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Getting the numbers: How Somare won the 1972 election

Robert Forster
Robert Forster - author of the just published 'The Northumbrian Kiap'


NORTHUMBRIA - In the 1972 Papua New Guinea elections there were 102 seats in the House of Assembly.

The conservative, anti-independence United Party won 42. Michael Somare’s Pangu Pati won 24.

The United Party was sure it would form the next government, but Pangu Pati expertly put together a coalition.

Iambakey Okuk, a MP from Simbu in the highlands region, played a key role in forming the government that took the country into self-government and independence.

He later became Deputy Prime Minister and, as a minister, worked to reserve sectors of the economy for citizens as a method of returning a complex economic role to Papua New Guineans. He died aged only 41, and is recalled as one of PNG's great independence leaders.

Here is Iambakey Okuk’s own version of how it was done, taken from an address to some university students in 1982.


Iambakey Okuk
Iambakey Okuk - has PNG ever produced a shrewder politician?

We went and greased up one bloke (an MP) called Kaibelt Diria. [In Pidgin, grisim or `to grease’ means to trick somebody into doing something by flattery or lies.]

Kaibelt Diria was deputy leader for the United Party. And, you know, we told him: “Papa, the Australian government has already announced that Somare is to become the first prime minister.”

And he says: “What!”

And we said: “Yeah. They announced it on the radio that we have already got the number and we’re forming a government.

“But we don’t have enough Highlanders and we want to give some ministries to some people.”

So we said, “But Papa, there is only a few of us and we are still young and we are looking for some elders to take the important positions.”

And he said, “Yeah? Wait, wait. OK! We go now!”

And we said, “Look, hang on, hang on, it’s OK. The position won’t run away. You’ll get it. But you must also bring another five or something like that.”

“Oh, that’s no problem,” he said. “I’ll bring seven!”

So he brought back seven people [newly elected MPs] so we made the number.

This is how Somare claims he got self-government.

But we did the dirty job, which you don’t know.

I had to tell lies to my old father who had more pigs and more wives than Somare, you know. Many, many wives - many, many pigs. Big coffee plantation – more things than Somare, myself or Chan put together.

Anyway, the poor guy, we greased him so he had to come and become a minister.

We made him the Minister for … Telephones!

1972 Somare GovernmentThe first predominantly Papua New Guinean government formed under chief minister Michael Somare in 1972 (left-right): Thomas Kavali, Julius Chan, Reuben Taureka, John Poe, Bruce Jephcott, Michael Somare, Paulus Arek, Paul Lapun, Gavera Rea, Boyamo Sali, Ebia Olewale,Albert Maori Kiki, Donatus Mola, John Guise, Kaibelt Diria, Moses Sasakila, Iambakey Okuk (Photo - Denis Williams, PNG Post-Courier)


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Daniel Kumbon

Iambaey Okuk is on the far right and nearer to him on his right is Kaibelt Diria while Thomas Kavali is on the far left - the three Highlands MHA to be in cabinet. If they hadn't supported Somare, Sir Tei Abal could have been PNG's first Prime Minister. He was the United Party Leader after he took over leadership when Mathias Tolman died suddenly. But because Sir Tei wanted Sir John Guise to be Prime Minister and not him in an effort to hold back Papuans from breaking away, many of the United Party members moved to Somare. I believe when John Guise saw this move, he also moved to the Somare camp.

Eric Coote

Maybe we should ask someone who was there but I believe Iambake is near the centre. He was impressive and like many then talked warmly of the future of PNG and of the people who supported them into politics.

Unfortunately politics (and Machiavelli?) intervened and sadly the people of PNG have not been rewarded. Thoughtful philosophy turned to mauswara tasol.

In my experience like your own, Eric, I agree they were certainly a finer group of politicians. The guy who captioned the pic was in it, by the way - no less a figure than Julius Chan, who in the caption identified himself simply as 'me', so we should probably go along with him - KJ

Daniel Kumbon

I completed reading Robert Forster's vivid, hard to put down, riveting pre independence book 'The Northumbrian Kiap' yesterday.

I will take it to Kandep tomorrow and review it while sitting under a 'yar' tree planted by Kandep's first Kiap Jim Fenton, whom I was privileged to meet in Brisbane in 2016.

I think my Member of the House of Assembly (MHA) for Kandep at the time, late Nenk Pasul must have been one of the seven Kaibelt Diria took over to the Somare camp to form government.

Both lived side by side in flats on Tougaba Hill in Port Moresby. I joined Nenk Pasul in his yard to celebrate independence in September 1975 while a Form 4 student at Idubada Technical College. . (I mention this in my book 'I Can See My Country Clearly Now.')

While we in Nenk Pasul's flat sang Enga songs, those in the Minister for 'Telephones' Kaibelt Diria's flat sang Mid Whagi songs to celebrate independence. I can still remember the occasion as vividly as if it were yesterday.

Late Iambaky Okuk was a mechanic in Wabag before he was elected a Member of the House of Assembly so I guess, he must have also 'greased' Nenk Pasul to join Somare.

Okuk was indeed the last firebrand politician the Highlands region has seen to ever set foot in parliament. Late Malipu Balakau, the regional member for Enga, could have followed in his footsteps but his life was cut short by an assassin's bullet in front of his home in Mt Hagen.

Garry Roche

On two occasions I witnessed Iambakey Okuk meeting with Mokei leaders in the Rebiamul, Hagen area. I remember that on one of those occasions I met him personally. What I do also remember about those two occasions is that Iamabkey was listening more that he was talking. It struck me at the time in a very positive manner. The late Sir Thomas Kavali, who like Kaibelt Diria was a Wahgi speaker, and came from a neighbouring constituency, was also involved, - perhaps together with Iambakey, - in persuading Kaibelt Diria to support the move for independence.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The photograph does come from Julius Chan's book, 'Playing the Game'.

I think his captions are correct. The smiling man next to Gavera Rea looks like Ebia Olewale. He was from Western and I had a bit to do with him for a number of years.

I'm not so familiar with Iambakey Okuk. I only met him once when he was a meknik before going into politics.

Ed Brumby

I worked, on occasion, with and for Ebia Olewale during his tenure as Minister of Education and the chap 7th from the right looks more like him than Iambakey.

Robert Forster

To appreciate the impact of the main text you have to understand that Iambakey is the prominent, smiling man, in the centre of the photo [see editor's note below].

This man's body language is revealing. Despite the presence of Michael Somare, it is Iambakey that is dominant. He is in control - he is (or has just been) a successful kingmaker and played a critical part in the formation of an unlikely coalition that, to the surprise of many, brought forward self-government and Independence by many years.

In my view this makes him one of the most important men in PNG politics, past or present, because it confirms unusual skill. No wonder he is, and it was unusual for him to be so open. an obviously happy man.

In contrast, Kaibelt Diria, the man Iambakey manipulated so cleverly, appears to be overwhelmed.

Readers who knew Ebia Olewale have affirmed that the captioning of the photograph is correct - KJ

William Dunlop

At this time I lived across the road from Iambakey, in Vanama Crescent, Port Moresby, He was one helluva switched on guy, I got to know him quite well.

He was also a very good friend of Dick Glassey, the then Air New Guinea chief pilot, and a cousin of Ignatius Kilage who became Chief Ombudsman.

Several years later in 1979 my wife became Ignatius's executive officer.

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