Inquiry vital to address flaws exposed by Kite Runner
The Pago Pago-registered vessel Kite Runner has kept our readers and the nation transfixed over the last four weeks. To this day, a lot of questions remain unanswered, over how a vessel entered Samoan territorial waters without proper documentation to lead to local authorities assisting its crew after their arrival to get their paperwork done before releasing them and their boat to continue to Savai’i.
The actions of the relevant government agencies to go out of their way to get the boat’s paperwork sorted in Samoa were unprecedented, even Prime Minister, Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa criticised the local officials – a week after the boat’s return to American Samoa – for not taking action at that time.
A day after Prime Minister Fiamē held her press conference, a government official called the Samoa Observer newsroom and alleged that a Samoan Cabinet Minister was allegedly involved in getting the documentation organised for the Kite Runner.
The story initially started with the seizing of the vessel on 27 April 2023 by local authorities. Deputy Police Commissioner, Papalii Monalisa Tiai-Keti also confirmed early this month, when contacted by Samoa Observer that the boat is from American Samoa and initially planned to travel to Savai’i to unload cargo for a funeral. However, they did not comply with the required travel documents, with Papalii saying the boat was eventually released after it finally complied with all the necessary documentation.
But since the publishing of the first article early this month, there have been so many twists and turns in the narrative with more actors coming to light. Two days after the story broke, this newspaper revealed the owner of Kite Runner to be Pago Pago-based businessman, Papalii Laulii Alofa. Originally from Savai’i, his family had gathered in Salelologa for a funeral and bestowal ceremony on the week of his vessel’s arrival in Samoa.
A couple of days later, Prime Minister Fiamē told a media conference in her Government Building office that the Samoan authorities should have taken proper action when the Kite Runner and its crew failed to provide all the necessary paperwork required upon the boat’s entry into Samoa’s territorial waters.
She was of the view that the boat should have been seized and its crew detained for breaking Samoan laws and criticised officials in Apia, saying, “They [officials] ran around and tried to get all the necessary papers and permits for the boat.”
Just a day after the press conference by Prime Minister Fiamē, one of her own Cabinet Ministers, Toelupe Poumulinuku Onesemo confirmed in an interview with this newspaper that one of his “cousins” in Pago Pago, who worked for the American Samoa businessman Papalii sent him the vessel’s paperwork and asked for his assistance organise its access to Samoa’s waters. Minister Toelupe also lambasted the reporter, who only wanted to confirm his role in organising the vessel’s entry, while urging her to reveal her source.
And last Friday Olo Fiti Vaai – the Minister for Works, Transport and Infrastructure – in response to questions from this newspaper, said his Ministry's involvement in the entry of the American Samoan-registered boat only related to inspections at the Matautu port and whether the Ministry officials did their work. He said information given to his Ministry noted that the vessel registered in American Samoa was a “pleasure boat” and inspection was not required as it was not a commercial vessel.
Minister Olo’s statement comes after the Police Commissioner, Auapa'au Logoitino Filipo confirmed that the Police had completed their investigation with the report submitted to the Cabinet. Auapa'au also added, when asked by this newspaper about the alleged involvement of any Cabinet Ministers, that he didn’t think that was any.
There are so many loose ends in this controversy, which needs to be unpacked in order for the country to address any security lapse in the State’s security apparatus, which got exposed in this saga.
Key questions include what role did Cabinet Ministers have exactly in the processing of paperwork that enabled the Kite Runner to continue on its way to Savai’i?
Why did officials on the ground “run around” to organise the paperwork for a vessel that had already breached Samoa’s immigration laws and should have been seized and its crew detained as the Prime Minister has mentioned?
And how can Samoa and its people be assured that how this matter was handled by local Samoan authorities will not set a precedent for the future that will make our maritime borders more vulnerable, for example, to elements of an international crime syndicate?
The call for a Commission of Inquiry into the events surrounding the illegal entry of the Kite Runner, by the former prime minister and Opposition M.P. Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, thus makes sense and is logical for the Government to undertake in order to identify what needs to be rectified in the system.
For a country that is 17 months away from playing host to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Apia, the Kite Runner saga is not a good look for Samoa and will in fact raise questions about the country’s security capabilities as well as response mechanisms currently in place.
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