ANALYSIS: Papua New Guinea’s power struggle appears locked in political combat, with an old Sepik strongman trying to claw back power from a new generation Highlander who made a pre-emptive raid on parliamentary numbers to secure the riches of electoral incumbency.
In classic Melanesian fashion, both are upping the ante with payback moves that are starting to spiral dangerously. Politics in Papua New Guinea does not always follow the niceties of process and protocol. Power is rarely given – it is taken.
A circuit breaker is required but who can do it? PNG has no Council of Chiefs, or a President, or a high profile religious leader. It has a Governor-General who appears paralysed and a judiciary that has become entangled. Somare is right to be concerned about the precedence set by a government that ignores a Supreme Court judgment.
Fortunately, PNG’s military culture has not developed like its neighbours in Fiji and Indonesia so they remain wary about vaulting over civilian rule, despite Colonel Yaura Sasa’s recent attempt at a military takeover - a one-day fizzler that attracted little support.
But PNG has a way out – via the floor of Parliament and a return to traditional kastom values by its leaders.
PNG has a Westminster system, but is also a Melanesian nation, part of a region where kastom values add a strong underlying current to politics and everyday life. The Melanesian Way is based on shared values of community, tolerance and consensus, rather than Western style individualism and confrontational party politics.
In his 1975 autobiography published in the same year he became PNG’s first Prime Minister, Michael Somare wrote about the wisdom of Sana, the kastom title he was bestowed with from his father and grandfather.
Somare’s father told him:
Every clan has its own special magic, and ours is the magic of peace. When people come to fight us, we call them to eat first. We sit down together. We talk. We eat….we believe that after eating, their minds will be changed. They will not want to fight us anymore.
The role of a Sana is to be, by turns, a Fight Leader and a Peacemaker.
Somare used the Sana role of Fight Leader to unite and bring independence to his people. Now, 40 years later, in the twilight of his political career, he seems intent on maintaining this Fight Leader instinct when it may be time to draw on the Sana wisdom of Peacemaker instead.
Sir Michael could return to kastom values to resolve the crisis and preserve his legacy. He may have a Supreme Court judgment on his side, but PNG’s parliament and people have largely moved on from his rule. It would be better for those around him to focus now on his legacy and transition to the next generation so he is well remembered as the father of the nation who brought independence and later, helped transform the economy with significant investment.
He needs – and deserves - a dignified exit from politics with his nation at peace, not sliding into civil unrest and its institutions undermined.
After his Fight Leader gestures – backing an attempted coup and contempt charges against the PM – is the hope he will now make a Sana gesture of peace. A compromise might be to drop his claims to be PM as long as he can remain an MP, giving him 5 months in Parliament until the next election to manage his departure and rally those loyal to him.
Nor is the current impasse just about domestic politics and individual egos – the current situation reflects increasing geopolitical pressures on PNG as it emerges as the resource El Dorado of the South Pacific and an emerging Pacific power in its own right. It is strengthening the role of sub-regional groups like the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and becoming more assertive in regional fora.
Somare’s Look North policy means that his backers in Indonesia, Malaysia and China also have a stake in this fight, while the O’Neill government enjoys quiet support in Australia and the Pacific.
Under Somare, Indonesia knew it could always contain the movement in West Papua for independence from gaining institutional sympathy in PNG. But Deputy PM Namah has already signalled a tougher approach to Indonesia following an air incident and ongoing Indonesian military incursions into PNG.
A new generation of PNG and Melanesian leaders are on a collision course with Indonesia over its continuing hold over West Papua.
In recent weeks, the MSG (representing PNG, East Timor, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia) has offered West Papuan leaders the opportunity to formally apply for observer status, something Somare (alone) had blocked before.
Canberra has not made any overt displays of support for the O’Neill/Namah government and maybe less concerned about who is in power now, as long as there is an orderly transition to an election in June, where it is quite possible that none of the current protagonists will emerge as PM.
Somare’s father gave him another piece of advice when he was young:
You don’t win people by being angry with them. Sana invites people. When you see a canoe coming, go down to the beach, help them to pull their canoe ashore. Invite them in. People will always remember the man who helped them to pull up their canoe.
The bottom line is that for most Papua New Guineans, they don’t care about the legal details of this constitutional crisis, they just want a government that delivers basic services to them without endless political instability and graft.
Will Papua New Guineans remember Somare as the man who helped them pull up their canoe?
That will depend much on whether the Grand Chief wishes to remain a Fight Leader or a Peacemaker in the final stage of a long and illustrious career. Kastom leadership and parliamentary process are the way out for PNG to resolve its crisis, if only Somare is allowed, and prepared, to sit down in parliament and “eat” with his “enemies”.
By reverting to kastom peacemaking in a dark hour, Somare would cement his legacy as a statesman in PNG and throughout the Pacific.
This analysis can also be found on The Australian.