Election gives Marape a stranglehold on PNG
A voter's observation of a corrupted election

Bigmanship: the deliverer of corrupt leaders

A corrupt politician’s strong tribal identity can create an impossible situation for honest candidates to succeed, and so the corrupt are re-elected

Caricatures from Wantok newspaper
Caricatures from Wantok newspaper


PORT MORESBY - Despite colossal efforts by international partners, NGOs and other entities to rid us of corrupt leaders, we are again confronted by their resurgence after the just completed national elections.

As I see things, this is due to three cultural factors that are the salient catalysts that cause voters to install corrupt leaders election after election.

The first I will call bigmanship - the cultural esteem and regard that the people feel for a leader.

A big man is a highly influential individual in a tribe, especially in Melanesia and Polynesia.

Such a person may not have formal tribal or other authority (through for instance material possessions, or inheritance of rights), but can maintain recognition through skilled persuasion and wisdom.

The big man has a large group of followers, both from his clan and from other clans.

He provides his followers with protection and economic assistance, in return receiving support which he uses to increase his status. http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_man_(anthropology)

When these people ascend high in the coveted sphere of politics, the voting populous place them at the same level of a demigod.

They capture the imagination of voters, remaining their preferred choice in spite of their many follies.

Current popular leaders I’d nominate to be riding the tide of big man fame are Powes Parkop, William Duma, Peter Ipatas and Don Polye amongst others.

In an election a big man is always hard to defeat despite the herculean efforts of rival candidates.

The second factor is tribalism:“the state of being organised by, or advocating for, tribes or tribal lifestyles.” https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Tribalism

“[It is} tribal consciousness and loyalty especially: exaltation of the tribe above other groups.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tribalism

Every person in a community is linked to the tribe, gaining a sense of belonging and affiliation as a social being.

Their tribal loyalty supersedes all other societal affiliations. When one of their tribesmen stands for elected office, the whole tribe rises to support that person.

For the tribal-conscious voting populous, the tribesman is the preferred candidate despite his myriad follies.

When their tribesman is elected, it elevates tribal identity to the apogee of the socio-politico and economic landscape.

His (or her) victory is everyone’s victory.

Victory creates an opportunity for tribal chest beating and for mad celebrations.

A corrupt politician’s strong tribal identity can create an impossible situation for honest candidates to succeed, and so the corrupt are re-elected.

The final factor assisting corrupt politicians is the availability of free goods.

Leaders known to help people when they are in need will be held in high esteem and voted for. And it is hard to say this is not deserved.

But, whether they are needy or not, people are inclined to vote for politicians who provide them with free stuff.

Leaders offer free cash are especially popular. Or they may dole out free torches, blankets, cooking pots, mosquito nets, bush knives and spades.

By offering free goods to the people, they create a mechanism that indirectly influences voting.

Behaving like Father Christmas, dispensing lollies or free goods to a gullible and a naïve voting population to win hearts and votes, well it works.

If leadership is bequeathed by followers, the possibility of eliminating corrupt politicians is slim because voters are oblivious of such high minded matters as the spirit of democratic elections or the concept of a free and fair election.

Accordingly, one of the disturbing trends of the recently completed national election was this surge in the popularity of corrupt politicians placed on pedestal by their supporters.

The social media was used by supporters of corrupt politicians to post photos and policy statements of. A ferocious media war was fought between tribal supporters of each candidate on these virtual spaces.

Supporters who strongly believe in bigman, tribalism and free goods provide strong deterrents to eliminating corrupt leaders in Papua New Guinea.

If the current socio-political and tribe-centric thinking prevails, we are heading to brinkmanship and anarchy.

What is needed is a change of mindset from bigmanship and tribalistic consciousness to national consciousness, so that voters elect the best possible candidates with the best character traits and policies to bring tangible development to the nation. 


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Paul Oates

Here's a thought about why things happen.

A mate put me onto this theory yesterday. It's called 'Michel's Theory of the Iron Law of Oligarchy'.

It posits that every human group tends to concentrate the same type of people at the top who then devise systems to ensure their group and their descendants stay in control.


The only exception appears to be constitutional monarchies, which may accept new blood from time to time, but actually have no executive power.

The real power lies with the people who can democratically elect or throw out governments if they think the government has lost the plot.

Kinda reminds you of the current disparity between democracies and dictatorships doesn't it?

So how does one describe the current state of play?

Tingting bilo ol wantok istap olsem wanem a?

Paul Oates

Thank you to Jaive and Phil for steering me back onto the right road.

You have no idea Jaive, how frustrated some of us lapuns can get when we from a distance see what can be done to help and yet are unable to offer any ourselves.

Best wishes.

Jaive Smare

Bikman Paul writes, "Blaming someone else is a poor substitute for what is a clear, home grown problem."

The term I use - 'post colonial' - infers this is a homegrown problem that we have to solve ourselves.

I also pointed out a framework that is usurping cultural leadership structures (the original bikman in our culture) with the motivating influence being who has the best access to the unaccounted money from Waigani.

A home grown solution to getting past the influence of corrupt leaders being re-elected is the one I cited at the end of my piece - the collaboration of multiple tribal actors for a satisfactory win-win outcome at the counting area.

That said, I think Simon has the start of a fascinating thesis on his hands.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I don't think Jaive is blaming anyone from the colonial era Paul. He very specifically sheets the blame home to a "post colonialism media construct" of the bigman system i.e. a warping of the original concept.

What the PNG public now regards as the bigman system bears very little resemblance to the original.

