WEWAK - Twelve months ago who would have predicted the rise of a much under-rated James Marape as the eighth prime minister of Papua New Guinea putting an end to eight tumultuous years by Peter O’Neill and his Peoples National Congress Party.
Marape continues to intrigue and surprise us with the array of tools he is deploying from the Pandora’s box of politics.
Intrigue because, from a base without money or support of big business or a regionally based political party, he was able to effect regime change in PNG, a feat that will be hard to repeat for a long while.
Surprise because the man he replaced was no political midget. To successfully pull the rug from under O’Neill’s feet was a masterstroke worthy of study by both practitioners and students of PNG politics.
Did Marape succeed through smoke and mirrors? Or did he find the Achilles’ heel, the flaw in O’Neill’s armour and use it to destroy the prime minister? If so, what was that weak spot?
Perhaps the answer lies in the attitude, bordering on contempt, that O’Neill had for those who owed their appointment to high office through him.
Having come to power by force in defying the highest power on the land - the supreme court, which ruled his election as prime minister illegal - O’Neill would also continue in his eight years to ridicule the institutions of state. That attitude, too, bordered on contempt.
His years of power were characterised by his scorn of state institutions and society in general.
It could be this came from having to traverse a path of hardship growing up as an illegitimate son of a white father.
Having defied the supreme court, O’Neill went on in his term of office to appoint and dismiss at will constitutional office holders and was always quick to ensure that all departmental heads knew where their bread and butter came from.
When police commissioner Kulunga requested O’Neill to come to police headquarters for questioning over his role in the Parakagate scandal it did not take long for Kulunga to find himself on the street and without a job.
O’Neill subdued and sidelined important state actors and organisations that tried to challenge his rule.
The public prosecutor, Ombudsman Commission and anti-corruption Task Force Sweep found their offices starved of resources rendering them impotent and their incumbent heads received threats that they would not be reappointed.
All O’Neill’s departmental heads reported directly to him and not their ministers or lost his support. He never forgot those that crossed his path.
Many, including the former chief justice, Salamo Injia, would attest to O’Neill’s hard-nosed leadership style when he found himself replaced although he was eligible for another 10 years as chief justice.
So Justice Salika, who took the lead in the minority decision that recognised O’Neill’s election in the 2011 impasse, replace Injia.
By the middle of 2016, though, O’Neill’s major coalition partners had enough of his style of leadership.
At an exposition in Paris in March 2016, which O’Neill had directed all coalition leaders to attend as a bonding exercise, he abandoned Patrick Pruaitch, Ben Micah and William Duma during the entire time in the French capital. No state business was even discussed.
O’Neill was instead lured away by the opportunity to seal personal business deals and spent most of his time drinking and dining with his Irish clansman Dennis O’Brien, the owner of Digicel, stitching up transactions for his Remington group.
He also spent considerable time away from his ministers wooing Total, the French multinational, to enter the PNG hydrocarbon market.
What was negotiated to entice Total can only be left to our imagination but it would directly result in the decision by James Marape to walk out of O’Neill’s cabinet two years later when it was asked to endorse the Papua LNG project headed by Total.
I have been told that O’Neill sat down the night before a cabinet meeting with the CEO of Total and initialled all 300 pages of a development contract with the government after he had fired the negotiating team.
O’Neill’s business deals rode on the back on crony capitalism of which he was the master, where the line between state and personal interest was often blurred with inflated contracts going to mates in the true crony capitalism style.
Major decisions during this period of his rule included the purchase of the Curtain Brothers port facility at Motukea for over K1 billion, the use of tax credit schemes to refurbish the prime minister’s Pineapple Building given to his mate L & A Bricklayers, the purchase and transfer of prime Ela Beach hotel land from the Indian Sangramaniam to MRDC, a contract for building of sports stadiums using tax credits that ended up poorly constructed and unfinished and are still being fixed today.
There were also the massive funds committed to the earthquake that rocked the Southern Highlands and remain unaudited to this day.
We also recall the blunder by the Asian Development Bank when it provided tens of millions of kina for infrastructure development funds to Wild Cat Ltd, a company associated with O’Neill to buy influence away from the Chinese.
The result? A large number of incomplete and abandoned bridges in West New Britain.
And we remember over US$6 billion of Chinese soft loans negotiated which had a transforming effect on the landscapes of Port Moresby and Lae.
What was not reported however were the whispers in the corridors of power that commissions of tens of millions of kina were paid to an infamous Chinese madam who, in turn, purchased a number of luxury homes in Australia and handed them to leading politicians on the back of contracts awarded to mates.
Then there was the crowning litany of the excesses of the O’Neill era: vestiges of the 2018 APEC forum that included conference halls unsuitable for use and expensive Maseratis unsuitable for sale.
So instead of APEC being seen as the crowning moment and a celebration of Peter O’Neill’s prime ministership, a man who could host global leaders and showcase PNG to the world, the sacking of parliament by an unruly security team for non-payment of allowances remains etched in our minds.
The failure of APEC 2108 brought to attention not great achievement but the fragile house of cards built by O’Neill over his eight years of rule.
