Lt Col Geoffrey Key (ret) tribute to the Grand Chief

I first came in contact with the late grand chief sir Michael Thomas Somare in 1973 at Vanimo in west Sepik Province. I was a young Second Lieutenant and my company was on outstation duty in Vanimo. At that time, the Grand Chief was our Chief Minister visiting West Sepik Province to conduct his awareness. After conducting his awareness around the villages in West Sepik and Vanimo Township, he came over to the military barracks to conduct another one specifically for the public servants and the military personnel.

Upon completion of the awareness the session was then open for questions and comments. One of the comments raised was about a certain cargo cult movement around the country at that time. The person who made the comment suggested that the people who were involved in the cargo cult movement ought to be severely punished as they would  bring about disrepute to the county’s good name.   The Grand Chief then the Chief Minister, stood there with a smile on his face and then responded saying “Stopping them or throwing them into prison will not change their mindset and attitudes. They will say that the Government is stopping us because they (Government) fear that when we get rich we might take over the government. He then switched to pidgin and said “larim ol wokim igo na lo tok ples bilong mipela Finschhafen ol I save tok GNANO MASE em now bai ol lusim”.

When I heard this remark I felt as if I was struck by lightning. I stood there speechless and amazed. The man I was told from Sepik is now saying that he is from Finschhafen and is speaking to me in my own language. 

A few months later I returned to Moem Barracks and met up with him again. The Grand Chief had frequently visited Moem Barracks to play golf but he had other reasons for his frequent visits. At that time there were lots of speculations throughout the country whether Papua New Guinea should retain the Defence Force on Independence or should the government abolish it and only retain the Police Force. The cost of maintaining the Force was one of the reasons but the most serious one was the prospect of the Defence Force taking over the government on Independence like what was happening around the world, particularly in countries from South East Asia and newly independent African countries.  

The Grand Chief in pretext of playing golf was quietly moving around and mingling with the officers, more particularly the Papua New Guinean officers to do his own assessment. He wanted to know our way of thinking so as to ascertain if there was a possibility of the Defence Force overthrowing the elected Government and taking over control after the independence.

After a usual game of golf one afternoon, the commanding officer assembled all the officers of the battalion in the mess where then the Chief Minister shockingly announced to us that he will fight to convince the members of the house of the assembly to retain the Force after the country attains its nationhood. He told us that he was sure that there could never be a military takeover because Papua New Guinea was so ethnically diverse and fragmented that one group could not hold power over the others.  Sure enough soon after that speech, and after the Government sitting, the Parliament made an announcement to the country that it will retain the Force after independence. I will always remember what he said on that day. That was when I realized how remarkable this man was.

Later on the eve of Papua New Guinea attaining its independence, I led a fifteen man patrol that walked from Wewak to Port Moresby in forty two days to deliver two letters to then the Chief Minister, late Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare at the Central Government Building at Waigani in August 1975. The two letters were each written by the Commanding Officer of the Second Battalion and the District Commissioner of East Sepik Province on   behalf of the residents of the East Sepik Province. The letters contained our pledge to give our   undivided loyalty to the government of the day whether in good or bad times. Forty years later on the fortieth anniversary of the country’s independence, The Grand Chief invited me to Wewak to witness the announcement to end his active political carrier. The 1975 scene was reenacted on this occasion but this time I delivered the letter that announced his retirement.

It was a day I will never forget, I was with him when he started off on his political journey and forty years later I was again with him when he decided to end this long and enduring journey. I was with him at the beginning of his political career through to the end. And for that I am very deeply honored and privileged, to have walked alongside the greatest leader of my time. Words cannot truly express the sadness that I felt in my heart when I found out about his sudden passing.

The late Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare was truly a remarkable man. As he was preparing the country to attain its independence, he cleverly moved around collecting and collating vital information, evaluating and analyzing them and then he drew up a master plan for the country to progress to prosperity. He was truly a man of vision, a resilient leader who fought for our independence and a wise father who shaped and unified our young nation into what it is today. His legacy will forever remain with us, and may it pass on for generations to come.  MAY HIS SOUL REST IN ETERNAL PEACE.

-Geoffrey Key, led a 16 man team that walked from Moem to Port Moresby to deliver a letter to Chief Minister, Michael Somare in September 16, 1975. As a major, he served in Vanuatu and later in various commands in Moem and Port Moresby.

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