The Kingdom of Tonga is mourning the loss of Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva, who died of pneumonia in a hospital in New Zealand late last week. His body was returned to Tonga by a New Zealand Air Force plane and will be buried in a state funeral later this week.
Akilisi Pohiva was born 78 years ago in one of the world’s last absolute monarchies, where all power flowed from the throne and hereditary nobles. He once described the system to RNZ Pacific as “very much like a dictatorship.” At his death, Tonga is an emerging democracy. Akilisi Pohiva was the man most responsible for that change.
In the first half his career, the one time school teacher was an untiring agitator. He was, by one account, the most prosecuted person in the history of Tonga.
In 2005, a wave of unrest developed into riots that destroyed much of the capital. The government blamed Akilisi Pohiva, who was charged with sedition: he laid blame elsewhere: “What happened,” he told RNZ Pacific, “is the culmination of several social, economic, political and moral forces which is part of the human struggle for fundamental rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Three years later, King Tupou the Fifth announced reforms. Akilisi Pohiva was elected to parliament and, in 2014, became the first democratically elected prime minister of Tonga. His term was marred by controversy, but, in a snap election engineered by his lifelong enemies, the nobles, he won an increased majority in 2017.
His other causes included the independence of West Papua and Climate change - he made emotional appeals for both at last month’s Pacific Islands Forum Summit in Tuvalu.