By Kalafi Moala

The Ministry of Infrastructure oversees all major infrastructure developments and construction in the Kingdom of Tonga. These developments include the construction and repair of roads, wharves, airports, government buildings, government schools, and reconstruction works after damages from cyclones, flooding, and tsunamis.

The expenditure on infrastructure in any nation is among the highest in the Government’s annual budget. This is true for Tonga, with millions of pa’anga, designated to various infrastructural work. In addition to the budget designations are the aid from foreign development partners valued in the millions, for construction of needed infrastructural facilities.

Each government in power has its own priority as far as what are the plans to be worked on in whatever time frame.

“Following where the money goes” is an obvious way of investigating possible activities of corruption. For infrastructure, at least in Tonga, it is not that difficult to follow where the money goes. Often “the money goes” where it should not have gone, due to corruption practices.

It can start with a simple conflict of interest

When the previous government of the late Dr. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa (2019 – 2021) declared their priority was to build and repair roads throughout the kingdom, the project was so huge and seemed unachievable especially in the time frame of their term in office.

Prime Minister Tu’ionetoa declared in a TV speech: “In surveying what the people really want throughout Tonga, we’ve been told time and again, they want the roads fixed.”

And so the Prime Minister started a multi-million pa’anga project by first fixing the roads in his own constituency of Tongatapu 10, especially the roads through the village where he lives. He did not seem to care about criticism of why he chose to fix the roads in his constituency first, especially when there were worse road conditions in other parts of Tonga.

He also made a controversial move by awarding contracts for the road project to three companies headed by people who were related or directly connected to the government, and to him as Prime Minister.

Out of over ten companies that reportedly bid for the road project, only three were awarded contracts. The three privately owned companies included the Island Dredging, the Inter-Pacific Limited and the City Engineering and Construction Limited.

Island Dredging was owned by Lord Nuku, the Minister of Police in the Tu’i’onetoa Government. His name was later removed from the register, and his son Faka’osifono Valevale became the Director.

Inter-Pacific Limited is a company owned and headed by the highly controversial ‘Etuate Lavulavu, the former ousted Minister of Infrastructure, and whose wife was the Infrastructure Minister in the Tu’i’onetoa Government. He later removed his name, and had a close friend, ‘Inoke Finau Vala, take over as Director.

City Engineering and Construction Limited is a company owned by businessman Saia Moehau, who was closely linked to the Tu’i’onetoa Government. He was a strong supporter of the PAK party founded by the late Prime Minister.

It was no secret that the selection of these companies was not based on their abilities to do the job, but on their relationship to the Government, and especially to the Prime Minister. There were other companies who were experienced in road construction and had the equipment to do the work, but they were overlooked for the three companies selected. None of the three companies have had roadworks experience before.

The selection process in awarding the road building contracts to the three companies was nepotistic. There was basically a conflict of interest; those selected were friends or relatives of those in power who selected them.

This reporter wrote critical articles of Tu’i’onetoa for conflict of interest in the way he awarded the lucrative contracts. He chose to respond to the criticism in a TV programme in which he said: “I do not believe my action is a conflict of interest, because if my brother can do the job well at a lower cost, why not let him do it?”

This attitude toward conflict of interest is not uncommon in Tonga. In fact, some believe there is no such a thing as conflict of interest, or if there is, it is not wrong. Decision making based on favoritism, has become more common in Tonga than ever. The constant breeding of nepotism in decision making, gives way to serious corruption practices.

Decision making by those in authority in the granting of contracts is central to where the seeds of corruption are planted and produce dangerous fruit that poisons the system, and gives rise to corruption practices which are the chief impediment to development of any kind.

An example of corrupt decision making

Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa, announced in a public speech that he was awarding the three companies to do roadworks because they were providing a cheaper service. It was later revealed that the three companies agreed among themselves to accept the Government’s offer of buying from them at $70 pa’anga (US$29) for a 5 tonne truckload of rocks equal to 3.8 cubic meters.

