Obituary: Hammer DeRoburt

Hammer DeRoburt, politician, born Nauru 25 September 1922, Education Liaison Officer Department of Nauruan Affairs 1947-51, Member Nauru Local Government Council 1955-68, Chairman and Head Chief of Nauru 1965-68, Chairman Transitional Council of State 1968, President of Nauru 1968-76, 1978-86, 1986-89, Leader of the Opposition 1976-78, died Melbourne Australia 15 July 1992.

PICTURE a tiny coralline equatorial island. Of its 9,000 people, about 60 per cent are indigenous Micronesians. Only 12 miles in circumference, this speck of land is an independent republic. Its official correspondence paper thoughtfully adds 'Central Pacific' in case you have not heard of it and do not know where it is.

Such is Nauru, whose people were said to be second only to those of Kuwait in per capita annual income. Phosphates - not oil - are the key to its history and the source of its wealth. The trappings of phosphate mining - and the stark, pinnacle-dotted moonscape plateau that is its consequence - were about all there seemed to be when I first flew in. Nauruan domestic life clung to the periphery with rusting motorcars flanking new ones, seemingly in every house's garden.

Hammer DeRoburt became the first President of Nauru in 1968. To many, their Head Chief and the phosphate industry were synonymous. Proper reward and compensation for the owners and the rehabilitation of worked-out land became his central passion and objective, not least when the certainty of the exhaustion of the phosphate deposits (in 1995-97) became inescapable.

Nauru had been annexed by Germany in 1888. It surrendered to Australian forces in 1914 and remained administered by Australia, firstly under a League of Nations mandate and from 1947 under a UN trusteeship agreement in which Britain and New Zealand also participated.

The war in the Pacific resulted in the devastation of Nauru. A young DeRoburt, with more than half the population, was forcibly deported by the Japanese to the island of Truk. Nauru and its phosphate industry were all but destroyed by sustained bombing thereafter.

DeRoburt had a lasting love-hate relationship with Australia. Perhaps it began when Australia sought to resettle the Nauruans off the coast of Queensland in the 1960s. DeRoburt already had his sights set on full independence and said that the Australian proposal would result in his people 'being soaked up by Australia like ink on blotting paper'.

Independence for Nauru meant that the new republic would be eligible for Commonwealth membership. But some of the larger member countries - or their heads of government - could not see themselves sitting round the Commonwealth conference table with tiny Nauru - and others to come - as equal partners. So DeRoburt accepted the contemporary logic of associate membership. He was pragmatic enough to come round to thinking and saying later that he had 'better things to do anyway'. He told me this in Noumea, New Caledonia, when in 1968 he was attending his first South Pacific Commission meeting as President, I as the Second United Kingdom Commissioner. Our paths crossed again in Fiji and later in London when he held his Nauruan receptions at the Dorchester Hotel in characteristically generous and distinctive style and good humour.

Like most leaders of vision and energy, determined to get their own way, DeRoburt could be prickly, even petty, over trivia, especially when he thought he was being taken for granted or not being treated with appropriate circumspection. Sensitivity was never far from the surface: an Acting Nauru Representative came close to being sacked on the spot because the presidential flag on the bonnet of a hired limousine was flown upside down. Others, on imprecise contract terms, found their tenure of office on Nauru less than secure as a consequence of some minor and sometimes unwitting transgression. Overnight packing for morning departure from Nauru was not unknown.

The fact was that DeRoburt could be disconcertingly impatient, even erratic. Centralised decision-making was his style with delegation virtually non-existent. Yet he was not just a martinet strutting on a tiny stage: he was often generous to less well-placed South Pacific governments and people. There were issues where he could be grossly profligate with public funds, as he was often indifferent to cost when his mind was made up. His purchase of ships and his loss-leader airline, Air Nauru, are examples. The airline flew to some obscure destinations, conceived or approved by the President, at times with few - or no - passengers; while its reputation for paying its overnight bills promptly was not untarnished.

On the question of mined land, DeRoburt remained implacable. In his Independence Day address in 1968, he had indicated that its rehabilitation was the outstanding issue yet to be resolved. Twenty years later, it was no different. In his view, Australia had failed to face both the legal and the moral problems created by mining exploitation in the trust territory. DeRoburt's government took action in the International Court of Justice in 1989.

DeRoburt journeyed from his hospital bed to address the court in The Hague in November 1991. It was his last public appearance, and perhaps his most significant. Indeed, throughout his life he was fearless in negotiation and polemics, whatever the size, influence and resources of his opponents. On 26 June, the court rejected the Australian objections to the hearing made largely on jurisdiction grounds. Less than three weeks later DeRoburt was dead, the case as such unresolved, but he had the consolation of knowing that the hearing would proceed.

With the death of Hammer DeRoburt, the South Pacific has lost arguably its most colourful, charismatic and complex national leader of this century. If he were not to do so in Nauru, I suppose that in a way it was appropriate that he should die in Melbourne. Nauru owns the most prestigious building and other property of significance in Collins Street, the commercial heart of the city. It is all said to embrace about the size of Nauru itself.

A state funeral was held in Nauru yesterday. Hammer DeRoburt is survived by a daughter, the only child. His wife died 10 years ago.

(Photograph omitted)

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