National Security Risk

Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

Was Tonga’s Prime Minister, Akilisi Pohiva, a national security risk to his own country?  Parliament morphed into a shuddering scene on 18 January.  The annual swearing in ceremony looked somewhat staged to the public audience.  Arriving with his medical physician, the Prime Minister’s recital was cut short by scurrying back to Vaiola hospital’s intensive care unit after the oath taking formality.

Pohiva’s popularity plunged.  Tonga’s main political player gave a wilted performance at acting the part of a strong, sturdy, solid Prime Minister.  Rather, the sight screamed out “man overboard!”  And with that, he drenched his cabinet in a rising sea level of leadership emergency.

Scene outside parliament: Prime Minister Pohiva arrives with his medical physician from Vaiola hospital. Photograph: Matangi Tonga.



Did this exhibit sociopathic behaviour in politics?  This points to a political action showing little, if any, shame or remorse about manipulating people to achieve an ends.

See, Tongans questioned why Pohiva’s Democratic Party government should be given a hospital pass to stay in power.  A local rag, Kakalu o Tonga, argued the elderly Prime Minister had prostate cancer.  Kaniva Tonga countered the cancer story was misreporting and that the Kakalu editor said one of Pohiva’s children had threatened to sue.  As well, Pohiva’s son remarked the Prime Minister’s Office was weighing up legal action.

In line with his proud reputation as the leftist leader of one-party socialism, Pohiva reneged on settling the dispute by naming the illness.  Finally on 22 January, seventeen days after the Prime Minister was first hospitalised, his office published on the Government of Tonga website that the rumour about his alleged prostate cancer was untrue.  Missing from this public statement was public assurance that he was medically fit for four years of duty.

That was the colossal problem with Prime Minister Pohiva’s leadership.  Could he capably govern Tonga for the full term from 2018 to 2021?  Many Tongans thought he was below par.  However it was Pohiva’s office and his key advisor, Piveni Piukala, who botched public relations.

Why discount clarifying the Prime Minister’s health situation for nearly three weeks?  This worked directly against requests from citizens, journalists, and opposition MPs in parliament for the Pohiva government to act responsibly and disseminate truthful information.  The Prime Minister’s people escalated tensions in a country fractured over politics.

It’s no wonder people were surmising he was knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.  His brief appearance at parliament didn’t give the impression of a physically and mentally competent 76 year old man in shape to resume public office.  Images of a sick, skeletal figure with shaky speech were distressing.

Worse was people’s pity.  Tongans lived with anxiety that he could drop dead on the job.  Snared in a perpetual cycle of Pohiva inflicted fear, the seriousness of the matter was the Prime Minister of Tonga had put the day-to-day running of the state bureaucracy at a high national security risk.

Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.


Hospitalisation meant Pohiva wasn’t in the Prime Minister’s Office or heading his foreign ministry when government reopened on 8 January.  His absence created a power vacuum.  Pohiva’s nonappearance set off a seesaw of different interests in the state bureaucracy for control of the official narrative on foreign affairs policy.

While political journalists turned their lenses on an ailing Prime Minister, they missed the main point of public interest.  During the election period and the head of government’s time off, who was maintaining relationships with foreign countries and protecting Tonga’s national interests and border security?  And what stories were they spinning on the international table?

Public criticism hit out at the most obvious transgression.  It was contended that Akilisi Pohiva’s questionable physical and mental ability under ill-health affected his decision making as government’s leader.  Choosing not to resign under toe-curling health circumstances which saw him laid up in a hospital bed for weeks, what were his chances of readmission in the road ahead?  His rickety return was thus perceived a deliberate and destabilising mistake.

Pohiva’s cabinet. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world Tonga’s headless chook, the Pohiva government, underwent human rights surgery on 15 January.  Radio New Zealand reported a panel of United Nations member states dissected the Kingdom’s human rights record for its third review, which seemed worse for wear than the 2013 evaluation under the Tu’ivakano administration.

The dominant scenario was that Tonga did three things badly: women’s rights, domestic violence, and government corruption.  Significantly, national dialogue on the research methods defining and confining our people, our country, our men in a box labelled sexist and violent to women and cancerous to the core of state corruption, had been silenced.

Journalists weren’t poking around that dark crevice.  Why would they?  Here was the mother of all stories to indiscriminately label Tongan males, especially politicians and senior bureaucrats, at the lowest ranking for men worldwide.  It fettered to a counter narrative that had sprouted under Pohiva’s Prime Ministership in resistance to his regime.

A pattern of populist behaviour reared its dangerous head.  That is, not one social critic argued that this was an institutional by-product of cultivating stereotypes, rather than problem solving.

From the panel of seven United Nations member states, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland pitched unswerving questions at Tonga.


