LEONARD FONG ROKA
IN THESE WEEKS OF JUBILATION for Bougainvilleans on the seventh anniversary of the birth of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, I want to look back at the year 2005, when the process of making today’s government was undertaken.
This first ever Bougainville general election in 2005 created the inaugural Bougainville autonomous government under the leadership of the late Joseph Kabui.
Unofficially walking out of the University of Papua New Guinea in 2004, late in that year I ended up supervising an AusAID project on researching crime on the streets of Arawa.
At the same time, I was assisting the Kieta District Manager, Otto Noruka, in his strategising of how the election should be executed in the No Go Zone of Ioro constituency (Panguna).
During this period, with the formation of an autonomous government in the air, the Meekamui was active in undermining democracy and ‘people power’.
The late Francis Ona’s two ‘iron men’, Moses Pipiro and Chris Uma, were often at loggerheads. Both were anti-ABG, but between them there was a wide political divide of who was the rightful boss of the Panguna area.
Thus, out of Bougainville’s 33 constituencies, Ioro (Panguna) was a special case. First and foremost, it was the Francis Ona’s Meekamui stronghold; then it was where most of the people who terrorised the peace process were based and repelled pro-peace government officials.
Upon my appointment as Assistant Returning Officer for what was my home constituency, I got the pro-peace Bougainville Revolutionary Army ‘A’ company commander, Peter Onabui (the man who had led the seven-man assault on the PNGDF in late 1992 and killed eight soldiers), into my eight election teams. He willingly accepted and helped greatly.
After securing Peter Onabui to the cause, I named every polling booth using my well established knowledge of the constituency. The main problem that remained was the appointment of polling officials to man the booths.
The problem was the culture in Bougainville whereby everybody wanted to be part of the effort despite the fact that the system cannot cater for everyone, especially financially. And most, seeing themselves as being neglected, resorted to a threat of arms. This often demoralised new people.
My eight polling booths (some were to move from one location to another to accommodate voters) were Okoni (mobile), Narinai, Bapong (mobile), Tonanau, Barako (mobile), Toku (mobile), Dapera and Parakake. And so I went about seeking former BRA men to lead.
As I was scavenging the Toio Valley south of the Panguna mine and behind the Guava-Kokore ridge looking for men to work as polling officials, a former BRA man handed me a Colt M1917 .45 revolver. However I encountered nothing negative so it was that the teams were readied and their names forwarded to Returning Officer Noruka for approval.
Then, the teams attended the three day election workshop at the United Church Youth Centre complex and were intellectually and economically geared for the tasks at hand.
The last concern to me and my teams was the transport of the ballot boxes to and back from Panguna.
Each team took responsibility for their own ballot boxes. They transported them by placing them amidst the cargo brought by local businessmen who were supportive of the peace process and the elections.
This success was a slap in the face for some Meekamui officials who condemned their gatekeepers for not being committed to their line of duty. Later, the number of men at Morgan Junction was increased and they became really active by thoroughly foraging every piece of cargo transported across their line.
But we developed other ways to get the ballot boxes into Panguna by using other trucks belonging to some Siwai people from South Bougainville.
As the polling was in progress, the Returning Officer and I were engaged in discussing means to have the ballot boxes safely returned for counting.
His plan was for the boxes to be airlifted from the Bana District in South Bougainville to Arawa. Whilst, gesturing ‘yes’ to the RO, I supported armed transport through the Meekamui checkpoint by night – an idea suggested to me by my ex-BRA teams.
So, whilst the airlifting story was abroad and the Meekamui saw no hope of winning this game, the ballot boxes were neatly wrapped to look like cargo of dry cocoa beans and transported through the checkpoint after the completion of polling.
Only one polling booth, Okoni, lost a ballot box to a bunch of armed thugs (in the absence of their leader, Leonard Tamava) who got it and destroyed it with gunfire. But, it was replaced and Tamava warned them to prepare their coffins first if they wanted to try that trick again.