The prime minister’s office in Apia, the capital of Samoa, which overlooks the harbour, has just been vacated by the man who held the job for 22 years.
The bookshelves are still empty, but the room is filled with bunches of flowers, sent by well-wishers keen to congratulate the new incumbent.
This week, after the most contentious election in the Pacific country’s history and three months of political turmoil and legal battles, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the first woman to hold the country’s most senior role, moved in.
In her first in-person interview with foreign media, Fiame told the Guardian there was “a lot of excitement” among women and girls after her victory in the April election.
“I was asked: ‘How important was it? Did I see my appointment as something important for women and girls?’ I said: ‘Of course it is.’ In the sense, if you see someone in that position, it makes it something that can be done. So, you know, for a very long time, women have not been able to hold these kinds of positions. So I’m very pleased then to have been able to. I suppose it’s role modelling, that it can be done.”
The milestone is particularly significant in the Pacific, which has the lowest rate of female representation in politics anywhere in the world, with just 6% of all MPs being women regionally. Three countries in the world have no women in parliament. All of them – Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Federated States of Micronesia – are in the Pacific.
Fiame is only the second woman to lead a Pacific Island country, after Hilda Heine, former president of the Marshall Islands.
Asked which world leader she most admires, Fiame pointed to another female leader. “I quite like the German lady: Merkel,” she said. “I think she’s an excellent leader, she’s very focused, she conducts herself, you know, is an ordinary citizen, she’s not one for pomp and ceremony.”
On Samoa’s relationship with China, she said there is “a window” to review Samoa’s program with China, noting that there were China-funded projects underway that were not a key priority for her government.
China’s influence has grown in Samoa in the past 20 years especially in infrastructure development across the two main islands. China has built and funded the national hospital, the main court building and schools across the four islands.
A proposed multimillion dollar wharf project at Vaiusu Bay, funded by the Chinese government was opposed by senior members of Fiame’s party. She confirmed to the Guardian that that project was “not a priority” for her government and would come under review.
But Fiame said that the China issue in the Pacific should be viewed in the context of global politics.
“Having a relationship with China is not a new thing. China’s been a good partner for us,” she said. “Samoa needs to focus on its own relationship with China. Of course, we know what’s happening in the, in the global context, you know, the, what the competition between the larger powers and so forth. I mean, you know, before it was US and Russia and the West versus the east. Now, it’s seemingly America and China.”
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, 64, is a high chief of special status (sa’o fa’apito) from Lotofaga on the island of Upolu. She entered politics in 1985 as a member of parliament.
While her office is still mostly empty, one wall of it is filled with portraits of past prime ministers – all of them male – including a photograph of her late father, Fiame Mata’afa Faumuina Mulinu’u II, who served as Samoa’s first prime minister in 1959 and when Samoa became independent in 1962.
She was previously the country’s deputy prime minister and last year defected from the Human Rights Protection party (HRPP), which had ruled Samoa for 39 years, to join the Faatuatua ile Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) party, which was founded in June 2020.
While the election took place in April, Fiame has only just concluded her first week leading a new government, after Samoa was wracked by political turmoil, legal challenges to the results and manoeuvring by the previous government in an attempt to discredit the result and hold onto power.
A ruling by the country’s court of appeal last week declared FAST’s victory was legitimate, as was the ad hoc swearing in ceremony of her and her MPs that they conducted in May, when they were locked out of the parliament building by the Speaker of the House.
Fiama says there was a “perfect storm” of factors that led to the election upset, including concerns over legislation introduced by the previous government around land ownership and the dismantling of the justice system.
Plus, she imagines that some people might have just felt the previous prime minister, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi – who at the time of the election was the world’s second-longest serving prime minister at 22 years in the job – had been in power for long enough.
“Sometimes when something’s been there for a long time, I know, in politics, sometimes it just changes for the sake of change,” she said.
Despite the struggle after the election, Fiame says she did not lose confidence throughout the crisis.
“We did get the 26 seats [majority]. So having that basic premise, gave me a lot of confidence that in the usual process of free elections, that we were able to achieve that.”
Fiame identified Covid-19 as the greatest threat to Samoa. So far, Samoa has had one case of Covid-19, which was contained.
“We are fortunate to be Covid-free, but I think that is a very true threat for us. As we saw with the measles [outbreak in 2019, which killed 83 children], our health infrastructure will not stand up to that scale of pandemic. So I think we would want to keep our borders closed, until perhaps we get a wider coverage of vaccinations. But I think we need to loosen up some of the provisions under the emergency orders.”
Some of the State of Emergency (SOE) rules put in place by the previous government that she might look at loosening include the forced closure of businesses on Sundays.
“You can always keep the Sabbath, it’s a very personal thing. But at the same time, given the conditions that we are experiencing, we need to allow people to have some freedoms and flexibility.”
On her priorities moving forward, she said her goal is to empower and protect the people of Samoa through upholding the rule of law, strengthening livelihood options, improving health and strengthening the education sector.
Fiame emphasised that her aim is to “fix” rather than “change”.
“We want to enable people to build their livelihoods, we want to see and ensure where they are and the current situation. I mean, we are a pretty sick country. So our health systems need to be improved.
“If we talk about change, it is about where you choose to invest, through the budget process, through the policy decisions that we make. Overall, I suppose, the thing that we want to do is to make a much bigger investment in people and communities.”