Rene Harris: Controversial president of Nauru

René Harris, four times president of the tiny island nation of Nauru, was one of the South Pacific's most controversial politicians. He was a larger-than-life character: physically rotund, with a forceful personality and a ruthless reputation. Allegations of corruption pursued him for much of his political career. The country's longest-serving politician, he lost his seat only in April, after 31 years in parliament.

Nauru, the world's smallest republic, with a population of barely 10,000, once enjoyed the world's highest per capita income, thanks to its rich phosphate deposits. But by the time Harris was elected president in 1999, its riches had been squandered, thanks to politicians plundering and mismanaging the phosphate trust fund.

However, Harris and his ministers behaved as if the golden era had never ended. At times, it is said, it was hard to find a member of the government on the island. Everyone was away with their wives, shopping in Hong Kong, Sydney and New York – sometimes commandeering Air Nauru's sole plane for that purpose. Harris maintained a penthouse apartment in Melbourne.

In 2001 he won a breathing-space for Nauru by agreeing to house Australia's unwanted asylum-seekers, in exchange for millions of dollars of aid. The "Pacific Solution" was internationally reviled, but helped keep the country afloat, and the detention centre closed only in March.

René Reynaldo Harris was born in 1948 and, like many Nauruans from wealthy families, was educated privately in Australia. After entering parliament in 1977, he became head of the Nauru Phosphate Corporation and also managed the island's shipping line. In 1998 he was convicted of assault and jail-breaking, after he forcibly released three of his relatives from the Nauru police cells, with the help of two friends.

Harris's first term as president lasted just a year, after which he was ousted by Bernard Dowiyogo in 2000. The two men then embarked on a merry-go-round, swapping the nation's top job several times. Harris took over in 2001, and during one farcical month in 2003, both he and Dowiyogo held office twice. After the latter's death in 2003, Harris was re-elected, losing power for the last time in 2004.

By then the nation was bankrupt, and stripped of its assets, thanks to a $236m loan that Harris's government had negotiated with the American giant General Electric. The collateral was Nauru's extensive property empire, which included hotels and shopping centres in Australia and the Pacific. In 2004 Nauru defaulted on the loan, and General Electric took over the properties.

As well as allegations of profligacy and siphoning off public funds, Harris's government was accused of involvement in a passport scam and of allowing the Russian mafia to use the country as a money-laundering centre. At one point the island had 400 offshore banks, all registered to one government mailbox.

Harris, who suffered from diabetes for some years, continued as an MP until earlier this year.

Kathy Marks

René Reynaldo Harris, politician: born 11 November 1948; MP for Aiwo 1977-2008; President of Nauru 1999-2000, 2001-03, 2003, 2003-04; married (one son, four daughters); died 5 July 2008.

Suggested Topics
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
film
Sport
football
News
news
News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
A photograph taken by David Redferm of Sonny Rollins
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker