Despite a veneer of democracy, Samoa is sliding into autocracy

Patricia A. O’Brien, Georgetown UniversityThe fragility of democracy in Samoa has been on full display in the past month. On April 9, voters used the national election to deliver a powerful rebuke to the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), which has ruled their Pacific nation for four decades as a virtual one-party state.

Initially, the HRPP was locked in a dead heat (25 seats each) with the Fa’atuatua I Le Atua Samoa Ua Tasi (FAST) party, with one independent candidate, Tuala Tevaga Iosefo Ponifasio, deciding the victor.

FAST was formed in protest against the government rushing three bills into law in 2020 that fundamentally altered Samoa’s constitutional, judicial and customary frameworks. The stunning election results registered the depth of anger about this legislation and the desire for change.

But on the eve of Tuala’s announcement he would join FAST and launch a new political era, troubling events began. On April 20, Samoa’s Election Commissioner announced via social media that a new 52nd parliamentary seat had been created and signed into law by the head of state, Afioga Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi. An HRPP candidate was installed in the seat. This announcement denied FAST (headed by a former deputy prime minister, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa) its one-seat majority and victory.

On May 4, when the Supreme Court of Samoa questioned the 52nd-seat manoeuvre, the head of state (who was appointed by the government) declared the April 9 election results void and that a new snap election would be held on May 21. He also questioned the impartiality of Samoa’s highest court.

Read more:
Samoa’s stunning election result: on the verge of a new ruling party for the first time in 40 years

Caretaker Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who has held that office since 1998, declared himself “shocked” by the head of state’s announcement, but thought an electoral rerun would make the people’s will more “clear”. He also asserted he was appointed to rule Samoa by the highest authority of all: God.

On May 17, the Supreme Court declared the 52nd seat unconstitutional, giving FAST back its one member majority. The Supreme Court will soon decide on the voided election too – it is unlikely to be in favour.

But the HRPP has sown the seeds for a direct confrontation between the head of state and the judiciary. The HRPP is likely to continue the push for the second election, having denounced the courts, the Samoan diaspora, Facebook, protesters and Samoa’s leading newspaper, which strongly opposes Tuilaepa’s actions.

The people of Samoa have saved democracy in their country before – they may now have to do so again.

Scepticism abounds about how orderly a rerun election will be, given the extraordinary events since April 9. Despite a veneer of democracy, Samoa is ominously facing an autocratic future.

Samoa has struggled with autocracy and democracy before. The 1920s were a tempestuous time for the nation, which was reeling from the devastation of the influenza epidemic that killed more than one in five of its people. (Due to closed borders Samoa has been almost free of COVID-19, but the economic, social and political impacts of eligible voters being unable to return home to cast ballots have been considerable.)

The 1918 pandemic aftershocks resulted in a mass civil disobedience campaign known as the Mau (stance) Movement. It laid the blame for the calamity solely at the feet of New Zealand, which took over the German colonial regime in its first action of the first world war. So intense was the public’s anger, the new administrator brought in to quell the situation likened ruling Samoa to sitting on top of a “volcano”.

One of the Mau leaders was Ta’isi O.F. Nelson. He relentlessly fought New Zealand’s autocractic rule, likening the administrator’s powers to that of a “dictator”. He was singled out by New Zealand as the “cause of all the trouble”. Ta’isi was exiled from Samoa for ten years, imprisoned and financially ruined for the peaceful, multifaceted, international campaign he led.

Samoan protests intensified especially when New Zealand attempted to alter the functioning of Samoan customs. With the endorsement of Britain and the League of Nations (Samoa was one of the league’s mandated territories from 1920), New Zealand met the peaceful protests with military force. This led to the infamous 1929 Black Saturday Massacre, which killed nine protesters including Mau leader Tupua Tamasese Lea’lofi. The ongoing Mau campaign succeeded in Samoa becoming the Pacific’s first independent nation in 1962 and its most “stable democracy”.

This history is detailed in my book, Tautai (navigator). In 2021, the history of Samoans’ passionate fight against autocratic rule should be well remembered, as there are many echoes of it in the present crisis.

Widespread anger against the three 2020 laws, attacks on censorious press and even Tuilaepa’s singling out of Ta’isi’s grandson, who was both a former prime minister and head of state, as the “mastermind” behind FAST’s campaign strategy, are some of the most apparent similiarities.

Read more:
Devastated by disease in the past, Samoa is on high alert after recent coronavirus scares

The corrosion of democracy in Samoa is part of a global trend. China’s growing influence in Samoa under Tuilaepa shadows current events. But, in the coming days, democracy’s endurance will be tested and, hopefully, saved by Samoa’s people and institutions.The Conversation

Patricia A. O’Brien, Visiting Fellow, School of History, Australian National University, and Adjunct Professor, Asian Studies Program, Georgetown University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Funeral incident leads to disproportionate response from Muslim mobs, police.

