Nov 17, 2019 Last Updated 9:02 PM, Oct 31, 2019

‘I’ve fulfilled my obligations’

The late ‘Akilisi Pohiva (left) with his politicial adviser Lopeti Senituli at last August’s Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu. The late ‘Akilisi Pohiva (left) with his politicial adviser Lopeti Senituli at last August’s Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu. Nic Maclellan
Published in Sep-Oct
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Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva died at the Auckland City Hospital, New Zealand, on 12 September 2019 after he had been medevaced from Tonga the day before. He was the 16th Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Tonga and the first commoner to be elected to the position by the nation’s Legislative Assembly subsequent to being elected by the people in a general election. He was in the second year of his second four-year term as Prime Minister. His first term, which started in January 2015, was prematurely terminated after three years when His Majesty King Tupou VI dissolved the Legislative Assembly in August 2017. He had also been the longest serving People’s Representative to the Legislative Assembly having been first elected in 1987 and then repeatedly re-elected in 10 consecutive general elections over 32 years, the most recent being in November 2017.

Before the medical doctors and nurses at the Vaiola Hospital prepared him for medical evacuation he dictated the following final farewell message.

“To the people of Tonga
It has been 32 years since you first elected me as your representative
And that became a sacred covenant for my existence
We established a vision
And I did everything possible to turn that vision into reality
No energy was spared
Thank you for giving me your trust, Your support,
Your love
I have fulfilled my obligations to you
This is my final farewell!
With all my love!
- Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva.”

He had not been in the best of health in recent times. In fact, ever since his beloved wife, Neomai Tu’itupou Pohiva died in December 2018 it seemed that a part of him had died with her. He had loved her dearly. And she was his rock and inspiration and dedicated companion in 50 years of marriage as well as 55 years of service to His Majesty’s Government as a teacher, lecturer, administrator, politician and Prime Minister. They had seven children, and as of September 2019, 30 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

One of his major frustrations during his second term as Prime Minister was in not getting a response from the Palace Office to his numerous requests for an audience with His Majesty King Tupou VI so that he could report directly on the performance of government and to discuss affairs of state in accordance with clause 50A(3) of the Constitution. He had been granted that privilege as Prime Minister prior to the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly in July 2017, but after his swearing in as returning Prime Minister at the Royal Palace in January 2018 he was never invited back except for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in October 2018. 

He was absolutely loyal to the Royal Family. He recounted with pride the day that His Late Majesty King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV had granted him an audience so that he could present a petition signed by members of the public regarding alleged misuse by members of the Legislative Assembly, including cabinet ministers, of government resources. He reminisced often about his private audiences with His Late Majesty King George V to discuss democratic reforms even though he had not been elected Prime Minster back then. He eagerly looked forward to the occasions when Her Royal Highness Princess Angelica Latufuipeka Halaevalu, the nation’s High Commissioner to Australia, visited Nuku’alofa so they could have a chat and he always enjoyed talking with her on the phone.

He also liked to show-off items of clothing that Her Majesty Queen Nanasipau’u had personally bought for him. He was deeply moved when in June this year His Majesty King Tupou VI went out of his way to shake his hand and enquire about his health and then wish him well on his planned trip to New Zealand for the medical procedure at the Mercy Hospital regarding complications with his liver. His Majesty had just officially opened the new Customs and Revenue Department’s building on Queen Salote Wharf and was in the act of boarding his vehicle to depart when he noticed the Honourable Prime Minister standing to the side with other cabinet ministers and dignitaries. His Majesty delayed his departure and instead made a beeline for him in order to enquire of his health and to wish him well. His face would break into a warm smile when he recalled that brief encounter! 

