Unexpected loss. Sir Michael Somare’s defeat at the United Nations


MRS Renagi Renagi Lohia wept bitterly. Sir Michael Somare had just lost his bid for the largely ceremonial role as President of the 46th United Nations General Assembly.

Mrs Lohia was only woman in our small group of Papua New Guineans standing outside the United Nations building in New York City in September 1991. Sympathisers came and shook hands with The Chief.

We had been very certain of a win – we thought Sir Michael was the hot favourite. But unexpectedly an Arab won and the result stunned us.

Sir Michael was the first leader from the South Pacific region to be nominated for this prestigious role but could manage only 47 votes against Saudi Arabia’s Samir Shihabi’s 83.

“We lost out of Europe or Africa,’ Ambassador Lohia said bluntly. He believed many of the African leaders were bribed. “They were bought off.”

Education Minister Utula Samana blamed PNG’s downfall on the Gulf War coalition partners and Western Europe.

“They voted for Saudi Arabia as a way of saying ‘thank you’ for the role it played in the Gulf War,” he said.

Most of our 47 votes came from Asian countries, other Pacific Island states, the Caribbean and Latin America. The only definite vote from the Middle East was from Israel.

“The Middle East is always in the news. We want somebody impartial to deal with issues affecting Israel,” Minister Arie Tenne, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, had told me at a pre-election gathering the night before.

The election of Mr Shihabi by secret ballot was unusual. The General Assembly presidency is ordinarily rotated among the regions of the world. But in 1991 a three-way race developed. For 19 months, Ambassador Renagi Renagi Lohia and his staff had worked hard to lobby support.

But then Yemen entered the race and Saudi Arabia also nominated, arguing that the Gulf War had made it more necessary than ever for it to play a bigger international role.

“Still it is good for PNG,” Ambassador Lohia said, “because we have exposed ourselves. You can’t trade if you are not known.”

Sir Michael remained calm as the results were declared. He sat through to the end as president-elect Samir Shihabi read a prepared speech in Arabic. I was proud of Sir Michael’s great patience and diplomacy.

In a career spanning nearly 60 years, the Grand Chief has been a teacher, broadcast journalist, politician, opposition leader and prime minister. Having steered PNG towards independence and served as its first head of government, Somare is considered a founding father of the nation.

And, nearing PNG’s 40th independence anniversary, Sir Michael and his long-time colleague, Sir Julius Chan, are still members of Parliament.

Born in 1936, Sir Michael entered the PNG Parliament in 1968 at age 32. He was elected leader of the newly formed PNG United Pati, PANGU for short, and has retained that position since.

In 1973, Somare became the first and only Chief Minister of the self-governing Territory of Papua New Guinea and implemented the task of negotiating with Australia to lay the foundation for PNG’s independence.

This was attained on 16 September 1975 in a peaceful political transition. PNG remains a member of the Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

At age 39, Sir Michael became the first prime minister of an independent PNG. He has been returned to parliament each year since by the East Sepik people.

I had flown from Washington DC to New York to celebrate Sir Michael’s ascendancy to the UN presidency but was disappointed that I had to return home empty handed.

Now, a handful of us Papua New Guineans sat around two tables at a restaurant. We were united in soul and spirit - a true feeling of national unity was obvious although we shared the sorrow of loss.

Such is politics. 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Daniel Ipan Kumbon

I reaffirm my recent call for the government to allocate prime land to build a national monumnet, something like the National Mall in Washington or Trafalgar Square in central London where our founding father's can be honoured.

At least Somare will know where he will be remembered by furure generations and visitors alike after he is gone.

There is a saying in Enga that if you do a favour for an elederly relative, someting which pleases them. They will say to you: 'I see you cry for me now. What you do later, I won't know'

John Kaupa Kamasua

Let history be his only critic. But he typifies everything great about being a politician, statesmanship and leader in the Melanesian context.

....he was there
and seen it all....
....done it all
not to lose sight of what he fought for
....what he said he stood for
and what he wants others now to emulate
....his dream not be for nought
As we prepare to celebrate png's 40th year of independence
....lets go back to the beginning, the very beginning
when our leaders had little but accomplished more
....when joy and pride of service was what really mattered.
hard lessons must come out of the last journey we forge forward with another 40.

Long live the Dream!!

Alexander Nimi

Absolutely, he was born leader and a gift from God to save a tribe that was once under the foreign rule. He really understand the future of Papua New Guinea and stand firm with one mind for independence. His effort did not went in faint. He made it as a true son of PNG and now it is Independent State of Papua New Guinea.

Chris Overland

I first met Michael Somare in 1970 at Kikori when, if memory serves correctly, he was chairing a Parliamentary Select Committee into Self Government.

He was a lot slimmer then (as was I) but already a charismatic figure, whose articulate and relentless advocacy for self government and independence was regarded by many, perhaps most, expatriates as either wildly optimistic or simply a fantasy.

History proved otherwise of course and he went on to become Chief Minister and then the first Prime Minister of an independent PNG.

Now, he is a "lapun tru" and, as well as being a Knight of the Realm holds the distinctively non-Melanesian title of Grand Chief.

Even though he is widely revered in PNG this is possibly more an artefact of his charisma and dignified presence than of his tangible achievements.

Quite how history will judge his efforts for PNG is an open question.

Some will argue that he and his colleagues failed to establish a sufficiently robust, efficient and honest system of governance to allow PNG to progress as it should and that its people have suffered much deprivation as a consequence.

Others may say that, whatever its faults, PNG has managed to remain resolutely democratic when the more typical trajectory of emerging nations has been a spiral into utter destitution and either outright dictatorship or some form of oligopoly.

However, he has undoubtedly been an important figure, both in a political sense and, perhaps more significantly, as a living symbol of Papua New Guinean independence and political autonomy.

Somare never had the towering moral authority or charismatic presence of Nelson Mandela but, to my mind at least, he compares more than favourably with the vast majority of his counter parts in the Pacific, Africa or Asia.

Time will tell I guess, but right now, in the eyes of many, he stands apart from and above all those who succeeded him as Prime Minister.

Daniel Ipan Kumbon

Jack, even if you don't get to shake The Chief's hands, you will one day find that Somare was a leader among leaders.

Jack Klomes

I was in Grade 10 (2006) I think, at Aitape High School when I first saw Somare...the students walked, teachers walked and even rural communities walked to see Somare! If I could remember correctly he was there to launch the Bmobile network or something in Aitape.

Nearly everyone I talked to was there to see Somare not really to witness the occasion. I was truly fascinated in how he could hold people's attention with his speech.

More than 90% of the crowd were rural dwellers but there was something in the way he delivered his speech that captivated his audience.

After that I saw him again in Madang on several occasions and again I listened to his speech to the public and listened to him opening the new student services building in Divine Word University.

Thats when I realised that he, like many people of his generation and a few in this generation, had truly learned and perfected the art of Melanesian public speaking. It is an art that is slowly fading away.

The last time I saw him again was after his heart operation and the political impasse, he was in DWU again to look at the memorial built in respect of the plane crash victims in Madang.

He came in quietly and the word was passed around by the Sepik students and we all rushed down. I was emotional and so were a number of my colleagues from the Sepik. I think mostly because what was done to him.....

However there was a gentleman, he was not a student, he was from the Highlands (long beard, highlands cap). He came past all the students and shook hands with the Chief and when he turned I saw tears in his eyes! I was touched....

Anyway I missed my chance of shaking Michael Somare's hand though he was right in front of me. For whatever reasons I don't know but it is my hope that one day I will shake his hand and tell him what he means to me!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)