Papua New Guinea’s first Prime Minister Michael Somare has died aged 84, his daughter announced on Friday.
Known as the “father of the nation”, Somare led the Pacific archipelago to independence from Australia in 1975 and served four times as prime minister.
Somare, who is also referred to by his countrymen as “The Chief”, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early February, his daughter, Betha Somare, said in a statement.
She said many Papua New Guineans had embraced her father as their own “father and grandfather”.
Prior to independence, Somare was the chief minister of the Australian-administered territory of Papua New Guinea. He most recently served as the country’s leader briefly in 2011.
Somare only stepped back from politics in 2017, after 49 years as a member of parliament.
PNG Prime Minister James Marape said the former leader was now rested from the “pain and toils of life”.
“Our nation honours this great leader, the founding and longest serving prime minister of our country,” Marape said in a statement, appealing for a week of silence, peace and calm as the country pays its respects.
“He is unmatched by anyone of us who comes after him,” he added.
‘Great friend to Australia’
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote in a tweet on Friday that Somare was the founding father of a democratic and independent PNG and “great friend” to Australia.
Somare’s death also marks the end of an era for the staggeringly diverse nation, which has more than 800 languages and a myriad of tribal groups and struggles with some of the highest levels of poverty in the Asia-Pacific region.
Vale Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, founding father of democratic and independent #PNG and a great friend to Australia. My heartfelt condolences to his family, Prime Minister Marape and the people of PNG. Australians stand with you in this time of sadness. May he rest in peace.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) February 25, 2021
“He’s been a major figure, he’s an iconic figure in Papua New Guinean politics,” Sinclair Dinnen, a Pacific expert from the Australian National University in Canberra told the AFP news agency.
“He has a status that nobody else has. He is seen as the father of independence. Some would attribute his influence to having held this very difficult country together over the post-independence period.”
Somare was not without controversy, earning neighbouring Australia’s wrath in 2006 when he ignored an extradition request for then-Solomon Islands Attorney General Julian Moti to face child sex charges.
He stepped aside in late 2010 so a leadership tribunal could hear allegations that he failed to lodge several annual financial statements in the 1990s.
He was ultimately suspended for two weeks after being found guilty of official misconduct.
He took extended leave in April 2011 and underwent several heart operations in Singapore before he was controversially removed when parliamentarians declared his seat vacant due to his prolonged absence as a result of ill-health.
PNG is a mountainous and sprawling nation rich in resources and minerals, including oil, gas, gold and copper.
Linguistically diverse, it is one of the largest island economies in the South Pacific, although it has faced economic hardship and internal conflict, most notably during the decade-long civil war in the region of Bougainville that claimed as many as 20,000 lives before it came to an end in 1998.