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Is changing government a solution to corruption?

Francis Nii
Francis Nii


NOOSA - As I work my way through the many writings of the late Francis Nii for the tribute volume, Man Bilong Buk, that we are putting together, I am constantly reminded of his insights, his judgement and his clarity of thought.

Of course, I've read each of these essays previously, since they were all published in PNG Attitude over the last 10 years or so and I edited them. But reading them again as a collection is a thoroughly different experience.

It's one I hope you will have when Man Bilong Buk is published later this year.  Anyway, to reconnect you with the great man's work, or to give you a first taste of it, here is an article from 21 January 2014.


In the last couple of months, there have been deep sentiments expressed by lobbyists, critics and social media for a change of government in Papua New Guinea.

The raison d’etre is discontent about a number of the decisions made by the O’Neill government.

Some of these have involved corruption of some sort including amendments to the Vote of No Confidence Act, the government takeover of the PNG Sustainable Development Program and Ok Tedi mine, the asylum seekers deal with Australia and the awarding of a medical kit supply contract to Borneo Pacific Pharmaceuticals.

Bloggers and users of social media are prominent advocates in this discourse. Some even joined hands with the PNG opposition in strategising to topple the government. A case in point was the call for a nationwide strike on the eve of the budget session last November: a plan that went amiss.

Advocating for change in leadership is a typically Papua New Guinean way of reacting to unpopular policies and allegations of corruption. There is nothing wrong with that.

Citizens have the moral obligation to raise concerns about government decisions they feel are not in the best interest of their country.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The moment you become silent about the things that matter, you are dead”.

However, the critical question is whether changing the government is a solution to corruption. In other words, can tossing out a government have a tangible impact on reducing corruption?

In the past, allegations of corruption has been a major platform for seeking changes of government on the floor of parliament through votes of no confidence.

The ousting of Somare by Wingti in 1980, Wingti by Namaliu in 1988, Wingti by Chan in 1994 and the dismantling of Somare’s National Alliance by O’Neill and Namah in 2011 were all motivated directly or indirectly by anti-corruption notions.

But was corruption alleviated? No.

Corruption still existed and went on to become even more systemic and complicated. It became a national plague. Why?

The answers lie in our political culture in the way elections are conducted, the way governments are formed and how governments govern.

These peak political activities are mostly flawed.

The electoral system is a breeding ground of corruption. Trading cash and cargo for votes has become deeply rooted.

A candidate who is serious about winning an election has to spend a lot of money and provide a lot of cargo to bribe as many voters as possible and so muster the winning numbers.

Nere-tere – eat and give - is a well-known election catchphrase in Simbu. I’ll feed you and you give me your vote.

Consequently, when a new member is elected to parliament, the first thing on his mind is to recoup what he has spent on getting lected. That’s when all kinds of vices creep in.

Often these new members lack leadership qualities. They are prone to vice, negligence, mismanagement and dishonesty because they enter parliament in an illicit or dubious way.

And when they are elected, the golden handshake from a senior politician is a rite of welcoming MPs to one’s side during the formation of government. Venality is a well-grounded tradition during this initial horse trading.

Leadership ethics in PNG must be amongst the poorest in the world. There is no moral conscience in most of our leaders.

Politicians can be accused of the most serious corruption and they will still cling to office. They will appear in public if nothing is wrong with them. They don’t feel ashamed. They don’t have a guilty conscience.

They will even go to court seeking vindication for their wrong doing. It is unethical and it is shameful and it is PNG.

In most societies we don’t see this kind of brazenly corrupt leadership. The moment politicians face serious allegations in the public media, the ritual is that they steps down and pave the way for independent investigation.

And if reputation or character is badly tarnished, demotion or resignation will follow.

In Papua New Guinea not one politician has resigned from ministerial portfolio or public office on the basis of moral principle.

Moreover, the culture of nepotism in the allocation of project funds and disbursement of provincial and district development monies make bad leaders out of good. They compromise their ethics to align with and benefit from the government of the day.

Tobias Kulang, the member for Kundiawa-Gembogl, is a professed Christian and strong advocate against corruption. He was vocal against the O’Neill government on many fronts yet he crossed the floor and joined government ranks citing the interests of his electorate.

And sadly he was right. If he had remained in opposition his electorate would have missed out on project and development funds.

Although Kulang was a good leader but flawed and crafty government dictated his crossing sides at the cost of his reputation.

Of course there are some good leaders who resist these temptations but the system of governance is so flawed that it is like a cobweb that will continue to snare and smear no matter who leads the country.

Reformation of the entire political culture from electioneering to the formation of government and practice of governance will need changes if corruption is to be sidelined.

The introduction of a biometric electioneering system, tightening loopholes in political party integrity law and establishment of Independent Commission Against Corruption would be positive reforms.

Such mechanisms and similar reforms will bring about tangible changes to corruption. Merely changing government will not.


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Arthur Williams

Two points from PNG political history that I will not forget.

First was when Lavongai’s Big-man Walla Gukguk was persuaded by Wally Lussick and Goroka MP Sinake Giregire to stand for Kavieng Open in 1977.

With huge support from the followers of Lavongai’s TIA and the main island’s TFA he easily beat his opponents including up and coming young Gerard Sigulogo a wantok who traditionally should have been ashamed to stand against such a popular elder of his tribe.

Walla never completed his term as he once told me “I’m fed up with too many of the members of parliament being corrupt!” he gave up attending the meetings. That was his opinion right in the first few years of Independence.

The other event was when in 1982 Iambakey Okuk lost his Chimbu Regional Seat.

I remember it because apparently he decided to provide a ‘piss-up’ to persuade people to vote for him and organised supply of a huge amount of SP beer to be divided between clans at Kundiawa.

If I had been Iambakey I too would have been very disappointed by the failure of my largesse.

I think though it is worth rounding of this politically mobile maverick’s story starting less than a year after losing Chimbu he forgot his oft proclaimed motto of ‘Mi Simbu!’ to try to win Unggai-Bena by-election in Eastern Highland caused by the resignation of Akepa Miakwe.

Perhaps Okuk hoped for success as his wife was from the area. He was right and won only for him to face action in the Court of Disputed Returns.

This didn’t stop him though and he became not only Leader of The National party but also of The Opposition. Eventually in 1984 the legal process removed him from Office because he did not have two years residency at the time of the election in Bena-Bena.

By electioneering irony justice having been delayed for so long he was legally entitled to stand in the by-election that his own termination had caused. So quickly he regained his EHP seat. Thus he was still an MP in November in 1986 when he died.

I notice that over past few years many reports in the newspapers are now calling The Okuk Highway its earlier name of Highland’s Highway. Is it merely forgetfulness of a Big-Man’s history or perhaps some of the reporters are too young to know much about the man who fought for the highlanders in from 1968 in Enga (then in the Western Electoral District) behind three longtime resident white men onto to wins in Chimbu and finally Eastern Highlands.

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