Sāmoa’s defeated PM using civil unrest in bid to seize back Parliament

Samoan lawyer Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu ... "It’s true power corrupts but also corrupts your judgment… [Tuila’epa] basically will not accept the fact that he lost the elections." Image: The Pacific Newsroom

SPECIAL REPORT: By Michael Field of The Pacific Newsroom

Sāmoa’s defeated prime minister is plotting civil unrest that will climax when a new Legislative Assembly holds its first meeting next month since April’s elections, says leading lawyer Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu.

She and her husband George Latu act for the election winning Faʻatuatua i le Atua Sāmoa ua Tasi (FAST) Party led by Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa.

FAST defeated the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) and its leader and former premier Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi who now refuses to accept the result.

Failing to win in the courts, Taulapapa said he was building up to a crescendo of unrest for the September 20 parliamentary opening.

She said he could be stopped by jailing him on serious charges which could include treason.

Taulapapa said there was currently HRPP intimidation of judges and lawyers, a police force unable to stop it and sabotage within the Tuila’epa controlled civil service, all aimed at returning the defeated prime minister to office.

Taulapapa had, up until 2006, worked extensively with Tuila’epa when he was prime minister for 23 years.

Parallel with Trump
In a Zoom meeting with The Pacific Newsroom, Taulapapa drew a parallel between Tuila’epa’s election defeat and that of last November’s defeat of US President Donald Trump.

Tuila’epa’s failed efforts to overturn Sāmoa’s election have left him vulnerable: “He lost the elections, he’s lost in court, and sadly the only thing I think that is left, is to create civil unrest and that is absolutely what he is doing now,” Taulapapa said.

“It is almost Trump, the Pacific edition….

“Even more so because on Monday he called all members of HRPP to go to Mulinu’ū when parliament is convened on September 20 … there can be only one reason to do that….”

She said Tuila’epa had the opportunity to end the turmoil.

“If he does not do that voluntarily then what will end this will be, being imprisoned.”

Events were moving fast.

Tuila'epa Dr Sa'ilele Malielegaoi
Samoa’s defeated former prime minister Tuila’epa Dr Sa’ilele Malielegaoi … produced his own disaster. Image: Samoa Observer

‘Building up to a crescendo’
“It is building up to a crescendo and I am not sure what that will be but it is definitely building up to something happening. We have got him doubling down, we have him on TV1, which is the HRPP channel, every night now and he is also coming on the Good Morning Show. He has really ramped it up since the decision came out and plans for more rallies and marches.”

An example of his strategy, and the risks, came last week when Tuila’epa led a HRPP group to Savai’i. They were resisted by locals who objected to their presence on the island.

“My big concern now,” Taulapapa said, “is that he is actively creating civil unrest which if you contrast that with the four months waiting for court decisions, people were patient and were respectful of the court, and now after the decision has come out, you have a leader creating this stuff, four months after the general election.”

Plotting illustrated the desperation of a 76-year-old man who was not getting the message that he had been defeated.

“It isn’t anything more than that… There is a reason you shouldn’t don’t stay so long. It’s true power corrupts but also corrupts your judgment… he basically will not accept the fact that he lost the elections.”

Taulapapa Heather-Latu has been a prominent legal figure in Sāmoa since 1997 when she was appointed Attorney-General under HRPP Prime Minister Tofilau Eti who was succeeded by Tuila’epa the following year.

She gained a vivid insight into HRPP corruption when, with George Latu, she prosecuted two cabinet ministers and one of their sons for the 1999 assassination of Works Minister Luagalau Levaula Kamu.

Acting for FAST
Following criticism from Tuila’epa, she resigned in 2006 and set up her own law firm and this year has been acting for FAST. This gave her a decisive role on May 24 when Fiamē and her party were locked out of Parliament by HRPP Speaker Leaupepe Toleafoa Fa’afisi to prevent them being sworn in as MPs.

Under Taulapapa’s direction, a swearing in ceremony was instead staged in a tent outside parliament, subsequently recognised in the Court of Appeal.

Comparisons between Tuila’epa and Trump have drawn protests from observers but Taulapapa said there was obvious similarity.

“You have someone who is the author of his own misfortune,” she said, pointing to Tuila’epa’s behaviour last year when he pushed three controversial but unnecessary bills through the Legislative Assembly.

The legislation was the Constitution Amendment Bill, the Land and Titles Bill and the Judicature Bill.

Tuila’epa chose to insult his then deputy, Fiamē, in the assembly and unnecessarily prolonged parliament late last year.

One result was that HRPP formally had 20 seats on Savai’i but following the elections 18 had gone to FAST.

‘Master strategist – so past it’
Tuila’epa was “prideful about being the master political strategist, and he is so past it,” Taulapapa said.

