Don’t Call it A Coup

An aborted coup this week points to continuing instability, and likely future trouble, in Papua New Guinea.

On Thursday morning there was a short-lived attempt to overthrow Papua New Guinea’s government by assuming control of the military. The attempt failed, but it served to highlight the risks posed by the continuing power struggle between the country’s two rival prime ministers.

The mutiny was apparently led by a retired army colonel, Yaura Sasa, and involved a number of soliders. They entered the Murray Barracks in the center of Port Moresby and detained Brig. Gen. Francis Agwi, the commander of the Papua New Guinea Defense Force. Sasa then held a press conference in which he denied that he had done anything extraordinary. “It looks as though it’s a military coup but it’s not a military coup,” he said. Instead, he argued that he had been appointed head of the PNGDF by the country’s prime minister, Sir Michael Somare. He then called for Sir Michael to be recognized as prime minister, threatening to take “necessary actions” if this demand wasn’t met within seven days.

This is the crux of the problem – since a week-long impasse in December last year, Papua New Guinea has been left with two men claiming to be the prime minister. Peter O’Neill, who came to power after ousting Sir Michael in August 2011, controls parliament, enjoys popular support, and has the loyalty of the public service and – as Sasa’s mutiny demonstrated – of the vast majority of the armed forces. He is opposed by Sir Michael Somare, whose ouster was arguably unconstitutional and who has a Supreme Court ruling to prove it. While O’Neill is effectively in control of the country, Sir Michael and his supporters continue to act and issue statements as if they were in power – including by attempting to appoint a new head of the military.

On the day after the failed mutiny, the local The National newspaper carried what looked like a pre-prepared statement, in which Sir Michael urged people to stay calm “in light of the changes which have taken place at the Defense Force headquarters.” His daughter Betha, who acts as his spokesperson, has confirmed that the takeover had been ordered by the Somare camp. O’Neill, speaking after Agwi had been restored to power, left no doubt as to where he thought the blame lay. He called Sasa “a civilian who was misled by the Somare camp to carry out an illegal unlawful act.”

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The situation in the capital remained calm, if tense, throughout the mutiny. According to the latest reports, a group of mutineers, possibly including Col Sasa, were holed up in the Taurama Barracks on the outskirts of Port Moreby. They were asking for a pardon in return for surrendering their arms. How O’Neill deals with them, and how he deals with Sir Michael and his supporters, will have significant implications for Papua New Guinea’s future.

Neil Ashdown is an analyst and researcher for IHS Jane’s.