MICHAEL Somare's apparent retirement is welcome news for Papua New Guinea. Sir Michael has for years indicated his intention to retire, only to find it too hard to give up office and the power and wealth that goes with it. The nation is alarmingly corrupt, chaotic and undeveloped 37 years after he led Papua New Guinea to independence in the first of three spells as prime minister. If this is the end of the Somare story, the final chapters have seen the "father of the nation" become a dishonoured and divisive force, whose followers even attempted a coup in January after Parliament voted to confirm the incumbent, Peter O'Neill. The latter is not a shining knight, either, but Sir Michael's withdrawal from the political contest raises hopes of stability.
Sir Michael himself hoped elections in July would begin a new era. "We have seen over the past nine months what we do not want to happen in PNG," he said, oblivious to the irony as he ignored his own role while condemning the O'Neill government. It is troubling that government legislation threatens the independence of a judiciary that ruled against Mr O'Neill in his stand-off with Sir Michael over who was the nation's legitimate leader. However, Parliament is where government is formed and the Governor-General accepted Mr O'Neill had Parliament's support, giving him democratic legitimacy. Mr O'Neill has also thought better of plans to delay the election, which means the people will soon have their say on who should govern them. That is as it should be.
Sir Michael may have been PNG's longest-serving prime minister, but the bid to bypass Parliament and politicise the military in order to seize back power showed him to be unfit for office. This was not the only stain on his record. Long before Sir Michael returned as prime minister in 2002, concerns about cronyism and other abuses of office abounded. Back in 1989, a report by Justice Thomas Barnett linked the Somare family to corruption in the logging industry.
Even if he was not guilty of self-enrichment, Sir Michael failed miserably to improve the lot of his people. PNG is corrupt, violent and unstable, as competing factions and tribes squabble over the spoils of meagre development. The opening of liquid natural gas projects in the next few years is as much a source of potential conflict as a desperately needed boost to national income. The elections and Sir Michael's departure may pave the way to better governance. An essential starting point is to end the cronyism, abuses of power and vainglorious Big Man politics that Sir Michael came to embody.