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As he farewells the nation, Michael Somare visits an old friend

John Momis & Michael Somare - builders of the nation
President John Momis greets Sir Michael Somare at Buka airport - both men were architects of the PNG nation

ANTHONY KAYBING

BUKA - Together they united a nation of more than 800 tribes and languages and began a friendship that has lasted for 50 years.

That bond between the father of the nation, Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare, and the father of the constitution, Grand Chief John Lawrence Momis, is close and their friendship today remains as strong as it ever was.

Sir Michael, who is 82, came to Bougainville this week as part of his farewell and thanksgiving to the people of Papua New Guinea.

His political career spanned from 1968 until his retirement from parliament just last year. He was PNG’s first and longest serving prime minister.

Dr Momis, who is nearing 80, was a Catholic priest from 1970-93, He became active in politics and was elected to parliament in 1972. He co-wrote the PNG constitution and, following the end of the civil war, he was appointed Bougainville governor from 1999 until 2005. He has also served as PNG’s ambassador to China.

Last year, upon Sir Michael’s retirement from politics, Dr Momis wrote:

“My personal relationship with Sir Michael Somare dates back to our younger days. Fate brought us together over barbecue and beer in Wewak. Little did we know that soon we would be partners in forging a path for Papua New Guinea. I was full of idealism and he was brimming with pragmatism.

“The combination of two different yet attuned minds resulted in greater efforts to blaze that path; one which not many at that time dared to tread. Our minds were shaped by the events of the tumultuous 1960s when young men in America were sent to wage war in Vietnam and personalities like Martin Luther King and the Kennedys were taking the world by storm with their ideals and advocacy….

Michael Somare
Young Somare
John Momis as a young man (Douglas Oliver)
Young Momis

“Sir Michael exercised his role as a true politician – guided by his faith and embracing his role as a vocation. He ventured into the unknown, responding to a call without fear. He was there always ready to listen and to implement results of choices and judgements….

“Instead of shrinking from the challenges of his time, like the fear of independence and the injustices of colonialism, he literally gave himself to pursue his vision of an inspiring future for Papua New Guinea. It was a mark of a true leader that he took the bold step of making things happen and took ownership of major decisions, unpopular as they might have been.

“I owe Sir Michael much. For a pragmatist to put his full trust and confidence in an ideologue like me is a rarity.”

In Bougainville, Sir Michael was quietly welcomed to the region by the President, ministers and MPs and he formally opened the presidential villa in Buka at a small ceremony.

Comments

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Adam Elliott

The issue with priests - or any ordained clerics of the Catholic church - going into politics stems from Vatican law and the principle that powers should be separate - separation of church and state.

Bishops will often be reluctant, tardy or reactionary and inconsistent in their application of canon law.

In PNG this is a good principle.

Daniel Kumbon

I saw Sir Michael and President John Momis rise on the political scene when I was a Grade10 student at Port Moresby Technical College in 1975. Many years later I witnessed Sir Michael's graceful retirement from active politics.

In 1991 I flew from Cleveland to New York to witness his election as President of the United Nations General Assembly, but he lost narrowly to an Arab. I mention all that in my recent book 'I Can See My Country Clearly Now.'

And I agree Chris that Sir Michael "will always be the first and, perhaps, most able of PNG's prime ministers."

Garry Roche

John Momis was a Catholic priest as the story says. When he stood for election the precedent of a priest being elected to political office had already been set by Fr John Nilles in Simbu.

Mathias Kin has written about Fr. Nilles (https://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2014/11/papa-blong-simbu-fr-john-nillies-kawagl-svd-190593.html).

In 1976 prime minister Michael Somare appointed a priest, Fr Cherubim Dambui, as interim premier of East Sepik Province.

However, after other priests, including the late Ignatius Kilage and the late Louis Ambane, (former governor of Simbu), began to follow Nilles' footsteps into politics, the bishops got worried and declared that any priest who stood for political office would be suspended.

This did not stop some priests from standing for office and some such as Robert Lak and John Garia were successful in the highlands.

Other priests stood for election but most did not succeed. In the recent elections Fr Simon Dumarinu was declared elected in Bougainville but lost on an appeal recount.

Chris Overland

I first met Michael Somare in 1969, when both he and I were much younger and slimmer than we are now.

As I recall, he was chairing a Parliamentary Select Committee seeking the views of the people on PNG becoming self governing and, eventually, independent.

I was a mere Assistant Patrol Officer at the time and thus a person of no consequence at all, so I imagine that our very fleeting conversation would have not even registered in his memory at the time, let alone later.

However, from that brief meeting I formed a strong impression of him as a very determined man, certain of PNG's destiny as an independent country and quite unwilling to accept anything less from an initially reluctant colonial power.

He handled himself adeptly in negotiations with the Australian authorities and clearly impressed them with the force of his arguments and passionate commitment to taking PNG into the future as a nation in its own right.

Thus, I guess if anyone has the right to be called the Father of the Nation then it is Michael Somare.

In the early days post independence he, John Momis and many others newly elected or appointed to positions of authority took care to proceed with caution as they learned how to govern their country. A lot of worthwhile things happened although, inevitably, mistakes were made.

For some years, I think that PNG followed a generally positive trajectory before, as has so often been the case in the post colonial era, the shonks, carpet baggers and rent seekers gradually insinuated themselves into PNG politics, business and the public service.

Sadly, I think that Sir Michael, as he had become by then, eventually succumbed to the sense of entitlement to special privileges and consideration that seems to overcome far too many politicians, in PNG, Australia and elsewhere besides.

It seems that political power and influence too often is a potent opiate, which is both addictive and destructive to those who become habituated to it.

By the end of his time in power Sir Michael had to be blasted out of his position in a constitutional crisis that both he and self interested others created as they struggled to hold or seize the reins of power.

It is too early to say how history will judge him but my suspicion is that he will probably come out of it pretty well.

His virtues outweighed his flaws and he will always be the first and, perhaps, most able of PNG's prime ministers.

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