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.