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Friday, June 01, 2007

Ousted but unbowed: A special obituary about the life of former Solomons PM and Malaita leader late Bart Ulufa'alu

by Craig Skehan

Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, 1950-2007
Bartholomew Ulufa'alu- just about everybody called him Bart - looked very much older than his recorded 56 years; sick and worn, but dignified and retaining a trademark sense of humour.

After the state funeral in the Solomon Islands on Sunday for the man who was ousted at gunpoint as prime minister in 2000, one mourner commented: "What was missing was Bart - no one was telling any good jokes."

He prized many things: family, clan, nation and his beloved Langa Langa Lagoon, a spectacularly beautiful place on the poor, populous island of Malaita. On occasion, he carried a finely carved walking stick, decorated with animal life, including a twisting serpent. "The snake represents Satan and we all need to resist Satan," he would quip.

A victim himself of devilish political plotting, Ulufa'alu shunned bitterness and remained ready to deal amicably with the men who forcibly unseated him seven years ago. By then, the country had been racked by two years of ethnic bloodshed.

After coming to power in 1997 Ulufa'alu pursued desperately needed economic reforms. However, when ethnic conflict flared in 1998 he tended to view the strife as flowing largely from a conspiracy involving political opponents from Malaita.

The rub was that there were genuine grievances among indigenous people on the main island of Guadalcanal that he did not address with any sense of urgency. Even many who admired and respected him say he was more focused on trying to dampen calls for revenge from within his own Malaitan community.

It was to be the Malaita Eagle Force, formed after militants on Guadalcanal drove Malaitan settlers from rural areas, that joined renegade police to remove Ulufa'alu from office.

This week, the Solomons Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, who came to power as a result of the 2000 coup, praised Ulufa'alu as a man of peace whose decision to step down from power had saved the "nation's unity".

In fact, his going was hardly voluntary, with bursts of rifle fire in Ulufa'alu's offices before he was led away by armed men. And there was by no means unity. Sogavare had been waiting in the wings and took over as prime minister in a parliamentary vote marred by the alleged intimidation of some MPs.

Canberra had ignored calls from Ulufa'alu before the coup for Australian intervention and continued to do so as the Solomons spiralled into the civil war foretold by the politician from Langa Langa Lagoon. It was not until mid-2003 that the Howard Government belatedly sent troops and police as the country teetered on the brink of collapse.

Ulufa'alu packed much into his life. Born on Christmas Day 1950 to poorly educated subsistence farmers and fisherfolk, he completed high school in the Solomons before earning a bachelor of economics degree at the University of Papua New Guinea. There he became president of the university's Students' Representative Council.

Ulufa'alu founded both the Solomon Islands General Workers' Union and the union-affiliated National Democratic Party. He entered the local Legislative Assembly in 1976 in the lead-up to independence from Britain in 1978. He became minister for finance in the government which came to power under Solomon Mamaloni in 1981, but lost his seat in 1984

Ever versatile, the former union leader went on to head both the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and the Farmers' Association. In 1988 he formed the Solomon Islands Liberal Party. He was re-elected to Parliament the following year, but resigned to take up an economic consultancy with the prime minister's office.

It was following his return to Parliament in 1997 that he won the prime ministership in a close parliamentary vote.

However the economy was in a shambles and unbridled logging was taking a terrible toll on the environment. He tried to tackle corruption and the country's growing debts but was destabilised by a series of parliamentary no-confidence motions and other political manoeuvrings.

Ulufa'alu had a leg amputated in 2004 as a result of diabetes. A passionate advocate of aiding development in the rural sector, he served as finance minister in the present Sogavare Government. However, he was dumped after five months as the result of a combination of health problems and political tensions.

He is survived by most of the women he partnered during his life and their numerous children, as well as a nation that mourns his passing.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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