Tonga’s Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Semisi Tauelangi Fakahau was forced to mourn the passing of his Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva from Apia this week.
News of the passing reached him while attending the ACP Ministerial conference hosted by Samoa.
He struggled through heavy emotions to come to terms with the loss of ‘a great friend’ when asked by Newsline Samoa at the TATTE convention center where the ministers were meeting.
“It is a very sad thing to happen to the country because he was a man that was well loved by most people in Tonga,” Fakahau mourned.
“We were close friends. We were at the USP (University of the South Pacific) studying there and that’s where he started his politics”
“I know him very well and I really enjoyed working with him because he was a man of principle and he never worried about himself, he worried about others, about the people rather than himself so it’s very sad indeed.”
Fakahau received confirmation of the passing of the Prime Minister from Nukualofa.
“We just heard it and just got a very short email from Tonga confirming that he has passed away in Auckland but they’re waiting for the details.”
“I have asked our office to find out from the Prime Minister’s office because I am a minister and I’m here, whether they want us to get back as soon as possible. Other than that, we haven’t received any details.”
Prime Minister Pohiva died at the age of 78. He passed away in New Zealand on Thursday where he was medically evacuated from Nukualofa.
He had been suffering from pneumonia for two weeks and had received treatment for liver problems earlier this year, a reported statement from Tonga's Government said.
Pohiva was a key figure in Tonga’s pro-democracy movement, which saw him regularly clash with Tonga’s monarchy over his more than three decades in politics.
In 2014 he became the first commoner in Tonga to be elected to the position of prime minister by Parliament, rather than being appointed to the role by the king.
Over the course of his parliamentary career – which began in 1987 – he was dismissed by the king along with the rest of his party, imprisoned for contempt of parliament, and twice charged with sedition.
Partly because of Pohiva’s push for democratic reforms, Tonga became a constitutional monarchy in 2010 and now has representative elections for parliament, however, reverence for the monarchy remains strong and the country has strict sedition laws.
The General Secretary of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, is the first to express official condolences at the passing of the Tongan leader.
Taylor remembered him as “a compelling advocate for democracy and freedom, and a kind man and principled man with great affection for Pacific people.”
“We at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat respectfully convey our condolences to the Kingdom of Tonga, her people, and to Prime Minister Pōhiva’s family and friends on this very sad day.
“As one of the longest serving parliamentarians in our region, Prime Minister Pōhiva dedicated his life to the service and leadership of his country and people. During his political career we saw him transition from firebrand activist to an elder statesman of the Blue Pacific always staying true to his strong ideals of democracy and human rights,” said Dame Meg Taylor.
Prime Minister Pōhiva’s last official overseas engagement was to attend the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, just four weeks ago.
“The Prime Minister showed great courage and resolve to attend the meeting while he was very unwell. I think in many ways he came to say goodbye, to show his respect and solidarity with the Forum Leaders and to make a final resounding stand on issues close to his heart.
“His attendance in Tuvalu was important for the outcomes we were able to reach, especially on climate change and West Papua, and all those who were there will fondly remember his heart-felt participation in discussions with Pacific civil society representatives and at the Leaders Retreat.
“I will remember him as a fighter until the very end. May his legacy stand true and be an inspiration to the people across the Blue Pacific.” said Dame Meg Taylor.