Tofilau Eti Alesana
Born in American Samoa in 1924, Tofilau Eti Alesana was Samoa's prime minister for several months in 1982 and from April 1988 to November 1998, when he also held the Foreign Affairs portfolio. Ian Johnstone spoke to him in 1997.
Ian Johnstone: Do you think that sort of rebellion was because Samoans take unkindly anyway to any colonial domination?
Tofilau: Well, the main reason I was given to understand is that the Germans at that time were not very much impressed with the way how the Samoans themselves organised - the Matai system. The government at the time, they have done something very very advantageous to the Samoan people, and that was to ban sales of Samoan lands - native lands - to foreigners. Germans imposed that policy, which New Zealand when they came here enforced it.
IJ: That is one thing you carried through.
TA: Oh, yes. And when we became independent we even have such a provision in our constitution.
IJ: But that is essential you feel for the integrity of a nation?
TA: Oh of course, but especially to a nation such as Western Samoa that we don’t have that amount of land which we can live on or more lands that we can cultivate. And we are certainly entertaining the fruits of those policies here.
IJ: So what did you hear then about the change? The change to New Zealand. What were you technically? Were you a protectorate under New Zealand guidance?
TA: No, we were under the mandate of the League of Nations, and New Zealand, well according to what I heard, they were a bit like the Germans. In the matai system they have their own cultural and traditional way of dealing with things. And that is exactly what New Zealand and including Germany should have exploited. Unfortunately, the advice to them was not to. It was thought that the authorities, the chiefs, the matais were a primitive arrangement.
IJ: Yes, I’ve heard that before.
TA: And they ignore, they totally ignore the views of, well they appointed some representatives here and there later, they appointed mayors.
IJ: But they weren’t aware of the way the matai system and the social structure worked. Did they try to impose things? I mean what about language for instance?
TA: Well, not really. They didn’t. They wanted to educate the people. But it’s a clash of authorities. Samoan customs and traditions is an established system. We have our matai system. It was not something that was just established overnight. It’s our heritage, and so when colonialists come to Samoa they thought that what [they] introduced was the best. Whoever is under that control should adhere to what he was told. That causes a clash.
There were legislations during New Zealand’s regime that showed signs of discrimination. One I can recall is the Samoa Amendment of 1949 (or 39). In that Act, it prevented the Fiji graduates from the school of medicine there not to practise solely on their own, unless they must be under the control of the palagi doctor - someone who was graduated from the UK or Northern Ireland.
IJ: It was that restrictive.
TA: Oh yes. Samoan doctors were known as ‘native medical practitioners’. Did you know that?
IJ: Those silly titles they dreamt up.
TA: When the Samoan flag and New Zealand flag were hoisted side-by-side in 1948, it was then, when the two fautua. Formerly the joint heads of state were known as main advisers to the high commissioner, and that’s what the Samoans wanted in the past - they wanted some affiliation.
IJ: This was 49? As early as that?
TA: No before 1948.
IJ: If you compare that with developments in the rest of the world - with Africa, the West Indies and so on, and certainly the Pacific - Samoa was well ahead of the others.
TA: I think so, but that was not handed over, it was through the harsh negotiations on the part of Samoans.
IJ: As you made your way towards Independence, what were the main things you had to thrash out?
TA: Economic development. We needed to see more investments in Samoa. Unfortunately there were not sufficient.
And the other important aspect that we wanted to see develop was education, and health. Those are the two social services we needed to be fully developed. Well, if not fully... So New Zealand assisted in health, and education as well. But now the health, we have come in and managed to persist with our own - well of course we receive every now and then assistance from New Zealand under their health department’s decision by sending patients. But the area of education is not yet… because when the power was relinquished to us in Samoa by New Zealand, when we became independent on the 1st of January 1962, our education was leveled at sixth form. And Samoa College was established by New Zealand, but it was only up to the level of sixth-form, University Entrance. Now the country opted to establish our own university, and we thought that also there are scholarships now being [offered] to Samoa by New Zealand, Australia, but it is totally insufficient to cope with the need.
IJ: You had no models to follow - no one else was independent yet. You couldn’t look around and say "this is what they did in Jamaica or …"
TA: No, we were the first independent nation within the South Pacific.
IJ: What did you have to resolve to make a Constitution. You have told me about the two fautua, and then that became four didn’t it - didn’t you have a pattern of four leaders, of heads of state, council of deputies. How was the council of deputies sorted out?
TA: The working committee on the Constitution to self-government, we’d seriously given thought into how we can pacify the future, because we have in our system the royal families of Samoa, and these royal families have from time to time a paramount chief they select to be their royal son.
