Remembering Asaro's favourite son
Former Papua New Guinea politician, the late Sir Sinake Giregire.
By Dr Henry Okole
I drove into the car park of the Shady Rest Motel at about 10 am. It was 28 of December 2011, the third last day of the year. The rain that morning was not going to keep me away from this appointment, with an iconic figure of Papua New Guinea.
I stepped out of the vehicle and gazed at the throng of people around to see if I could recognize a face that would resemble a younger version that I recalled from pictures of yesteryears. There he was, I figured, sitting at ease beside the reception area. I walked up to the elderly person, not sure really, but thankfully his face broke into a big grin when our eyes met. ‘Yu orait yangpela?,’ he greeted me in Tok Pisin as he stretched out his hand for a firm hand shake. We made our way to a table just outside the restaurant where we ordered coffee. Such was my meeting with perhaps Asaro’s most famous son: Sir Sinake Giregire. As fate would have it, this was to be my first and last meeting with Giregire. It was his last interview too. He sadly passed away a week later - on 4 January this year aged about 75.
I wanted to talk to Giregire for two reasons - firstly, I have always been fascinated by accounts of people who played a role in laying the foundation of PNG. No level of education, or ounce of sophistication, could ever replace the wisdom, vision and commitment of such individuals. That is why, for me, it is a sacrilege when the pillars of the state are disrespected. Secondly, I was assigned to rearrange the platform for the PNG Country Party in preparations for the 2012 national elections as part of a project at the National Research Institute. Out of personal interest, I wanted to meet the man behind the party’s ideas. Giregire founded the party in 1974, a splinter group that left the United Party.
Listening to Giregire’s life story was like looking through a colourful prism. The different stages of his life, from education to adulthood, depicted a chapter in his life which corresponded with an epoch in PNG’s history. While many of us remember him as among the country’s pioneer politicians in the likes of Sir Pita Lus, Sir Michael Somare and the late Sir Albert Maori Kiki. Giregire was relatively young and a businessman by the time he entered the House of Assembly in 1964 as the elected Member for Daulo/Goroka/Unggai-Bena – now three distinct electorates.
Giregire hailed from Gimisave No.1 village, nestled at the base of Asaro valley in the Eastern Highlands province. His education commenced just after World War II at the Asaroka Lutheran Mission School where he did Years 1 – 6. Later he transferred to Finschhafen where he attended the Heldsbach Secondary School for three years. Malaria however curtailed his schooling in the Morobe province and therefore he went back home to Asaroka.
Living outside his province allowed the young man to be acquainted with business ideas. Giregire saw a lot of potential in agriculture in particular, a factor that was to be the bedrock of his political vision years ahead. The development of the agricultural sector became synonymous with rural development and particularly for PNG Country Party.
Initially, Giregire started by working as a mechanic in Goroka before moving to the Aiyura valley where he became an agricultural assistant. With some assistance from an expatriate brother in-law, Giregire started his own business venture. He first set up a pit sawmill operation in Kainantu before tapping into alluvial gold mining, hence establishing a prospective gold mine operation in Yonki. Around 1958, while still in his 20s, Giregire acquired 40 acres of land back in Asaroka where he planted coffee. It was the biggest indigenous-owned plantation of the time. He also planted vegetable crops. During the course of hiring locals, Giregire also benefitted from free clan labour. His business success further allowed him to have a trucking business and a trade store that he operated out of the Asaro government station by the early 1960s.
Giregire’s business acumen could no longer be ignored. With other indigene planters, they made headways in the late 1950s when they became full members of the hitherto allexpatriate Highlands Farmers and Settlers Association. This opened the door for Giregire to encourage local farmers to get more involved in the agricultural sector. He made immense contributions in many ways - one of them being his efforts to organize local people to purchase land from expatriates and use them for agricultural and plantation purposes. He also used his sizeable agricultural estate to provide coffee seedlings to local farmers.
On the side of politics, the 1950s started with developments that were to forever change the political landscape of PNG. The Legislative Council, established in 1951, was the first national legislature of PNG. Over the years that followed village councils were formed around the country. Among them was the Asaro Watabung Local Government Council, of which Giregire was elected president in 1958. This marked his entry into politics.
Meanwhile, the international community and especially the UN Trusteeship Council - was urging Australia to prepare its territories of Papua and New Guinea for independence. Giregire successfully contested the first national elections in 1964. He was then appointed the Assistant Administrator for the Highlands region, one of four regions of that time. Like many of his colleagues who entered the House of Assembly with him, Giregire was forced to think on his feet as he absorbed the decisive issues at the national level. Paramount was how to reconcile the political aspirations of the two territories.
Giregire wanted a united Papua and New Guinea. He recalled how he personally went out of his way to appeal directly to certain Papuan Members who wanted a separate political status. He was also a member of the embryonic legislative group during the 1964 – 1968 legislative term that convened the early discussions of a national constitution. He was a friend and colleague to his expatriate colleagues both in the House of Assembly and in the business community, but he never fully trusted them. He would always side with nationals whom he feared were vulnerable to manipulation.
Giregire’s view of independence was aligned with his fellow Highlands Assembly Members. The Highlands bloc that time wanted a deferral of independence for the country until their region reached a degree of development parity with coastal areas. This view was further crystallized after the 1968 elections through what was called the Compass Group (short for Combined Political Associations). He mingled in this group with the likes of Dennis Buchanan (Eastern Highlands Regional and later founder of Talair), John Watts (Western Highlands Regional), Ian Downs (Central Highlands Regional), Kaibel Diria (Waghi) and Tei Abal, Hon. Sam Abal’s father.
Giregire was still adamant during our December meeting that their position was still the better option. Compass Group soon became the United Party under the leadership of Tei Abal. Giregire’s increasing impatience with politics in the United Party, which allegedly was dominated by white interests, was what caused him to eventually create the PNG Country Party. In 1975 Giregire narrowly lost by three votes to Sir John Gaius in his bid to become the country’s first Governor-General. He eventually lost the Daulo Open seat in 1977. He contested the same seat for the last time in 2002 and he came a closed third.
Giregire went to reminisce about the early days of the PNG Country party when he had meetings from time to time with his officials of the Australian Country Party. The PNG Country party ranks with Pangu Pati, People’s Progress Party, National Party and United Party as among the longest existing parties in the country. The PNG Country Party has contested every National election since its conception and has been a coalition partner of many governments since independence.
Leading into the 2012 national elections, Giregire reiterated his party’s goals as enshrined in its platform. He firmly believed that the future of the country depended on the need to introduce development policies that targeted rural communities where the bulk of the people lived. His party, now under the parliamentary leadership of Hon. Jamie Maxtone Graham believes that urgent government attention through people-centred policies is absolutely vital and integral to development initiatives in rural areas. Apart from securing basic services in the form of education, health and infrastructure development, the Country Party wants to see more effective policies that empower local people, and enhanced their opportunities to earn a living through the resources that they have in abundance.
To the families and close friends of Sir Sinake Giregire, the country conveys its condolences to you during your time of bereavement. To the people of Asaro and the Eastern Highlands province, we thank you for the services of one of your finest that this country has ever seen to have donned a clock of national leadership. The country certainly misses individuals of Sir Sinake’s calibre at this tumultuous time - people with great ideas and a touch of fervour and humility.
- Dr. Henry Okole is a Senior Research Fellow under the Institutional Strengthening Pillar at the National Research Institute (NRI) in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.