‘Akilisi Pohiva, who was in New Zealand on his first state visit a few weeks ago, was the hero of Tonga’s pro-democracy movement for three decades. When he finally became prime minister of the island kingdom in 2014, there were high hopes. But, after 20 months in office, he’s being described as Tonga’s worst prime minister ever, and there’s talk of a no-confidence vote against him. Tongan journalist Kalafi Moala, one of his former media advisers, looks back on the disappointing performance of “the people’s prime minister”.
When I was asked in 2015 to join the staff of Tonga’s prime minister, Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva, as a media adviser, I jumped at the chance.
This was the first time that I had ever been engaged in any service in government. In fact, as editor of Tonga’s first independent newspaper, Taimi ‘o Tonga, I had often been at war with the government. In 1996, for example, I was thrown in jail, along with my deputy editor, for contempt of parliament.
But Pohiva was a longtime friend and ally, and Tonga’s first democratically elected prime minister. And the theme of good governance, declared by Pohiva to be the operational banner of his new government, resonated strongly with me.
Good governance was to be undergirded by the practice of accountability and transparency, held together by the rule of law. This was a rhetoric that was repeated in almost every speech by the new prime minister. It had been a central theme in Pohiva’s criticism of previous governments and in his quest for power.
“We are a people-focused government,” he declared. “We will make it a priority to serve people, to reduce poverty.”
And, as he would often tell me: “The biggest impediment to development is corruption, and our exercise of good governance will eliminate corruption.”
Fine words. But even before I joined the prime minister’s staff, two things happened in the first week of the new government that raised questions in my mind.
First, Pohiva appointed his son as his personal assistant. This seemed hypocritical, to say the least, for someone who had often accused other leaders of nepotism for hiring family members. But he made the excuse that his son was best placed to know his needs (such as when to give him his medication) — and he shrugged off public criticism by saying that, anyway, he was paying for his son out of his own salary, and not from public funds.
Then Pohiva appeared to see-saw on the activities of his newly appointed Minister of Infrastructure (‘Eteuate Lavulavu), whose first order of business had been to fix the roads to his own house. A prominent member of government told me that Pohiva had, at first, privately praised Lavulavu for his “quick action”. But, as soon as he realised his minister’s priorities might be interpreted as favouritism, he publicly criticised him for “acting hastily without consultation.”
(Lavulavu was later convicted of bribery in relation to the 2014 election, and has lost his seat in parliament. But when corruption allegations against him first came to light, Pohiva’s handling of the matter fell far short of what was expected from a prime minister who had been the scourge of government corruption while in opposition. Rather than standing him down immediately, Pohiva had leaped to his minister’s defence, taking just one portfolio off him and keeping him in cabinet.)
I couldn’t help thinking that the new prime minister was displaying a kind of double standard, something I had not seen in him previously.
This behaviour became a pattern as the new administration began to take over the reins of government.
Since then, I’ve been amazed at Pohiva’s amnesia — at how readily he seems to have forgotten about accountability, the rule of law, and transparency. Values he had talked about regularly.
Pohiva, who is 74, was Tonga’s opposition leader for more than 30 years, a staunch crusader for democratic change, and the chief critic of almost every action by previous governments.
So when (following the 2010 reform that established Tonga’s new democracy) he became the first-ever democratically elected people’s representative to take the top job, there were high expectations that he would fix some of the fundamental development problems of the tiny country.
Never mind his inexperience in governance, or his lack of an economic plan to lift a very fragile and aid-dependent economy. At the time of his election, he was popularly perceived as “the people’s prime minister”. He was expected to care more about people and their needs than previous governments.
But, after 20 months in office, the jury has already returned with a verdict that is mostly critical of how Pohiva and his government have performed. Many are now calling him the worst prime minister in Tonga’s history. He is perceived as too old, tired, and sickly to do the job properly.
Pohiva’s recent state visit to New Zealand exposed the kind of problems he’s been criticised for. The visit was littered with more than a few “dropped passes”, but by far the worst was his no-show at the vigil for five Tongans killed a few weeks ago in a car crash in the small Bay of Plenty town of Katikati.
He was expected to be there, but he chose instead to meet with a used car businessman in Auckland to talk about raising funds for rugby in Tonga.
His absence was widely criticised. For a nation with a population of 108,000 people, the death of five people cut deeply. Four of the men (including a father and son) had been in New Zealand for a few months of seasonal work. Reflecting the huge outpouring of grief, Tongan community leaders from all over the country had made their way to Katikati to pay their respects — as did those from other Pacific communities. Yet Pohiva could not make the two-hour drive from Auckland.
Although this was the most glaring of Pohiva’s misjudgments, his inexperience and incompetence were further highlighted during his New Zealand visit by his embarrassing lack of knowledge of issues, and awkward answers to simple questions from media.
In his joint press conference with New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key, for example, he was asked about the issue of corruption, and in particular the continuing illegal sale of Tongan passports.
Pohiva’s response included this bit of nonsense: “There are ninjas all around. You can kill one ninja, like another ninja comes [up]. There are a lot of ninjas.”
Having appointed himself Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pohiva has become the most inexperienced minister yet to manage Tonga’s external relations. Given how reliant Tonga is on aid, and the growing significance of the Pacific region and Asia, his ineptness and clumsiness on foreign turf was cringe-worthy.
But, even at home, he’s perceived as a non-performer who hasn’t delivered on his campaign promises to combat corruption, cut excessive government expenditure, and reduce poverty.
