BUKA - With 25 candidates set to contest the upcoming election for president of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, the opportunity for renewed leadership in the fledgling autonomous region is greater than ever before.
Coming off the internationally applauded independence referendum at the end of last year, Bougainville is now at a crossroads.
Will the new president push hard to uphold the mandate of the people for a new independent state, or will he or she negotiate an alternative way forward?
These are questions that yet to be answered. What is clear, however, is that, with such a large and diverse field competing for the presidency, there is no clear or certain winner.
Leading the field to be the next president is Joe Lera. Until recently he was the regional member for Bougainville in the national parliament.
He has demonstrated on two occasions his ability to attract voters across the region in highly competitive fields. No easy feat.
Joining him is Fidelis Semoso, who is also a former regional member with a far-reaching reputation and appeal and an ability to attract the cross regional vote.
A successful businessman, Semoso has youth on his side and some would say the funds to reach far and wide in what is a geographically vast and diverse region.
He was a key figure in the opposition to proposed constitutional amendments that would have allowed retiring president John Momis to run for a third term.
Semoso openly speaks about the need to revive a flagging economy and deliver on the people’s desire for independence.
James Tanis is again contesting to be president, having briefly served following the death of the region’s founding president and revered independence fighter, the late Joseph Kabui.
Tanis held the top job from 2008 to 2010 when he lost to another founding father John Momis. Tanis has maintained a high profile in the intervening 10 years, having spent much of that time as Department Head for Peace.
He was removed from office less than two years ago when I was Chief Secretary due to official misconduct, including gross financial mismanagement.
This is a fate also shared by another candidate, Bernard Tzilu, who was sacked as head of the Works Department shortly after Tanis was found guilty of gross misconduct by the senior appointments committee.
During the last three years no less than four departments heads have been dismissed for misconduct. Some have claimed that they acted on the directions of the government and ministers.
To date, not a single minister has been held to account - a telling indictment on the current political
Many in Bougainville will remember the late Peter Tsiamalili, who was Administrator of Bougainville both before and after the crisis, and who died in office not long before his mentor and friend, the late Joseph Kabui.
His son, Peter Tsiamalili Jr, is now contesting the presidency having forged a highly successful career as a businessman and sports administrator.
Some say he will bring renewed youth and energy to the role, along with the uncompromising ethics of his late father.
Others in the field include former member for central, Simon Dumarinu, and former Commissioner of the of the Bougainville Referendum Commission, Ruby Mirinka, one of only two women in the field.
Both Damarinu and Mirinka have appeal and will no doubt campaign strongly.
Also contesting is current member of the House of Representatives, Robert Chika Tulsa, former speaker of the House Andrew Miriki (who controversially left office without returning his official government vehicle) and prominent women’s leader and former MP, Madeline Itona Toroansi.
Rounding out the field are other prominent and well-known candidates Sam Kauona, Ishmael Toaroama, Martin Miriori and Reuben Siara - all with followings in their own right and all who have contested political office in the past.
Joining them are well known community leaders Michael Poposan and Patrick Koles, with Koles having also previously served as a chief administrator and representative to the World Bank.
Other candidates – and, yes, there are more - include serious contender the decorated senior civil servant, businessman and diplomat Paul Nerau, running on a platform of returning Bougainville to her former glory, guided by a strong support base in the South.
Perhaps the most curious candidate is the man endorsed by outgoing president Momis, the man who replaced me as chief secretary, Thomas Raivet. Raivet is a former military man in the PNG Defence Force.
He has been acting as chief secretary since late last year, but there has been little evidence of progress on the key measures contained in the Bougainville Strategic Development Plan (which was his core responsibility as deputy chief secretary).
Many individuals dismissed under the Public Service Act have been not only allowed to return to the public service fold under his leadership but are reported to have been compensated very generously despite overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing.
Whatever the outcome of the election for president, the people of Bougainville want a resolution on their long-term political future - a fact made clear by the referendum result.
With eight current serving members of the Bougainville House of Representatives recently referred by the Ombudsman to the public prosecutor over allegations of official misconduct, and finance minister Robin Wilson currently bailed on charges of official corruption, what is clear is that reform and integrity of government is paramount going forward.
The key question is, who amongst the 25 candidates vying for President is most likely to deliver that outcome. Only time will tell.
Joseph Nobetau was Chief Secretary to the Autonomous Bougainville Government from October 2016, until his termination by the Bougainville Executive Council in the latter part of 2019. He is to the date the longest serving Chief Secretary. He has challenged the lawful basis of his termination as unconstitutional. The matter is currently before the National Court