Inside Story

Open season

Political opportunism seems set to follow the looting in Port Moresby

Hamish McDonald 27 January 2024 1742 words

Clock ticking? Papua New Guinea’s prime minister James Marape. Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Less than a month after looters took advantage of a police strike to pillage stores in the PNG capital, a burst of political uncertainty is looming. With the country’s ban on no-confidence motions in the first eighteen months of a new government expiring on 9 February, open season is about to begin for enemies of incumbent prime minister James Marape.

Half a dozen members of Marape’s 105-strong multi-party coalition have already peeled off, blaming the government for poor handling of the pay dispute that sparked the police strike. But Marape says he is confident of withstanding any no-confidence motion likely to be proposed in the 118-member chamber.

What has been called a payroll glitch resulted in sharp cuts to many public servants’ fortnightly pay, including cuts of around half for low-ranking staff in the police, prison service and other agencies. Victims of the error in Port Moresby walked off the job on 10 January and besieged the national parliament.

After word spread by mobile phone, mobs took the opportunity to plunder shops and trading stores, some of which were set on fire. Extra police were flown in and a call-out of the battalion at Port Moresby’s Murray Army Barracks restored order that night, reinforced by a two-week state of emergency that has now expired. Damage is estimated at approaching one billion kina (A$406 million) and the bodies of twenty-two victims have been found, some presumed killed by store owners and their security guards, others trapped in buildings set on fire.

The belief that government bungling lay behind the strike is not much questioned. “The lack of dialogue by the police with their police association, let alone with management or other agencies over an issue that could be fixed in days, if not hours, was certainly strange,” says Paul Barker, director of the Port Moresby–based Institute of National Affairs.

Soon after the riot, conspiracy theories raced through social media. Why were some businesses targeted while others, including large adjoining businesses without heavy protection, were left untouched? What will the police and troops do with the stolen goods they seize in their house-to-house searches? Was the looting somehow instigated to rattle confidence in Marape ahead of the expiry of the grace period?

Former prime minister Peter O’Neill, ousted by Marape in a 2019 no-confidence vote and soundly defeated in the 2022 election, is among those calling from the opposition bench for Marape’s dismissal. With business interests including an electronics chain, a hotel and a brewery, O’Neill has ample resources to cultivate parliamentary backing.

Another possible contender is Belden Namah, who quit Marape’s Pangu Pati in mid January. A Duntroon-trained army officer convicted of mutiny over the hiring of British and African mercenaries to deal with the Bougainville rebellion, his parliamentary career has been stormy. As the representative of a constituency where Malaysian loggers are active, he appears not to lack resources either: he was once readmitted to Sydney’s Star Casino despite an allegation of sexual harassment because he was classified as a high roller.

Government leaders, meanwhile, are casting around for short-term remedies. Telecommunications minister Timothy Masiu has threatened to shut down social media platforms. Marape says he and National Capital District governor Powes Parkop will look at applying a vagrancy law to restrict “unnecessary” movement into Port Moresby. “People have proven they are not fit to live in the city,” he said.

This kind of response shows that politicians are refusing to recognise the changes in the capital that are making it more difficult to govern. Most of all, they are ignoring growing population pressures on government services and agencies.

Just over a year ago, Port Moresby’s main hospital was revealed to be storing the bodies of deceased patients in an open shed because the morgue was full. A hasty mass burial was organised, but the bodies have no doubt continued to overflow. As PNG doctors’ association head James Naipao pointed out, the hospital was designed for the capital’s official population figure of about 400,000, but in reality the population is more than three times that number.

The same goes for the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary, as the police are named. Numbering about 7200, including civilian staff and reserve officers, it has grown by only about 2000 officers since independence in 1975, a period in which Papua New Guinea’s population has trebled to an estimated eleven million. The last census was in 2011, its findings flawed partly because thieves at one stage stole the central tally room’s computers. A census due in 2021 was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic and is now planned for later this year.

Annual population growth is generally put at 3 per cent, meaning the present population will double in less than twenty-five years. The pressure of numbers heightens the likelihood of more explosions of opportunistic looting in Port Moresby and similar unrest in the crowded port city of Lae.

The population estimate means PNG has one police member for about 1500 citizens, a third of the widely recommended ratio of 1:450. Marape’s announcement last month that police numbers will be expanded to 10,000 within five years, backed by Anthony Albanese’s pledge of A$200 million for a new police college and specialist training, is a belated attempt to remedy the security problem.

