TUMBY BAY - It’s ironic that in his death Michael Somare seems to have united Papua New Guinea in a way that he could never achieve while he was alive.
Some of this is owed to the cult of the haus krai but more is owed to the nation’s overwhelming need for a universal hero who can be celebrated across all language and tribal groups.
Papua New Guinea is crying out for a founding mythology and this is where history can exert itself in all its manifestations.
The USA has Abraham Lincoln, Australia has Captain Cook and Papua New Guinea now has Michael Somare.
The beauty of history is that it is infinitely flexible and open to multiple interpretations.
A lot depends on who is writing it and who is reading it. Important events and the people involved in them mean different things to different people.
Many historical accounts conflict and contradict each other. History, despite all its claims to objectivity is more that often highly subjective. A science it definitely is not.
The death of Michael Somare and his legacy is a case in point.
Michael Somare is already being depicted as a Mandela-like patriot who freed his people from the bonds of colonialism and led them to the Promised Land.
Even as the soil settles on his coffin he is being elevated to legendary status. A statue of him is planned for Port Moresby.
Of course, at the other extreme, there are those who would prefer to depict him as a quasi-dictator, ably assisted by a malign socialist government in Australia, who took advantage of the moment to ruthlessly advance his personal and political aspirations.
The truth lies somewhere in between. After all, Michael Somare was only human and he was just one character, albeit central and influential, in the lead-up to Papua New Guinea’s independence.
As with Abraham Lincoln, Captain Cook and Nelson Mandela the mantle of the founder of modern Papua New Guinea is one Michael Somare must necessarily share with many other men and women of the time, some who are still alive.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the lionisation and veneration of departed leaders but it also can be useful and dangerous.
Holding up a departed leader as a role model can be positive as long as that leader is someone whose example is worth following. There are few leaders who meet that criterion.
Michael Somare, for instance, faced many accusations over his career as a politician, ranging from corruption through to abuse of power, illegal use of government funds and elitism.
Where this becomes dangerous is when people see this sort of behaviour as legitimate and emulate it on the basis that if the great leader has done it there’s no reason why they can’t do it.
If leaders have used their position to accrue great personal wealth and privilege not available to ordinary people, such as receiving expensive medical treatment overseas, in many eyes that example can legitimise such behaviour.
It could be argued, for example, that all Papua New Guinean politicians who have gorged themselves at the trough of public finance have done so because they saw people like Michael Somare do it and concluded it must be a legitimate perk of office.
It would be interesting to know how many current politicians actually believe that and use it to justify their thievery and corruption.
As the mythology builds up around national heroes, the narrative has to be managed carefully. This is where historians play a role. They can mythologise as well as the next person but ultimately they have a responsibility to represent the truth as far as they can determine it.
They also have a responsibility to point out the fictions.
There is no getting away from the fact that any judgement about Papua New Guinea’s leaders, including and especially Michael Somare, has to take into account the parlous nature of public infrastructure in the country, especially now the Covid-19 pandemic is making that so tragically obvious.
If they had been good leaders, Papua New Guinea, with its massive natural resources, should be in a prime position to handle the pandemic. But it is not.
The legacy of Papua New Guinea’s leaders is a poverty stricken nation. That fact is inescapable. How a heroic legend and a mythology can be cobbled together about a departed leader in such circumstances will require hypocrisy of the highest order.