FROM CLERICAL ASSISTANT TO PRIME MINISTER. A Reflection on the Life of Rt. Hon. Ezekiel Alebua
Dr. Tarcisius Kabutaulaka
On Sunday, 7th August 2022, my uncle, Rt. Hon. Ezekiel Alebua, passed away at Haimatua, Avuavu in Tasimauri after a long battle with complicated health issues. He was surrounded by a large extended family. He was my mother’s younger brother.
Since his passing I have been reflecting on his life; about how this man I knew simply as “chachai” – an endearing word for “uncle” – came from a humble background to become one of the major figures in Solomon Islands’ history.
For many people, he was known as Ezekiel Alebua. In our family and amongst close relatives, he was known affectionately by different names, depending on relationships and the cultural protocols that come with those relationships. He was known as Esi, Kutu, Kaka, Chachai and Kuku. Here, I refer to him interchangeably as “Ezekiel” and “Chachai”.
When he became very ill and I knew this could be his final lap in life, I regretted never talking to him in depth about his life; about growing up, school, public service, politics, his weaknesses and failures, achievements and his reflections about our family, communities, province and country. In fact, the kukuni/respect that came with our uncle-nephew relationship made it uncomfortable to ask him probing questions about his life. Now, I wish I had had the guts to transcend that kukuni and ask him questions. It’s now too late.
Chachai was a dedicated public servant, a passionate politician, and a complex and fascinating character with a charming personality. He came from a simple background, lived a simple life and served our country with dedication. He was a towering Tasimauri giant. But like many of us, he also had many weaknesses.
He was born in June 1947 at the old Avuavu Catholic Mission Station where his father, the late Dominic Alebua, was a catechist and station-man. Ezekiel was the third of ten children born to Dominic and Romana Saiboli. He has two brothers and seven sisters. My mother Theresia Misuatu, who is still alive, is the second in the family.
Ezekiel did his junior primary education at Avuavu before going to St. Joseph’s Catholic School at Tenaru where he did his senior primary education from 1959 to 1962 and then went on to secondary school from 1963 to 1966.
After graduating from high school, Chachai joined the British colonial administration’s civil service as a Clerical Assistant at the Public Service Secretariat. Over the years, he was posted to several positions in the public service, including in the Marine Department as Shipping Clerk and Store-Man.
He later joined the administrative cadet and over the years climbed the public service ranks, becoming District Clerk and was posted to the Makira/Ulawa District, Central District and Isabel District. His last public service posting was as Clerk to the Guadalcanal Province from 1979 to 1980.
Chachai never had formal education beyond high school. But over the years he did a number of administrative and management training courses at the Institute for Public Administration and Management (IPAM) and a short-term training at the University of the South Pacific in 1975. Last year, at the 75th Anniversary of St. Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School, Chachai described himself as the “least educated” of the prime ministers who have so far served our country. He was referring to the fact that he did not have a university degree. But what he lacked in higher education, he made up for in his enthusiasm to learn on the job. He was also an avid reader. I remember as a kid seeing books in his house that ranged from academic books, biographies of world leaders, works of literature and comic books. He spent many hours reading. (When I was a student at St. Joseph’s Tenaru, I took many of his comic books for our comic club). In many ways, Chachai was self-taught. His entire life was a learning journey, including learning from his mistakes.
He was also a keen listener of country music and had a serious collection of those large discs – I don’t know what they are called – that included musicians like Charlie Pride, Conway Twitty, Jim Reeves, Kenny Rogers, Bellamy Brothers, Willie Nelson and many others.
As a public servant, his contemporaries escribed him as dedicated and hardworking. One of his former bosses, the late Augustine Manakako, described him as hardworking, assertive and willing to make decisions. I know my uncle was proud of his role as a public servant and often spoke about it passionately. He particularly valued and enjoyed working in the provinces, or what in those days were known as districts. He was a public servant at heart and loved to serve our country.
Ezekiel left the public service and joined politics reluctantly. He had requested to be posted to one of the provinces, but the Public Service Commission denied his request. He therefore took leave and contested the 1980 national general elections, saying that if he lost the elections he would return and the public service commission could post him anywhere. By then, I was in Form 2 at St. Joseph’s Tenaru and remember the election campaigns, although I did not fully understand what it was all about.
Chachai won the elections and became the Member of Parliament for the East Guadalcanal Constituency. This was the first post-independence national general election.
His experiences in the public service and understanding of how the government system worked prepared him well for parliament. But politics was different.
In those days, members of parliament coming to Honiara for meetings would stay at the Parliament Rest House, opposite the road from the present day Anthony Saru Building. They each had a little room and shared kitchen and bathroom. It was not a glamourous position as what it is often made out to be now-a-days. In my early years at Tenaru, I would spend some weekends with my uncle at the Parliament Rest House. It was there that I first met other MPs like Danny Philip, Solomon Mamaloni and others. Of course I was then a tiny kid who was referred to simply as “Ezekiel’s nephew”.