One of his favourite quotes was from King Siaosi Tupou I, the Emancipator and the Architect of modern Tonga. Whilst addressing the Legislative Assembly in 1875 His Majesty is reported to have said: 

“I am begging you all not to gather riches only for yourself and your family but to remember always that you are a Tongan and that your God-given responsibility is to work for the benefit of all of Tonga. I am not embarrassed to speak like this to you because that is how I work and live. You have all observed me at work for decades and has anyone of you ever seen me gather riches for me or my family? The welfare of all Tongans is of higher priority and of more importance to me then the welfare of my family. That is why I am making this plea to you, and those of you that love me will follow my example. And let that person speak like I have spoken. And if I were not to remember the welfare of all of Tonga then let my tongue be permanently glued to the roof of my mouth.” 

That became the blueprint for his lifestyle and that of his family. He lived the frugal life of a poor man. He never sought or enjoyed the perks of high office. In his first years as a People’s Representative he returned to Treasury money that was duly paid to him but which he felt was excessive of his family’s basic needs. He relished asking his friends and family members to guess the price of some of his more flashy suits and would laugh with glee as they inevitably guessed wrong and then he would go on to inform them that he bought them at a Salvation Army second - hand store in ‘Onehunga in South Auckland, New Zealand.

The first thing that foreigners and members of the Tongan diaspora remark upon when they visit Tonga is how clean Nuku’alofa is these days. Prime Minister Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva must be credited with the physical transformation of the nation’s capital for the better. Together with his Deputy Prime Minister he mobilised government resources for that purpose and also called upon the people in their village development committees for their involvement through the ‘Tonga Masani’ programme. Now and again snapshots of him actually picking up rubbish along the Nuku’alofa waterfront would circulate via social media. 

He was always happy to regale his friends about how the idea of cleaning up Nuku’alofa began. He said that he used to visit the old Talamahu Market for agricultural produce when it was first opened in the early 1970’s and how impressed he was with the new garbage cans that had been installed at strategic locations throughout. The problem that he observed was that members of the public never bothered to use the new receptacles but instead simply dumped their rubbish in heaps right next to the cans. He then formulated his hypothesis: “The transition from the rubbish heap to the garbage can will take a hundred years. The question is how can we shorten that transition period for Tonga?” The answer that he came up with was that there needed to be a “change in mind-set” especially amongst the youth of the country. And the “change in mind-set” could only be brought about through public education and teaching by example. That became a life-long quest for him and cleaning up Nuku’alofa including the former Popua Rubbish Dump became a personal obsession.

“Changing mind-sets” was a familiar concept for him and it would pop-up regularly in his discussions with his cabinet colleagues and the CEOs of government departments and agencies as well as in his speeches and his answers to questions from the media. It also became his stock answer to his political opponents and critics when they often sarcastically queried his achievements in his 30 plus years as People’s Representative and Prime Minister.

To them he would say that it would be a mistake to compare his achievements with those of his more illustrious predecessors because he had not overseen the construction of many new schools or medical clinics or the building of new roads, or the creation of new job opportunities internally or the generation of growth in the national economy. But nevertheless, he hoped that his role in “changing the mind-set” of the people of Tonga regarding democratic reforms would be considered as his major achievement.

It was through the public education and advocacy programmes that he led and the legal challenges in court that he initiated, that the people began to fully appreciate the significance of their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms that King Siaosi Tupou I had caused to be entrenched in the Constitution almost a century and a half ago. Armed with that new appreciation of their freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion, of petition and their right to a fair trial the people were able to convince the government of the day in 2010 that it was time for the democratisation of the nation’s constitution and political infrastructure.

Was he satisfied with the democratic reforms that were legislated in 2009 and came into force in 2010? The short answer is, “No!” Although he was happy that “executive authority” under the reform had devolved from being vested in His Majesty in Privy Council to the Cabinet and Prime Minister per Clause 51(1) of the Constitution, Hon Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva was dissatisfied that inadequate attention was paid during debate in 2009 to the exception to that clause as spelled out in Clause 51(7).

