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.
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.