Born in poverty, but connected to royalty, his family say he was born to reform the nation

The man who led the fight to bring democracy to Tonga has turned 75.

Born on April 7, 1941, Samuela ʻAkilisi  Pōhiva  has dedicated much of his life to politics and his endeavor to allow the people to have their say and run the government.

A look at his family and political life shows a fearless man with great courage, bravery and determination.

In his political campaigns Pōhiva has maintained that the king and the royals would be more loved and respected if they gave up their powers as rulers and became only honorary figures.

He said the fact that no human being was perfect meant the king made mistakes while running the country on day to day businesses.

He said that if the king made bad decisions about the use of the money people pay in taxes, the taxpayers would vent their anguish against him, something that could decrease the taboo and veneration for the royals that is built into Tongan culture.

He has repeatedly rejected claims by his critics that he wants to change the role of the monarchy  because he wants to become king.

His family and relatives believe the combination of Pōhiva’s hard life as a child and teenager and his close blood connection to the royals were the combination needed to free the people from the rule of the aristocrats.

Hard life

When Pōhivaʻs cousins and relatives recounted how he grew up in Fakakai, Ha’apai, it was apparent the political veteran experienced a really hard life.

Pōhiva was adopted by his grandfather. His duties as a child included waking up early in the morning and going fishing with him.

At the time boats had to be rowed because engines were not available in the islands.

When his grandfather had to dive into the sea, Pōhiva has to hold the boat steady with a long oar by holding it against the undersea rocks. It was a task described by his cousin Vakaloa as difficult, challenging and risky for a young child to do almost every day.

During a conversation in Auckland, Pōhiva’s son Po’oi agreed that his family had maintained from time to time that his father was born to reform the nation given the way he was brought up.

Po’oi said Pōhiva was a very poor child.

When he entered Tupou College from primary school he had only one school uniform to wear and had only a few changes of clothes.

He had to borrow clothes from other students and sometime took clothes from students who did not pick up their washing from the clothes line after leaving them there for some time.

At the weekend students left the boarding school and went home while Pōhiva headed  to the nearby village of Malapo to pick up talingelinga, a type of fungus some local businesses bought from locals. This helped pay his school fees and materials.

Royal connection

Pōhiva has close blood relationship with the royals. His grandfather was Fīnau  Filimoeʻulie, a half brother of George Tupou I, the king who is regarded as the founder of modern Tonga.

Filimoeʻulie and Tupou I’s mother was Hoamofaleono. Filimo’ulie’s father was Nuku Moimoiangaha, from whom the current Lord Nuku is descended.

Filimoeʻulie grew up in Pōhiva’s village of Fakakakai, but later returned to Vainī in Tongatapu, his motherʻs village, to be appointed as Lord Maʻafu.

This means Pōhiva has a close blood relationship not only with the king but with two other current nobles, Lord Ma’afu of Vaini and Lord Nuku of Kolonga.

Queen Nanasipauʻuʻs mother, Lady Tuputupu Vaea, is Pōhiva’s second cousin. They are both grandchildren of Filimoeʻulie. Therefore Pōhiva is a cousin of Lord Vaea, Queen Nanasipauʻu’s brother.

At one stage during a heated debate in Parliament between Pōhiva and the Late Minister of Police, Hon. ʻAkauʻola, the minister was furious at how Pōhiva talked about the need to change the ruling system into a democracy.

After a few exchanges ʻAkauʻola furiously asked Pōhiva: “Ko hai e tuʻa ko koe ke haʻu ʻo liliu e fonuá ni?” – “Who the commoner are you to come and change this nation?”

Pōhiva responded through his Keleʻa newspaper by printing his lineage and showing how he was connected to George Tupou I. He told ʻAkauʻola he was much closer in blood to the king than him and most of the nobles.

Royals and Political career

Pōhiva’s fight to bring democracy to Tonga but make sure the position of the royals is preserved differs from the role of most of the world’s monarchies. Many royal families in Europe have been wiped out.

Pōhiva has maintained since the beginning of his political career that the change he wants would ensure the king and the royals were safeguarded by removing them from running the government.

In his maiden speech broadcast to the nation after he became Prime Minister in December 2014 Pōhiva said: “We must prove to the king that we can run the nation”.

Pōhiva’s political career can be traced back into 1976 when he attended the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.

Pōhiva and six other Tongan students, Finau Tutone, Lopeti Senituli, ‘Uhila Liava’a, Sione Ma’ilei and Tevita Kolokihakaufisi were interested in Tongan politics and wanted to pursue a proposal by former Minister of Education Dr Langikavaliku to the King’s Privy Council asking His Majesty to set up a commission to review the constitution so the government could be made more democratic.

In 1980 he started his political campaign by sharing his ideas for a change to democracy in kava ceremonies.

In 1981 he started his Matalafo Laukai radio programme with two prominent church leaders, Dr Sione ʻAmanaki Havea and Late Bishop Patelesio Finau.

The government took the programme off air in 1983.

In1985 he was dismissed from the public service as a teacher.

In 1986 he established Keleʻa newspaper.

In 1987 he was elected to parliament and kept his seat until  he was elected Prime Minister.

In 2013 he was awarded The Defender of Democracy Award.

He was imprisoned several times during his fight to change the kingdom’s political system.

The main points

  • The man who led the fight to bring democracy to Tonga has turned 75.
  • Born on April 7, 1941, Samuela ʻAkilisi Pōhiva  has dedicated much of his life to politics and his endeavor to allow the people to have their say and run the government.
  • A look at his family and political life shows a fearless man with great courage, bravery and determination.
  • He became Tonga’s first commoner Prime Minister in December, 2014.

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