What steps is the government of Tonga taking to establish a national human rights institution in accordance with Paris principles?

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Sione Sisifa (right). Photograph: ‘Akanesi Katoa.

Tonga’s solicitor general, Sione Sisifa, was the respondent.  His answers were selected by Radio New Zealand to convey a twist to doing human rights.


For small island states including Tonga the establishment of a national human rights institution is still not feasible financially and technically.  However, several actions taken by the government are in line with the Paris Principles.

Sione Sisifa.


The several actions Pohiva’s regime had taken were what, exactly?


Generally women and men receive equal pay for equal employment levels, for example within the public service.  His Majesty’s armed forces have recently reviewed the employment policies to ensure gender equality.  Tonga has no discriminatory legislation in relation to participation of women in politics.

Sione Sisifa.


Ho hum, next issue.  The United Kingdom drilled down on the Tongan government to be honest about their ratification status of human rights conventions.

In particular, they questioned the government’s commitment to endorsing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD).


What steps has Tonga taken toward acceding to or ratifying core human rights conventions and, in particular, does Tonga intend to become party to CEDAW and/or ratify CPRD?

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland


Here lay a rich political irony.  Radio New Zealand published that “Mr Sisifa said Tonga’s small community meant petitioning the King over human rights abuses is a feasible option for Tongans.”

Stop the press.  This was Akilisi Pohiva, the belligerent battler of left politics, the defender of Tongan democracy and human rights for the ordinary people.  And the public petitioned “the King over human rights abuses” by the government that Pohiva ran.

Are you serious?  Solicitor General Sisifa was dead serious.  Was CEDAW marked as the public dividing line for Pohiva’s second administration?  Yes.

Lord Tu’ivakano (centre). Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

Siaosi Sovaleni (left). Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

If the truth be told, the opposition co-led by Lord Tu’ivakano for the nobles and Siaosi Sovaleni for the independents had a firmer grasp of the human rights threesome – women’s rights, domestic violence, and state corruption in national and international law – than the government who were meant to be governing.

Strangely, the wilful neglect to Tongan lives that truly mattered had missed the press, public forums, and parliamentary debates.  It was escalating public debt.  This was hindered by a shrinking economy and household income levels which didn’t keep up with mounting inflation and the rising costs of goods and services.  Poverty alleviation was a vital conversation to saving livelihoods no one was having.

The truth was Pohiva’s regime suffered from weak headship.  Floundering in day-to-day dramas of poor governance, the regime couldn’t smell the public debt crisis under its nose.  By comparing debt levels across administrations the disparities were painfully palpable.

The Tu’vakano government from 2010 to 2014 decreased public debt in 2013 from 46.5% of GDP (gross domestic product) to 45.1%.  Contrastingly the Asian Development Bank reported that under Pohiva’s first administration public debt soared in 2014 to 2017 to over 50% of national sovereignty.  The IMF (international monetary fund) forecast for 2018 was “public debt is expected to increase slightly as percent of GDP.”

Tonga’s Legislative Assembly in session. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

While Akilisi Pohiva’s cabinet got wedged in narrow-minded party politics, the Pacific Islands Forum led by Australia and New Zealand were pursuing regional security and development finance as a shared solution to problems.  A consultation round across Pacific states was scheduled to “shape future regional policy.”


The key themes that emerge from the consultations will be used to shape future regional policy, including a regional security declaration or Biketawa Plus, and a proposed collective Forum foreign policy.  The consultations will also explore innovative development finance options for Pacific Islands Forum countries, with a report going back to the 2018 Forum Economic Ministers’ Meeting in April in Palau.

Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.


Where was Tonga’s Prime Minister and foreign minister in a political league of regional policy collaboration with eighteen member states to the Pacific Islands Forum?  He wasn’t on the playing field, maybe out with an injury, to be brutally honest.

However, Sione Sisifa’s statement to the UN human rights review committee indicated that Pohiva was marginalised in the Pacific Islands Forum security and development agenda.  Did Tonga’s Democratic Party government ascribe to a deficit model of thinking?


Tonga humbly requests member states to understand and appreciate the unique circumstances that it faces when advancing human rights protection, such as resources, strong cultural values, predominant Christian faith and the growth of liberal ideologies.

Sione Sisifa.


Limited income, culture, religion, and tolerance aren’t life circumstances that conflict and cancel each other out.  Who says that resource scarcity and strict convention prohibits Tongans from practicing human rights and attaining security and sustainable development?  If it’s the governing power conveying a disabling message to citizens then change the government, quick, and get one that’ll navigate the country safely through rough seas and changing tides.

Lord Fakafanua in the Speaker’s chair. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.


Dr Teena Brown is an anthropologist and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Maori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology.

Melino Maka, chairs the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland, New Zealand and publishes the news and current affairs website,

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