Zoo Two

Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

Zoo Two read like a political recipe for another flopped cake in the oven.  Something felt off about the ingredients of this cabinet.  A menacing question resurfaced: had Dear Leader lost his way home in the dark this time?

Alzheimer’s.  Alzheimer’s.  Alzheimer’s.  Echo.  Echo.  Echo.

See in late December 2017, Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva was having a Marxist revolution in the Kingdom of Tonga.  Speaking to Kalino Latu at Kaniva Tonga, he blamed the nobles for causing a class struggle.  The insinuation was that the government possessed the power to prise the coveted nobles’ estates off them by privatising land ownership.

The lightening gossip sped around town.  It was thought that Pohiva would put his 14 Democratic Party MPs into a cabinet of 12 posts.  He said to Kalino Latu that “he was trying to cope with the pressure of making sure his MPs were fairly rewarded with government posts when they took power.”

14 into 12 didn’t fit for starters.  But Dear Leader would’ve had his leftist regime from top to tail.  Like magic, the Tongan government morphed into Fidel Castro’s 1950s Cuban communism.


I would tell you it would be very difficult to work together with them because of that.  If we changed those laws to allow the people to own those lands I can tell you the nobles would not like it.

Akilisi Pohiva.


Let’s fix that for you: it would be impossible for Pohiva’s Democratic Party MPs to work together with the nobles if they ever attempted a mutinous plot to cut the King and the nobility out of their legal estate holdings.  By constitutional law, only the nobles’ representatives can vote in parliament on their rights and privileges.


Privileges of Nobles.

It shall be lawful for only the nobles of the Legislative Assembly to discuss or vote upon laws relating to the King or the Royal Family or the titles and inheritances of the nobles and after any such bill has been passed three times by a majority of the nobles of the Legislative Assembly it shall be submitted to the King for his sanction.

Act of Constitution 1988, Section 67.


Some poor soul must’ve taken the liberty to explain that giant problem to Dear Leader because abruptly in the New Year of 2018 he changed his aging mind.

Instead he drove the Democratic Party headfirst into a roadblock.  Dear Leader threw out two party MPs from cabinet to be replaced by two outsiders.  First the Noble Ma’afu, his former lands minister was to resume his post.  Wait.  Hadn’t Pohiva declared war on the noblemen’s lands?  Yes he did.  Perhaps he was praying the nobles had forgotten the insolent threats.  Fat chance.

Lord Ma’afu. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.



Second, Pohiva put his advisor who wasn’t elected to parliament in the labour and commerce portfolio.  The advisor was a private shipping operator alleged to owe fees to the Nuku’alofa Ports Authority and taxes to the Ministry of Revenue.  What?  The Prime Minister deliberately ditched Losaline Ma’asi, one of two women MPs in the Democratic Party with public administration experience to run the labour ministry for Tui Uata from outside the government, parliament, and public sector.

Why?  Here’s where the story got stormy before parliament had been sworn in.  Discord leaked out of the Democratic Party camp because Pohiva put elected MPs on the reserve bench and wouldn’t play them on the team.  Four were pushed outside government while two outsiders, Lord Ma’afu Tui Uata, crept inside government.

Could Pohiva justify his MPs were fairly rewarded in government for their loyalty and hard work campaigning for seats?   His very action conflicted with a desire for a party government, as Vuna Fa’otusia, Pohiva’s justice minister expressed to Kaniva Tonga.


The 14 Members of Parliament elected by the people from PTOA [Tongan Democratic Party] after the snap election have the expertise and experience as well as the academic qualifications to run the government.

Vuna Fa’otusia.


However, the seriousness of Pohiva’s actions lay in the questioning of Tui Uata’s suitability for cabinet and the nature of his relationship with the Prime Minister.  What was their connection?  16/11 Black Friday, meaning the Nuku’alofa riot in which a civil uprising caused 80% of the Central Business District to burn to the ground on November 16th, 2006.

Aftermath of the Nuku’alofa riot. Photograph: Agence France-Presse.


The Crown on Friday withdrew six charges against political activist Akilisi Pohiva.  The dropped charges related to the burning and looting of buildings in the riots, which left eight dead and destroyed large parts of Nuku’alofa, the capital.

New Zealand Press Association.


In 2009 Pohiva with four other people’s representatives – one being Uliti Uata, Tui Uata’s father – was cleared of all charges, as well as sedition, “related to the burning and looting” of Nuku’alofa on 16/11.  But a shadow of doubt and distrust hung over him and his Democratic Party associates, including Tui Uata, who had staged a political rally to seize the government before violence erupted, destroying the town.

