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CULT OF KORAPSEN

The following thumbnails are of a Time magazine article in the 22/4/02 edition concerning corruption in Papua New Guinea, the article has been transcribed below, it's an interesting read. 

Papua New Guinea voters must choose between the easy rewards of corruption and the bitter medicine of reform. Will the nation cure its cancer or be killed by it?

By ELIZABETH FEIZKHAH MADANG

IT'S FRIDAY IN GOROKA - PAYDAY FOR those townsfolk lucky enough to have a job. By nightfall, they're crowded into the Lahani Club, a flat-roofed beer hall thumping with country music. People who can afford to meet the clean-clothes-and-shoes dress code come here to escape begging wantoks (friends and kin) and try to turn their meager wages into "win money" on the club's 50 poker machines. "I always stop after 20 kina" - $6, about one-third of his weekly wage - says Jena Kano, a wiry man who works for a local coffee exporter. "But some people play and play until their whole pay packet is gone." Says Roger Gimbe, a chef at a local hotel: "In Papua New Guinea, everyone dreams of winning the jackpot." Playing the pokies is what the "small people" do. The big men - the ambitious and well connected - go in for a more rewarding game. It's called politics, and if you pull the right levers, you can't lose.

It's a running joke in P.N.G. that politicians are seldom seen outside the capital, Port Moresby. But in the run-up to the June 15 election, the entire country will become their casino. More than 2,000 candidates will be laying out pig roasts and promises in hopes of winning one of the 109 seats in Parliament. Gabriel Dusava, from Yangoru, near the Sepik river, is standing for the People's Progress Party, one of 43 parties contesting this poll. A former diplomat, he became an M.P. in 1997 but was soon dismissed for misconduct - "a procedural matter," he says, pursued "for reasons known only to my political enemies." He's standing again because his people need good leadership after "a lot of corruption, impropriety and humbug." But many candidates don't share his lofty motives. "A lot of people," says Dusava, "see politics as a way to get rich."

A new M.P. is already well off by P.N.G. standards. He earns $13,000 a year, more than 40 times the minimum wage. But it's not just a good salary that inspires dozens of professionals to nominate, draining the civil service, hospitals and schools of senior staff. And it's not just for the satisfactions of leadership that illiterate villagers run up huge debts campaigning. "I talk to young blokes who are standing," says Greg Anderson, executive director of the P.N.G. Chamber of Mines. "And I tell them, `You're stupid. You'll spend all your cash, you'll throw away your career.' These are good people, but they're besotted with this election business; it's like a drug. They say, `I'll be a big man, I'll be rich overnight."'

Such dreams are hard to crush, adds Anderson, when so many former politicians are millionaires. "You'll see a guy stand for Parliament," says Goroka coffee planter Brian Greathead. "One week he's a village man, the next week he's an M.P., the next he might be a minister of state. And the next thing you hear, he's tripping around the world and got a house in Queensland. And people say, `How did that happen?"'

Speakers of Tok Pisin, P.N.G.'s common language, don't need many words?1,500 or so. But in recent years they've had to learn a new one: korapsen. As election fever grows, talk of corruption is everywhere. Teachers, preachers, women's groups, business associations and politicians are all urging voters to choose "good leaders" who will put the national interest before personal gain. Cleaning up government was one of Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta's goals when he came to power in 1999. His efforts have won praise from anticorruption group Transparency International, the IMF, aid donors and churches. Corruption "has been spreading its tentacles for many years," says Morauta; it now pervades every area of national life. And it's in many politicians' interest to block reform. But if the culture of corruption is not rooted out, warned the Catholic Bishops Conference last year, it "may endanger the survival of P.N.G. as a viable democratic state."