On his first stint in parliament, the then prime minister, Solomon Mamaloni, appointed Ezekiel as his Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Trade. This was at a time when the newly independent Solomon Islands was learning to navigate its diplomatic relations. Chachai was therefore instrumental in nurturing our country’s early years of international relations. One of the issues in those days was whether Solomon Islands should establish diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) or Taiwan. Disagreements over that issue led to Ezekiel’s resignation as Foreign Affairs Minister, after having served for only two years (1981–1982).
In 1984 Chachai was re-elected as member of parliament for East Guadalcanal. Sir Peter Kenilorea became Prime Minister and selected my uncle to be his Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture. In 1986 tropical cyclone Namu devastated many parts of Solomon Islands. Assistance poured in from other countries. Controversies over the disbursement of assistance from France led to Sir Peter’s resignation as Prime Minister. He in turn nominated Ezekiel as his candidate for Prime Minister. Chachai became Prime Minister in December 1986, becoming the 4th Prime Minister and 3rd person to hold the position. As prime minister, one of his biggest challenges was to nurse the country back to recovery from the devastations of cyclone Namu. It was a daunting task given the extensive devastations to properties, infrastructure, people’s livelihoods, and the country’s economy. The Alebua-led government did its best to nurse the country back to its feet, even if it was wobbly.
Amongst some of the achievements under Ezekiel’s leadership was the number of Bills that his government tabled in parliament: a total of 14 Bills in two years (1987 and 1988). Chachai was also instrumental in the establishment of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), working closely with his Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu counterparts, Hon. Pias Wingti and the late Hon. Father Walter Lini. Ezekiel was Prime Minister until 1989.
In July 1988, Ezekiel was appointed to Her Majesty the Queen of England’s Privy Council. He was nominated by the then British Prime Minister, the late Margaret Thatcher. In her congratulatory message to Chachai, Mrs. Thatcher said, “It gave me great pleasure to see your name go forward to the Queen for appointment to Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council.” Ezekiel became one of only two Solomon Islanders appointed to the Her Majesty’s Privy Council and therefore accorded the title “Right Honourable”. The other person was Rt. Hon. Sir Peter Kenilorea.
Chachai was the member of parliament for the East Guadalcanal Constituency for four terms until 1997 when he was succeeded by the late Johnson Koli.
In 1998 Ezekiel as elected as a member of the Guadalcanal Provincial Assembly for the Longu/Avuavu Ward and was subsequently elected as Guadalcanal Province Premier, a position he held until 2003.
This was during the most difficult time in our country’s history because of the “conflicts”. History will judge the nature of Chachai’s role in the “conflicts”. I will leave that to historians. But I can attest to the fact that he worked earnestly to restore peace and was instrumental in facilitating the peace talks that ultimately led to the signing of the Townsville Peace Agreement. I was involved in a small way in that process and saw how hard he worked, reaching out to his friends including the late Francis Saemala and counterpart, the then Malaita Premier, the late David Oeta. On 1st June 2001, Chachai was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt. Those were difficult times.
As I mentioned above, despite his achievements, Chachai was a human being. He had his weaknesses, something he was often the first to admit. In 2007 he was convicted for embezzlement, a crime he committed during his term as Premier for Guadalcanal Province. He was sentenced to prison. I was disappointed, sad and ashamed. But when I visited him in prison and as we talked I realized he had accepted his fate with humility and was serving his sentence with as much dignity as he could muster, given the circumstances. He was humble even in the face of adversity.
Chachai was a charming politician with a brilliant mind. He was a great orator. I remember growing up and listening to him charm parliament with his off-the-cuff oratory that demonstrated a mastery of language and subjects.
In the last decade of his life, Chachai lived a simple and quiet life, alternating between his homes at Kakabona and Haimatua at Avuavu in Tasimauri. His last public appearance was last year during the 75th Anniversary of his alma mater, St. Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School at Tenaru. He was always proud of his connections to St. Joseph’s Tenaru and wore his Marist identity on his heart.
My uncle loved the simple things in life. He loved fishing, spear-diving at Kora i Sahalu and for savutu, valu, kuricha and ura in the rivers and creeks close to our village. I remember he would lead us on fishing trips around Kora Island and Na Vatu/Valena reef. I remember as a kid, he would take us spear-diving around the edges of the Laovi Lake. (I was mostly in the canoe). His simplicity was accompanied by a wicked sense of humor that many who knew him were often feasted with.
Chachai loved his communities. He was always proud of his humble beginnings in Tasimauri, the place he was born and grew up and where he now rests in peace.
But this simple man was a towering giant of Tasimauri. He was widely respected. This was demonstrated by the large crowd that gathered at Haimatua on Tuesday, 9th August 2022 for his funeral.
Rest in peace, Chachai.
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