G-G won't sign off on emergency – heads overseas
Namah: Feathers fly as the point man weighs in

Courting trouble in Papua New Guinea

BANYAN BLOG – THE ECONOMIST

Sir Salamo InjiaJUDGES HAVE THROWN Papua New Guinea into turmoil by pronouncing yet again that the current government, led by Peter O’Neill, is illegal—this time on the eve of scheduled elections.

On 21 May, the chief justice, Sir Salamo Injia [pictured], joined two other judges in upholding the Supreme Court’s verdict from December, which ordered the restoration of Mr O’Neill’s predecessor as prime minister, Sir Michael Somare.

Another two judges from the five-member bench again dissented, but this time they were blunt with their disapproval: Gibbs Salika, the deputy chief justice, said the court’s deliberations had been compromised by the circulation of an email from one of the majority judges which called the O’Neill administration an “illegal regime”.

Another dissenting judge said that endorsing the majority verdict would be contrary to his judicial oath of office.

After the majority’s verdict was handed down, Sir Michael travelled to government house hoping to be sworn in. He was turned away by police officers, who insisted that “no one goes in until after the elections”.

Their operations commander, Colonel Walter Enuma, said that the police had had “enough of this chequebook war”, implying that both sides were using cash handouts to curry favour around the country.

The Supreme Court has had to wrestle with conflicting principles. The removal of Sir Michael Somare last August was clearly not in accordance with constitutional procedures, which required that two doctors appointed by the Governor-General declare the prime minister unfit to resume office.

At that time, Mr Somare was hospitalised in Singapore after a serious heart surgery, and his own family had announced that he was stepping down. The speaker of parliament prematurely declared the office of prime minister vacant. In the consequent election, Mr O’Neill obtained a large majority, with 70 MPs for him to 24 against.

But then Sir Michael made a miraculous recovery, and returned to Papua New Guinea (PNG) to claim back his old job. December’s Supreme Court ruling supported his case, which resulted in the first showdown between the judiciary and the legislature.

For a country where a large share of the population is beyond the effective reach of the state and where the rule of law is anyway highly precarious, confrontation between core institutions of government is a risky business. In any case, judges are usually sensibly wary of stepping into political affairs, and thus undermining the separation of powers.

The Supreme Court’s majority verdict in December was questionable, but to insist on the same decision now seems reckless. At the time the result was a constitutional crisis. The O’Neill and Somare camps battled for supremacy, even appointing rival Governor-Generals and police chiefs.

In January there was an attempted military takeover: its instigator, a retired colonel, claimed to be enforcing the court’s decision. On both occasions, key players—including the chief of the defence force and top civil servants—rallied behind the O’Neill government, in defiance of the courts but in accordance with the popular mood.

Parliament met in the wake of the December verdict, and reaffirmed its support for Mr O’Neill, even passing retrospective legislation (as the constitution allows) to render the proceedings of last August to be legal.

The O'Neill government has claimed the chief justice, Mr Injia, is in cahoots with the Somare camp and seeks to have him removed from office on grounds of corruption.

In the wake of the latest verdict, the deputy prime minister, Belden Namah, insisted that the three judges in the majority resign. At his instigation soldiers and police raided the Supreme Court on May 24th in an effort to arrest Mr Injia, who fled to his chambers.

For the two camps of politicians, the battle has been about who gets to go to the polls as the incumbent. Whoever does gains access to state funds to bankroll his campaign to form the next government.

As an outgoing, Australian-born MP, Dame Carol Kidu—herself formerly a cabinet minister under Sir Michael—said last week, politics in PNG is “fraught with problems with numbers, having to buy numbers”.

That issue arises not only after general elections, when the process of building governing coalitions is greased with large sums of money. Helped by a mineral-resources boom over the past decade, even the passage of ordinary legislation nowadays often requires payouts.

The latest Supreme Court decision is particularly dangerous because parliament was dissolved last week. Writs for elections were issued on 18 May, with the polls due next month. There is thus no easy way for the legislature to meet legally to resolve the impasse, and most MPs are anyway out in their remote constituencies on the campaign trail.

Elections in PNG are often turbulent, characterised by grave irregularities and violence, but they—rather than the courts—surely offer the best path to establishing who should form the next government.

Comments

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David Kitchnoge

It is very unfortunate that things have been allowed to regress to new lows never before seen in our country.

Perhaps the first business of the new government is to correct this mess, provided this new government doesn’t carry any baggage from the present saga which might cause it to be vindictive.

Every player and every character in this drama must be put under the spotlight and anyone found to be in breach of our laws must be dealt with properly to set up a good precedent for the future.

Certain shortcomings of our governance structures have also been exposed in this drama and we must endeavour to fix them in a mature way when the dust settles.

Ludmilla Isalonda

Until it is proven by the weight of solid evidence that the judiciary or in particular the CJ's office is compromised, I think we should refrain from giving the slightest vent to conspiracy theories.

The evidence that is there for all to see is Belden Namah's emotional outbursts and bad judgement. I’d rather place my trust in the judiciary than in BN & Co.

David Kitchnoge

I've always given the Courts the benefit of the doubt but am not sure if I can do the same now.

The timing of the decision and the fact two members of the bench, who are very senior judges in their own rights, removed themselves from the decision points to a possibility of the existence of something sinister.

I can understand Belden Namah's actions a little bit now but I strongly disagree with the manner in which he went about in trying to bring Injia to account. Regardless of how he would like us to see it, BN's actions were dictatorial full stop.

Two wrongs don't make a right and Namah can't continue to justify his overzealous reactions by saying Papua New Guineans are used to the norm and have not experienced "young and dynamic" leadership that is prepared to push the boundaries.

Alright sir, but how long can we allow you to “push the boundaries” until there are no boundaries left anymore?

Bernard Yegiora

I totally agree with you, Roger. The chief justice is putting personal interest before national interest.

Why at an hour like this did he decide to make this decision and destabilise the country?

According to my sources every thing was planned and well executed. The chief justice should be given an Oscar award for his starring role.

Roger Kaman

These and many more past and previous events shows that corruption in PNG is deeply rooted into all the constitutional offices and government institutions which are pillars to our democracy.

Leaders and constitutional office holders are using the constitution and the protection of their constitutional office to legalise and hide their corruption.

They are making laws and decision to serve their own interest rather than the country and its majority uneducated citizens.

It is evident that the judiciary deliberately made this untimely decision to throw the country into chaos on the time for election, using the security of their constitutional office and confuse semi educated people more. The chief justice should be held responsible.

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