ISTANBUL, November 21 (Compass Direct News) – Authorities in an Egyptian village arrested 50 Coptic Christians, whose shops were then looted, to pacify Muslims following violence that erupted on Nov. 4 over a Christian boy’s unwitting break with custom.

Muslim villagers attacked the homes and shops of Coptic Christians in violence-prone Tayyiba, a town with 35,000 Christians and 10,000 Muslims, after 14-year-old Copt Mina William failed to dismount his donkey as a funeral procession passed.

William was watching the procession in Tayibba, 220 kilometers (137 miles) south of Cairo, with Nathan Yaccoub, also 14. William’s failure to dismount violated a local custom of showing respect, Copts United reported, and members of the procession reportedly beat him before completing the procession. William suffered minor injuries.

After the funeral procession, the processional members began throwing stones at the homes of local Copts and attacking their shops before police broke up the crowd with tear gas.

A priest said members of the procession did not attack the youths for showing disrespect but as an excuse to lash out against the community’s Christians for a previous episode of sectarian violence.

“These two children with the donkey didn’t know about the traditions,” said Father Metias Nasr, a Cairo-based priest with connections in areas south of the capital. “The Muslims there were angry about the last case of violence and wanted to create a new problem with these two children there.”

When the violence began, police presence increased significantly in the city. But rather than quell the unrest, police reportedly made matters worse for the Christians. After breaking up the crowd, officers detained 50 Copts and 10 Muslims.

A source told Compass that police arrested a disproportionate amount of Christians to create a false sense of equanimity and to pressure the Christians into “reconciliation” with the attackers so the Copts would not prosecute them. The arrested Christians have since been released.

In the two weeks since the attacks and looting, the increased police force in the village has harassed Copts through intimidation, “fines” and racketeering. Police have taken an estimated $50,000 from village Copts, the source said.

Once police lifted the curfew, Coptic shopkeepers returned to their stores to discover that they had been looted. Sources said the perpetrators were “supply inspectors,” local government inspectors who do quality control checks on goods. They gained access by smashing locks and doors of the shops.

The sources said supply inspectors plundered grocery stores, a poultry shop, an electronics store and a pharmacy.

According to Coptic weekly Watani, looters stole nearly $2,000 worth of goods from grocer Bishara Gayed. Another victim of the looting, an owner of a poultry shop who declined to give his name, blamed supply inspectors for running off with his stock.

A local clergyman condemned the violence.

“It is unreasonable that a mistake by some 14-year-old should lead to all that rampage,” a village Coptic priest known as Father Augustinus told Watani. “Something ought to be done to halt all this.”


Orphanage Bulldozed

Numerous instances of sectarian violence have struck Tayyiba in the last few months.

Last month a Coptic Christian was killed over a dispute with a Muslim who wanted to buy his house. Violence escalated, resulting in damaged storefronts, 48 arrests and injuries sustained by three Christians and a Muslim.

Such quarrels typically arise from land ownership issues. A Coptic source told Compass that Christians in Tayyiba are generally wealthier than their Muslim counterparts, often leading to resentment.

Tayyiba was stable at press time, though the town is considered to be continually in danger of religious violence flaring. This situation is common throughout Egypt, Fr. Nasr told Compass.

“The village is like anywhere in Egypt,” he said. “In every place in Egypt we can say that in one minute everyone can be destroyed by fanatics, sometimes through the encouragement of security [forces].”

The Coptic Church has faced recent difficulties in other Egyptian cities, with government officials attempting to obstruct their religious activities. On Wednesday (Nov. 19), city officials in Lumbroso, Alexandria destroyed an unfinished but recently furnished Coptic orphanage owned by Abu-Seifein Church and worth 6 million Egyptian pounds (US$1 million).

Officials claimed the building did not have a license, although church leaders said the demolition came on orders from the religiously zealous Islamic mayor. Ali Labib, former head of police and state security in Alexandria, in his two-year tenure as mayor has refused license applications for new church construction or rebuilding, said a Cairo-based Coptic priest who requested anonymity.

The priest said the orphanage was only able to obtain a license because it was issued before Labib’s tenure.

Islam is a growing presence in Egypt’s public sphere. While the government has attempted to crack down on extremists, Islamic civil groups that have drawn widespread support by offering cheap medical assistance and private lessons to school children include the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization with jihad in its credo that has been accused of violence.

The Muslim Brotherhood is well regarded by the average Egyptian, who equates the government with autocracy, corruption and repression, author and intellectual Tarek Heggy reportedly said. Over the last four decades, the Muslim Brotherhood has introduced its brand of fundamentalist Islam into Egyptian schools, mosques and media, he added.

Egypt’s ethnic Christians, known as Copts, belong to the Orthodox Church and number 12 million among the country’s 79 million inhabitants. There are smaller groups of Catholics and Protestants.  

Report from Compass Direct News