Tuilaepa’s contemptible attacks on court

To scandalise. Quite a rare and powerful verb indeed. 

But that is what the caretaker Prime Minister of Samoa stands accused of in a contempt of court citation with which he was attempted to have been served earlier this week. 

As was mentioned in Wednesday's edition, Tuilaepa and three top other figures in his administration are singled out in the citation motion, variously for their roles in recent legal matters and the recent fiasco in which a Parliamentary swearing-in was cancelled. 

But as the document makes clear, special mention is made of Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, for allegedly lowering the credibility, authority and moral standing of what is an equal branch of Government to him.

The caretaker Prime Minister has been accused of a very serious thing.

The contents and the gravity of the documents are ultimately for a court to decide upon (if, that is, the matter does proceed so far as that given that in a climate such as this a lot of chips are on the political negotiating table.) 

But we need not go into the details it contains to see the significance of such allegations being levelled against a man who has led this nation and left an imprint on its institutions for 22 years. 

In fact, his immediate response to being served with legal papers informing him of the citation reflected his broader attitude. 

Speaking to the Samoa Observer on Tuesday, the former long-serving Attorney-General, Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu, said that, unlike his three other cohorts, the Prime Minister refused to accept the service of signed legal documents. 

Such evasion, of course, has no bearing on whether or not the Prime Minister will be considered to have legally been served. 

But this trifling reflects a broader truth about Tuilaepa: not just that he has shown total disregard for the courts but also all other centres of authority in this nation. 

His time as Prime Minister has also been one during which all the independent authorities and offices orbiting around our broader Government have had their powers sapped by Tuilaepa.

He has refuted accusations that he has a dictatorial style of governance.

Only his colleagues in the current caretaker Cabinet and those gone by can truly bear witness to the extent of the truth in the accusations about his governing style.  

But his public persona - that which the people have seen as the apex of politics for 20 years - is more than clear. 

Tuilaepa's rule has been intertwined with inflating his own significance so much that he has come to cast a long cold shadow over the other institutions with which he should have been working.

Whatever the outcome of the current political impasse which we have reached, when the wider history of Samoa, the country and democracy, is written it will be this domineering tendency that obscures many of the forward steps the nation has taken over the past 22 years.

It is an old Indian proverb about different styles of leadership that some are given to governing like a Banyan tree: underneath them, nothing else may grow. 

And so it has been with Tuilaepa, particularly as his reign in the top job has progressed. 

To this end, we look no further than the purported recent exchange between Tuilaepa and the Archbishop of the Catholic Church, Alapati Lui Mataeliga, a little more than a week ago.

According to the Archbishop, at the height of the Land and Titles Court controversy late last year, His Grace wrote to Tuilaepa telling him to step down. 

“I have always supported him as he is the chosen son of the Church and we have always supported him in all his endeavors,” Alapati said. 

“I wrote to him asking why he doesn’t step down from office, his good works will follow him and I told him that someone should be groomed to take over his place because you don’t live forever. 

“And in response, Tuilaepa said there is no one that can take his place.” 

Now, Tuilaepa, who later took this public dressing down with deference later said that he had no recall of writing the letters in question.

If we are to believe His Grace’s account then that goes to a failure of foresight for a man who has occupied his office as one of the world’s longest-serving Prime Ministers without grooming a successor or being able to see beyond himself.

Recollections may indeed differ.

But every other part of the Prime Minister’s public persona has run contrary to developing counterbalancing centres of power; institutions which any successful nation depends upon for stability, peace and growth.

Tuilaepa was a happy warrior when he took on the wholesale reform of the judiciary last year. 

He ignored warnings from judges here and abroad about the incalculable damage he was doing to the separation of powers on which good Government relies by making it easier for him to interfere directly in the sacking of judges.

But now he stands accused of doing damage to the judiciary in a subtle but more serious fashion; he is alleged to have scandalised the good name of Samoa’s judiciary. 

The Speaker of the former Parliament, Leaupepe Toleafoa Fa’afisi and the Clerk of Parliament, Tiatia Graeme Tualaulelei, stand accused of a different order of contempt of court altogether. 

(For his part, Leaupepe has denied obstructing a court ruling that Parliament convened by issuing an order that the complex be locked down. He has argued that he had democratic obligations to fulfil by upholding an earlier, overruled order from the Head of State ordering that Parliament not sit - and therefore a new Government not be given a chance to form.)

Scandalising the court is, in our view, the more serious offence. 

In the past year alone we have seen Tuilaepa malign the dignity of one of the institutions on which this nation has been built by calling it biased; undermine its authority by saying it has no power over him, and attack its dignity and competence.

It was only last month alone that he suggested that a Supreme Court decision would be mocked by primary school children for deciding against an argument that a sixth woman should be appointed to Parliament. 

Weeks before that he said something else factually incorrect but also severely wounding of the court’s public standing when he said: “The judiciary has no authority over my appointment”.

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