You could draw a straight line right now between Apia and the Belarus capital of Minsk – or to be more precise, between Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi and Alexander Lukashenko.
The obvious link: two powerful, arrogant old men who hate having their authority challenged.
Lukashenko, the president of benighted Belarus, has been in power for 26 years; Tuilaepa has governed Samoa for 22. The latter is so convinced of his divine right to rule that he recently told reporters he was appointed by God.
Lukashenko is currently in the gun internationally over his extraordinary act of piracy in forcing a Ryanair jet to land so that his thugs could detain a dissident who made the mistake of taking a flight through Belarusian air space.
Sanctions and condemnation are raining down on the ageing tyrant, but they are unlikely to worry him as long as he retains the support of his fellow despot, Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, far closer to home, Tuilaepa shows no sign of bowing to popular will and handing power to Fiame Naomi Mata’afa,
There is an unhappy pattern in the Pacific of men reacting badly when democracy threatens their grip on power. We saw it most dramatically in Fiji, when first Sitiveni Rabuka and later Frank Bainimarama – both military bully-boys – deposed legitimate governments. At the heart of those coups lay a stubborn refusal to share power.
At times like this we’re reminded that Pacific societies are typically hierarchical, male-dominated and authoritarian. As was noted in a recent Agence France Press story (written, I suspect, by old Pacific hand Mike Field), respect for one’s elders is deeply ingrained in Pacific cultures. This doesn’t sit comfortably with democracy.
Tonga’s royal family and chiefly caste have ceded power slowly and grudgingly. In Fiji, those accustomed to calling the shots reacted badly when they saw their power being threatened by Fiji Indians. In Samoa, Tuilaepa’s bitter resentment of the recent election result is no doubt compounded by the fact that he was beaten by a woman.
This is a man whose status is enhanced by a string of traditional chiefly titles and who is therefore accustomed to deference. His bloated sense of self-importance was evident in 2014 when he ordered a teenage boy arrested and put in prison for his part in a video mocking him – this after the boy’s family had already been punished by being fined more than $NZ5000, 30 cartons of tinned fish and two cows.
What this tells us is that traditional Polynesian culture can serve as an excuse for a form of feudalism. If a transfer of power in Samoa helps to erode the power of pompous old men like Tuilaepa, that can be no bad thing.
[As an afterthought, perhaps that line linking Apia and Minsk could take a detour via Invercargill, where Tim Shadbolt has been mayor since 1998. He’s now 73 and exhibits all the symptoms of an old man who refuses to accept that he’s past it.
Right now he presides over a plainly dysfunctional council. He’s refusing to reveal why his driver’s licence was recently suspended and his frustrated deputy mayor, who revealed today that he hasn’t spoken to Shadbolt for weeks, has indicated he’ll stand down at the next elections. He’s the third deputy mayor in as many years.
But don’t expect Shadbolt to take responsibility for this mess, any more than he accepted any blame when an independent review found that tensions on the council were caused by a leadership void.
No doubt he’ll rely on his goofy grin to get him elected yet again, but surely the long-suffering voters of Invercargill must see through him by now. ]