Nauru on the edge
Sprent Dabwido was at home in Armidale, New South Wales. The previous day’s treatment had weakened him, and the former weightlifter sat reclined and emaciated. Almost the limit of what he could lift now was a mobile phone, and he had one pressed to his ear. The cancer treatment was palliative. Ground zero was his throat, and he spoke in whispers.
He spoke to me of weightlifting, a sport he helped pioneer in Nauru in the 1990s. If the micro-nation’s athletes were to ever distinguish themselves internationally, he said, it would have to be in individual power sports – lifting, discus, shot-put, hammer. And for good reason: the population of Nauru is about 11,000 people.
Dabwido spoke of Armidale’s cooling temperatures and mellowing leaves. It contrasted with the ceaseless humidity of Nauru, and he seemed charmed by the difference, but he referred frequently to the country he knew he’d never see again. A week before, he requested a drive to the NSW coast to look over the Pacific Ocean one last time. At Coffs Harbour, his partner pushed his wheelchair to the end of the jetty. “Oh, well,” she told him. “This is as close to home as we can get.”
Dabwido’s chief task was learning how to die. The trick was to leave without too much ugliness, which he defined as bitterness and the inability to laugh with family. Cancer would take care of most of it, sure, but defying ugliness was up to him. Friends spoke about his change – from a garrulous, knockabout bloke to one who was quietly considering matters of repentance and grace.
He was also considering his legacy. Dabwido was Nauru’s president when the contracts with Australia were signed for offshore processing, and he was sensitive to how history would view him. In his last months, he publicly disavowed the policy – the tides of money had “turned brothers against brothers” – but what he really wanted to discuss was the authoritarian nature of the Waqa government in Nauru. His experience was firsthand. As he was a figure of political opposition, his passport had been denied for seven months after he was told his newly discovered cancer required treatment overseas. The delay pushed him closer to the terminal prognosis he now faced.
Dabwido was grappling with the outcomes of a policy he had signed off on with Australia. The money from offshore processing had flushed a micro-state with many millions of dollars, defining its economy and making a master of the Waqa regime. Now, Dabwido was seeking political asylum in Australia – the country that had empowered his persecutors. In his last months, he didn’t want to disentangle the knots of his legacy. He wanted to laugh and be taken to the beach.
And he wanted to live long enough to see a result in his asylum application. “I’m not sure if I will,” he said. “I have probably only days or weeks to live.”
On May 8, six days after we spoke, the former president of Nauru died. He was 46. His partner, Luci, insists that the Waqa government denied him his passport because of his opposition to their corruption. She told me: “It is a fact that no matter how the Nauru government denied it, they deliberately delayed or refused him the treatment he desperately needed, a treatment which was unavailable on the island and only available overseas and that can only be made possible through the health referral.”
Australia’s offshore processing centres didn’t invent corruption in Nauru. The Pacific nation has an extraordinary history of suffering and fortune, corruption and windfall. Effectively enslaved by the Japanese during World War II, and its population cruelly decimated, by the 1980s Nauru was one of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita courtesy of its then abundant supply of phosphate.
But the money vanished – almost $2 billion. The ruling elite bought luxury cars and overseas condos. They invested in failed musicals and dubious schemes. Money reserved to rehabilitate the island’s interior, which had been transformed into an uninhabitable moonscape by mining, vanished also. Even today, very little land has been rehabilitated.
When the phosphate supplies were dwindling, Nauru became more creative in its revenue-making. Its myriad banks – mere PO Boxes, in reality – laundered the money of drug cartels and the Russian government. Terrorists were grateful for the passports it sold, no questions asked. Then, at the turn of the century, Nauru became a part of John Howard’s Pacific Solution – the precursor to the more recent regime of offshore processing.
So, no – the regional processing centre (RPC) did not introduce corruption to Nauru. But what it did was greatly empower a government that has shown alarming contempt for the rule of law and democratic customs. The country has become almost entirely economically dependent upon the processing camps, which has meant the Waqa government can decide who works, and who doesn’t – who gets fat government contracts, and who goes begging.
