The changing face of Michael Somare – idealist to pragmatist(?)

February 4, 2012 at 3:42 am (Angoram, Commentary, Corruption in PNG, East Sepik District, East Sepik Province, Michael Somare, Papua New Guinea, Peter O'Neill, Sepik River, Wewak)

Michael Somare

The years are rarely kind to any of us both physically and spiritually and friends and admirers are usually like rats on a sinking ship who can’t get away quickly enough  from the declining fortunes of their fellow beings. (Excuse the rather poor figurative language, but I hope you get my meaning.)

With the present state of Sir Michael Somare’s health and his recent political manoeuvrings, he himself, and people at large are forced to face his mortality and assess his undoubted influence on the fortunes of Papua New Guinea now and over more than the past forty years.

The photographs of Michael Somare above: the first taken in 1973 at the Angoram Hotel and the next one taken at the Wewak Yacht Club in 2009 – radiating from the first snap is the face of a young, dynamic, enthusiastic, smiling, and likeable man, while in the second snap the young man is no longer there, but one can still see a man smiling, perhaps less enthusiatically, but still, I think, likeable, with the old Somare charm intact. I also see something of sadness and disillusionment in the older Somare’s face.

There are those who revere him as the father of the nation and others who say: “perhaps originally he came into political life to do good, and he’s certainly done well for himself and his family.” Between these two extremes maybe, lies the man.

Somare has always had that rather intangible quality of personal charm, an immense asset for a politician. So many people I’ve talked to over the years I know have not been impressed with his performance in power and after talking to him often describe him as such a nice man. Charm, of course, can be such a beguiling characteristic and in the words of Evelyn Waugh’s character, Anthony Blanche, in Brideshead Revisited, “it spots and kills anything it touches.” An “English blight” in Anthony’s terms, but perhaps more universally applicable. Of course, in its positive aspect the charm of an idealist is an embellishment to the human condition.

I well remember meeting and speaking to Michael Somare in the town of Angoram on the Sepik River in the early 1970s, and being most impressed with his personality, and in Konedobu, Port Moresby, with the concern he had in approving the proposed Ok Tedi Mine (BHP) in the then Western District.

Sir Michael was, and I’m sure still is, an extremely sensitive man. In 1972, I was on my way to the Philippines to marry my future wife, and as a help to me he gave me a letter of introduction to the Australian Ambassador in Manila. Subsequently, Deborah, my wife, returned with me to PNG and got a job as press secretary to Matthias Toliman and then with Tei Abal of the United Party, a  political rival of Somare’s Pangu Party. I felt that Somare considered that this in some way was an act of disloyalty to him on my part. Years after in 2009 in Wewak I mentioned this to him and in his usual charming way he brushed it off as of no consequence.

Some consider that Somare has always had a sense of his own importance as PNG’s Prime Minister, and online references maintain that in 1975 he wasn’t impressed with Australia’s gift of an official residence, and he asked for and got a much grander building, but in point of fact, what actually happened was that Somare refused to live in the residence on offer because he wanted to continue to live humbly where he had been living. This is an example of the young idealistic Somare who is well remembered by many old PNG hands.

However, by 2005 his sense of his own importance was greatly enhanced, and his sense of dignity was, he considered, directly violated by security officers at Brisbane Airport when he was asked to remove his shoes and go through a routine security check.

What and when was it that muddied the Somare political waters – please forgive the mixed metaphor? Somare was a man who embraced his Murik Lakes Sepik identity with his appointment to the position of Sana or peacemaker in the village of his forebears. But the big man of the Murik Lakes seemed only too ready to grant questionable logging rights to Malaysian interests in and around his own village backyard in the Kaup area. There are a lot of environmental issues surrounding deforestation in this logging concession. The Thomas Barnett Commission in 1989 exposed the practice of Rimbunan Hijau, the Malaysian logging company in bribing PNG politicians. Prime Minister Somare was implicated in this. Questions about tax evasion have surfaced throughout the career of Sir Michael. Questions did emerge but I still like to maintain that a man is innocent until proven guilty.

Somare’s family own houses in Queensland, and it is rumoured that Sir Michael owns a rural property in New Zealand. There is a mansion being built for him in Wewak by overseas interests. Be he nameless, but a very prominent late PNG judicial officer is reputed to have said: “I know I shouldn’t say it, but I wish someone would kill Somare, he’s so greedy.” Here again there is much rumoured about what Sir Michael owns and how he got it. Lots of things he owns were actually given to him by various people. In the seventies Reg Ansett gave him quite a bit of property around Wewak. This said, it’s not surprising that there are those, and among them many PNG villagers, who wonder how many of their past and present politicians can sleep straight in their beds, when they have presided over the demise of much of government services and structures in the country after Independence: a breakdown of law and order and the delivery of education and health, corruption in the public service, with a subtle conniving request being made for additional payment if you want something like a passport, a visa or a work permit. It is generally believed that the government has no idea who is exactly in the country. The corruption of politicians is an open scandal, but what is surprising how few of them are successfully prosecuted.

