Samoa’s first female Prime Minister-elect has had a strange inaugural week in office.
When Fiame Naomi Mata’afa turned up to the Pacific island nation’s Parliament on Monday to be sworn in, she found the building locked. The 64-year-old went ahead with the oath-taking ceremony anyway – inside a tent on Parliament grounds.
“(Though) it was disappointing, we weren’t surprised,” she said from her office in the capital Apia. “But we were very resolved that a convening and swearing-in ceremony needed to take place.” Monday was the final day a new parliament could be sworn in following the April 9 election under Samoa’s constitution.
Longtime politician Mata’afa – who hails from a storied political dynasty – argues her party won the election. But her opponent, Tuila’epa Sailele Malielegaoi, Samoa’s Prime Minister of more than 22 years, sees it differently – and is refusing to relinquish power.
Once political allies, the two are now facing off in an unprecedented struggle for control, with both accusing the other of attempting a coup.
The pair offer different futures for Samoa. Malielegaoi – who once suggested Mata’afa was “the Devil” – has been criticized for his party’s close relationship to China and for undermining the rule of law. The even-handed Mata’afa, by contrast, looks set to recalibrate Samoa’s relationship with Beijing and inspire more women leaders in the Pacific region, which has the lowest level of female representation in the world.
There’s more than just their own political futures at stake: Mata’afa and her newly formed FAST party say they are fighting to maintain the country’s democracy.
“We’ve probably lost our way a little bit,” she said in a Zoom interview with CNN, on what she sees as Samoa’s “slide away from the rule of law.” “In any society, these things happen and events come to a point where you have to make that change and put in the reset button.”
A political bloodline
Politics is in Mata’afa’s blood – although her forebears never faced a situation quite like the one now unfolding in Samoa.
Born in 1957, when Samoa was on the verge of gaining independence from New Zealand, Mata’afa had political credentials on both sides of the family tree.
Her grandfather was involved in the Mau, a non-violent movement fighting for Samoan independence. When she was still a child, her father became the first Prime Minister.
Mata’afa’s mother was a women’s rights activist who, Mata’afa says, dragged her along to political meetings and later became a Member of Parliament.
From very early on, Mata’afa knew she was interested in politics – and how to hold her own.
At the village school, she walked around looking like “one of the teachers,” she said in a 2011 interview with Radio New Zealand. “Because I was the daughter of the chief of the village, the teachers thought they’d better just let me do what I wanted.”
Later, at her predominantly White boarding school in New Zealand’s capital Wellington, a windy city more than 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) from Samoa, she was undaunted about being one of only two Samoans. “Being Pacific kids, we could hold our own,” she told RNZ, adding that she was a 5-foot, 7-inch-tall 11-year-old. “So we knocked a few heads around and that sorted it out and they left us alone.”
When her father died unexpectedly when she was 18, her own political trajectory sped up.
In Samoa, matai, or chiefs of villages, hold huge significance, and are exclusively eligible to stand for parliament. But titles aren’t simply inherited. Mata’afa had to go to court to compete with other candidates for her father’s title, academic Ceridwen Spark wrote in a 2020 Journal of Pacific History article.
In 1978, Mata’afa was awarded the Fiame title, the position of chief over Lotofaga village on Samoa’s main island, Upolo. She was 20, unmarried and a woman – a highly unusual situation in Samoa, where women are expected to become wives, and the vast majority of matai titles are held by men, according to a 2015 Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat report. She returned to New Zealand to continue a law and politics degree, but was summoned home when some family members took her to court for being an absentee title holder.
“I’m probably the only matai ever in Samoa that has been given the hard word to stay in the country,” she said, according to Spark’s 2020 article. “It was just the price I had to pay for being unusual.”
Becoming the local Fiame fast-tracked her political career in Samoa, she said. She was elected an MP in 1985 at 27, and has been in parliament ever since.
“It sort of sped things up. Sometimes life is like that,” Mata’afa said this week.
Mata’afa succeeded because she is smart and worked hard, said Spark, a senior lecturer in Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne.
“She’s kind of wonderfully formidable,” Spark said. “She’s intimidating without being scary, because she’s so impressive. She’s not someone you forget easily.”
Slide away from the rule of law
For decades, Samoa has been a stable democracy in the Pacific, as other countries there faced tension and coups.
The ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) has been in power almost uninterrupted and unchallenged since 1982 – and for more than three decades, Mata’afa has been a part of that.
As her political career progressed, Mata’afa became the first woman to serve as deputy Prime Minister. She was part of HRPP when Malielegaoi introduced some of his most high-profile decisions: moving the international dateline to change Samoa’s timezone to ease trade with New Zealand and Australia, and switching the side of the road cars drive on, so the island can take second-hand vehicles from its neighbors.
Yet Mata’afa said that in recent years, she began noticing a declining respect for the rule of law, and a rise in her party’s abuse of power.
The “first hit,” she says, was when Land and Titles Court Judge Fepulea’i Atilla Ropati was convicted of assault for hitting a man over the head with a bottle in 2019. It was up to Parliament to vote on whether he should be dismissed, but the judge had a close relationship with the speaker of the house, who made a personal plea to HRPP not to dismiss him.