Kalafi Moala’s book, In Search of the Friendly Islands, captured the political extremism propelling the riot.


The climatic crescendo of the Pangai Si’i demonstration started on Tuesday the 14th, when ‘Akilisi Pohiva spoke to the group that gathered, and literally put out a call to war.  He said: “We will assert our rights by force, and snatch power and authority.”

Kalafi Moala.


On December 30th 3017, Moala Pahulu uploaded a video clip to Facebook of Tui Uata leading a kava discussion with male Democratic Party supporters on board his private vessel, the Queen Mary.  Uata’s anti-monarchy and anti-nobility feelings were stated loud and clear.

And that was a red flag warning for the independents and nobles to organise and mobilise for parliamentary duty.  If one thing was certain, the opposition would rock the House in resistance to Pohiva’s mob politics.

Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

The thing was, might the disagreement spiral into dissent this early on in the piece.  Here was a vital pressure point the opposition MPs could press down on to try to swing votes up and win a vote of no confidence against the Prime Minister.

Was a vote of no confidence likely 18 months down the line?  Either that or an impeachment for two reasons; public pressure and scrapping the Pacific Games.  What does impeachment look like? 


It shall be lawful for the members of the Legislative Assembly to impeach any Privy Councillor, Minister, Governor, or Judge for any of the following offences – Breach of the laws or the resolutions of the Legislative Assembly, maladministration, incompetency, destruction or embezzlement of Government property, or the performance of acts which may lead to difficulties between this and another country.

Act of Constitution 1988, Section 75.


Breach of laws and incompetency seemed a perfect fit for Pohiva’s regime getting sued by the Pacific Games Council.  The Tongan government had been accused of breaching their contract by withdrawing as hosts for the 2019 Pacific Games.


The PGC [Pacific Games Council) has instructed its legal counsel in Tonga, William Edwards Jnr, to take initial steps to seek damages, which may amount to millions.  Tonga pulled out as hosts in June [2017].  PGC warned in June that under the hosting contract, Tonga would underwrite the cost of the 2019 Games even if it is held in another country.

The Vanuatu Independent.


Tonga’s political context was that 60% of the country’s population over the age of 21 years who turned up at their constituency ballot for the general election on November 16th, gave their ticks to independent MPs.  If the Tongan electoral system put the correct proportion of MPs in parliament to accurately represent the people’s votes, there would be more independent MPs than Democratic Party MPs, and Siaosi Sovaleni would’ve been elected Prime Minister.

Noting that, an undercurrent of discontent with Pohiva’s re-election for a second term was fertilised to grow into political agitation.  No doubt the opposition would be placed under strong public pressure to change the Prime Minister and government.

Lord Tu’ivakano. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

The kitchen-sink cabinet was busted already.  What really caused this?  Dear Leader’s wonky driving.  Truly, he hadn’t proven to be very good at the road rules of governing a country from the last time he was took the wheel.  This was the reason why King Tupou VI used his royal prerogative to dissolve parliament on the advice of the Lord Speaker, Tu’ivakano.

Parliament’s dissolution meant Pohiva’s 2014 to 2017 government went down the gurgler.  As well, his personal disdain for Tu’ivakano spun out of control.  Venting his contempt to Kaniva Tonga, he ranted that Tu’ivakano’s advice to dissolve parliament was “worth nothing.”  His exact words were, “he no longer trusted Lord Tu’ivakano.”  At the Prime Minister’s election on December 18th, his 14 Democratic Party MPs would vote to replace him as Speaker.


I am wondering what Tu’ivakano would think after the elections.

Akilisi Pohiva.


Let’s fix this up too: I wonder if Tu’ivakano is spewing blood because I am Prime Minister for a second term.  He is not going to be Lord Speaker anymore.  I am replacing Tu’ivakano with Fakafanua, a nobleman I can puppet. [Insert ricochet of wicked laughter here].

The nerve-wracking situation was compounded by Pohiva’s poor health and old-age.  Let’s be serious.  At 76 years old, he struggled to meet the strenuous mental and physical demands of a suitable Head of Government.  Rumoured was that Pohiva was on medical referral and not at all fit to resume the Prime Minister’s Office.

Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

Foremost, he didn’t have a younger man’s vigour to carry a heavy workload for long hours on the daily grind.  Such as his former Deputy Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni who stood against him at the Prime Minister’s election.  Nor did he possess Sovaleni’s professional background in public administration and policy, the main leadership attribute required in today’s political climate.