That sub-clause declares, “The term “executive authority” in sub-clause (1) excludes all powers vested in the King or the King in Council, whether by this Constitution, or any Act of the Legislative Assembly, any subordinate legislation, and Royal Prerogatives.” He didn’t have any problems at all with the powers specifically vested in His Majesty the King, such as his power to dissolve the Legislative Assembly at will. His difficulties were in regards to areas where the “executive authority” of His Majesty overlapped with the “executive authority” of Cabinet and Prime Minister. As of now there was no rule book as to how such overlap can be resolved as for example in the recent appointment by His Majesty of Tonga’s Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates although the Honourable Prime Minister had not signed off on it as the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

On the regional and international scene, he was at first sceptical of the mitigation and resilience measures that was espoused by the experts and championed by fellow Pacific Leaders such as Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Honourable Enele Sopoaga. He did not believe that the impact of climate change on Tuvalu was any different from its impact on Tonga where climate change and rising sea levels had also eroded the coastline of its islands necessitating the relocation of people inland or to larger islands. In a Pacific Leaders meeting in Fiji in 2016 he had told his Tuvalu counterpart that if the scientific evidence was absolutely clear that Tuvalu would be inundated by rising sea–level in less than 50 years than the focus of their discussions should no longer be about building up their coastlines and reclaiming land but instead should be on: Where to go? When to go? How to go? Honourable Sopoaga was not impressed.

Then despite his ill health, he went to Tuvalu for the 50th Pacific Islands Forum Leader’s Meeting. He later said: “What I did not appreciate until I got to Tuvalu was how tiny and low-lying the Tuvaluan atolls were and how thin the layer of topsoil is and therefore the visual image of the devastation simply blew me away.” But he was also won over by the resolve of the Tuvaluan people, especially the youth, who told the Pacific leaders of their determination to stay on Tuvalu and to fight climate change as leaving would be tantamount to the loss of their homeland, their culture their very identity. Honourable Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva wept as he apologised to Honourable Enele Sopoaga and the people of Tuvalu for being a doubting Thomas.

He also championed the rights of the indigenous people of West Papua. He drew attention to the continuing violation of their human rights including their right to self-determination at every regional and international meeting he addressed including the annual sessions of the UN General Assembly, the quadrennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings and the annual meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders. In response to queries from the media on why he raised West Papua at the Tuvalu Forum he said: “The indigenous people of West Papua are Pacific Islanders. They are our brothers and sisters. We have witnessed in recent years how their human rights have been repeatedly violated and people killed. Representatives of the West Papua people have asked the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders for our help. The Civil Society Organisations of the Pacific and the Pacific Conference of Churches have urged the Pacific Leaders to support the people of West Papua. I think it is the right thing to do, and that is why I spoke strongly in favour of the people of West Papua.”

He was once asked that if it was possible to summarise the Holy Bible in one sentence what would it be? His answer was, “Do unto your neighbours that which you would like them to do unto you.”

Honourable Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva was a dictatorial leader sometimes. Especially when he had a gut feeling that he was right and everyone else was wrong. At such times, even a tsunami would not convince him to change his mind. As a result he lost a few fellow pilgrims along the way with some abandoning him because they felt he was technically deficient and some because they felt he was big-headed. (He of course booted out quite a few too!) But that trait was what endeared him to the supporters. They admired someone who had the guts to walk alone into the valley of death if necessary. They also loved him because he stayed true to the cause until the very end.

That personal determination came through during the Wall Street Journal case. He had received a letter from the Attorney General asking him to sign a letter of apology as what he is reported to have said was seditious and if tried and found guilty, he could be sent to prison for up to seven years. In his response Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva said that he did not see any good reason for him to apologise as the statement he is reported to have made was in exercise of his freedom of speech and was based on actual events that had taken place. He ended his response to the Attorney General by saying: “Although the laws of the land are critical for order and security in the country, there are times when one must consider the law as being subservient to a higher calling.”

That was Honourable Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva at his best. He was willing to put his liberty on the line because he truly believed that in certain circumstances God’s bidding was superior to the laws of men. That was the story of his life.

- Republished with permission from the eulogy the author delivered at the funeral of the late Prime Minister of Tonga, Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva inb Nuku’alofa on 19 September 2019.

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