The prime minister’s office in Apia, the capital of Samoa, which overlooks the port, has just been vacated by the man who held the post for 22 years.
The shelves are still empty, but the room is filled with bouquets of flowers, sent by sympathizers eager to congratulate the new holder.
This week, after the most controversial elections in the history of the Pacific nation and three months of political turmoil and legal battles, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the first woman to hold the country’s highest office, has moved in.
In her first in-person interview with foreign media, Fiame told the Guardian that there was “a lot of excitement” among women and girls after her victory in the April election.
“I was asked, ‘How important was this? Did I consider my appointment to be important for women and girls? I said, ‘Of course it is.’ In that sense, if you see someone in that position, that makes them something that can be done. So, you know, for a very long time women couldn’t have these kinds of positions. So I am very happy to have been able to do so. I guess it’s a role model, that it can be done.
This step is particularly important in the Pacific, which has the lowest rate of female representation in politics in the world, with only 6% of all MPs being women at the regional level. Three countries in the world do not have women in parliament. All of them – Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Federated States of Micronesia – are found in the Pacific.
Fiame is only the second woman to lead a Pacific island country, after Hilda Heine, former President of the Marshall Islands.
When asked which world leader she admires the most, Fiame named another female leader. “I like the German lady: Merkel,” she said. “I think she’s a great leader, she’s very focused, she behaves, you know, she’s an ordinary citizen, she’s not the type to do push-ups and ceremonies. “
A new position on China
Regarding Samoa’s relations with China, she said there was “a window” to review Samoa’s program with China, noting that there were ongoing China-funded projects that were not. a key priority for his government.
China’s influence has grown in Samoa over the past 20 years, especially in infrastructure development on the two main islands. China built and funded the national hospital, the main court building and schools in the four islands.
A multi-million dollar dock project in Vaiusu Bay, funded by the Chinese government, has encountered opposition from senior Fiame party officials. She confirmed to the Guardian that the project was “not a priority” for her government and would be reviewed.
But Fiame said the Chinese issue in the Pacific should be seen in the context of global politics.
“Having a relationship with China is nothing new. China has been a good partner for us, ”she said. “Samoa needs to focus on its own relationship with China. Of course, we know what’s going on in, in the global context, you know, the competition between the great powers and so on. I mean, you know, it used to be the United States and Russia and the West against the East. Now it is apparently America and China.
The “perfect storm” led to victory
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, 64, is a high-ranking chief of special status (sa’o fa’apito) from Lotofaga on the island of Upolu. She entered politics in 1985 as a Member of Parliament.
While his office is still largely empty, one wall is filled with portraits of former prime ministers – all men – including a photo of his late father, Fiame Mata’afa Faumuina Mulinu’u II, who was the first prime minister of Samoa. Minister in 1959 and when Samoa became independent in 1962.
She was previously the country’s Deputy Prime Minister and last year left the Party for the Protection of Human Rights (HRPP), which had ruled Samoa for 39 years, to join the Faatuatua ile Atua Samoa ua Tasi party. (FAST), which was founded in June 2020.
As the elections took place in April, Fiame has just concluded his first week as head of a new government, after Samoa was rocked by political turmoil, legal challenges to the results and government maneuvers. precedent in an attempt to discredit the result and to retain Power.
A ruling by the country’s appeals court last week said FAST’s victory was legitimate, as was the ad hoc swearing-in ceremony for her and her MPs they conducted in May, when they were excluded from the parliament building by the Speaker of the House. .
Fiama says there was a “perfect storm” of factors that led to the upheaval of the elections, including concerns over legislation introduced by the previous government regarding land ownership and the dismantling of the justice system.
Additionally, she imagines some people might have thought that former prime minister Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi – who at the time of the election was the world’s second-oldest prime minister at 22 years in office – was in office. . power long enough.
“Sometimes when something’s been there for a long time I know, in politics sometimes it changes just for the sake of change,” she said.
Despite the post-election struggle, Fiame says she has not lost confidence throughout the crisis.
“We got the 26 seats [majority]. So having that basic premise gave me a lot of confidence that in the usual process of free elections, we were able to achieve it. “
Fiame has identified Covid-19 as the biggest threat to Samoa. So far, Samoa has had one case of Covid-19, which has been contained.
“We are fortunate to be Covid-free, but I think it’s a very real threat to us. As we have seen with measles [outbreak in 2019, which killed 83 children], our health infrastructure will not withstand this scale of the pandemic. So I think we would like to keep our borders closed, until maybe we get more immunization coverage. But I think we need to relax some of the provisions of emergency orders. “
Some of the state of emergency (SOE) rules put in place by the previous government that it might consider easing include forced business closings on Sundays.
“You can still keep the Sabbath, it’s a very personal thing. But at the same time, given the conditions we live in, we have to allow people to have freedoms and flexibility. “
Regarding her priorities for the future, she said her goal is to empower and protect the Samoan people by upholding the rule of law, strengthening livelihoods, improving health and strengthening the health sector. education.
Fiame stressed that his goal is to “fix” rather than “change”.
“We want to empower people to build their livelihoods, we want to see and secure where they are and the current situation. I mean, we’re a pretty sick country. Our health systems must therefore be improved.
“If we’re talking about change, it’s about where you choose to invest, through the budget process, through the policy decisions we make. Overall, I guess the thing we want to do is make a much bigger investment in people and communities.