 1999 at age 57. His name is still remembered as the leader who led Vanuatu into independence.
In Fiji, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara became its founding father, when independence was granted in 1970. He was the nation’s first Prime Minister until 1992, and President from 1993 until 2000.
Samoa’s first Prime Minister was paramount Chief Fiame Mata’afa Mulinuu II, from 1959 until 1970. He was also Prime Minister from 1973 until his death in 1975. He was in leadership as Samoa transitioned from colonial rule to political independence in 1962.
And of-course Tonga, the remaining kingdom in the Pacific, did not have to become independent from colonial rule, but the leadership of Taufa’ahau Tupou IV first as Prime Minister, and then King of Tonga, made a difference in the region.
Together with the leaders of the various nations, they became a bold and brave generation that led the Pacific to independence and established a sense of oneness in the region.
He was in close association with Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara in the founding of the Pacific Forum, as well as the establishment of the University of the South Pacific (USP). And the other leaders – Somare, Walter Lini, Peter Kenilorea, and Paramount Chief Mata’afa, were of that generation that gave birth to an independent Pacific.
They played key roles in establishing regionalism in a widely scattered and diverse Pacific region. Grand Chief Somare, is the last of these leaders to pass away.
It is interesting that his passing comes at a troubled time in the Pacific, not only with regionalism as what happened to PIF and the Micronesian nations, but also the regional academic institution of USP in Suva having a troubled and uncertain future.
The need in question as we briefly remember Somare and the leaders of the past, and how they worked together to birth an independent Pacific, is that there is a dire need today in the region, a need of competent and self-sacrificing leadership.