By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – While Tonga remains free from the Covid – 19 pandemic, there is another virus causing major issues of concern when it comes to good governance. In Tongan it is commonly called “fakapone,” a word that also means favoritism, nepotism, or as applied in cases of corruption and “conflict of interest.” This way of doing things as a mentality in the Kingdom has become rampant. It is the most obvious sign of social disorder built on the bedrock of corruption; and raises huge concerns at the direction Tongan Society is going.
It is also especially concerning when the Prime Minister of Tonga, Rev. Dr. Pohiva Tu’ionetoa, has come out publicly defending conflict of interest accusations against his Government. And the Prime Minister has also been strongly supported by his deputy from the People’s Party, ‘Etuate Lavulavu, calling conflict of interest situations as alright for they are “not illegal.”
Most government views conflict of interest as “situation in which a covered employee has a financial interest, personal activity, or relationship that could impair the employee’s ability to act impartially and in the best interest of the Government when performing under the contract.”
After listening to both the Prime Minister and his controversial political mastermind, one would think that conflict of interest is only a situational ethics issue. They have somehow legitimized “conflict of interest” as a moral high ground if you want things done quickly and effectively in Tonga.
It is the same line of thinking made controversial by the late PM ‘Akilisi Pohiva when he often stated, “that we must put the law aside in order to get things done quickly.”
Mr. Lavulavu is a man who embodies tremendous conflict of interest in some of his business and political dealings. This resulted in his impeachment hearing in Parliament, where he ultimately lost his seat over bribery charges in 2015. He is a person of interest in one of the companies being awarded contracts for providing rocks for the Government’s road projects.
The views that Lavulavu and his Prime Minister friend presented publicly have brought sharp reactions from almost every corner of Tongan Society. They seem to argue that there is no such a thing as right and wrong when it comes to conflict of interest. There are only legal and illegal questions, they claim. Yet the practice of favoritism and unfair distribution of Government awarded business opportunities continues to be rampant. Ethics, morality and integrity in following best business practice are now irrelevant.
Deafening are the silence of businesses that benefit from the Government’s conflict of interest policy. The moral guardians of Tongan Society, the church leaders, are shockingly quiet about this rising problem in Tonga. One Church Minister who did not want to be named, told this reporter, “it is rampant in the church as well.”
There are positions being given individuals because of their family connections to church leaders, and nothing to do with their suitability, he said. The award system in church, apparently, is not based on what you know or on your merit, but on who you know!
Examples of the problem
Let us look at a common abuse as illustrated in the recent repatriation arrivals of citizens that were held up overseas during the Covid-19 lockdowns. A catering service has been criticized because it belongs to someone from the Ministry of Health that supervises the quarantine services.
An angry post in Tongan language by a prominent person in the community asks: “If you are working for the Ministry of Health why are you allowed to do the catering services to those quarantined? Conflict of interest! When is this going to stop? It’s wrong, very, very wrong!” The sentiment here was not an issue of legality or illegality, but of right and wrong.
Lavina Naufahu – Tunitau, who operates Radio 91.1 FM in Canberra, Australia reacted to other situations: “Nepotism and conflict of interest,” she writes, “is still very much alive and is like a criteria for any government running the country.” She brings an indictment on this kind of behavior by Government.
Kalino Latu, editor of the New Zealand based Kaniva Website wrote: “Companies with strong Government connections are awarded road building contracts.”
And that of-course is the major issue at hand fueling discussions on conflict of interest; it is to do with road projects and contracts that amounts to millions. The three companies awarded the contracts of providing rocks for the road projects are companies with strong government and family connections.
The Prime Minister has officially announced the companies that have been awarded contracts for the road projects. Island Dredging is a company in which Lord Nuku, current Minister of Police was a director until 31 July 2019. His son, Faka’osifono Valevale, took over to be the current director. City Engineering and Construction Limited has Saia Moehau as sole director. Mr. Moehau is a strong supporter of People’s Party in which the Prime Minister is the Chair. He is also landlord for offices rented by the party.
Inter-Pacific Limited for some time had ‘Etuate Lavulavu as director but was replaced by his close friend ‘Inoke Finau Vala in May 2020. ‘Etuate Lavulavu is also the husband of the Minister of Infrastructure under which the construction and fixing of roads is awarded the contracts.
The award distribution of works to these three companies are almost evenly distributed. Island dredging will supply rocks for Tongatapu 2, 3, 4, 9, and 10. City Engineering and Construction will supply rocks for Tongatapu 1, 5, 6, 7, 8. Inter-Pacific will supply rocks for Vava’u 14, 15, and 16.
None of the three companies have been awarded contracts for supplying of rocks for ‘Eua and Ha’apai because the Government has announced that it will carry out the works on those two islands since the quarries in those islands are Government owned. It is not yet clear who will carry out the work in the Niuas.
Reports of the visitations by the Prime Minister and other officials to the various constituencies in the nation claim that building roads was the major need expressed by people.
The Prime Minister has officially announced that the three companies awarded the contracts were able to supply rocks for $70 per single load of 3.8 cubic meters. He said that all the other bidders were much higher.
There are 2149 kilometers of roadworks planned and to be completed within 4 years, on an allocated budget for the 2020/2021 fiscal year of $15 million, yet an estimated cost of $300 million to complete the projects. There are 1020 km of roads for Tongatapu; 505 km in Vava’u; 244 km in Ha’apai; 245 km in ‘Eua; and 135 km in Niua.
As one civil engineer says, “It will take a miracle, as we do not have the expertise, the manpower, the equipment, and of-course the money.” But do not tell that to the Government. If you work for them, you could be demoted, lose your job, or at least seriously ridiculed. The Government believes it can be done, or at least the Prime Minister and his party co-leader, Lavulavu, believe it can be done even though it is the biggest and most ambitious roadworks ever planned in the history of Tonga.
Information from the Ministry of Infrastructure states that the road works are being prioritized with Tongatapu 10 (the constituency of the Prime Minister), and ‘Eua 11 (the constituency of the Minister of Finance). These are the two areas where works have begun. There are urgent maintenance works to be done on roads, as well as the tar sealing of existing roads.
Opposition members of Parliament have raised issues concerning the road projects, but the key critical issues have not been the roadworks plan itself but rather the ways Government goes about selecting contractors for the projects. Thus, the conflict of interest and nepotism accusations.
There are of-course those who have criticized Government for hatching grandiose plans that cannot be carried out in time but simply to use as a campaign rhetoric. But there is one thing undeniable in all these discussions about conflict of interest, it is rampant, and wherever it is detected, there is deep ground for corruption, which by the way is the chief impediment to development of small developing countries like Tonga. Perhaps more fasting and prayer is needed to discern between right and wrong.