“The future of Nauru is very grim,” Luci said. “Besides the RPC camp which is now injecting millions into Nauru economy, if Australia decides to close the detention camp, then what will Nauru economy be like? What is the next golden goose of Nauru? Phosphate used to be the main national income but that has now exhausted. Fisheries is the other main source of income to Nauru economy but that is not enough to fund the country on its own. Like I said, Nauru future is very grim unless leaders come up with a better long-term solution for the country. Sprent did have ... a lot planned for Nauru’s future – some avenues which are worth exploring, but unfortunately he did not able to live long to put in effect those plans a reality.”
There was a funeral service for Dabwido in Armidale, before his body was repatriated. In the early hours of the morning, a crowd gathered at Nauru’s airport. There were plenty of rumours. It is customary for the president of Nauru to attend every citizen’s funeral – but would he really show up for his political foe? Before his death, Dabwido had expressed his desire not to have a state funeral, which made it easier for Baron Waqa to make himself scarce.
There were other rumours – that locals were angry and distressed by the role that the government played in delaying Dabwido’s treatment. People wondered if there would be unrest. “On the arrival of Sprent’s body into Nauru, the president arrived into Nauru at the same time,” Luci said. “I was informed by people back home that the president was afraid to go out in fear of the people. It was said he can feel the tension outside thus wish not to go out to an angry mob of people mourning over Sprent’s death. His motorcade had to wait ’til this people are all cleared from the airport.”
At the airport, representatives of different clubs and organisations waited for the coffin. There were weightlifters, footy players, Scouts and members of the Nauru 19, a blacklisted group of protesters. The coffin emerged from the plane in a cardboard box, which was cut open by his old parliamentary colleagues, and a Nauru 19 flag was draped over it.
One close observer of Nauru said: “There were concerns about social unrest. I’ve long had the view that in the Pacific, everything’s fine until it’s not. It’s combustible. There’s a lot of disgust on the island about his death and its circumstances.”
Dabwido died just three months before Nauru’s elections. An official date hasn’t been made public, but it’s thought that August 10 is likely. No one I spoke to this week expected the elections to be either fair or free, or that Waqa’s bitter foes would triumph. “There’ll be stooge candidates,” one person said, “and electors will be conveniently moved between constituencies. Politics there doesn’t work on popular appeal or policies – it’s family-based. And it’s easily manipulable.”
President Waqa has served in the role since 2013, but there are persistent rumours that Justice Minister David Adeang might this time present himself for president. But Adeang has his own critics in Nauruan politics.
“Most of us who have been suffering for the past few years with unfair treatment, we are praying for a change,” Luci said. “It may take a miracle to get a change in the next upcoming elections. There a lot of policies and acts made, which is believed design to disadvantage new upcoming leaders and old ones who are ousted out in the last election. For one example a newly introduced election policy, which states if you are to stand for election you must resign from work as a public servant three months ahead of the election date. This is unfair, for how will this people feed and support their families during that time? While these people who wanted to put their name up for the election resigned from their position and jobs, the incumbent government and members of parliament obviously will still have a job and a full paid salary and grassroots and other government-funded incentives which is used for campaigning. A salary which is, by the way, 10 times as much as the basic wage in Nauru. Salary scale in Nauru is unfair. The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
“The Nauru Treasury is at their disposal while other people wish to stand are basically cut off from source of income. How is it fair? The rules does not apply to them. There are a lot of advantages to them while they on purpose disadvantage other people who dare to challenge their seats. Like I said: for a change in government it’ll take a miracle, but we pray and hope for a miracle.”
For a long time now, Nauru has teetered on the edge. In the Pacific, climate change is seen as an existential threat – but Nauru’s existence has long been threatened independently of rising sea levels. In the end, Dabwido renewed his faith in God. But sadly, he didn’t possess much hope for the future of his country.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Pacific grim". Subscribe here.