Matters of interest, private citizen and the line often blurred, abused

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

The front-page story on the Sunday Samoan titled “Tension in the halls of Justice” was certainly an interesting read. Not just because of the people involved but there are legitimate questions that must be asked in relation to the scenario at hand.

We say this because this is not the first such case in Samoa and it certainly will not be the last. You see this is a small country. Just about everyone is related to someone, friends or know every one in most places. It has its benefits but it also poses many challenges of its own, especially when it comes to sensitive issues and matters of transparency, accountability and good governance.

For the case in question, it is an issue with the Land and Titles Court. From what we’ve seen, the Minister of Justice and Courts Administration, Fa’aolesa Katopau Ainu’u, is a party to a certain case and he has written to the President of the Land and Titles Court, Fepulea’i Atilla Ropati.

We don’t know the history and what had transpired between the two men but according to Fepulea’i’s response to the Minister dated 15 September 2017, there is obviously a lot of tension.

“I was considering whether to reply to your letter dated 13 September 2017, as I am aware of our different levels of positions,” a translation of Fepulea’i’s letter written in Samoan reads.

“However, there are accusations levelled at me that I should respond to and will perhaps help clarify to you and assure you that there was nothing wrong that was done to influence the investigation and decision of the Appeals Court LC.11728 (1 September 2017) where you led your family’s side, that is the subject of a letter of grievance that you have submitted.” 

“…I need to officially inform you that the President does not need any advice or direction from the Minister of Justice in any way pertaining to the Lands and Titles Court decision-making. If anyone is to understand this well, it should be those who have been well schooled in the law.”

Fepulea’i also rejected a call from the Minister for him to step aside.

“You have already given your opinion that I should stand down from any of your cases, and that is a bad example for the country, as your opinion is based on suspicions, unfounded and unconfirmed allegations,” the letter reads. 

“I do not have any connection to you, there is no reason for any bias towards you or any other side that you are in court against, and I will not do this.” 

“That is why I am happy and willing to handle any case that involves you, and I conduct them without any bias. This is why I reject your suggestion that I step aside, unless it is an order from the Supreme Court to prevent me from handling any of your family’s cases.”

Asked for a comment, the Minister denied suggestions he was attempting to influence the decision-making by the President.

“I did not give any instructions to him what-so-ever,” Fa’aolesa said. “My letter he is referencing; was merely a request for him not to consider a complaint for a case that had been resolved back in 2011.”

“I wrote to him as a chief in my family and as a private citizen. As you can see my letter here; it was not printed on a letter head of the Ministry. I did not in any manner try or interfere with the work of the Court, that is not my style.”

The Minister went on to explain that his letter was about a case in his family before he became a Member of Parliament.

“I did not in any manner use my capacity as Minister of Justice. No one in the right mind would do such a thing. Just because I am a Minister does not take away the fact that I am a private citizen,” said Fa’aolesa. “How can a private citizen tell the President of the Lands and Titles, how do his job? I did not give him any instructions; I repeat… it was a request made by a private citizen.” 

Fair enough then. It’s always good to hear both sides of the story.

But this brings us to some questions we should ask to gain clarity in terms of going forward. For instance, where do we draw the line between being a private citizen and being a public figure with a lot of influence – in this case a Cabinet Minister? 

We ask this for the simple reason that this line is blurred and abused most of the time in Samoa. It happens in many different places where we’ve seen many examples of how senior public servants and Cabinet Ministers use their positions to advance their private interests – and that of families and friends. You know what we are talking about. 

Now on the front page of the newspaper you are reading, Prime Minister Tuilaepa is saying public servants should use their common sense when it comes to these things. Really?

With due respect folks, this does not work in Samoa. In some cases, common sense has deserted many of these public officials. And this is how many problems in this country have been allowed to fester and multiply so that abuse of power and to an extent corruption has become so rampant in the public sector.

Which means Prime Minister Tuilaepa needs to do better than that. He needs to put his foot down and send out a clear signal to all public servants that anything which remotely points to abuse of power and positions will not be tolerated. 

That said, kudos to the President of the Land and Titles Court for standing his ground and having the courage to speak up. It is not easy to do this in this political climate but it is nonetheless encouraging to note there are officials willing to stand up for what they believe is the right and just thing to do. This country needs more people like that.

What do you think? 

Have a productive Thursday Samoa, God bless!

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