Healthy at birth, Papua New Guinea now gravely ill with the disease of corruption

Rowan Callick, 26/12/09

A fortnight ago, Papua New Guinea’s top corruption fighter, Chief Ombudsman Chronox Manek, arrived home in his Nissan Patrol from a function at about 10.30pm, and stopped in front of the gate to the Port Moresby house. Two cars, which had followed him, suddenly turned off the road and hemmed his vehicle in. He rammed one of the other cars, but three men leaped from the second, and began shooting at him. A bullet went through his shoulder, and he slumped forward. He had hit his car horn to alert his family, and the attackers drove off. Manek said they had left him for dead. It was a miracle he survived, he said. Despite being dizzy from loss of blood, he drove to hospital. He returned to work this week. But neither the police nor the Ombudsman Commission are saying where the investigation is heading, beyond Police Commissioner Gari Baki’s routine pronouncement: “We are determined to get to the bottom of this.”

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Such violence might have been an opportunistic robbery, or a planned act over personal issues unrelated to Manek’s job as corruption-buster. The alternative is that it was a “professional” assassination attempt. That should be easier to solve, since the suspects would be limited to those under investigation by Manek — though they include some of the country’s most powerful politicians.
It would also fit into a pattern of politically motivated violence that has long marred PNG’s public life.
Assassinations are not new to PNG. Before independence, in 1971, Australian district commissioner Jack Emmanuel was stabbed to death near Rabaul as the push for independence intensified. Prisons commissioner Pious Kerepia was also stabbed to death,
at his home in Port Moresby, in 1990. Bougainville leader Theodore Miriung, viewed by some as saintly, was shot in front of his wife and five children at home in 1996. In 1997, another Bougainville politician, Thomas Batakai, was shot in front of his wife in the garden of their home.
In 1989, there was an attempt to kill Australian judge Tos Barnett as he concluded an inquiry into corruption in the forest industry.
If the Manek shooting was politically driven, it encapsulates the cause of PNG’s frustrating failure to improve living standards significantly over the past 30 years.
That cause is corruption. It is no coincidence that global corruption agency Transparency International rates it 154th out of 180 countries on its annual rating, with the 180th being the worst.
At independence in 1975, PNG was a reasonably well-run country with a great deal of optimism and an easy self-confidence. Civil society was strong, and crime rates modest. It caused a sensation when the Ombudsman announced a tribunal to consider the first minor leadership code breach for corruption, against a junior minister, Moses Sasakila. The “Gang of Four” top public servants, two of whom — Mekere Morauta and Rabbie Namaliu — went on to become prime ministers, were politically blocked when they went out on a limb to urge a tough new leadership code to contain such incipient corruption.
This, in hindsight, was the nation’s crucial turning point. Corruption has turned into the virus which has undermined governments’ capacity to deliver the services essential for the progress in living standards to which Papua New Guineans feel entitled, given the country’s stream of successful resource projects, its massive aid injections, and its underlying agricultural base. What chance is there, then, that PNG can manage effectively the huge Exxon Mobilled liquefied natural gas project, which will be by far the biggest the Pacific Islands region has seen?
Construction, which starts next year, will cost almost double this year’s $9.4 billion gross domestic product.
Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare — who has championed a second LNG project — acknowledged the extent of this challenge in a speech to his own staff Christmas party on Tuesday.
He admitted: “We have not trained our people for the projects, which will require between 8000 and 10,000 workers.”
Exxon, he said, was asking for 500 drivers. “How do we get 500 drivers in a day?” The answer is that they will come from largely Asian guest workers, likely to live in a camp to be built near Port Moresby. The prospects for heightened violence in a city full of unskilled, unemployed, frustrated young men are immense.
How, Somare asked, can PNG plan to use the vast funds that will start to flow when the Exxon project begins producing in 2014.
The answer is by setting up a sovereign wealth fund to capture revenues deemed as surplus to routine requirements, and investing them for the longer term.
But recently, when the 2010 budget was handed down, Treasury Secretary Simon Tosali described the massive draw-downs from trust accounts this year as “excessive government spending”. A high proportion of government spending is now paid out by cheque to individual MPs, who provide little or no accounting for the development projects they claim to assist.
Last year, the Auditor-General said corrupt officials had stolen about $360m annually in recent years. Isaac Lupari, the government’s top bureaucrat, was sacked for failing to establish an inquiry into $80m missing from the finance department’s accounts.
Freedom House, a Washington-based organisation that researches democracy and freedom around the world, said in a recent report: “The Ombudsman Commission has named the police department PNG’s most corrupt government agency. The correctional service is short of staff, and prison conditions are poor. Prison breaks are not uncommon.
“Serious crimes, including fire-arms smuggling, rape, murder, and drug trafficking, continue to increase. Weak governance and law enforcement are said to have made PNG a base for many Asian organised crime groups.
“Tribal feuds over land, titles, religious beliefs, and perceived insults frequently lead to violence and deaths. Inadequate law enforcement and the increased availability of guns have exacerbated this problem. Violence against women is widespread. Attacks on ethnic Chinese and their businesses have become more frequent in recent years.”
Chronox Manek is unlikely to be the last victim.