Sir Michael Thomas Somare, GCL, GCMG, CH, CF, MP (born April 9, 1936) has been Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea since 2002; he was previously Prime Minister from independence in 1975 until 1980 and again from 1982 until 1985. His first two terms were as a member of the Pangu Party, but he is now leader of the National Alliance Party. He was re-elected as Prime Minister in the 2007 election.
He is the son of Ludwig Somare Sana and Kambe Somare. Ludwig Somare was a policeman from 1922 to 1947, rising to the rank of sergeant. Having taught himself to read and write, he was subsequently active in encouraging the formation of small businesses and cooperatives, founding the Angoram Cooperative Society which he chaired from 1961 until 1967, and remained active in trading until his death in 1972. In all he had four wives and six children, of whom Michael was the eldest.
Born in Rabaul where his father was then stationed, he grew up in his family village of Karau in the Murik Lakes district of East Sepik Province. His earliest education was in a Japanese-run primary school at Karau during World War II where he learned to read, write and count in Japanese. Meanwhile his father was in hiding and fear for his life from the Japanese in Rabaul, but Somare remembers the Japanese with affection. Two of his earliest overseas trips, first as a parliamentarian and then as Prime Minister, were to Japan.
From 1946 he attended Boram Primary School, then Dregerhafen Education Center and Sogeri High School, graduating with a Leaving Certificate issued on behalf of the Australian state of Victoria in 1957. This was a teaching qualification at the time, and Somare then taught at several primary and secondary schools, returning to Sogeri High School for further training from 1962 to 1963.
Transferring within the Public Service, Somare became a radio broadcaster based in Wewak in the East Sepik Province. He received further training at the Administrative College at Waigani in 1965. Following numerous conflicts with his superiors concerning his outspoken political comments, he was transferred from broadcasting to administrative roles, and left the Public Service to contest the elections for the second House of Assembly in 1968 as a member of the Pangu Party which he had founded with other like minds in 1967.
Somare and eight other Pangu Party members were elected. They declined invitations to join the coalition government, and he became the first official opposition leader. Following the third House of Assembly elections in 1972, Somare was able to form a coalition government which included Julius Chan of the People’s Progress Party, himself later a Prime Minister, as Minister for Internal Finance. Somare became Chief Minister when self-government was granted in 1973, and was a key figure in the preparations for subsequent independence in 1975 and the preparation and adoption of the Constitution. With independence, his title changed to Prime Minister.
Ousted by a parliamentary vote of no confidence in 1980, he was again Prime Minister from 1982 until 1985, and won the office a third time in the 2002 election.
Somare has always had an interest and a pride in his background and culture. Although his initiations were interrupted several times by his career, he returned to his village regularly and completed them, culminating in his appointment as sana or peacemaker, a title inherited from his father and grandfather and conferred on him by his uncle Saub in 1973. He often chose to wear quasi-Melanesian rather than western dress (actually a Fijian “tailored sulu”) in parliament and on similar occasions, and in many old photographs is the only political leader so attired. At the time of Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975 he demanded proper dignity for Papua New Guinean leaders when he considered that Australia’s gift of an official house for Papua New Guinea’s prime minister was insufficiently grand: Australia abashedly acceded to Somare’s demands and provided a much more palatial official residence; the intended and despised prime ministerial residence was instead designated the residence of the Australian High Commissioner.
Somare’s political style was both fiercely nationalistic and purportedly conciliatory, following the tradition of Sana as he professed to see it. One of the roles of Sana is to invite enemies to a feast before any fight. Somare often appointed political enemies to posts in which they could exercise their interests and passions. In the lead-up to independence, he argued for and won citizenship and residency requirements which were both more severe than the outgoing Australian administration recommended and more moderate than most of his party wished.