IJ: This was in the old days. This was part of fa’a Samoa?
TA: Yes it was part of fa’a Samoa. And there is also an authoritative body of orators. I’m referring to the royal families that are also chiefs. The salutation of Samoa is, "chiefs, orators, the people of Samoa" (laughs). The orators consist of a salutation that goes … that involves 11 traditional districts. They are the ones who are supposed to recognise a royal son who is selected by the royal families.
Starting from the time when we became independent - the two fautua of the time will become joint heads of state. And after that, when one passes away, the remaining one will keep on as the sole head of state, for life.
IJ: And then will be replaced by another one to be chosen...
TA: … by parliament. It will no longer be chosen by the royal families, because that was the cause in the past, in the olden days, of warfare between the royal families.
IJ: So this is the democratisation of that.
TA: That’s right. Coming to the question of the Council of Deputies. There are about four royal sons at the time. The working committee on self-government thought okay, give these two will be the [roles of] joint heads of state, and what about the other two? So one of these two was prime minister at the time, and leaving only one. And we established a Council of Deputies. Council of Deputies means they can deputise the head of state, if the head of state is not able to perform his duties.
IJ: One of the things the United Nations wanted to see in newly emergent independent countries was one man one vote - preferably one person one vote. You didn’t go that way. Did that give you troubles?
TA: Yes. It was only the matais that were entitled to a vote. And what happened? There was a multiplication of matais. When we became independent - I can’t give you the exact figures - the number of matais were very nominal, and only after 73 there was a great multiplication.
One matai title consists of perhaps fifty holders of the same title. It was only because they wanted to vote. Or if I was a candidate, in order to get my support...
So we decided that maybe the answer to this to eliminate this unnecessary making of matais is to opt for universal suffrage. It was not very simple to realise that. But we had to propose for the country to undertake a plebiscite referendum. So we conducted referendum and the percentage of those who voted yes for universal was 57% I think.
IJ: Some of your smaller neighbours - Niue, Cook Islands - chose self-government in association with New Zealand. They continued in a relationship. Did you consider that at all?
TA: That was our first decision. It was for Samoa to be a self-governing state. We did not opt for Independence, but during the course of our deliberations for our final constitutional convention, it was then moved by someone and discussed that we should opt for the country to become a full independent state. But someone suggested that should we become an independent state there must still be a treaty of friendship between Samoa and New Zealand.
IJ: What are your memories of Independence Day? You were the first country in the Pacific, one of the first in the world to take this step. Did you have the feeling of Samoa at risk? Were you a little frightened?
TA: We did not adopt the feeling that we were travelling on a one-way street. We thought we were travelling on a multi-faceted street for the future. Economically, socially and stability. Although we thought that the Constitution provided every means and ways of how we can stabilise the country but no one knows at the time.
As a matter of fact it was prophesied by some people that on the day of Independence New Zealand, still hiding behind their grievance against Western Samoa because Samoa wanted to become independent, and they were preparing some battleships to come and bombard Samoa. That was the very first day of judgement. So I was standing there looking out to see if there would be a fleet of battleships. (laughs) That’s how it was.
IJ: Did it happen too early, too late, just right? You’ve got a great philosophy about it, you can see the process, but in your heart of hearts...
TA: Well you can have two answers to this: too early, too late. To certain aspects it was too early, and in other aspects it was a little bit too late. When I say too early, it was based on economic measures that we did not have sufficient enough preparation. And when I say it is too late, Samoans should have been taught how to run their own affairs earlier.
One of the things the colonial system did for Samoa was to divide the country. American Samoa and Samoa. Is that going to be forever?
When we submit our petition to the UN for Samoa to become self-governed, it consist of three subject matters. One was for Samoa to become a self-governing state; secondly, for the lands that were taken by New Zealand from the Germans as New Zealand reparation estates to be reverted to Samoa; and thirdly, for the two Samoas to be reunited. So we have completed the first part and second, but not the third one.
IJ: Mark your country out of ten for its progress since independence. How have you done?
TA: This is not the first time someone has asked me that question. Some people praised me and thanked me and I said no, don't thank me, thank the people because the government's responsibility is to invent proposals then they introduce these proposals. If the people rejected them, what would be the position of the government? So I wholeheartedly give thanks to the Samoan people – to the public – to everyone in the country.It's entirely dependent on stability of the country. I mean that is really an asset. If you can pacify, if you can stabilise your country, that is the main asset. Because we can never induce developed countries abroad to come to our assistance if they see the country is unstable. No, they won't waste their resources to a country that is not resting peacefully.
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