In fact, locally he’s seen as irrelevant to the running of government. Government departments seem to run fine without him — except, of course, those under his jurisdiction: the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Ministry of Education. He’s also been active in trying to restructure the Ministry of Public Enterprises, which has resulted in much chaos and the violation of board member contracts, and led to lawsuits against the government.
In his inaugural address in January 2015, Pohiva promised to bring “closure to issues of the past because we have unresolved issues of national interest that still need to be addressed”.
But there have been no moves on that front. No Commission of Inquiry into the sinking of the interisland ferry MV Princess Ashika, in which 74 people died. No inquiry into the allegations of government corruption in the payment of millions in public funds to Tongasat, a company owned by Princess Pilolevu. No investigation into corruption in relation to the illegal sale of passports. And no sign of a “truth and reconciliation” inquiry into the riots that torched downtown Nuku’alofa in November 2006.
Instead, there have been serious questions from the public concerning the way the government has performed, and especially Pohiva’s leadership on several fronts.
Among the black marks was Pohiva’s 2015 “interview” with Forbes magazine not long after he became prime minister. This was framed as a coup for Tonga, and an opportunity to promote our island kingdom. The problem was that the interview turned out to be a one-page advertorial, for which Forbes charged Tonga US$130,000.
When asked why the interview was so expensive, Pohiva pretended not to know anything about it. He said that he didn’t know it was going to be a paid interview and tried to put the blame on the Minister of Finance, as the person who’d signed the agreement with Forbes and approved the payment. But, as revealed later, the agreement and payment was made with Pohiva’s full knowledge and approval.
When Pohiva took office, I advised him that his greatest challenge would be to change his mindset from an opposition mentality to a governing mentality.
But he appears not to have heeded that advice — and the issues he’s chosen to deal with are usually fringe issues that have little to do with advancing the socio-economic welfare of Tonga.
For example, in mid-2015 he came to my office and handed me a file with notes and photographs alleging that the CEO of Tonga’s biggest communication company, a public enterprise, was having an affair with one of the employees. He wanted me to write a letter on his behalf suggesting to the CEO that he step down until further investigation of the alleged affair.
I refused, but despite that, a letter was still sent out from the Prime Minister’s Office, and the contents of the file he had shown me were published in Kele’a, a newspaper he founded, and which is still owned and managed by his family. The newspaper was subsequently sued for defamation, and the case is being heard in court as I write.
For all of Pohiva’s past talk of transparency, it seems this was intended for others, not himself or his government.
Nothing brought this out more vividly than the friction he created with the Tonga Broadcasting Commission’s head of news, Viola Ulakai. Pohiva had urged the general manager to suspend Mrs Ulakai until further investigation because she was asking a lot of “hard, uncomfortable questions” whenever she interviewed him.
Among these “hard questions” was Mrs Ulakai’s grilling of the prime minister over the alleged involvement of his eldest son and his son’s business partner in a software deal (with the Education ministry) said to be worth millions. This follows major reform that Pohiva as Minister of Education had pushed through without proper consultation — the impact of which was to throw the 2015 exam results into such disarray that the ministry has still not recovered, and many Form Seven students were not accepted for entry to universities in New Zealand and Australia.
There have been other serious issues that the prime minister has not been able to respond to.
One of these involves a mysterious memo that alleges that cabinet ministers were given an undertaking that, if they supported Pohiva in his quest to become prime minister, they would not be prosecuted for any wrongdoing.
Tongans are a very proud people — proud of their history, proud of their culture and traditions, proud of their ability to successfully survive as an independently governed people without colonial rule, and proud of their identity as Tongans.
But, since the end of World War II, with the advent of commercialisation and a new world order that claims democracy to be the best of all governing systems, Tonga has struggled to keep up with the changes that are happening in the world of nations.
The Tongan people generally supported Pohiva’s call for reform to the governing system, but the majority wanted a reform that would make things better for everyone — socially, politically, and economically. After nearly two years of Pohiva’s government, the hopes of many are being challenged quite significantly.
There have been a few positives moves, though whether these would have happened anyway is debatable. Tariffs have been lifted on certain food imports like vegetables and fruits reflecting a policy to boost healthy living (although one might ask why we’re not doing more to grow our own). Taxes on building materials have been lifted as well. Inland Revenue and Customs have also claimed the surplus collection of over $20 million during the past financial year, simply by better management of taxes and customs.
But these gains are outweighed by the unfulfilled promises, and the appearance of corrupt and unjust dealings in Pohiva’s government. Add to that the lack of transparency from the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as the way reform at the Education ministry was handled, together with the poorly managed shake-up of the Ministry of Public Enterprises, and Pohiva doesn’t need a genius to tell him that his government is in serious trouble.
The problem with this leadership failure is not only that it leads to a leadership crisis, but that it contributes significantly to the struggling fragility and failure of democracy in the Pacific region.
The development of Pacific democracy, as we’ve seen in Tonga, has often been largely based on personalities — rather than on principles, values, and practices that apply to everyone equally, and are sustainable from one culture to another, and from one generation to another.
If democracy is to thrive in Tonga, it requires teamwork by a skilled, experienced and competent cabinet and public service.
Pohiva needs to let someone else take the lead. His failing health makes him forgetful and at times incoherent. Hanging on suggests that he thinks no one else can do better than him. That’s arrogance at best — and, at worse, he will have no legacy to leave behind and the very people he claims to live for will remember him as no different from those he pointed the finger at for decades.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and non-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going. If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider contributing $5 or $10 a month.