Tuvalu News

TUVALU'S PRIME MINISTER IONATANA  DIES AFTER GIVING SPEECH

By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (December 9, 2000 Agence France-Presse)---Tuvalu's Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana has collapsed and died, police in the Pacific nation said Saturday.

In his early 60s Ionatana had been prime minister for the last two years and his biggest achievement was to secure the tiny country's financial future through use of its Internet suffix, Dot TV.

A police official who declined to be named said Ionatana had just given a speech Friday night.

"He suddenly collapsed," he told AFP by phone.

Local residents say he had been at a reception at the Vaiaku Lagi Hotel in honor of Air Fiji, which provides the nation with its only connection to the world. Attempts were made to revive him but he appeared to have died immediately.

In a statement on Radio Tuvalu Deputy Prime Minister Lagitupu Tuilimu said Ionatana would be buried Tuesday.

The nation of 9,637 people on nine atolls with a total area of only 25.9 square kilometers (10 square miles) is 1000 kilometers (620 miles) north of Fiji. Until independence in 1978 it was part of Britain's Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony. The Gilberts are now part of neighboring Kiribati.

Ionatana -- the name is Tuvaluan for Jonathan -- was born on the capital atoll of Funafuti, a descendant of a celebrated freebooting Irish trader known as O'Brien.

In the colony Ionatana joined the police force and eventually rose to become second in command. In preparation for independence he transferred to the civil service and following independence became secretary to government.

He later went into politics and two years ago broke away from then Prime Minister Bikenibeu Paeniu in the 10-seat assembly. He subsequently won the leadership struggle.

Former Finance Minister Henry Naisali said there were claims of favoritism and nepotism laid against Ionatana but he said he was a good leader.

"He was a good organizer and a good administrator. He could create confidence in people."

Earlier this year Ionatana sealed a deal to sell the Dot TV suffix to a California company, Idealab, for US$ 50 million over 12 years.

At the time he told AFP his people were greatly benefiting from the money.

"With the Dot money we are getting people are now happier," Ionatana said.

"For the first time the country will enjoy free education for its students and already we have spent 2 million dollars for sending people overseas. They are now getting it free.... all because of this Dot money."

Tuvalu's pre-DotTV gross domestic product per capita was just US$ 800 and the government's annual budget rarely exceeded US$ 5 million.

Following the Fiji coup Ionatana came out strongly, saying indigenous Fijians and not ethnic Indians were the rightful rulers of Fiji.

"The true government of Fiji are those people in the (Great Council of Chiefs)," Ionatana said.

"They are the indigenous power people in Fiji."

He said an interim government and a revised constitution were the only solution to Fiji's woes.

"Although in western governments we think that the western model of administration, like the British model, is the more democratic form of government that every country should have," Ionatana said.

"I believe that that is so, constitutionally, but . . .of the Fiji people I think the true natives, the truly indigenous people, are the paramount chiefs of the country. They are the people to rule the country --not the outsiders, the Indians."

Ionatana was married three times and has left a large number of children.



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