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Samoa's first female prime minster takes office

July 27, 2021

Samoa's first female prime minister has taken office more than three months after an election that ignited a constitutional crisis.

Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa in Apia, the capital of Samoa
Mata'afa — a veteran powerbroker with ties to island royalty — has spurred a resounding political shiftImage: FAST/AFP

Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa finally took office on Tuesday, holding her first Cabinet meeting.

Mata'afa said the government was ready to begin its work after the incumbent of 22 years, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, refused to concede.

What's the significance?

Mata'afa's FAST party stands for a reset in Samoa's relationship with China — to which the island nation is already heavily in debt.

The party, whose full name Fa'atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi means "Faith in the One God of Samoa" is less than a year old.

Founded by the former agriculture and fisheries minister, Laauli Leuatea Polataivao Schmidt, the party has vowed to tackle corruption and espouses social conservatism.

Schmidt — who will take up his previous responsibilities — and Mata'afa are the only members of the new government with any ministerial experience.

FAST emerged last year from Tuilaepa's ruling Human Rights Protection Party over objections to constitutional changes.

Those changes — in particular the Land and Titles Bill — were seen as undermining human rights and the rule of law.

In her campaign, the new prime minister also pledged to stop a million-dollar port development that was backed by Beijing.

Meeting of ministers

The Cabinet meeting took place after members — who dressed in the typical red clothing associated with the party — met officials from their various ministries.

"I am pleased and thankful," Mata'afa said, listing an interim budget as her immediate priority to give her Cabinet time to review the nation's  financial and economic circumstances.

She said preparation hadn't been smooth, ahead of an important court decision that appears to have resolved the constitutional crisis. "We had approached key ministries ... in terms of preparing briefs for an incoming government. They weren't very responsive," Mata'afa told Radio New Zealand.

"I would presume now that the issue has been settled about the validity of our government, they will come on board."

The Samoan government tweeted pictures of the event.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the fact that Mata'afa was finally taking office.

Why the delay?

Mata'afa — the first female to hold the post of prime minister in Samoa — had seen herself and her party locked out of parliament in May.

Her predecessor Tuilaepa had two powerful allies who were able to stall the transfer of power. 

76-year-old Tuilaepa had ruled almost unopposed for more than two decades. His Human Rights Protection Party was in power for nearly 40 years, but it was strongly rejected by the electorate in the April 9 election.

In unusual scenes Mata'afa was sworn in as the country's leader in a tent outside parliament in May, after the doors to the legislature were locked. Both sides accused one another of staging a coup.

The ensuing constitutional crisis only came to an end last week when Samoa's top Appeal Court ruled that Tuilaepa's actions were unlawful.

rc/nm (AP, AFP)