Mourning the loss of 'Akilisi Pōhiva, warrior, fighter and advocate

The death of Tongan Prime Minister, 'Akilisi Pōhiva, is a huge loss.

It’s not just sad for the Kingdom of Tonga, where he’s had a tremendous impact, his death is being mourned all over the world by free thinkers and people who advocated for freedom, transparency, democracy and issues of human rights where Pōhiva was one of a kind.

Up until his death, Pōhiva was ever the advocate. How can we forget his passionate pleas about climate change when he made headlines for crying during the last Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting in Tuvalu where the issue was a hot topic?

And what about when he broke away from the norm to speak with such conviction to highlight the suffering in West Papua during a recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York? While many Pacific leaders shied away from the controversial issue, Pōhiva was not to be intimidated. He spoke his mind and used his influence to draw attention to the issue.

These were hallmarks of a man born to advocate for freedom, justice, decency and doing what is just and right not just for his country but for every living soul on earth.

It didn’t matter what the issue was, Pōhiva could always be relied upon to stand up for the small voice that would otherwise be ignored by the mighty and powerful. This is what Tonga and the region will miss about this champion of the Pacific.

It is also why his death is a very sad time for those who admired his rock solid courage to fight against the establishment and corruption. In the political, economical and social climate of today, people like Pōhiva are a rarity. Why? People want to be popular; they want to be seen with the big shots; they wouldn’t want to rock the boat.

Pōhiva was not one of them. He spent three decades in Parliament fighting for democracy in Tonga. He stood up against Tonga’s monarchy, which would have taken tremendous courage. He was jailed, charged with sedition at one point but still he persevered.

It’s not surprising that there is such an outpouring of support from all over the world after his death in Auckland two days ago.

At 78, Pōhiva had been struggling with health issues for sometime now which he refused to allow stop him from doing what he felt he was called to do.

Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was among the first to pay tribute to him. "He was a passionate advocate for his people, for his beloved Tonga & our Pacific family," Mr. Morrison said.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, hailed his "lifelong commitment to championing democracy." But his Fijian counterpart, Frank Bainimarama, said one of the best tributes writing that Pōhiva had "inspired the world with raw emotion," referring to his stance on climate change.

"We must honour his legacy by continuing this fight," Bainimarama said.

Well we couldn’t agree more. Pōhiva's commitment to advocate for issues others would shy away from – including justice, transparency, democracy and freedom – will be remembered as his legacy.

He probably will not be remembered so much as Tonga’s Prime Minister. Opinions would be divided over whether he really made a huge difference in terms of developments and whether his pro-democracy position advanced the Kingdom when he was at the helm.

Like many advocates we’ve seen around the world who fought so hard against an establishment, Pōhiva struggled to make the transition when he became the Prime Minister.

Which is understandable. Pōhiva had nothing to argue against anymore but himself and his administration. He had become the establishment and there was nothing for him to fight but himself. Some of his decision making in the recent past reflected this, which had perhaps taken some of the gloss off his reputation. 

But that was a sober reminder that regardless of how great a person is, they are human. 

Today is a very sad day in Tonga and the Pacific. The region has lost a warrior, a brave fighter. He will be missed.

Have a safe weekend Samoa, God bless!

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