Rene Harris: Controversial president of Nauru

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.