BY JEFFREY ELAPA
WHILE the Southern Highlands has made headlines for many bad reasons, it is now determined to make a change with Governor WilliamPowi providing leadership.
Last year province made headlines for election-related violence, the burning down of an aircraft and the Mendi court house.
All these events may be a result of change, a cultural change, perhaps a cultural clash and a coming out of the stone age and into the modern age.
This assumption maybe the main reason for all the problems experienced in this last frontier discovered by foreigners in the likes of Jack Hides in the early 1930s.
From the 1930s to 1950s, the province was under colonial rule, so the adaptation to the modern ways of life took less than a century.So it is inevitable to experience such a culture clash leading to many of the unprecedented events that have taken place in the short history of this young province.
Politics has been the way of life in Southern Highlands, even in the old days but modern politics with the aid of cash has really manipulated the minds of the people.
The negative headlines have been onchaotic situations, mostly flared by political power struggles.
Southern Highlands was previously made up of eight districts, Nipa-Kutubu, Mendi, Ialibu, Pangia, Imbongu, Kagua-Erave, Komo-Magarima, Tari-Pori and Koroba-Kopiago.
In July 2009, Parliament passed a legislation to create two new provinces by 2012. One of these was to be created by removing the districts of Tari-Pori, Komo-Magarima, and Koroba-Kopiago from Southern Highlands to form the new Hela which officially came into being on May 17, 2012.
The new Southern Highlands is now made up of five districts, with its capital inMendi.According to Papua New Guinea’s 2011 national 2011, the province’s total population is 515,511 spread across 15,089 square kilometres with about seven main languages.
After the split of Hela, the province is divided into roughly three distinct geographic regions:
- The west, which includes the districts of Nipa, Mendi and the Lai Valley, and is the home of the speakers of the AnggalHeneng languages.
- The east, which includes the districts of Kagua, Ialibu-Pangia and Erave, and is the home of the speakers of the Imbongu, Kewa, and Wiru languages. PNG’s second highest mountain, Mt Giluwe, is also in this region.
- The Lowlandswhich stretch across the southern part of the province from the volcanic peaks of Mt Bosaveand the oilfields of Lake Kutubu, and includes the language groups of Biami (shared with Western) Foe, and Fasu.
Southern Highlands is the home to the first oil project in the country atKutubuwhich began production in 1991 followed by subsequentdiscovery of oil fields like Gobe, Moran, South East Malanda.
It was a peaceful province in PNG in the early days until 1997 when political instability and struggles tore it apart.
Due to ongoing political instability in the provincial administration, on Aug 1, 2006, the National Government declared a state of emergency. Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare at that time deployed troops to restore ‘law, order and good governance’ in the region, following accusations of corruption, theft and misuse of government buildings by the regional government under the leadership of the late HamiYawari.
In 2009, Southern Highlands, led by the late Governor Anderson Agiru, signed the first PNG LNG project agreement in Kokopo with the first production in 2014. More internal revenuewas expected to follow into both Hela and SHP from this project.
At the back of the PNG LNG project signing and construction phase, the Somare regime was overthrown in 2011 through a vote of no confidence and one of the Southern Highlands sons, Peter O’Neill became the Prime Minister.
He was re-elected in the 2012 and the 2017 general elections.
In 2012, when the late Anderson Agiru, then governor left for the new Hela province, the Southern Highlands regional seat was vacant, the then provincial administrator William Powi from the Nipa-Kutubu electorate contestedand won the seat to serve for his first term in office.
In 2017, the province went into the general elections but the Southern Highlands regional seat was faced a lot of problems. Many of the ballot boxes were not counted and the general conduct of the election was marred by violence.
Supporters of rival candidates combined and clashed with the supporters of incumbent William Powileading to the death of three people. Two of them are supporters of William Powifrom Nipa-Kutubuwhile the third young man was from Kumin village on the periphery of the town. Hundreds of supporters received injuries.
The events resulted in vote counting being disrupted and halted.
The Electoral Commission ordered the counting to continue but supporters of rival candidates continued to sabotage the counting, resulting in the Electoral Commissioner using his powers under a special circumstance, declared William Powi.
The declaration did not go well with the supporters of the candidateswho took the law into their hands and burnt down and ransacked millions of kina worth of properties belonging to the Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.
However, the matter was taken to court and the court also upheld the declaration of William Powi.
In rejecting the decision, the supporters took the law into their handsagain and burnt down an Air NiuginiDash 8 aircraft, the National and the district court houses and Governor William Powi’s private residence in Mendi town.
Two policemen from Hela on their way back from Mt Hagen were also ambushed and murdered near Mendi at the time of the this crisis.
Law and order was non-existent, war lords and armed gun men ruled the town, forcing public servants to flee and schools to stop.
All government and business houses closed down for several months.
In 2018, the NEC ordered a callout in an effort to stabilise law and order and to investigate and arrest people involved in the destruction and killing of the policemen. While some have been arrested, others have escaped or fled to other towns and cities.
Following the callout, Governor Powi established a peace and reconciliation team made up of prominent leaders from the province to facilitate and broker peace among the rival groups.
On Saturday last week, Governor Powi started the first part of the peace and reconciliation process when he compensated three people who died during the election period; two deaths related to the violence in Mendi and another during the counting while going after Powi.Two of the three were actually killed by rival supporters while another died in Mt Hagen when going after governor.
Powi paid K300,000 in cash and 300 pigs in total for the three deaths (K100,000 and 3000 pigs each for the three deaths). The pigs, money and the cows were donations from his supporters throughout Southern Highlands to help him with the compensation.
He thanked those that supported him as their support indicates that the ‘Team Powi’ is still behind him.
The governor who is determined to making a change in the province says he will to provide the leadership to facilitate peace, harmonyand changes in the lives of the people so that the once peaceful Southern Highlands is restored to its good old days.
He says his first task is to make peace with his people and supporters from Nipa-Kutubu and then move into making peace with the people of Mendi-Muinhu, the district of the two rival candidates.
After making peace within, Powi is looking at making peace with the people of Mendi-Muinhu who clashed with his people from Nipa-Kutubu district.
He then wants to see the people of Southern Highlands standing together to make peace with the people Hela.
Powisays he wants to rebuild Southern Highlands on a strong law and justice sector as he believes the province can only prosper when there is respect for the rule of law and when there is peace and harmony.
The provincial government with the aim of ensuring peace provided K3 million to partner Innovative Agro Industries Ltd who will be based in Pangia so that the people participate in agriculture to improve their lives.
The governor says he wants to see the people venture into small to medium enterprises on the back of a strong law and order.
Rebuilding the province needs the support of everyone and Governor Powi is now appealing to the people to be prepared to make a change in life to forgive each other and move on with life.
He says that peace and reconciliation can only come from the heart and wants everyone must to be prepared rebuild a new life by forgiving each other and making a change in life to return the province to what it used to be in the early 1980s and 1990s.
However, Powi said compensation in the SHP is now restricted to K100,000 and 100 pigs. This will be a new legislation the PEC is expected to pass this year, with an aim to address the issue of hefty compensation demands in the province.