The political crisis in Samoa is heading into its eighth week. The caretaker prime minister, Tuila'epa Aiono Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, leader of the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), who has held power for 22 years, shows little inclination to end the impasse and allow prime minister-elect Fiame Naomi Mata’afa and the Faʻatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T) party to form government.
On the eve of the 59th independence anniversary on June 1st, the Archbishop of the Catholic Church, Alapati Lui Mata’eliga, used his Monday mass to castigate Tuilaepa, seated in the front pew, suggesting the current caretaker government is heading towards a dictatorship and that “the heart of any democratic government is the constitution and the rule of law”. Invoking the legacy of the Mau movement, the Archbishop decried the state of the nation: “there is no peace…it appears as if our forefather’s shed blood for no reason.”
The intervention by the Archbishop of the second largest church in Samoa adds a powerful and highly influential dynamic to the political crisis where aganu’u ma agaifanua Fa’aSamoa (Samoan custom), the complex web of traditional practices and relationships, has woven together modern politics with traditional power structures and authorities, the Tama-a-Aiga - the four paramount chiefly titles of Samoa Tupua Tamasese, Malietoa, Mata'afa and Tuimaleali'ifano – and now the church. Currently, three of the four Tama-a-Aiga are aligned with Fiame including Mata’afa, Malietoa Fa'amausili Molī, and former head of state Tui Ātua Tupua Tamasese Efi. Tuilaepa’s refusal to cede to Fiame is pure politics but the solution will be indelibly Samoan.
Leasiolagi Dr Malama Meleisea, Director of the Centre for Samoan Studies at the National University of Samoa, has suggested the Tama-a-Agia meet to find a way forward in a show of solidarity and strength, noting that “the scars from this…will take a very long time to heal within Samoan society, both here and overseas.”
Reactions from across the Pacific have been revealing about the state of the region and the future of regionalism. First, three of the five Micronesian states withdrawing from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) moved quickly to acknowledge the April 9th election result and subsequent political turmoil in Samoa again testing the bounds of the Pacific Way. The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) announced its formal recognition of Fiame as the newly elected prime minister of Samoa in a statement with a pointed reference to Micronesians being “brave and proactive” and curiously devoid of the language of family which usually softens communications between Pacific leaders. Palau president Surangel Whipps Jnr also congratulated Fiame and said he was disappointed in Tuilaepa's conduct.. The Republic of the Marshall islands (RMI) followed with a statement emphasising the importance the rule of law and democratic values being upheld throughout “our Pacific Islands region, including in…Samoa”. Former Marshellese president Hilda Heine heralded the win for Pacific women.
With the exception of Heine, the messaging from the north Pacific reflected the ongoing tensions surrounding the rift in the PIF: in part geographical with respect to sub-regional representation; and intergenerational as a younger cohort of leaders flex their political muscle. Not surprisingly, no other Pacific leaders have publicly commented although the wires have been running hot.
The PIF itself was much slower to respond to the political crisis in Samoa. Holed up in Auckland and unable to travel to Suva, the headquarters of the PIF, due to the COVID-19 outbreak in Fiji, this is the first regional crisis on the incoming Secretary-General’s watch. In mid-May Puna made a boilerplate statement – grouped within a broader statement on the Forum’s focus on family and the values of regionalism – where he emphasised the role of Fa’a Samoa in resolving the crisis and stated the PIF “stands ready to offer Samoa support and help if requested” and encouraged “all parties to pursue peaceful means to resolve their difficulties.” Notably absent from Puna’s statement are references to upholding the rule of law and democratic processes despite having the tools and language to do so - Forum members committed to upholding democratic processes and institutions in the 2000 Biketawa Declaration. This was a missed opportunity by Puna to show regional leadership at a time when regionalism has been splintered by the rift with the Micronesian 5 and is undergoing a review of the regional architecture, the development of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, and a possible reform of the selection process for the top job at the PIF. The PIF cannot afford to be absent in this conversation.
Second, the responses from the two largest members of the PIF, Australia and New Zealand, were identical in tone but reflected two vastly different political realities. Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne tweeted for all parties to respect the rule of law and democratic processes and couched her statement in the context of “our close friendship with Samoa.” Aotearoa New Zealand’s prime minister echoed calls to uphold the rule of law and respect for the democratic process but Ardern, mindful of New Zealand’s role as administrator prior to Samoa’s independence in 1962, went one step further, citing her country’s respect for the sovereignty of Samoa and the mana of Samoa’s democratic institutions. Elsewhere, Ardern stated that Aotearoa New Zealand is “not in a position to intervene” in the political crisis. The spirit of the Treaty of Friendship between New Zealand and Samoa echoed in New Zealand’s approach. Ardern’s careful comments reflect that in the Pacific, New Zealand’s foreign policy is domestic policy. New Zealand politician and councillor for Manukau, Efeso Collins, highlighted this tension stating that the stand-off in Samoa is causing division in the diaspora. Fiame, however, called for stronger action from New Zealand and Australia. If the crisis becomes protracted, the informal shuttle diplomacy taking place between Wellington, Canberra and Apia may not be enough.
Third, the clamour that followed Fiame’s statement that her incoming government would scrap the Chinese-funded Vaiusu Bay port development was indicative of the impact strategic competition is having on the Pacific. International media sought to find the China angle and debates between Samoans on social media sites and Twitter spaces revealed opposing views on the influence of China in Samoa. The case of Vaiusu Bay reflected an ongoing affliction amongst China watchers and wonks. Much of the commentary about the port as potentially dual use (both commercial and military usage) failed to acknowledge the role of local dynamics including tensions amongst landowners as well as local politics, in the outcome.
The question now is will Tuilaepa heed the advice of Archbishop Mata’eliga. In a speech on Monday, the caretaker prime minister continued to claim that the FAST party had attempted to seize power but suggested that “the traditional consensus process was the most appropriate way to move forward from crisis”. The theme of Samoa Language Week, this week in New Zealand, is “Ola manuia le anofale” meaning “strengthen the posts of your house, for all to thrive.” It couldn’t be more appropriate given what has unfolded in Samoa.
Bio: Anna Powles is Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University in Wellington.
Image credit: RNZ