Whether the PNG government can put up its share of the necessary funding remains to be seen. In 2020 the international consultancy Deloitte said the present force needed an additional 126 million kina annually to cover its funding gap and a one-off capital injection of about 3.9 billion kina to deliver its service mandate. Neither happened.

Despite recent panics in Australian and American defence circles over China’s offers of security aid to Pacific island nations — which Marape happily countered by signing defence pacts with Canberra and Washington — recent events in Port Moresby show that PNG’s main security problem is internal.

Meanwhile, life in Port Moresby divides into two classes. Well-off visitors and wealthy expatriates and local residents stay in hotels or live in apartment blocks barricaded against the city’s poor and its raskol gangs by razor wire, armed guards and Dobermans. These well-off people, institutions and commercial enterprises are protected by at least 30,000 private security guards, about three times the number of police and troops combined. A further unknown number of people work for unregistered security groups. Even so, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Port Moresby as the sixth “least liveable” city in the world.

Outside, many if not most locals live in settlements with uncertain land tenure rights and limited water, sanitation and electricity services. They journey to workplaces and markets constantly alert to possible theft and assault. Bags, phones and watches are snatched; sometimes the thieves use homemade pipe guns to relieve office workers of a few kina or even the shoes on their feet.

“If you need the police and you want them to come to your village or wherever, you’ve got a real problem,” says Sinclair Dinnen, a specialist on Pacific crime and security at the Australian National University. “The first thing they will ask for is a payment, ostensibly to pay for fuel, and they do need fuel, but there’s quite a lot of rent-seeking behaviour across the police force — given the fact they can get away with it and people expect to pay the police to assist them, particularly if it involves travelling.”

In urban settlements, local committees often provide their own security. “Most people do not rely on the uniformed police for their policing needs,” says Dinnen. “If something goes missing, you go to your local networks, the committees. Sometimes for a small fee, they will eventually find out who stole your radio and maybe arrange for it to be returned. The police would not be interested in that kind of stuff.”

This lack of support partly reflects a widespread feeling that living in a city is somehow un-Melanesian. Founding prime minister Michael Somare argued against urbanisation in the 1970s, and academics have written of “ambivalent townsmen.” But the “new generations of people who have grown up in towns and who are not familiar with the day-to-day rhythms of village life are now growing in number,” say contributors to Papua New Guinea: Government, Economy and Society, a recent book by ANU and University of PNG researchers. “These people have made cities their permanent homes,” they add, while feeling obliged to note that “in some ways, the legitimacy of Melanesian urbanism is yet to be established.”

Urban investment often worsens inequalities, say the researchers, because government funds are “co-opted by political patronage.” Funds are spent on iconic projects valued by the urban elite rather than on housing, water supply and sanitation, especially in the settlements.

The elite want to position Port Moresby as a global city and Papua New Guinea as a middle power in its region. Money goes into the international airport, new roads to the top hotels, facilities to host regional games, and a shorefront pavilion to host the 2018 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (accompanied by the baffling purchase of forty luxury Maseratis and three Bentleys).

As well as the neglect of settlements, international events directed at global audiences have often entailed “intensified policing of marginal groups seen as undermining the modernist aesthetics of orderliness and prosperity,” say the researchers, and in some cases forcible relocation. The informal economy is also a target, notably the roadside betel-nut traders catering to the widespread fondness for this mild narcotic.

In 2022, newly re-elected prime minister Marape and capital governor Parkop turned up for the launch of a twenty-two-storey apartment building on reclaimed foreshore land obtained for ninety-three years by a Malaysian entrepreneur for an annual fee of just 8400 kina. Police evicted the previous squatters on adjacent Paga Hill and dumped them on unserviced land far on the city fringe.

Parkop thanked the developer for having trust in the capital city and ensuring modern facilities for accommodation. The city government had devised the “Amazing Port Moresby” global branding to promote it as a liveable city, he said, “but the government can’t do it alone.”

The governor has also announced several initiatives to improve the livelihoods of ordinary residents, including a Settlements into Suburbs project and a Yumi Lukautim Mosbi (Let’s Care for Moresby) community awareness drive. As Paga Hill shows, though, the wealthy tend to get the breaks while the poor risk being deported as vagrants. A reshuffle in parliament is unlikely to change this anytime soon. •