In late 2010, as a young UN staffer in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, I witnessed the tail end of an ultimately fatal high-speed police chase. It was a late Friday afternoon and I was standing across the road from a busy outdoor marketplace, accompanied by men, women and children buzzing home for the weekend.
The gentle energy of the Friday afternoon, however, quickly dissolved from the screeching tires of four land cruisers sliding through the market, accompanied by two loud gunshots. I’ll never forget the unplanned choreography of around 700 people, including myself, dropping and splintering apart at the thunder of gunfire. The chase then continued out of sight.
The belligerents, as Sunday’s newspaper revealed, were killed moments later in the neighboring suburb and, as far as I could tell, all innocent bystanders escaped injury. As exhilarating as I found this touch of danger, however, it was the rapid return to normalcy that most intrigued me.
The market, within not even 90 seconds, had quickly resettled. Overturned tables were restored, sellers recommenced trading, buses started moving and the gentle afternoon buzz replenished to pre-shootout levels. Had I missed the entire event, by even a moment, no previous disturbance would’ve been apparent.
Resilience, after all, is critical in a country like PNG, where poverty and corruption are enough to crush the most modest of dreams. There are countless other places in the developing world, from Mumbai to Port of Spain, where people must draw upon similar faculties of resilience to simply get through life.
But this capacity to quickly reset, and the elasticity to endure bitter public conditions, has unintended pitfalls. The following year, when returning to Australia and reading more into corruption and leadership in the developing world, it became clear that having the ability to quickly ‘move on’ from seismic events and gross public injustice could gradually lead to a societal-wide lack of accountability. Over time this can morph into a crude form of public tolerance for poor leadership and widespread corruption.
Why, as many Papua New Guineans lament, is it worth challenging and testing the political system? Hopes for decisive action or enduring reform are slim. And, in places like PNG, good intentions (even with billions of dollars in aid) don’t necessarily produce concrete results as the many power cuts, crumbling roads, poorly stocked hospitals and lack of police can attest.
I’ve heard more times than I can remember that Papua New Guineans simply desire decent and non-corrupt leaders – common sentiments in other parts of the developing world. ‘In Africa,’ as American journalist Keith Richburg observes, ‘the good guys don’t win; they usually get tossed in prison, tortured, killed, beaten up, or sometimes just beaten down. And the rest? They just stop trying because they’re too busy simply trying to survive.’
Indeed, Richburg’s view, based on half a decade covering Africa for The Washington Post, is a frank but much-needed summary of public helplessness and accountability in the developing world. ‘I want to find heroes here among the ordinary decent Africans,’ Richburg continues, ‘but they infuriate me with their endless acquiescence to repression, their limitless tolerance, their excuses. Koigi Wa Wamwere is locked away in Kenya, but there is not a peep of protest on the streets of Nairobi or Nakuru. An election is stolen in Cameroon, and a week later it’s as if nothing at all happened, the Big Man’s still there, always will be. The good guys aren’t winning because a lot of them are no longer even willing to go on with the fight.’
Recently, however, groups of students from the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) have, through their own ways and means, ‘gone on with the fight’ with rolling protests calling for the Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, to step down and face corruption charges. There have been student protests in PNG before. But none have persisted for so long or continued to gather in size.
While public protest has its place, and charms many outside observers, I’m often uncomfortable with the calls for revolution that usually accompany such sentiment – the desire to simply do away with it all and start again. The recent so-called ‘Twitter revolutions’, for example, point to fresh chapters of revolutionary disappointment that, perhaps unsurprisingly, strongly correlate with historical precedent. As the historian Niall Ferguson points out, revolutions generally provide three glum lessons – they take a long time to unfold; they provoke violence and violent leaders; and they inevitably entice strategic neighbours by becoming too rowdy (often resulting in more conflict).
I also sense that under PNG’s current circumstances there’s clear caution in ‘getting rid of the bad guy’, as the commentator Dinesh D’Souza likes to say, ‘and getting the worse guy.’ This is not a message of hopelessness. Nor is it a directive to not protest. But the lessons of short and near-term history, especially on the organic and incremental nature of long-run change, are clearly instructional.
Indeed, Richburg’s African despair – the need to limit tolerance and find heroes – can be applied to PNG. A discomfort with current democratic circumstances, which the protestors clearly have (and share with many others), isn’t the worst starting point for change. But such restlessness is a long-term discipline that means improving society bit by bit, to paraphrase philosopher Roger Scruton, rather than rubbing it out and starting again. As I’ve written elsewhere, PNG’s institutions do offer clear ‘goal posts’ for individuals who are serious about becoming better leaders, improving the state, changing the culture and de-tolerating corruption.
Ironically, UPNG is exactly the place where this difficult and long-term discipline should be practised – a place, to borrow from Richburg, ‘where the good guys need to go on with the fight.’ But what really going on with the fight means is a tough, unglamorous and long-run battle that involves articulating what the change actually is (and, I’d suggest, having the capabilities to bring it about). As Paul Hasluck, a former administrator of PNG, underlined at a UPNG graduation ceremony almost half a century ago, the duty of UPNG students is to ‘put into words exactly what changes are needed, how they can be made and what will happen when the changes have been made.’ This remains sound advice, not just for the current draft of protestors but also for addressing the discontent and bitter conditions faced by many Papua New Guineans.
Published at Hip Hop Republican