THE QUESTION challenging both Samoans and Non-Samoans is “Why?” Surely, after more than two decades as Samoa’s prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, has earned a respite from the cares of office? Obviously, that’s not how he sees it. Why then, at the first signs of Tuilaepa’s unwillingness to surrender power voluntarily, didn’t the Prime Minister’s colleagues, especially his Attorney-General, counsel him sternly against the folly of resistance? Why didn’t Tuimalealiifano Va’aletoa Sualauvi II, Samoa’s Head of Government, fulfil his constitutional duty to gently edge his old friend into retirement? These are the questions Samoa’s friends and allies are asking themselves. Why is Tuilaepa making such a fight of it?
The most obvious response is also the most troubling. Because Tuilaepa simply cannot afford to lose the protection of his office. Something he has done: some enterprise in which he and his colleagues have become entangled; must, at all costs, be kept hidden. Nobody, least of all Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, former Deputy-Prime Minister and now the triumphant leader of the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi Party (FAST) can be allowed free access to information that absolutely must remain secret.
What could that secret possibly be? Perhaps the best place to go looking for an answer is among the publicly declared motives of Tuilaepa’s political opponents. What was it that caused so many prominent Samoans to abandon the sleepy traditions of their country’s electoral politics – the traditions behind the Human Rights Protection Party’s (HRPP) 47 year reign – and campaign so openly, forcefully, and successfully against it?
The answer to this question is not in doubt. Indeed, it constitutes the whole explanation for the FAST’s existence. Tuilaepa had used his party’s near complete control of the Samoan legislature to undermine the constitution. Crucial aspects of Samoan economic and social life – most especially the laws surrounding land ownership and the perquisites of chiefly status – were thrown into doubt. Curbs on the constitutional authority of the Judiciary were also mooted. To Fiame and her supporters, it seemed as though cultural and legal obstacles were being cleared away for the benefit of entities that may, or may not, have Samoa’s best interests at heart.
One does not have to look very hard to locate the prime suspect in this case. The catalyst for the present crisis was the agreement signed between the Samoan and Chinese governments to invest $100 million in upgrading and expanding the port of Apia. Already indebted to the Chinese to the tune of $200 million, what could tiny Samoa possibly want with a refurbished port grossly disproportionate to its needs? That’s what Fiame and FAST wanted to find out. And, since they could get no sensible answers from the HRPP Government, that is why they set out to take the reins of power themselves.
If you think that the success of the FAST Party both astonished and dismayed Tuilaepa and the HRPP, just imagine what a shock it must have been for his “friends” in Beijing. After all, Samoa – like China – gave every appearance of being a one party state, ruled over by one of the longest-serving leaders on the planet. If the Chinese had long-term plans for Samoa: plans that required a re-writing of the laws regulating the ownership of land, the traditions of village government, and the independence of the Judiciary; then what risk could there be in taking steps to ensure that everybody who mattered in the Samoan Establishment remained firmly “on side”?
The precise nature of those “steps”, and their principal beneficiaries, may yet prove to be the explanation for the solid wall of resistance that has been thrown up to prevent Fiame and FAST from assuming office.
Of course, the next question, after “Why?” is: “What happens now?”
That rather depends upon how determined Washington, Canberra and Wellington are to head off China at the Samoan pass. The strength of their determination may well be indicated by the unexpected success of FAST. Certainly, in the aftermath of Tuilaepa’s incautious attack on Canberra’s aggressive posture towards China, Australia had every incentive to “assist” a changing of the guard in Apia.
Someone familiar with the way the USA’s so-called “colour revolutions” have operated in Eastern Europe might be given pause to wonder whether something akin to these has just taken place in the South Pacific. Is it possible that the Five Eyes surveillance network intercepted communications setting forth China’s long-term strategic objectives in Samoa? Could the substance of these communications (quite possibly indicating Beijing’s intention of turning Samoa into a strategic Chinese base) have been conveyed to Samoan leaders untainted by any “inappropriate” connections with Beijing? Were campaign resources and political advice made available to these leaders, enabling them to mount a highly sophisticated “surprise attack” on the HRPP? As an explanation, it has an intriguing plausibility.
What is certain is that one of the first statements made by Fiame and FAST made it clear to her Pacific neighbours that any government she led would be setting aside Samoa’s $100 million port development project with Beijing.
We also know that this coming weekend (29-30 May 2021) the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, will meet with New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern in Queenstown. What better opportunity could there be for both leaders to jointly announce their respective country’s recognition of Fiame and FAST as the sole legitimate government of Samoa? What more compelling signal could there be for US President Joe Biden to follow suit? Certainly, such a move would go a long way towards dispelling any lingering doubts about New Zealand’s commitment to its Five Eyes partners and their Indo-Pacific Strategy.
All that would then be required to restore peace and tranquillity to Samoa would be a solemn, and very private, promise from Fiame to Tuilaepa (and his cronies) that whatever they had done during their time in office would be forgiven, and that they could all look forward to an undisturbed retirement in their home villages – far, far away from Apia, the levers of power, the Chinese, and Samoa’s first female Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 27 May 2021.