NOOSA - Sir Rabbie Langanai Namaliu GCL KCMG PC died unexpectedly in Rabaul yesterday afternoon at the age of 75.
He was Papua New Guinea’s fourth prime minister, serving from July 1988 to July 1992 and held other important posts, including foreign minister, in a long career in politics.
I received news of his death from his friend Arthur Smedley, who told me he had last spoken to Rabbie about a month ago when “he was his normal self and bright and cheerful”.
This is the way I remember Rabbie, who I first encountered at the University of Papua New Guinea more than 50 years ago.
In 1970 he had been among the first graduates of UPNG and, in 1975 when we shared Professor Rex Mortimer’s politics honours class, he was kicking on with his higher degree - later completed in Canada at the University of Victoria.
Twice a week we sat in a small tutorial room with Mortimer. It was the eve of independence and Rabbie had a deep understanding of the complexities and demands to come. His interventions in discussion were brief, quietly spoken and always influential.
He had a sunny disposition and, along with an acute intelligence, it was clear his personality and capability set him up for important things.
Indeed, soon enough he was one of a small group known as the Gang of Four who at independence became high powered public servants.
Rabbie, along with Mekere Morauta, Anthony Siaguru and Charles Lepani, shaped and developed public policy and gave meaning to the changed administration requirements of the newly decolonised state.
He was to twice serve as foreign minister, from 1982-84 and from 2002-06, when he became finance minister.
He lost his seat of Kokopo Open in 2007 and moved on to a successful career in business.
Rabbie was a great and good man. I knew him well in those days around independence and the acquaintance regenerated at a distance when my son, Ben, went to work in PNG eight or so years ago, befriended Rabbie Jr and also came to know Rabbie.
In 1987 Rabbie had married Margaret Nakikus who headed PNG’s National Planning Office.
They had two sons (Isaac and Rabbie Jnr) and an adopted daughter (Joy) before Margaret died of leukaemia tragically young in 1992.
Rabbie, and people like Mekere Morauta, Anthony Siaguru, Paulus Arek and my dear friend Sam Piniau, had so much to offer the new nation, but even their capabilities, good values and classiness were not enough to leave a lasting impression on a land where the craft of good governance has been difficult to practice and impossible to maintain.
In another dimension, these men helped me gain a great love for PNG, a gift that I have maintained, and for that reason Rabbie’s death is doubly saddening for me.
The family told Arthur that Rabbie had not been well for a couple of days.
The illness worsened yesterday and an aircraft was chartered to take him to Port Moresby in the afternoon.
Rabbie was being assisted to board the plane when he died.
Forty eight years later, few of PNG’s independence heroes remain.
These are sad days.