Tongan Prime Minister Samiuela ’Akilisi Pohiva died in an Auckland hospital after years of ill health, New Zealand officials said yesterday, hailing the 78-year-old as a democratic pioneer in the Pacific kingdom.
Pohiva was airlifted from Tonga on Wednesday to receive treatment for pneumonia, when his office issued a statement urging people to pray for him.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said he died yesterday morning.
“Pohiva was an elder statesman for the Pacific and a great friend to New Zealand,” Ardern said. “He will be remembered for his lifelong commitment to championing democracy.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was “terribly saddened” at Pohiva’s death.
“He was a passionate advocate for his people, for his beloved Tonga and our Pacific family,” Morrison tweeted.
Pohiva, a former history teacher, began his push for democracy in the mid-1970s, when Tonga was an absolute monarchy.
“For Tongan reform for democracy, no light burned brighter than this man,” New Zealand First Member of Parliament Shane Jones said in Wellington. “Not only did he face charges of treason ... he was harassed for his beliefs. He rose to be prime minister and brought a level of equity to the political culture of Tonga.”
Pohiva was elected to parliament in 1987 and became prime minister in 2014 after reforms that gave ordinary voters more say in their government.
“During his political career we saw him transition from firebrand activist to an elder statesman of the blue Pacific, always staying true to his strong ideals of democracy and human rights,” Pacific Islands Forum secretary-general Meg Taylor said.
Tongan King Tupou VI effectively sacked Pohiva in 2017 by dissolving parliament and calling a snap election, but he was so popular that he defied expectations and won a second term.
Tonga’s parliament was suspended indefinitely after Pohiva’s death and Deputy Tongan Prime Minister Semisi Sika has taken over as acting prime minister.
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