Ishmael Toroama, a former secessionist military commander turned peacemaker and cocoa farmer, has been elected the president of PNG’s autonomous Bougainville region, in a further fillip for the province’s push for independence from Papua New Guinea.
“We conducted a clean campaign, we did not give money to the voters and we did not intimidate any voters: people have used their God-given wisdom to vote for the right candidate,” Toroama said after his victory was announced.
“I will stand up for independence in Bougainville… it is now time to work together.”
In his campaign, Toroama stressed the restoration of law and order was a priority, and said the province’s independence question needed to be resolved swiftly. He has proposed a timeline of two to three years.
Renowned for his role as a commander in the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), Tororama was at the forefront of much of the BRA’s decade-long civil war against the PNG government.
The conflict and subsequent military blockade – provoked by the the environmental damage wrought by the Rio Tinto’s massive Panguna copper mine, as well as disputes over the limited share of mine profits going to the island’s inhabitants – led to the deaths up to 20,000 people between 1988 and 1998.
Wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade in 1997, Toroama later laid down his arms to help broker the Bougainville Peace Agreement that was eventually signed in 2001, and was a key advocate in the disarmament process before returning to his land in central Bougainville to grow cocoa.
He will now lead the talks with the PNG government on the terms of the island’s independence.
The general election was the first since Bougainville voted overwhelmingly for independence from PNG at the end of last year. More than 98% of voters supported independence in the non-binding referendum, but that independence now needs to be negotiated with a central PNG government reluctant to lose the resource-rich province.
Bougainville, a group of islands in PNG’s east that has close relations with neighbouring Solomon Islands, has been hampered post-conflict by years of poor economic progress, despite its abundance of natural resources.
On the election trail, the Bougainvillean newspaper reported Toroama’s campaign saying: “I am standing to be the change. The change people want, the change people can see and feel, the change people have been crying for, the change people expect to see and the change that has never happened during the course of the first three parliaments of Bougainville”.
Any re-opening of the Panguna mine – which would be intensely controversial in the province – was a decision for the owners of that land, Toroama has said.
PNG prime minister James Marape offered his congratulations on Toroama’s “conclusive” victory.
“I offer my support to work with you to deliver on my commitments to Bougainville,” he said. “[And] to the people of Bougainville, thank you for your peace and serenity as you decided on your government. Looking forward to work with your leaders including the president.”
But Marape’s government has been careful not to commit to granting Bougainville independence in the wake of the referendum.
Marape has said his government is willing to talk to Bougainville’s leaders, but has framed discussions around self-determination and “economic independence”, while carefully avoiding commitments to political independence.
Toroama defeated 24 other candidates for the presidency, seeking to replace the retiring John Momis who has dominated Bougainvillean politics, as governor and president, for decades.
Momis had sought a third term – in defiance of Bougainville’s constitution which limits presidents to two – but lost a challenge before the supreme court. Toroama ran second to Momis in the previous election.
Parliamentary elections parallel to the presidential poll marked a significant shift from the status quo in Bougainville politics. Many long-term members of the province’s house of representatives lost their seats to young, millennial generation leaders, such as Theonila Matbob, born during the civil war, and elected to the constituency of Ioro, home to the disused Panguna mine.
Toroama will be sworn into office Friday.