There were companies who had offered to accept lower payment, and others who bargained for higher payment, some at $150 (US$64) or more per load of rocks. But the three companies were awarded the contracts.

There was more to the deal with the three road contractors. The Government made provision for them to take loans from the Tonga Development Bank (Government-owned) and Government would guarantee those loans. These were loans of up to $18 million pa’anga (US$7.6 million).

What this essentially means is that if any or all of the companies are unable to pay back their loans, the bank can legally demand repayment from the Government.

What was feared became a reality. The roading project initiated by the previous Government failed. A multimillion dollar project that started in controversy in October of 2019 ran into problems in 2021, after Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa was ousted from power when he lost the election to become Prime Minister. The roading project was planned to run from 2020 to 2023.

The three companies contracted for the work, and who had taken $18 million pa’anga (US$7.6 million). loans from the Tonga Development Bank were being pursued with legal actions by the bank for non-payment.

The current government of Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku was trying to terminate the contracts signed by the previous Government. They view these contracts as failed government roading projects.

In a recent Parliament session, Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku was asked to explain the $18 million (US$7.6 million). guarantee which is now in the government’s hands to repay. He answered that there were negotiations going on with the bank, but did not deny the legal actions pursued by the bank.

Conflict of interest, nepotism, and misuse of funds

Here are the development that normally take place for corrupt practices. It starts off with an existing conflict of interest. When ignored, or compromised, decisions are made based on nepotism. From there, there is no stopping to the amount of public funds that would be misused. These seem to be the normal pathway to a corrupt practice and life style.

The current government of Tonga came into power in the 2021 general election. The Prime Minister who is elected by Parliament picks his Cabinet Ministers, mostly men and one women who were young as he is, as well as being highly educated, and have had experience in the civil service.

The portfolio of Minister of Infrastructure went to Sevenitini Toumo’ua, a construction engineer who had been in the civil service for some time. He was also a partner in a private sector civil engineering company before his election to Parliament.

Toumo’ua, as Minister of Infrastructure is being sued by the three companies that were contracted by the previous government.

The companies had earlier filed action against the Government for failing to live up to the contractual agreement by not paying them for work done on the roads, even though the work was not completed.

Those who were now in power were not their friends as in the previous Government. Conflict of interest and nepotism never work out in the long run, not only because it is wrong, but they can only work when those in power remain in power.

Toumo’ua had hired other companies to do roadworks, at a much higher price than was paid the three contractors from the previous government. Luna’eva Ltd. Company for example was being paid for the same size truckload of rocks for $300(US$128).

One of the three companies which decided to continue negotiations with the current Government was being granted payment of $150 (US$64) per truckload of rocks, an amount more acceptable than the previously contracted $70(US$29) per load.

When there is no clear system of contract criteria and a set pricing policy for work done, those in authority can make decisions on a whim or at whatever they feel to do at the time. The price of fixing a similar length of road can vary significantly depending on whether the one doing the job is your relative or friend.

The mystery of the Lavulavu phenomenon

‘Etuate Lavulavu has been active in Tonga for 25 years since he arrived from the United States. He was a business entrepreneur, an educator, and eventually became a politician. During the years of the reform movement, he emerged as the most significant Minister of Infrastructure for Tonga in 2015.

He was also the most controversial of any Cabinet Minister, having been convicted on a couple of occasions for corruption. He also managed to influence Governments in setting priorities particularly in the infrastructural area.

It was on the 11 March 2015 that an article by Radio New Zealand was broadcast into Tonga: “An election petition filed against the Minister of Infrastructure in Tonga alleging illegal practices and bribery will go to trial from April 13th.” That Minister was ‘Etuate Lavulavu.