And within HRPP after the election defeat “absolutely no squeak from HRPP about accountability, why did we lose?” HRPP itself was “comatose and about to slip into oblivion.”

The defeated prime minister produced his own disaster: “He is belligerent, he is bombastic, he is abusive, so when he prolonged Parliament, instead of the normal 10 days, he prolonged it five weeks at the end of the year.

“Most old people have their radios on Parliament when it is sitting, and they were treated to five weeks of unmitigated abuse. For a lot of older people, like my aunties and uncles in Savai’i, they basically said … too much, too revolting, too yuk and time for a change.”

At the elections he let multiple HRPP candidates run against each other in electorates.

When the result initially came in as 26 HRPP and 26 FAST members he blundered again by claiming that a constitutional requirement on the number of women in the assembly had not been met. So he put another HRPP woman into Parliament.

“He goes to the nuclear option and the first one is to administratively add another MP and the second nuclear option was that he basically advised the Head of State (Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa) to call fresh elections …, got him to cancel the results of a general election, run a new one in two weeks but with a whole lot of changes that would limit your ability to vote,” Taulapapa said.

Multiple candidates
“And then he used that to get all his multiple candidates to resign, to withdraw.”

Then came a series of court cases in which rulings favoured FAST.

Tuila’epa and HRPP kept violating court rulings and, as the weeks rolled over, his members became more intimidating toward the courts and the judges. These actions have led to Tuila’epa facing contempt of court charges.

In the crime tariff, contempt can be a relatively light offence, and Taulapapa said there were considerations of bringing the more serious charge of scandalising the court.

At one point Tuila’epa accused Taulapapa and her husband of treason for the way they were acting for FAST and swearing in its members.

A treason charge has to consist of a series of overt acts which individually may not be a crime but which if proven can establish the offence of treason.

Possible treason pointers
Pacific Newsroom
asked Taulapapa whether the defeated prime minister’s behaviour could point to possible treason: “Absolutely, absolutely. Currently FAST, our clients, filed contempt proceedings so they are live, they will be added to next week because there have been almost daily instances of calling the court crooked and everything.”

Taulapapa said she was not satisfied with the police force attitude which she characterised as detached and disinterested.

“When you are facing people that keep naming the judges on the appeal, keep naming lawyers involved particularly George and I, that keep putting their pictures on HRPP pages, then it suggests to me that he is inviting someone to do us harm.”

The former leader was burning bridges and no one was trying to restrain him.

“Everybody is a sycophant, everybody else is yes sir, no sir,” she said.

“There is a real element of the cultish leader where even people that were reasonable and respected members of our community are sitting around him, nodding and laughing, and that is disturbing. These are people who otherwise you believe would be reasonable and balanced and wise.”

In the last decade Tuila’epa would not accept advice and made appointments to office based on obedience and family association.

Debilitating behaviour
For Fiamē and FAST, the behaviour was debilitating.

“She is getting attacked from the outside, and then having problems establishing her government inside, in the public service.”

Many of the public servants were related to the defeated prime minister, including senior officials in Treasury, Revenue and the Audit Office. They are blocking FAST attempts to get the budget under control.

“So you have active, aggressive opposition from key officials.”

Fiamē had written to the HRPP appointed Attorney-General Savalenoa Mareva Betham about the abuses and challenges from HRPP on the judiciary, but nothing had come from her.

“I would absolutely call it sabotage.”

Taulapapa pointed to the Ministry of Revenue where, on Monday, the chief executive Matafeo Viali-Fautua’alii unilaterally introduced a 10 percent capital gains tax with no notice.

Major transactions
Suddenly major transactions were having 10 percent added on top of them, ranging from matai registration to large mortgage and land transfers. The new government was not consulted.

“That has caused incredible knock on effects commercially because, of course, people only got mortgages for a particular amount … but it also exposes the government to risk.’
Sāmoa society tended to move in a communal way and the three bills in parliament had seen a mass split from HRPP and a large block went to FAST which had risen rapidly.

In the process Tuila’epa was destroying his “great legacy of developments”.

Every day he was undermining his reputation, Taulapapa said.

“Yesterday he came on TV and said, ‘where the hell are New Zealand and Australia, why aren’t they doing something about how the judiciary has stolen Parliament’,” she said. “Well they did say something, they said congratulations on winning the elections.”

Taulapapa said there was a role in the current crises for Australia, New Zealand and multilateral bodies.

“We have never had a transition in our history, really, and so we need technical support so that we can bring in people like forensic auditors and former state services commissioners because there is going to be a need for reprogramming. Things are personal that is why I mentioned cults.

“There is almost a personal emotional attachment to this man,” Taulapapa said.

Michael Field is an author and co-publisher of The Pacific Newsroom. He is also a specialist on Sāmoa. This article is republished with permission.

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