Ultimately, Ropati was reinstated to his position.
“For me, that was such a stark demonstration of people not really taking responsibilities,” Mata’afa said. “It really takes away the dignity of the court … There are other people in jail for the same conviction.”
Then last year, the government introduced a series of laws that Mata’afa said represented a “destruction of the court system.” Amnesty International agreed, saying in a statement they weakened the judiciary and human rights protection in the country.
“Those bills were really the last straw,” Mata’afa said.
So she quit the party she’d served for more than half her life, and just one month out from this year’s election, became FAST’s new leader.
The party was regarded as the underdog – so when the initial results from the April 9 election showed HRPP in a deadlock with FAST, many were surprised. Mata’afa thinks people voted for her because they felt a “disconnection with their government.” “Suddenly people were sort of coming out of this almost slumber,” she said.
The election ultimately came down to one lone independent MP who opted to align with FAST, giving the party 26 seats to HRPP’s 25.
Yet that wasn’t the end of it. HRPP argues a constitutional provision aimed at boosting female representation in Parliament means it also has 26 seats.
Under Samoan law, a minimum of 10% of Parliament – or five seats – must be held by women, and if that threshold isn’t met, the electoral commission can create more seats. Women only made up 9.8% of Parliament – or five seats – after this year’s election, so the electoral commission created a new seat filled by an HRPP member. The decision to create that new seat was overturned by the Supreme Court, which argues the law is fulfilled as women hold five of the 51 seats available, without the additional post.
The Court of Appeal will hear the issue Monday.
Malielegaoi has accused Mata’afa of committing treason and Samoa’s attorney general is taking a case against her party, arguing Monday’s swearing-in ceremony was unlawful. In a statement sent to CNN, HRPP said being sworn in without meeting the 10% threshold “is a sin.” Malielegaoi has also launched a separate court process to throw out the Supreme Court judges, arguing they are biased against him, and is pushing for a new election.
Mata’afa sees that as a “full frontal attack on the judiciary” by Malielegaoi, who “just refuses to accept the election result.” In the statement, HRPP said it respected all court orders, but is “finding it hard to comply with all the decisions of the court given the fact that all rulings and behavior of the court has been against HRPP.”
Auckland University law lecturer Fuimaono Dylan Asafo said he expects the courts to find in Mata’afa’s favor.
“One of the bright sides of this constitutional crisis is that we’ve seen a leader who was willing to uphold the rule of law and follow the constitution even in the most challenging circumstances,” he said. “The newly elected Prime Minister has conducted themselves with dignity and grace in standing up against tyranny.”
HRPP MP Leota Tima Leavai said if the court ruled against the gender quota seat, her party will “concede to not having the majority.”
“We are not dictators, we are not lawless people, we only want what is best for Samoa.”
For now, Mata’afa has been too tied up with the ongoing power struggle to get on with running the country.
But if she is able to begin, she’ll be heralding in a new era – for women and for her nation.
Samoa has a close relationship with Beijing. Mata’afa says she doesn’t see major changes in those ties, but there are signs a recalibration may be on the cards.
Mata’afa said a proposed $100 million China-backed port development was “not a priority” for Samoa. “This is a small country – our current ports, our airports, more than cater for our needs and services and so forth. Why would we need a port that can accommodate 15 ships? It just doesn’t make sense,” she added.
She also said she would take Samoa’s level of indebtedness to China into account. Samoa faces a high risk of debt distress, according to the International Monetary Fund, and about 40% of Samoa’s external debt is owed to China.
Regarding public concern about the level of Chinese immigration and business investment in Samoa, Mata’afa is characteristically measured, saying: “We’ve got to address that for what it is … we need to have the discussions around those in a very sensible way.”
It’s unclear how many ethnically Chinese people live in Samoa, although 98% of the 200,000-strong population are of Samoan ethnicity.
Mata’afa, who never married and has no children, is also seen as a trailblazer for female representation in the Pacific islands, where only 6.4% of lawmakers are women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. That’s well below the Middle East, on 17.2%, or West Africa, on 15.8%.
Kerryn Baker, a research fellow in Pacific Politics at Australian National University who specializes in gender representation, said “progressive” Mata’afa was uniquely placed to challenge the traditional politics of Samoa.
“It’s enormously significant in terms of her ability to put gender issues on the table at the regional level, but also just symbolically – the role model effect is really important,” she said. “It’s a huge milestone.”
Mata’afa’s election result has already been recognized by Hilda Heine, a former Marshall Islands President and the first female leader of any Pacific island nation. “Stay strong and unwavering in your legitimacy as the duly elected Samoa PM! The facts of the election stand,” Heine tweeted. “Your win is a win for Pacific women. The political wrangling, fueled by entrenched resistance to change is sad but not surprising.”
Mata’afa is aware change isn’t easy.
“You have to take people along with you, and got to see the benefits of that change, not just change for the sake of change … or change because I said so,” she said.
Mata’afa sees herself as continuing the legacy of her predecessors. But she isn’t just doing it for them.
“I don’t think I’m necessarily just doing it because they did it,” she said. “If it is a legacy, it’s a legacy that I’m pleased to continue. It’s a public service.”