Even the humblest citizens know what korapsen is. "Politicians think about themselves, they don't think about the people," says Simon, a young man with betel-reddened teeth who scavenges a living on Goroka's streets. But P.N.G.'s people think about their leaders a great deal. If they can't read the newspapers, gossip carries the news. And almost every day it brings fresh insights from Parliament, the Ombudsman and commissions of inquiry into the workings of what former National newspaper editor Frank Kolma (who is standing for Parliament) calls "government of the people by the elites for the elites." Whenever corrupt M.P.s or their wantoks have had access to public funds, it seems, they've helped themselves: in the past decade, uncounted millions of kina have been plundered.

Money that should have been spent on electricity, health care, education and rural development has been funneled into private bank accounts, businesses and real estate. More than 50 serving M.P.s were recently accused of spending $2 million from the national road maintenance program on flashy four-wheel-drive vehicles and motorboats. In a case that riles Lahani Club patrons, $4 million set aside for community projects by the National Gaming Board, which collects taxes on poker machines, was allegedly pocketed by a small group of M.P.s.

Abuses have also been committed by the wantoks whom corrupt politicians install in civil-service jobs. Morris Alaluku, from Milne Bay in eastern P.N.G., headed the national Lands department until he was replaced two years ago in what he terms a "political" move. He says he saw many cases where "heads of department were appointed at the minister's pleasure, and valuable lands were granted without proper procedures." When Madang lawyer Young Wadau worked for the Harbours Board in the mid '90s, "ministers would try to contract their own companies to build and manage wharves," he recalls. "Some tried to get the national stevedoring business for their wantoks." When Wadau objected, he says, "They threw me out."

The results of corruption are felt far from the capital. While the "money people" zip along the new highway between Port Moresby's government district and the airport, people in rural areas struggle over potholed tracks that only optimists would call roads. John Leahy is a Goroka businessman whose grandfathers were an Australian explorer and a village headman. At election time, he says, "politicians helicopter in to villages where the people have to carry their coffee to market and their sick to hospital on foot because the roads are gone." Outside big towns, power cuts are frequent, schools lack desks, hospitals are short of drugs, police cars have no fuel. The lack of funding for basic services, says Sir Anthony Siaguru, chairman of Transparency International P.N.G., "is directly related to corruption perpetrated by public servants and politicians pilfering from the public purse." Chef Gimbe is gloomy. "I feel it will get worse," he says. "If they try to fix the roads, it will take money from education. The government will never have enough money to fix everything."

In some places, only charity keeps things going. "People are going to local businesses and missions for money and services," says Leahy's wife Cynthia, who runs literacy programs for women, "because they haven't had anything from the government for so long." In the coastal town of Madang, hotelier Sir Peter Barter's Melanesian Foundation last year rebuilt two court houses after they collapsed. "The floors were rotten," he says. "There was nowhere to sit. You had to walk up a log to get inside."

Near the Parliament building in Port Moresby, a billboard proclaims a verse from the Book of Proverbs: "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people suffer." Not far away, at the headquarters of the Catholic Bishops Conference of P.N.G., general secretary Lawrence Stephens is feeling the irony. "There are a lot of good people who are constantly fighting to get things done," he says, trying to coax his ceiling fan to life in one of the capital's regular brown?outs. "But others seem to feel there's no point trying to make the system work we'll just make it look as if it's working."

THE SYSTEM SHOULD WORK. P.N.G. has a democratic constitution, a vigorous press, staunchly independent judges and a powerful ombudsman. Its leaders are probably no more venal than their counterparts in Washington or Canberra after all, it wasn't Papua New Guineans who invented pork barreling or "jobs for the boys." But the cultural norms that help limit corruption in the developed world are new to P.N.G., where tribal societies had to put their own interests first or die. "In traditional village life," says Father Jan Czuba, a former anthropologist who is president of Madang's Divine Word University, "the mentality was, `What is good for me and my clan is right. If I take something for my clan or myself, I am doing right"'

When there was no way to store meat for tomorrow, it made sense to stuff yourself today. When survival depended on your wantoks' support, it made sense to keep them onside with gifts and favors. But the tenacity of these customs in modern P.N.G. has given rise to a shadow political system based on bribery and opportunism? one that undermines the constitutional system as surely as white ants eat away the stilts of a village house.

