Sir Michael Somare died early this morning in Port Moresby after being diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and admitted to hospital a week ago.
Described as the nation’s anchor and a father figure to Papua New Guineans, Sir Michael’s passing at the age of 84 signals the end of an era not just for PNG but also the Pacific Islands.
As Chief Minister of the former Australian territory, Sir Michael helped usher PNG to independence in 1975, becoming its first prime minister later that year.
The “Grand Chief”, as Sir Michael is known, served as prime minister in three stints lasting 17 years in total. He was widely loved by people around the country, and a master politician who perfected the art of consensus building in a national political setting known for its volatility.
Born in 1936 in Rabaul, Somare grew up in East Sepik where he was educated at a village school established during Japanese occupation in World War 2.
Before politics, he worked as a teacher, journalist and broadcaster, and was one of a pioneering generation of young Papua New Guineans training for positions as senior public servants in the early 1960s who rose to the challenge of fostering a nation.
Looking back on his career, Sir Michael told RNZ Pacific in 1995 that his broadcasting work as an interpreter in the territory’s legislative council in the early 1960s, gave him an opportunity to observe politics at close hand. The transition was easy. Eloquent and charismatic, he was a natural politician.
Despite reservations from elements in Canberra about the readiness of his country for independence, Somare was resolute and led the way with Pangu Pati, the political party he formed which became PNG’s original ruling party, a role it has recently returned to under the incumbent prime minister James Marape.
Somare argued that the indigenous people of the Pacific Islands should be masters of their own destiny, and along with the likes of Fiji’s Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, was a beacon for other Pacific Islanders to follow.
“With Mara and myself, the Pacific leaders, we were spokesmen for those people who were not independent at the time, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati and these places. We were saying, these countries of the Pacific will be independent one day and we need, we need to expedite and accelerate the process,” Somare recalled.
Somare’s years at the forefront of PNG’s politics, which also included tenures as opposition leader and foreign minister, included times of great upheaval for the country, including the Bougainville civil war.
His last full stretch as prime minister, from 2002 to 2011, was a period of economic growth and political stability, but his former government cannot avoid some of the blame for the dillapidated public services and governance shortfalls that linger to this day in PNG.
The final Somare administration was also instrumental in establishing the landmark LNG Project which positioned PNG as a significant energy player on the world stage. But as with large mining and foresty projects advanced under his watch, grassroots Papua New Guineans have not yet widely enjoyed the benefits of such developments.
Somare was deposed in a major political and constitutional impasse after MPs controversially pushed for his seat to be declared vacant when he was in Singapore seeking medical treatment. He was replaced by Peter O’Neill, despite the Supreme Court ruling that Somare’s removal was unconstitutional.
In 2012, the Grand Chief successfully tackled the last great fight of his political career, to win re-election to parliament as East Sepik’s Governor. During the campaign, he sat down with RNZ Pacific for another interview, this time in his home town of Wewak, reflecting on how far PNG had come.
There had been big challenges, he admitted, but it was far better being independent than not. Despite the political turbulence of the previous year, in his view the Westminster system remained the most suitable democratic system for his country.
That PNG has been able to hold together a nation, despite being a fragmented collective of an estimated 800-plus different tribes, is in no small part due to Somare’s leadership.
“I believe I have done everything required of me for this country. I’ve been very successful. Yes I have my failures. But I’ve always come back,” he said.
News emerging in recent days that Sir Michael was critically ill suddenly brought it home to Papua New Guineans that the day was fast approaching when their country would be without its founding father.
“We are now saddened to celebrate his life, it’s been a long journey. The whole nation will be in big mourning for the next week or so,” explained Sir Arnold Amet, who was attorney general in Somare’s last government.
He said the passing of Sir Michael was a blow for the country, so soon after the death of another revered former prime minister, Sir Mekere Morauta.
Sir Michael Somare speaks at an election campaign rally in Wingei, East Sepik, 2012 Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades
“Sir Michael was like an anchor, an anchor for the nation,” said Dame Carol Kidu, a long-time colleague and former MP, who is one of just a handful of women to have been elected to PNG’s parliament
Dame Carol said the Grand Chief was also instrumental in her becoming a politician, and stood by her despite opposition from many male colleagues to an independent woman MP becoming a cabinet minister.
“They said she is just one person. She brings no numbers to your cabinet, it’s not fair. Always on both occasions, both elections when we went in he would say to them ‘Gentlemen it is not negotiable – she is in my cabinet.’ And I think a lot of people don’t realise he was a champion for women.”
Sir Michael’s mana as a Pacific Islands statesman cannot be underestimated. He had a great ability for connecting with people from all across the region, his warmth drew people in and it could help mend divisions.
Somare’s attendance at regional summits of the Forum or Melanesian Spearhead Group was usually keenly anticipated, with his skills in building consensus evident in the way the Pacific Islands Forum approached thorny issues such as the military takeover in Fiji.
Ultimately, he was a leader who Papua New Guineans and all peoples of the Pacific could look to as someone who believed in them.
“You will never be ready until you start doing something,” he said, regarding the achievement of independence.
“Like anything else that you do. You cannot say I won’t be able to write, unless you learn to write. It’s exactly the same thing with a country.”
Sir Michael Somare was a Christian of deep faith. His daughter, Betha Somare, issued a statement saying that he was given his last rites and anointing by Cardinal John Ribat, the head of PNG’s Catholic Church.
“Sir Michael was a loyal husband to our mother and great father first to her children, then grandchildren and great granddaughter,” she said.
“But we are endeared that many Papua New Guineans equally embraced Sir Michael as father and grandfather.”
Sir Michael is survived by his wife of 56 years, Lady Veronica, their six children and respective families.