There had been a usurpation of power and eight years of living dangerously. None of this was lost on James Marape and the team of young Turks who supported him 12 months ago in pulling off one of the biggest political coups in the region.
The contrast in leadership style between Marape and O’Neill could not be more pronounced.
O’Neill grew up as a child abandoned by his biological father at an early age, while Marape grew up with loving and caring parents, his pastor father instilling in him the fundamental Christian values of sharing and serving.
These values were strong enough to enable him to walk away from the perks of cabinet and privilege when he realised the fundamental flaws in O’Neill’s leadership.
Marape had no sense of insecurity and we see this in the way he invited the best people in parliament to join his cabinet after he was elected prime minister.
He expressed good words about the man he replaced and invited ministers who had served under O’Neill to remain in his cabinet.
He extended the same acceptance to top civil servants including the notorious chief secretary Isaac Lupari and other senior personnel.
Marape’s acceptance speech to parliament with the slogan ‘Taking Back PNG’ and promise of “making PNG the greatest black Christian nation on planet earth” sounded hollow, reminding us of speeches made by leaders of military coups in banana republics.
However over the last 12 months we have witnessed the depth of his vision, especially in taking over the Pangu Pati and absorbing its values and nation-building goals.
Many observers considered him naive when he failed to take action against political opponents and were waiting for him to fail under the pressure on him to find money to support his first budget and to boost foreign exchange reserves.
The country’s debt was his first major test as prime minister. While O’Neill had gone to the international bond market to borrow, Marape used his Christian faith to spend a week with his Australian counterpart Scott Morison to secure K650 million to see PNG through 2019-20.
He followed up by rebooting links with the Asian Development Bank and World Bank and re-engaging with the USA and Australia on defence support to counter the heavy dependence on China that O’Neill was pursuing.
The inflow of funds from these partners means that foreign reserves will stay healthy and see Marape ride smoothly for the immediate future.
The downside of this policy shift the abandoning of the popular free education and free health policies of his predecessor.
With the arrival of Covid-19, the maturity of Marape’s approach in imposing a state of emergency has resulted in zero deaths reported so far.
As we end the end of the first 12 months of Marape’s leadership, his earth-shattering announcement not to renew Barrick’s lease on Porgera is currently being played out and evaluated in boardrooms all over the world where a number of major foreign investment projects are being considered.
These include the K45 billion Papua LNG Project together with the Pnyang Project, the K1.7 billion Pasca project, the K17 billion Pan Aust Frieda project and the K17 billion Newcrest Wafi Golpu project, the last of which has just been agreed.
So what aret the challenges facing Marape and PNG in a post-Covid-19 world amidst the rise of resource nationalism.
The ANZ bank has projected revenue in the PNG’s resource sector over the next decade to reach K80 billion a year from 2030 and that PNG will have to attract K420 billion of foreign investment over the next decade to achieve this outcome.
The current mega hydrocarbon and mining projects in the pipeline are only one-third of what is required which means many new major projects to be developed to reach ANZ’s projected outcome.
But developing nations like PNG do not necessarily have to depend entirely on foreign investment but choose a combination of strategies including the mobilisation of domestic savings and capital and the use of export credit financing to develop infrastructure and agriculture projects that can transform an economy.
In PNG this will mean accepting the offer made by the USA and Australia to meet 70% of all electricity needs by developing the Purari hydro power project that has been on the government’s books since 1973 to generate the entire power needs of PNG and to sell excess electricity and water to Australia.
The launch of the Kumul communications satellite to transform PNG’s communications infrastructure is an important development and recently cabinet decided to put a satellite into orbit before 2022.
Another possible infrastructure project to complement agricultural development is road-rail infrastructure using the China Belt and Road initiative by extending links to Jayapura and Indonesia.
In this context the mobilisation of current saving in superannuation funds for the large scale commercialisation of rice and other cereal crops must be seriously considered.
Finally, like China, we must aim to use the windfall from PNG’s resources to improve and modernise our 10,000 villages so people see as an option returning to villages with modern amenities including improved health and educational facilities.
While James Marape ticks all the boxes of a nationalist leader in the making, the jury is still out as to whether and how he can deliver on his promise of economic independence for PNG.
Will he take us on the revolutionary path of a Gadhafi and Saddam, or will he follow Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew? Will he emulate Paul Kagame of Rwanda or Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and avoid the pitfalls of Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe?
Important for all of us as stakeholders in the future of PNG are the details of Marape’s plan.
It would seem that Marape’s modus operandi follows the dictate of God. He is stern and compassionate just like the prophet of old.
When he said he would help Australia during its catastrophic summer bushfires, many of us wondered how a third world country like ours could assist.
Marape’s solution to send a well-disciplined team from the PNG Defence Force to assist Australia’s emergency services was a credit to him, the PNGDF and the people they assisted in the small towns of rural Australia.
This small act of compassion and Christian kindness in the use of limited State resources to assist those in need sets him apart and allows us as a nation to believe in Marape and his humility and humanity.
We know that he passionately cares for the collective wellbeing of his nation when he says that no one will be left behind.