Monday, October 10, 2011

Utula Samana walked the talk


The late Utula Samana (right) with Adam Vai Delaney (centre) and another PNG staffer at the United Nations
It was a freezing January day in Amman, capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The late Utula Samana and I had our business suits pulled over heavy, woolen jumpers. Samana suggested that we visit the place where Jesus Christ was baptised by John, according to the New Testament Bible. As a devout Christian, Samana desperately wanted to use the opportunity to take photographic evidence to show his family and friends that he had stood where one of the greatest events of mankind occurred centuries ago. A picture would speak a thousand words. It was perfectly apt, that whilst in Jordan and with some free time, that we try to achieve this personal ‘pilgrimage.’
 It was year 1996, and we had just ended the final session of the Asian Group Ministerial Meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Samana was about a year into his term as PNG’s Permanent Representative (Ambassador) to the United Nations (UN). In Jordan, he was Head of Delegation and I was his sole Adviser, as PNG had decided not to send delegates from Port Moresby to the Conference. With no other Pacific delegates in attendance, we ‘flew the flag’ on behalf of PNG and for the Pacific region amongst our more influential, and large Asian partners.
 The security personal assigned to us was a very senior ranked Jordanian soldier. After short discussion about our plan, he was more than happy to drive us to the Jordan River and then to the city of Eilat in Al Aqaba, near the Gulf of Aqaba, where Jordan shares an active border with the State of Israel and Egypt. It is about 50km from the border with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
 When we arrived at the riverbank, Samana stared in awe. Enthusiasm. Finally, he was at the banks of the Jordan River, seeing the sacred water that he had heard about in childhood stories at ‘Sunday School.’ He photographed the river and the banana plants and said to me that he wanted pictures to show ‘our people’ that here, in this land, unlike PNG’s fertile soils, people grew bananas. They made good use out of so little. As a grand believer in the power of agriculture, Samana was in Heaven recording his evidence.
 The ‘Star of David’ fluttered from a visible security-post across the opposite side of the river. With our security-guide close-by, we walked onto the King Hussein Bridge and headed towards the middle of the structure facing the occupied area of Jericho. As Samana and I took more photos from the bridge, a female soldier of the Israeli Defence Force, fully armed, approached us. She spoke in Arabic, waving her hands asking that Samana to stop taking pictures of the river. She seemed unhappy and we were bemused. Our Jordanian Guide then explained to her who we were, and what our interest was in the area. It was a rapid moment of uncertainty and must have been odd for the IDF soldier to see two men in suits taking ‘touristy’ photographs at a common border and that Samana, looking like a Nigerian with his clean, shaved face, and dark skin complexion, and I passing as a Palestinian, with my light brown complexion and a face covered with hair! Appreciating the sensitivity of the area, our security asked that we stop somewhere close to the middle of the bridge and put our cameras away. Another step and we would have been in Israeli side of the river. The two soldiers exchanged a few words and I said to Samana that the IDF was sensitive to anyone taking pictures near their border. She came closer waving frantically as we put our cameras away. We then observed the friendly dialogue in Arabic. With respect, we agreed and returned to our car. Seeking more reassurance, Samana asked our guide again if we were standing above the Jordan River. The guide nodded, but didn’t say a word. The IDF solider returned back to her post.
 Back in the car, Samana gave a short laugh and shook his head as we talked in Tok Pisin. I asked him if he had realised why our security hadn’t replied to him in words about being at the Jordan River. Samana said he hadn’t noticed. I then said that, in this part of the world, names of places, including Rivers, can differ, depending on which side of geo-politics you sit on. Hence, our Jordanian soldier felt that a nod and silence, was perhaps a good answer to his question, in the presence of an IDF soldier.
 Samana had his pictures. We drove off towards the Dead Sea then to Petra and Eilat. Sadly, it was to our last trip together.
 I was deeply saddened to hear of Samana’s passing. Most Papua New Guineans will identify with him as a ‘fire-brand politician” – a cliché description I guess that comes from his colleagues and the media describing his way of campaigning and addressing national issues. The other side of Samana, far removed from politics and fighting injustice, was a hospitable, friendly statesman, a superb debater and a wonderful listener. I remember well the many dinners that he and Fungke hosted at the official residence in Scarsdale, New York, where his children, friends and close guests could freely express their views on current affairs and recall stories. It was a remarkable ‘family’ discussion marked by civility and maturity. Samana would often prod and play the Devil’s Advocate. He loved deep, intellectual challenges but never shied away from new ideas.
When he arrived at the United Nations, as PNG’s Permanent Representative, Samana quickly applied his reputation and a unique style to take on international politics. He built strong friendships with the solid foundation that had earlier been laid by his predecessor, the late Renagi Renagi Lohia. Samana carried forward the mantle that Renagi had carried, including causes for the Kanaks of New Caledonia, Tokelau, Falklands and East Timor as Chairman of the UN Committee responsible for the remaining remnants of ‘colonialism’- known as the ‘C24.’ Samana also headed the PNG delegation to the ground-breaking Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. In this role, he chaired the Pacific Islands Forum Group and helped that caucus weave through the global, political labyrinth to get the Pacific’s voice heard. Samana’s exceptional, political intuition also played an active role in the hand-over of the Chairmanship of the Alliance of Small Island States from Trinidad and Tobago to Samoa.
 Much of his time though was occupied explaining PNG’s position and developments to members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) on the sensitive issue of the Bougainville Peace Process. I recall several, impressive high-level meetings that we had with the Russian Federation at the Russian Mission to the UN when it held the rotating Chairmanship of the UNSC. It was his ability to articulate PNG’s position that enhanced his relationships with key allies from both the developed and the developing countries, including the Permanent Five of the UNSC. Samana was a master deal-maker.
 He was an inspirational leader and stood his ground when it mattered for PNG. He loved to see young PNGeans take on challenges and true to his confidence in his team, he would often delegate tasks. He wasn’t a glory hunter. I recall his decision to send me to support then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kilroy Genia, at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. Our participation at that meeting was a watershed moment in the UN’s disposition of the issue on Bougainville
 Samana was great at stepping into an opportunity. One of his coy, yet clever achievements, which he would fondly tell afterwards, was participating at the once-in-a-lifetime photographic event of all the Heads of Governments during the UN’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. As the PNG Head of Delegation, and unbeknown to the organisers, he was ushered in to stand in the spot reserved for the PNG Prime Minister. At that time, the PNG Prime Minister or the Governor General, had not made it to the event. When the organisers discovered that it was an Ambassador and not a Head of Government that was standing in the spot, it was too late. Samana now stood amongst many of the world’s greatest, including Nelson Mandela, and he had the photograph to prove it!
 Despite him seemingly enjoying the glitz and stress of international politics, diplomacy was not his calling. He wanted something more tangible; less talk, more action. Cutting short his UN term, he and his family then returned to PNG. It was a very rare moment to see Samana with tears in is eyes.
 Back at home, he was much happier being closer to his people in Morobe Province and, as doing best at what he loved doing - walking the talk. His personal goal was to re-enter National Parliament and it must have been a dire, spiritual battle when he didn’t get his people’s blessing for this at the last elections.
 I know that my colleagues that also served him at the PNG Mission to the UN during his term, including Ambassador Max Rai and Kappa Yarka, would agree with me that it was truly a blessing and an honour to work with Samana. PNG has lost a great nationalist and we will miss him. May he Rest in Peace. He now goes to see the Christ that was baptised in the Jordan River.

Adam Vai Delaney was First Secretary to the PNG Mission to the UN. He now works as a Consultant.

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