In his autobiography Sana (1975), Somare describes many fascinating incidents. He tells how in 1971, he was concerned that the sacred objects, the ornately carved sacred spears or kakars and the sacred flutes, were being lost, destroyed, sold or stolen. After much negotiation with the gapars or priests he arranged to have the kakars of his village photographed. The kakars were only handled by the senior gapars, and only left or “came down” from the haus tambaran on the occasion of the gapars handing over the priestly function to another orob or generation. Somare himself was too young to be allowed to even see the kakars, but was included into the coming down ceremony as the interpreter for the photographer, who was of a suitable age to be attached to the next orob. Only after the ceremony was complete did Somare realise the enormity of the sacrifice made by the older priests to allow these photographs to be taken. Over the following days they completed the initiation of the new orob, thus denying themselves the privilege of serving as gapars ever again.
Reflecting these interests, in 1969 he was appointed chairman of the board of trustees of the Papua and New Guinea Museum.
Somare married his wife, Veronica, in 1965, having courted her in traditional fashion, and then immediately left to take up his scholarship at Administrative College. They have five children, Bertha (usually called “Betha” in the national press), Sana, Arthur, Michael junior and Dulciana. Somare is head of both his own family and that of his wife, who initiated him into their title mindamot two days after his initiation as sana. He, together with the now-Governor-General Sir Paulias Matane, makes a point of wearing a tailored Fijian skirt, known in Papua New Guinea as a laplap, rather than trousers.
During the 17 years between his second and third terms as Prime Minister, he was appointed to political posts by other Prime Ministers. He served as Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1992 in the government of Rabbie Namaliu, who would later become Foreign Minister in Somare’s government. He later served as Foreign Minister for a few months in 1999 and took this position again in July 2006. He is currently the Foreign Minister in addition to being the Prime Minister.
In March 2005 Somare was required by security officers at Brisbane Airport, Australia, to remove his shoes during a routine departure security check and took strong exception to what he considered a humiliation, leading to a diplomatic contretemps and a significant cooling of relations between the two countries. A protest march in Port Moresby saw hundreds march on the Australian High Commission demanding an apology and compensation
Tensions between Papua New Guinea and Australia worsened during the course of the Julian Moti affair, in which Somare has been implicated. Moti, a close associate of Manasseh Sogavare, the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, was arrested in Port Moresby on 29 September 2006 under an Australian extradition request to face child sex charges over an incident in Vanuatu in 1997. After breaking bail conditions and taking sanctuary in the Solomon Islands High Commission, he was flown to the Solomon Islands on a clandestine PNG Defence Force flight on the night of October 10, causing outrage on the part of the Australian government. Australia then cancelled ministerial-level talks in December and banned senior Papua New Guinea ministers from entering Australia. Somare has denied any involvement in authorising the flight.
The Somare family fortunes are amply demonstrated by the splendid family-owned office block in Waigani called Somare Haus. The Somare family makes no secret of the ample prosperity it has accumulated during the course of Sir Michael’s long political career, which is a source of considerable pride for East Sepik wantoks of the Somare family.
Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern part of the world’s second largest island and is prey to volcanic activity, earthquakes and tidal waves. Linguistically, it is the world’s most diverse country, with more than 700 native tongues.
Some 80% of Papua New Guinea’s people live in rural areas with few or no facilities.
Many tribes in the isolated mountainous interior have little contact with each other, let alone with the outside world, and live within a non-monetarised economy, dependent on subsistence agriculture.
A very small proportion of the land can sustain cash crops, including coffee and cocoa. Abundant rainforests provide the raw material for a logging industry, which is dominated by Malaysian-owned companies. Conservation groups have criticised the social and environmental impact of the activity.
Mineral deposits - including gold, copper and nickel - are extensive, but the difficult terrain and poor infrastructure make exploitation slow. There are significant reserves of oil and natural gas and the country has pinned its hopes on becoming a significant energy exporter.
Papua New Guinea had to deal with separatist forces of its own on the island of Bougainville in the 1990s. Up to 20,000 people were killed in the nine-year conflict which ended in 1997.
A peace deal signed in 2001 provided the framework for the election in 2005 of an autonomous government for Bougainville.
Papua New Guinea has strong ties with its southern neighbour, Australia, which administered the territory until independence in 1975. Canberra’s substantial aid programme aims to relieve poverty and to boost development; Australia has also despatched police officers and civil servants to support their local equivalents.
The prevalence of HIV/Aids is on the rise; some experts fear that Papua New Guinea is heading for a crisis similar to that in sub-Saharan Africa.