ROB TAYLOR | Wall Street Journal
PORT MORESBY - Papua New Guinea, an impoverished South Pacific nation known for jungles, crime and corruption, has a new problem since hosting world leaders in its ramshackle capital late last year.
Some 100 vehicles the government procured to ferry delegates around Port Moresby during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit have gone missing, officials say, along with computers, photocopiers and other office equipment.
Officials are pleading with their compatriots to track down the missing inventory, even offering an amnesty from arrest this month for anyone who returns the loot. A similar appeal in December turned up empty-handed.
“There are fire engines, buses, ambulances unaccounted for. You name it,” finance secretary Ken Ngangan said in an interview.
“At this stage we cannot say which ones are missing and which ones may be somewhere. The correct word I would say is ‘unaccounted for’—‘missing’ only in the sense they have not been returned.”
While the government hasn’t said how much it paid for the vehicles—which were used by APEC employees, contractors, police and security personnel—it had planned to sell them to help recoup costs of hosting the November gathering.
The International Monetary Fund put the price of the event at around $1 billion over three years, not an unusual amount for a country that needs to build facilities that can later be reused.
The mystery offers a window into the difficulties of governing a tumultuous state where 40% of its eight million people live on less than $1.25 a day and many communities lack running water and electricity.
Growth has slowed in recent years and falling natural gas prices have crimped tax revenue, forcing the government to borrow more, especially from China. Beijing donated 50 large buses, 35 minibuses and nine fire engines ahead of the summit, some of which are among those lost.
Paul Barker, an economist and executive director of the Institute of National Affairs, an industry-funded think tank based in Port Moresby, said the missing vehicles underscored the country’s challenges with mismanagement.
“The financial systems of the state are very weak, the asset registers are very weak, audits come out years late and are more a historic record than timely reports, and unfortunately there is no shortage of people willing to exploit that,” said Mr. Barker, who is on the board of anticorruption watchdog Transparency International. The group ranks Papua New Guinea 135th out of 180 nations for graft.
“Police are forced to hire cars because they don’t even know how many cars they have,” he added. “The concept of public assets is pretty loosely interpreted, and disillusionment in politics is high.”
Martyn Namorong, a political commentator and author on Papua New Guinea, said fire engines donated by Japan had found their way to a retail complex in the capital, where they were being used “to ferry women and kids with the shopping.”
“The government doesn’t even know where to send the cops to recover cars,” he said. Police didn’t return calls seeking comment.
It’s the latest blow to a country that had hoped to use APEC, which US Vice President Mike Pence and China’s Xi Jinping attended, as a diplomatic triumph and a springboard to draw in new investment.
Papua New Guinea took on hosting rights just as a $19 billion Exxon Mobil Corp. -led natural-gas project looked set to transform its economy.
But the gas project has proved lacklustre and APEC ended in acrimony as Chinese and US officials quarrelled over trade rivalries. Police rioted in Port Moresby as attendees jetted out, ransacking offices in a dispute over pay that spilled into looting in nearby suburbs.
Opposition lawmakers have said they plan to bring a no-confidence vote next month against the administration of prime minister Peter O’Neill, citing the country’s economic predicament. Treasurer Charles Abel, delivering the budget in November, said the government was entering the year in an improved position as resource prices recovered, with the IMF predicting 3.8% growth.
The APEC pay dispute lingers in the mystery of the missing vehicles. Local newspapers reported some workers and police were refusing to give back their wheels while promised allowances went unpaid. The government said after the rampage that it was working to pay police the outstanding money.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers raised eyebrows over what they considered excessive spending for the summit—notably, the 40 Maseratis and three Bentley limousines the government procured, among 1,000 vehicles in total.
“The bottom line is, we cannot afford to be this extravagant. Our country is broke,” opposition lawmaker Bryan Kramer said.
APEC vehicles have become a common sight since the summit, said Port Moresby-based security consultant Jason Fisher, with Maseratis photographed in rural villages packed with joy-riding locals.
“There were photos of two Maseratis in a village at the end of a big four-wheel drive track, so I don’t know how the hell they got them there,” said Mr Fisher, who provided security for Wall Street Journal staff covering the conference.
Mr Ngangan, the finance secretary, said the Maseratis and Bentleys had all been accounted for. “We did a stocktake today and those are all in good shape, with batteries. Not even one is missing,” he said.
He was confident that other missing equipment would be returned, including unmarked police SUVs and the fire engines.
“Perhaps people are keeping computers to write APEC reports,” Mr Ngangan said. “I can see some of the firetrucks right across from my office, so I’m keeping a close eye on those.”