What James Marape wrote to the people….
The dangers of complicity

Bougainville's conman 'king' still on the run

Liam Fox meets Noah Musingku in 2010 (ABC News)
Liam Fox meets Noah Musingku in 2010 (ABC News)

| Australian Broadcasting Corporation

SYDNEY - Noah Musingku turns to an ancient PC that looks like it stopped working years ago, taps away on the keyboard seriously for a few seconds, then looks up and says: "You're a millionaire, Gorethy!"

"Your account has $2 million in it. Just send me your bank account details and we'll send the money to you," Musingku says.

Gorethy Kenneth, a reporter with Papua New Guinea's Post-Courier newspaper, is not excited by the news — and she does not give Musingku her bank account details.

It was 2010 and I was on assignment in Bougainville.

My colleagues and I had decided to make a side trip to see if we could meet Noah Musingku, an infamous conman who had been hiding out in the village of Tonu in the island's south since fleeing PNG's mainland a decade earlier.

Musingku subsequently crowned himself King Peii II, and renamed the area the kingdom of Papaala.

He also established a small armed militia to protect him and what was left of his pyramid scheme, U-Vistract.

Despite the security, getting an audience with the king was surprisingly easy, and one of the strangest experiences of my journalistic career.

Conman Noah Musingku, wearing a crown that appears to be woven, speaks into a microphone at a podium. He wears a suit.

Musingku convinced people across the Pacific to hand over millions of dollars, and is still operating in Bougainville.

Originally from Bougainville, Musingku started U-Vistract in Port Moresby in the late 1990s, promising investors 100% interest each month.

As with all pyramid schemes the first investors did receive the promised returns, prompting thousands of people in PNG, Solomon Islands and Fiji to hand over millions of dollars.

Musingku even managed to open a branch of his so-called Royal Reserve Bank of Papaala within walking distance of the headquarters of the Bank of PNG, the country's central bank.

When authorities eventually moved to shut down his operation, he shifted to Solomon Islands before returning to his home village of Tonu in Bougainville.

There he crowned himself King Peii II of Papaala and convinced a group of former Fijian soldiers to train a militia for him, who are armed with what's believed to be a small number of guns.

In the years since he's even printed his own money — the Bougainville kina — which he uses to pay his followers in Tonu.

Tonu is a picturesque village of lush lawns, tended gardens and simple thatched buildings.

On our visit there, we were first escorted to a small hut by one of Musingku's offsiders, who was wearing a large necklace made from boar teeth.

Reporter Gorethy Kenneth poses with Musingku's bodyguards (ABC News - Liam Fox)
Reporter Gorethy Kenneth poses with Musingku's bodyguards (ABC News - Liam Fox)

We had to be sanctified by prayer before meeting the king — the offsider babbled away for several minutes, thanking God for bringing us there to do a good news story.

Gorethy, who was wearing shorts, was given a piece of material to tie around her waist to cover her legs in the presence of the king.

Then, in another larger building, we met Musingku: a small, frail-looking man wearing a creased blue suit jacket a few sizes too large, an elaborate seashell sash, and what looked to be a crown made of brass.

For the next 10 minutes, Musingku rarely looked us in the eye while evading questions about what had happened to the money he took from people around the Pacific.

Gorethy piped up: "Back in 1998 I gave you 2,000 kina. It was money for my university fees. Where's my money?"

That prompted Musingku to tap into the old computer, and claim Gorethy just needed to provide her bank details to receive her promised returns.

Despite our pointed questions, he was happy for us take a few photos with him and his armed guards.

Many things have changed in Bougainville in the 10 years since our surreal encounter with Musingku.

Last year, under the terms of the peace agreement that ended the island's civil war, Bougainville held a referendum on whether to become independent from PNG.

Nearly 98% of voters backed independence, and now the PNG and Bougainville governments are negotiating what to do next.

But one thing has not changed: Musingku is still hiding out in Tonu, and people are still visiting him to invest more money, or to ask for their promised returns.

At least one person has had enough. Local MP Sam Akoitai recently urged people in his electorate to stop visiting Musingku, saying it was time to deal with the conman.

"You can't have fugitives like Noah Musingku hanging around with his own army, with weapons that should have been withdrawn," he says.

"That's a serious matter because Bougainville has chosen to be independent."

Dr Anthony Regan, a constitutional lawyer at the Australian National University and a long-time advisor to the Autonomous Bougainville Government, said there was a lack of means and motivation to deal with Musingku.

"He's got an armed guard, and Bougainville police are in fact generally unarmed," he says, adding that a lot of people in Bougainville — including some in the island's leadership — invested with Musingku in the1990s and early 2000s.

"They're compromised by their dealings with him."

Even if authorities did want to bring Musingku in, Regan says it would still be a big ask, citing the Bougainville government's "limited" ability to control issues at the local level.

MP Sam Akoitai says an attempt should be made nonetheless.

The ABC approached Bougainville President Ishmael Toroama for his thoughts on what to do about Musingku.

Musingku's crown appears to be made of brass (International Bank of Me'ekamui)
Musingku's crown appears to be made of brass (International Bank of Me'ekamui)

Toroama wasn't available but his office pointed to a speech he made after taking office last month, in which he said an open invitation for talks had been made to "key figures" who had been kept outside the peace process, in an effort to "stabilise Bougainville".

We also approached Musingku through an intermediary for comment and received a response via text message.

"No one like Sam Akatoi the traitor can stop him," the message said. "He is protected by God … He said only fools will criticise him."


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