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
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
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
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
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 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.
Attention: Time Magazine
yes, I have reproduced part of your magazine without obtaining written
permission, I accept that I may have broken your terms of copyright however I
neither have the resources or time to formally negotiate reproduction rights
and hope that you may pardon my transgression on the basis that your article
has not been re-published for commercial gain. Please advise me if
you want this page pulled.