Politicians aren't the only players in this off-the-books game. Ordinary people must also take part or risk losing their share of the pot. As a voter, says Transparency's Siaguru, "you want to try and get in as your M.P. someone living nearby or closely related to you, who is guaranteed to put you and yours before everyone else - apart from himself, of course." Fierce competition makes M.P.s vulnerable - half are turfed out after one five-year term and many resort to bribing voters. "People don't care about experience, knowledge or the background of politicians," says chef Gimbe, "only whether they are close to them and can give them things and jobs."

Groups whose candidate fails to win a seat may be left to fend for themselves. In the Highlands, landowners block roads and charge a toll to let drivers pass, or claim compensation for letting development projects go ahead. Last year the University of Goroka was shut down for a month by villagers demanding $800,000 for the land it occupies (they got it). Individuals, too, succumb to the grab-it-now mentality. Postal workers steal parcels, students bribe teachers for better grades, police sell rifles to criminals. People with jobs collect paychecks but don't show up for work, or connive with wantoks to steal equipment from their workplace. 

Jobless young men drift to the towns, where many join raskol (criminal) gangs. Mike Hane, 29, from Heganofi in the Eastern Highlands, was an armed robber in Port Moresby until he was jailed for three years after a shootout with police. Now the only traces of his past are the inky skull-and-crossbones tattoo on his left hand and the bullet scars on his shoulder. Why do so many of his peers in the capital's squatter settlements turn to crime? "The politicians are selfish, so we have to be selfish," he says. "These times are very hard. Some people have nothing to eat. They can't even look after their wantoks, they just look after themselves." 

Captured raskols can expect prison sentences, but most corrupt big men "walk off scot-free," says lawyer Wadau,who is standing for Parliament. "Leaders who do a crime are barred from office for three years, but usually they're not prosecuted. For them it's a big joke." Ordinary folk aren't laughing. Public radio last month broadcast an election song by a Catholic youth group from Bereina, outside Port Moresby: "It's time for justice, no time for bribery ... vote righteous leaders for honesty and prosperity." Says Transparency's Siaguru: "Individuals and groups are starting to demand fair treatment regardless of links and personal relationships. Everyone is coming to the realization that we've got to stop this rot before it becomes totally endemic."

Under a tree opposite Goroka's market, a herbalist dispenses gray and brown liquids in plastic soft-drink bottles. His potions, he claims, can cure anything from asthma to AIDS. The national government has applied more conventional formulas, streamlining the public service and privatizing state authorities "so as to remove these institutions," says Morauta, "from the hands of the politicians, bureaucrats and private citizens who have destroyed them through corruption." Siaguru believes P.N.G. now has "leaders with the ability to put in place more of the right medicine, the right policies." But not everyone has faith in Morauta's therapies. In an outburst in Parliament this month, Opposition leader Bill Skate - a former Prime Minister who once jested that he was "the Godfather of Port Moresby" blamed the country's ills on Morauta and declared "all out war" on him at the ballot box.

In Goroka, chef Gimbe thinks voting is futile. "I'm sick of politics," he says. Former Lands secretary Alaluku now tends a small vanilla plantation and prefers not to think about political life. Yet he hasn't given up on politicians, many of whom, he says, are honest and well intentioned. "I have encouraged a lot of family members and other people to enroll and vote," he says. "But there are so many candidates"? at the 1997 poll, one electorate had 60?"that for all your good intentions, the good guys may not get in."

In Madang, the Assemblies of God Church and the Christian Revival Church stand side by side, separated by a low hedge. Each Sunday morning, the two congregations engage in sonic warfare, trying to drown each other out with hymns and electric guitars. In P.N.G. politics, too, two gospels are struggling for supremacy. The small people's voices are getting louder, but the song of the big men is as lusty as ever.

"When people in high places enrich themselves corruptly, those below follow their example. Soon everyone finds a way to get their share - P.N.G. Catholic Bishops Conference.

 


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