The said trial was postponed and eventually held on November 25th 2015, resulting in a conviction for election bribery. Mr. Lavulavu was stripped of his seat in Parliament for Vava’u 16 constituency in 2016, and a by-election was then conducted for his replacement.
He was the first Cabinet Minister ever convicted of bribery, and the first in Tonga’s history to be dismissed from the Cabinet and from Parliament. He had been elected in the 2014 general election, and became one of the driving forces in the ‘Akilisi Pohiva government.

Lavulavu also became the chief advisor for Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa when he came into power in 2019.

I first met ‘Etuate Lavulavu when I interviewed him for a newspaper article in 1998. I had heard about him freshly arriving from the United States, and was planning to establish a tertiary level school in Tonga.

I also heard that he had befriended Princess Salote Pilolevu Tuita, eldest daughter of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV. One of the quickest way of getting an audience with the King is to be on the good side of the princess, who then can get you to see him.

The word out was that Lavulavu and his vision for a school in Tonga had been embraced by the King, and the ‘Unuaki ‘o Tonga Institute began processes for its establishment with royal endorsement.

What was oddly impressive when I interviewed Lavulavu, was his seemingly quick entrance and acceptance into Tongan society. Obviously if the King endorses you and your project, a lot can be going for you in Tonga.

Lavulavu was a colorful character, in my estimation, and an eloquent communicator, who was quite persuasive in his arguments about his suitability as a national leader.

In a short while, Lavulavu was not only establishing his school, but also had started several businesses, including a restaurant. He had risen rapidly in social ranking in Tongan society, as a friend of the royal family, and an entrepreneur with some backing from the wealthy United States Tongan Community.

His first entrance to the political domain was in 2002, when he was elected to the Tongan Legislative Assembly. But during his first term he was arrested when he was on a trip to the United States in October of 2003. He had been accused in Utah of a 1997 immigration scam. In 2004 Lavulavu was convicted after he pleaded guilty to two counts of illegal use of a birth certificate.

He lost his seat in the 2005 general election, but was re-elected in 2008. And in 2010, the first election under a reformed “more democratic” system, he failed re-election.

Why Infrastructure?

I askedLavulavu in an interview: “If you would get back to a position of power in Government, what would be your priority?” He immediately responded: “I would build and fix roads throughout the kingdom.”

It was Lavulavu’s belief that if you fix Tonga’s roads, you will be favored by the people. When Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa became Prime Minister in 2019, Lavulavu’s roadworks vision became the Government’s priority.

In 2014, Lavulavu won the seat for Vava’u 16 in the general election. He was appointed by Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva to be his Minister of Infrastructure. Mr. Lavulavu had convinced the Prime Minister that as Minister of Infrastructure, he would make the government proud with all the major infrastructural constructions he was going to do in Tonga.

The Ministry of Infrastructure in Tonga is responsible for the basic physical and organisational structures and facilities needed for the operation of society or enterprise. It is therefore the one ministry that could be responsible for managing the millions of dollars ear-marked for major constructions.

It is also the Ministry that awards work contracts to bidders of Government jobs. Lavulavu knew that infrastructure was not only the sphere where political favours can be won, but it was also the ministry that would be easiest to carry out corruptive practices without being questioned.

When he was ousted from Parliament and a by-election conducted for his former constituency, he got his wife to run, and she won the seat for Vava’u 16. She was appointed by Prime Minister Tu’ionetoa as his Minister of Infrastructure. And so Lavulavu was back in power at Infrastructure again through his wife.

However, when the pair was convicted for fraud in relation to the school they were running, they were jailed while awaiting their appeal. ‘Etuate and Akosita Lavulavu, former Minister and Current Minister of Infrastructure were sentenced to six and five years’ prison terms.

Both ‘Etuate and Akosita Lavulavu, set a precedent for corruption practices through the Ministry of Infrastructure. Tu’i’onetoa followed on, and brought his Government to disrepute and eventual ousting.

The current Government of Hu’akavameiliku and his Minister of Infrastructure, Sevenitini Toumo’ua are in the midst of legal actions against them, as well as allegations of nepotism in their decision making and also misuse of funds.