Tributes are flowing in for Tonga’s former Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa who passed away last Sunday, aged 71, in the United States.

He will be laid to rest in Tonga next month on a date yet to be confirmed.

Tonga’s Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni told RNZ Pacific that Tu’i’onetoa would be missed.

“He was a civil servant for a very a long time so it’s a hard to put into sentence what he’s done for Tonga,” said Hu’akavameiliku.

“He’s ascent is definitely going to be missed.”

Tu’i’onetoa was an accountant and one of the longest serving active civil servants before the time of his passing, having worked for the government since 1979, during which time he served as the country’s auditor between 1983 and 2014.

He was also a reverend and one of the founders of the Mo’ui Fo’ou Church.

His rise to power occurred in 2019 following the sudden death of his boss – the late Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva – after which he was subsequently elected to fill in until 2021.

Tu’i’onetoa only served as Tonga’s PM for two years but created as much controversy as any of his predecessors.

He was accused of nepotism and corruption and was often criticised for mixing religion with politics.

Taimi Tonga editor Kalafi Moala said Tu’i’onetoa became unpopular among many of his political peers which eventually led to him to breakaway from his own party.

“He was highly controversial to put it quite plainly,” Kalafi said.

“This brought a lot question to otherwise a lot of great things he probably did.”

“We in the media had problems concerning a lot of the decisions he made. He gave awards and contracts to companies run by his friends or relatives or the whole issue with national fasting that he implemented.”

But despite the fallouts, Tu’i’onetoa maintained the support of his constituency and was re-elected into parliament after the 2021 general election, although he lost his seat as PM.

Controversy would continue to follow him, however.

Last year, he was convicted of corruption after a petition was filed against him by opposition MPs.

The charges were later dismissed by court.

Former MP Sangstar Saulala said Tu’i’onetoa was supportive of the current government despite political differences.

He said Tu’i’onetoa was the first MP from a rural constituency to lead the country.

“After the election of the new prime minister last year, he didn’t hold any ill feelings towards the government,” Saulala said.

“He still supported the government because he believed the country would develop better if we worked together, and I think that’s something that will be remembered by most of the politicians.”

Contrary to critics, Tu’i’onetoa’s religious policies – such as introducing a monthly day of prayer and fasting – were well received and has been continued by the current government, Saulala said.

He said Tu’i’onetoa commenced crucial infrastructure projects focusing on improving roads and housing.

“He [was] the prime minister for just two years but he has done a lot for Tonga,” he said.

Saulala said Tu’i’onetoa was the first commoner to be elected from the rural areas.

“During his time as PM, the Covid outbreak occurred and he made the decision to closedown Tonga’s borders. He also started this monthly National Day of Prayer and Fasting, which was just to help Tonga and the world.”

Tonga was Covid free during his term in office because he believed in the motto of our country, ‘God and Tonga is our inheritance’, Saulala added.

But his legacy has been percieved to be smeared by his opponents on social media.

One Tongan media outlet headlined Tu’i’onetoa as a disgraced former PM following his passing.

For those closest to Tu’i’onetoa, however, the man is remembered as a workaholic who formed and sustained personal relationships with many of his constituents.

His daughter said the family had been warned by her father while he was on his deathbed that personal attacks on him would mount after his passing.

“As a political figure of course, there is the opposition side…but we don’t let that get to us.”

“He reminded us before he passed away, that the opposition is going to be strong, but just keep walking strong, everything is going to be okay,” his daughter added.