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Prime Minister Michael Somare in 2010. He was Papua New Guinea’s first prime minister and served in that office for 17 of its 45 years of independence.Credit…Hakon Mosvold Larsen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Somare, who played a major role in leading the country to independence from Australia, was its longest-serving prime minister.

Published Feb. 26, 2021 Updated March 25, 2021

Michael Somare, Papua New Guinea’s first prime minister, who played a major role in leading the country to independence from Australia, died on Friday in Port Moresby, the capital. He was 84.

His death, at a hospital, was announced by his daughter Betha Somare, who said he had been admitted on Feb. 19 after a diagnosis of late-stage pancreatic cancer.

“Sadly, pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive cancers that are rarely detected early,” she said in an emailed statement. “We as a family had only two weeks to look for possible treatments for our father.”

Widely regarded as “papa blo kantri,” the father of his Pacific nation, Mr. Somare was Papua New Guinea’s longest-serving prime minister, over three separate terms, for 17 of the country’s 45 years of independence. He held the office from 1975 to 1980; from 1982 to 1985; and from 2002 to 2011.

Mr. Somare played a pivotal role in navigating the challenges raised by the country’s disparate tribal groups, Australian expatriates and Australia’s government in the lead-up to independence.

Ronald May, an emeritus fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs at Australian National University, wrote in obituary about Mr. Somare on a university website:

“Notwithstanding these challenges, Papua New Guinea made a smooth transition to independence in 1975, with Mr. Somare as prime minister, confounding those in Australia and elsewhere who had predicted political and economic collapse. It remains one of a fairly small number of post-colonial states that have maintained an unbroken record of democracy.”

Mr. Somare was born on April 9, 1936, in Rabaul, East New Britain Province, where his father was stationed as a police officer. The younger Mr. Somare was reared in East Sepik Province, which he would later represent in Parliament. 

He worked as a translator and a journalist before entering politics as a founder of the Pangu Pati, which acted as an unofficial opposition in Parliament before forming a coalition that led the country to independence.

He served as the chief minister of Papua New Guinea as an Australian-administered territory and, after independence, as its first prime minister.

In a midnight radio address to the new nation, Mr. Somare said: “This is just the beginning. Now we must stand on our own two feet and work harder than ever before. We are indeed masters of our own destiny.”

He spent the last part of his final term in critical care outside Papua New Guinea, during which he was removed from office by a group of lawmakers who declared that the role of prime minister was vacant. Mr. Somare officially retired from politics in 2017.

In addition to his daughter Betha, Mr. Somare is survived by his wife, Veronica, whom he married in 1965; and their other children, Sana, Arthur, Michael and Dulciana.

On Friday, Prime Minister James Marape of Papua New Guinea called for “a week of silence, peace and calm as we pay respect to this one person whom our country owes much.”


Yan Zhuang is a reporter in the New York Times’s Australia bureau, based in Melbourne. @yanzhuang25

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