The hard truth for Tonga?  Having Pohiva in the premiership was just plain limiting, not just for running an efficient government, but for the entire country’s economy and wellbeing.

How might the opposition get rid of him?  Serious question.  The earnest answer is that he was doing a mighty find job of getting rid of himself.

Journalist Michael Wolff has just published an explosive book called Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump Whitehouse raising controversial issues around the mental health and stability of the Republican President of the United States, Donald Tweeter-in-Chief Trump.

Copies have been reviewed countless times with the same prominent themes.  Here’s an excerpt from Sabrina Siddiqui’s book review for The Guardian.


Everybody was painfully aware of the increasing pace of his [Trump’s] repetitions.  Indeed, many of his tweets were the product of his repetitions – he just couldn’t stop saying something.

Michael Wolff.


Fortunately for Tongans, Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva doesn’t have a Twitter account.  It was dreadful enough that “he couldn’t stop saying something” to his media lackeys about the King’s sister, Princess Pilolevu and the King’s noblemen, particularly Lord Tu’ivakano.  Twitter ran the risk of turning into Pohiva’s weapon of mass destruction to tweet untruthful repetitions against the establishment in cyber space if he went Trump and got his hands on the phone app.  God forbid.

His obsession with libelling the Princess and the nobility earned him repeated defamation suits.  The latest case entered court on Monday January 8th where Clive Edwards was legal counsel for Tu’ivakano vs Pohiva.

Lord Tu’ivakano. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

Defamation was clear in the Kaniva Tonga headline by Kalino Latu: “Reserve Bank names Speaker in list of suspicious money transfers.”  Questioning Pohiva’s actions naturally concluded he was a serial defamer.

Who was the speaker?  Lord Tu’ivakano.

Who released to the media a list of 15 names from the Tonga Reserve Bank defaming these people “as being involved in suspicious money transfers?” Akilisi Pohiva.

Were any of Pohiva’s serious allegations verifiable facts?  No.

Had the 15 people named by Pohiva been notified by the Reserve Bank about the so-called list?  No.

Therefore, what was the likely motive?  Revenge.

But it wasn’t just revenge for dissolving parliament.  No, Pohiva’s political psyche was fixed on winning a long-standing battle against Tu’ivakano for popularity and premiership.

Whatever one’s political views of Tu’ivakano, his was the most steady Tongan government after the 2010 political reform.  Pohiva’s two terms have been the opposite – the regime to destabilise the country’s polity and economy.  There’s the motive for revenge.

And that was the sociopathic pattern of Democratic Party behaviour traced to tensions triggering the 2006 Nuku’alofa riot.  Kalafi Moala explained it best.


They [Pohiva and the Democrats] want reform but they only want it to come from them.  They want credit for whatever changes were to be brought about.  Their former friend and pro-democracy advocate, the Prime Minister [Feleti Sevele], was actively steering the reform process.  That was unacceptable to them.  Where would that leave us, they asked?  And what if at the end, we have a more democratic Tonga but lose our political positioning?

Kalafi Moala.


The twisted truth was, Pohiva and his people in power weren’t about to let a noble – like Tu’ivakano, go down in history as running a more democratically progressive government than the actual Democrats.  Rather, they’d create alternative facts to blame the former Prime Ministers Tu’ivakano and Feleti Sevele for anything and everything they could blame them for.

Siaosi Sovaleni. Photograph: Fale Alea o Tonga.

Pohiva’s next special target was Siaosi Sovaleni who now leads parliament’s opposition with Tu’ivakano.  A popular politician and hoped for Prime Minister at the 2021 election, the pro-Sovaleni chorus sung in social media is “hurry up 2021.”  Needless to say, in his media outbursts Pohiva had swung wildly at him too.  Not that Sovaleni’s taken his old boss to court for defamation – yet.

He hates them all.  And hate isn’t too strong a word to describe the hostile animosity that Pohiva’s cult of personality fanatics spread in their speech and behaviour to the Prime Minister’s enemies he’s identified, smeared, slandered, and targeted.

The same plea from Americans to the family of President Trump apply in principle here: “get your family out of the Whitehouse.”  To Prime Minister Pohiva’s children, consider your father’s age and health.  Is he truly capable of hauling a Head of Government workload at 76 years old?  Do his media communications and decision to put Tui Uata in cabinet make logical sense?

No they don’t.  Nothing about his thinking and decisions make sense to the overwhelming majority of Tongans.  And if they don’t, get a solution in Tonga’s best interests – like medical retirement.

Lord Fakafanua and Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva. 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, tonganz.net.

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