Of course, if you’ve got the cash you don’t have to worry too much. Send your children to Australia for education in expensive private schools, and should you have an aspiring daughter La Sorbonne University in Paris even beckons. If you have any major health problems, the elite classes know exactly how to handle them – get off to Australia or Singapore.  Sir Michael Somare’s recent heart treatment in Singapore cost the country millions of kina and huge reimbursements were claimed by minders, family, and visitors to Sir Michael. A reliable PNG source has disputed much of this, telling me that a big part of Sir Michael’s medical expenses were paid for from his  own superannuation fund.  Not that I blame Sir Michael for not putting himself in the hands of the local health service. As a little aside, I found on my recent visit to Wewak the local hospital didn’t even have a working X-ray. Here is a legitimate question that could have been asked of Somare, why have health services deteriorated so much in the country?

According to a recent report made by Sir Mekere Morauta as Minister for Public Enterprises, there are millions of kina unaccounted for in PNG under the stewardship of Somare. Perhaps this is true, and I wonder how many other PNG prime ministers would have a lot to answer for  under their stewardships.

I have some faith but little hope that Prime Minister Peter O’Neill will deliver on his promise, “of a full-out war against corruption.”

If half of what is said about Somare is true, I still don’t like to see a man like him kicked while he’s down. Sir Michael’s health is failing, members of his family are in trouble. He may be a great disappointment to many people and the recent political impasse in Papua New Guinea has been badly handled by him – his actions of calling out the army to support him are highly questionable to say the least, but the way his parliamentary seat was taken from him can’t be defended.

I often think of the young idealist charming man I met many years ago in Angoram, and I ask myself, if he is still embodied in the old Somare today? I believe there’s a lot still there. The nation needs to remember the sense of unity and direction Somare gave to it in the early post-independence years

No man is perfect, and I firmly believe that Sir Michael has done much to be proud of, but of course, like all us, politicans and others, we all have some character flaws. I suspect in Sir Michael’s case it’s that he’s far too precious in his opinion of himself, and local and international sycophants have played up to this, and the temptation to enrich oneself can become an entitlement in the mind of a precious person.

During a visit he made to Angoram some years ago when he was in the business of promoting a scheme for the commercialization of the production of sago, the area’s food staple, he was questioned by the locals, and his response was to call them bushkanaka. (An abusive term meaning wild and uncivilized native) Hardly an appropriate term to use when addressing his constituents, but like all politicians they can get out of touch, and in the words of Lord Acton: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

All this being said, I must confess that it saddens me to see the Grand Chief treated the way he’s now treated in PNG.




  1. Anonymous said,

    Good layout, Dave! This is a good piece of oral history, too.

    • Anonymous said,

      Your article “Corruption in PNG” is certainly worth a glance. Bottom line of course is that the buck stops with the chief as there is no such thing as a free lunch.

      Laws of a land, unless specifically stated, do equally apply to all intending visitors regardless their social standing or their outside ranks, particularly where security provisions are concerned.

      The article is rather kind to the Grand Chief who is lucky to live in PNG and not, say in places where partaking in a mutiny is regarded more seriously.

      Let’s face it, partaking in mutiny- in any form – is a game of luck in which the winner is then the new leader and the loser is punishable according to the principles existing in that country at that time, and is often shot dead.

      I lived in that country for 22 years and watched the development with surprize. The calls for independence, having regard to the limited resources to hand, appeared to be several decades premature. Sure there was small educated elite but with unproved Public Finance Administration and/or practical managerial experiences, not many functional local industries and with neglected infrastructure in the land. A scenario for disaster. Village people were living from “hand to mouth”. In the Chief’s terminology “the bush kanakas” often believed that all their worldly needs whilst provided for them by their ancestral figures are unfortunately being intercepted by outsiders. Perhaps that may have been secretly shared belief by the elite as well. Who knows?

  2. p baker said,

    you are right about wot you write,his big house looking over the hospital ,hope it reminds him of his failure to the people of the seipik, i was there as just before they finnish the hospital1962, born in madang,moving to wewak in 1953, the place was close to paradise as you can get.

  3. Antony Ruhan said,

    You have said it all, David.

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