You can still detect remnants of the original system in people like Paul Kurai and the late Jacob Luke but they are few and far between.

Paul Oates

Hi Jaive. You raise the spectre of post colonial anachronisms and that's fair enough when people can see how these concepts have been warped into schemes to defraud the public and create power through opportunistic wealth.

The example you give however of people ensuring an election result is correctly achieved is one of not one of math but people ensuring a law is upheld.

If the current laws of PNG were correctly followed and law enforcement agencies properly funded and managed, PNG would be a different place. That is not the fault of any pre colonial regime since after 1975, local control existed.

It is true that there was insufficient knowledge and understanding that implemented the current and post colonial system and you are right to point that out.

The answer however lies purely in law enforcement and the willingness of an elected government to implement the nation's laws.

Sorry mate. Blaming someone else is a poor substitute for what is a clear, home grown problem.

Jaive Smare

Bigmanship, is such a strange and new term. If you look at it under the construct of your article, its like watching the vomit of over-analysis give life to something that is a post colonialism media construct.
Tribes are not loyal to their own. The ideas that tribes are loyal is based on an assumption. Assumptions are terrible starting points to work with.
The answer to ending 'bigmanship' is dismantling some of the post colonial frameworks in place such as ending the election of ward members and presidents. With DSIP and PSIP, these 'elected' leaders who are not really traditional village leaders are an extension of waigani's tentacles of corruption executed by gluttonous local MPs.
The other answer lies in game maths.
In the recent elections in one province in the highlands, supporters of multiple candidates decided to maintain a constant and high vigil at the counting station, which prevented the sitting member supporters at pushing false numbers into the counting area. They didnt care who won, as long as the sitting member henchmen were not able to push papers or influence the counting in this area. The result is that there is now a new member in Parliament. This is Nash equilibrium at play. Bigmanship is a social construct of over analysis that can be undone if we share theory, example and a playbook for local actors. Tribal members are not loyal to each other.

Paul Oates

It's not as if this debate and reaction hasn't happened before in human history.

Anyone who has read Cornwall's novels about Alfred the Great and how he eventually created the concept of a united England could surely see many parallels.

Other nation states will have their own examples. Italy and Germany are other less well known examples where a strong people achieved what was first thought impossible.

The only reason many people are using English as a language today is directly due to Alfred. That's no mean effort. However it is the result of many people who came after Alfred and he lived 1,000 years ago.

What we are discussing is the evolution of a truly national concept and how that plays out with a national identity and a cohesive government system.

No one ever said anything worthwhile is ever easy. Otherwise, everyone would be doing it. The templates are there for those who can learn from our human history.

The journey however begins with a first step.... and the right person at the right time.

Michael Dom

What Simon Davidson has written is a starting point, and it has made me to stop and think about the issue of bigmanship..

The article is clearly a commentary, the beginnings of an essay perhaps, where there is no demand to provide a definite solution.

But perhaps Simon is just getting started.

Maybe someone else has more to add.

Also, I think if Jaive Smare has some ideas he would like to share that would be very welcome and I would like to publish all if this debate on Ples Singsing.

It's stupid thinking to think that one person, gender, ethnicity, nation has all the answers, and equally stupid to think that we can resolve any of our challenges in one commentary, essay, thesis or a book.

Even the Holy Bible is a text which requires the reader have personal communion with a Higher Being.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A reasoned hypothesis but not a solution.

Perhaps Simon could enlarge on his idea and explain how it might be accomplished.

He is an erudite thinker and accomplished writer and I'd be interested to know how he thinks his hypothesis could be turned into an actual solution.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Simon has identified the problem - bigmanship and tribalistic consciousness - but he does not offer a solution.

Perhaps that's why Jaive thinks it is a shallow article.

But let's be realistic, how do you counter that kind of inbred thinking?

A massive education program? Money will trump that everytime. Severe penalties for corrupt activities? Bolstering the number of police and troops on the ground? Revolution?

What do you think will work Jaive?

It is incorrect to state that Simon did not offer a solution. It was not a complete solution, but it clearly indicated a basis from which to work.

Simon wrote - "What is needed is a change of mindset from bigmanship and tribalistic consciousness to national consciousness, so that voters elect the best possible candidates with the best character traits and policies to bring tangible development to the nation."

So the solution in broad terms is the development of a national consciousness.

This would become the goal in the development of an appropriate strategy.

The next step would be to identify the objectives required to achieve that goal.

And after that, the development of specific actions to achieve each objective.

But in identifying the politico-cultural barriers and the strategic goal they point to, Simon takes the discourse some distance.

And he's to be commended for that - KJ

Simon Davidson

To whoever Jaive Smare is, remember this. To write an opinion piece is a colossal effort. To cut and paste literary work is cheap.

I have never read an opinion piece or commentary from you in my years of reading and contributing to the PNG Attitude blog.

Lindsay F Bond

Some time ago, Robert Forster wrote about those pre-independence patrols by kiaps which brought into view the new flag for the new nation - the Kumul as it was quickly called.

Robert wrote of this exposure as "softening the mental jolt faced by villagers, especially in the Highlands, who were being asked to abandon the form of government with which they were familiar".


Readers should thank Simon Davidson for his hypothesis about leadership and corruption and, while I can offer nothing more relevant, I reinforce the building of national identity that exposure to the flag began.
In 1974, that program of show and know was of great import.

And in 2022? A brave new world of wisdom, or do we watch the Kumul become a skinny bird fluttering without feathers?

Jaive Smare

This is a very shallow article.

And, because it offered no reasoning, that was a very shallow comment - KJ

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