Obituary: Fr Walter Lini

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The Independent Culture
THE PROGRESS to independence on 30 July 1980 as Vanuatu of the former Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides was one of the more painful and fragmented in the South Pacific. For nearly 75 years, its 80 coral and volcanic islands with 115 local languages and only 150,000 people, 500 miles west of Fiji, had constituted arguably the ultimate colonial absurdity.

With no little justification it was known as the "Anglo-French pandemonium". The two metropolitan powers duplicated, if not replicated, their respective systems of law and order, education, medical care and basic government philosophy. There were three separate administrations: that of the joint Anglo-French Condominium, the British administration for British nationals and the French administration for French nationals. Missionary activity, in parallel with that of the two national administrations, was one of intense rivalry for the beleaguered souls of the indigenous New Hebrideans.

As independence came closer, Anglo-French, Anglophile and Francophile divisions grew deeper and more bitter. On the large island of Espiritu Santo, north-west of the capital, Port Vila, an indigenous cult movement, Na Griamel, exploded into a secessionist plan. It was allegedly assisted by French settlers who opposed the Anglophile Vanuaaku Pati (party) headed by Walter Lini; and was financially supported by an American fundamentalist protest organisation, the Phoenix Foundation, whose object was the founding of an "ideal" community in Espiritu Santo free from formal government controls and tax burdens. They were strange bedfellows.

The leader of Na Griamel was the raffishly charismatic Jimmy Stevens. In June 1980, he declared himself the head of the Independent State of Vemarana on Espiritu Santo. His supporters kidnapped the government representative and occupied Fanafo, the main town. Vanuaaku people fled; British and Australian citizens were evacuated. A peacekeeping force of British troops was dispatched to Espiritu Santo, an action criticised by the French, who objected to British unilateral use of force where French interests were involved.

In August, with Lini installed as prime minister of the new republic, raw young troops from Papua New Guinea replaced British soldiers in Espiritu Santo. Nervously fingering their rifles, the Papuans came ashore not knowing what to expect. The Santo girls greeted their fellow Melanesians with cries of the pidgin equivalent of "whoopee" and placed garlands of flowers round their necks. The secession of Espiritu Santo was over, Vemarana no more.

Truckloads of bows and arrows were confiscated. Stevens was arrested, tried and sentenced to 14 years in prison. His failure left Lini as the surviving champion of opposition to colonial rule; and the architect of its demise. It is little wonder therefore that Walter Lini, clergyman- cum-politician, became known as the "father of the nation". But the road ahead, both personally and nationally, was to be far from smooth.

Born in 1942 on the tiny island of Pentecost, Lini was ordained an Anglican priest at the age of 28. In an economically defenceless Pacific island state, his was not the best preparation for handling the hurly-burly of Melanesian political and cultural fragmentation or the manipulative metropolitan cheque-book intrusions of the pervasively commercial world of those - and, indeed, these - days. Yet for all his adventurous - or naive - non-aligned foreign policy, including a controversial flirtation with Libya, Lini survived as prime minister for 11 years. "Seli Ho" ("Let's pull together"), he said, with clerical optimism.

That was not quite how it worked out. Lini suffered a stroke during a visit to the United States in 1987 and was weakened by indifferent health thereafter. Opposition grew to what were perceived as ambivalent policies. He was accused by his opponents of discouraging foreign investment and of presiding over an increasingly authoritarian regime.

There was an attempt to oust him in 1988. It failed; but what followed was seemingly only a matter of time. Lini was defeated in a vote of no confidence in 1991. He was succeeded as prime minister and party leader by Donald Kalpokas, who had been his deputy in the Vanuaaku Pati in 1980. Lini became deputy prime minister in a short-lived coalition in 1998. He was "one of the few constants", as one observer put it, "in the revolving door of political life in Vanuatu."

Lini's premature death robs both his country and the wider South Pacific of a modern man of the people. Among the last of the surviving Pacific island leaders to have had a hand on the wheel of destiny, his was a tough uncertain ride from colonialism to independence, and beyond.

Walter Hadye Lini, priest and politician: born Pentecost, New Hebrides 1942; ordained deacon 1968, priest 1970; Deputy Chief Minister and Minister of Social Services, New Hebrides 1979, Chief Minister and Minister of Justice 1979-80; Prime Minister of Vanuatu 1980-91, Deputy Prime Minister 1998; married 1970 Mary Ketu (four sons, two daughters); died Port Vila, Vanuatu 21 February 1999.