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Death of a president

May 29, 2019 • 14m41s

Before his death, the former president of Nauru explained how a deal with Australia to open a detention centre destroyed democracy in his country.

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Death of a president

03 • May 29, 2019

Death of a president

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Sprent Dabwido was the President of Nauru when Australia signed the deal to establish a detention centre there. Just before his death, he spoke to Martin McKenzie-Murray about his regrets, and how that deal destroyed democracy in his country.

ELIZABETH:

Ok ... Marty, when did you last speak to Sprent Dabwido?

MARTIN:

About three weeks ago. And we spoke by phone. But he was extremely ill when we spoke.

ELIZABETH:

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the chief correspondent for The Saturday Paper.

MARTIN:

He'd been hospitalised the day before for cancer treatment but he was back at home, albeit weakened by that treatment.

ELIZABETH:

And who is he?

MARTIN:

Sprent is the former president of Nauru. It was a position he held between 2011 and 2013 before he lost office and became an opposition MP. But crucially, he was the president that signed the offshore processing deal with the Australian Government in 2012.

ELIZABETH:

You get him on the phone. Where do you find him?

MARTIN:

So he's living in Armidale, New South Wales and he's, as he tells me, fled the persecution of the Nauruan government and he's lodged an asylum application in Australia.

ELIZABETH:

So what is it that he wants to talk to you about? He agrees to chat, what does he want to tell you?

MARTIN:

It was a bit delicate. He's extremely sick. He's dying. He's mindful of his legacy. And he'd come to regret the 2012 agreement with the Australian Government. So he tells me that he saw that agreement at the time as a necessary economic boon.

Nauru is almost always economically struggling. This was a boon, at the time – 2012, didn’t really have a choice. But I think there was a fairly large lagoon inside him, of sadness, to see the subsequent consequences of the contract and the many millions of dollars that was flooded through Nauru.

ELIZABETH:

So, do you get the sense that he now feels responsible for establishing what is now playing out in Nauru?

MARTIN:

He’s reticent about that, but he acknowledges his responsibility. He says the contract introduced corruption and greed. It empowered the Waqa government, the current government, which he viewed as terribly corrupt and abusive in its power. And he said that the country had become flush with money and it turned family against family and brother against brother. So, we spoke about the consequences of this but he did sort of want to distance himself from this and I don't know if he could square these things.

[Music starts]

I think he thought that it was the correct decision at the time, but he was also struggling with the effects of it. The corruption that it had emboldened, and he was, in his last weeks he was trying to square that.

ELIZABETH:

So, you have this conversation with Dabwido a couple of weeks ago. What happens next?

MARTIN:

Six days after we speak, Sprent dies. And so. .. one of the last things he said to me was that he hoped that he would live long enough to see two things. One, the Waqa Government end, democratically. And the second thing was to get a result in his asylum application. But he told me, “I probably have just days or weeks to live.” Which in fact he did. So, six days later Sprent passed away, not seeing either of those two results.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

So, Marty, you've spoken to Sprent Dabwido after arriving in Armidale seeking political asylum, as well as treatment in New South Wales for the cancer that he was eventually killed by. Is there a funeral service for him in Armidale? What happens next?

MARTIN:

There's a small funeral service in a cathedral in Armidale.

[Funeral music]

MARTIN:

It's very religious ceremony. The casket is anointed with holy water.

[Funeral music ends]

There's a number of eulogies, and at the very end of it his partner, Luci, sings.

[Luci sings]

ELIZABETH:

Prior to his death, Marty, what had been Sprent Dabwido’s last sort of substantial interaction with the Nauruan Government?

MARTIN:

In March last year, in Nauru, he is diagnosed with cancer. Many people have told me that it was eminently treatable, but that treatment had to occur overseas. Now his passport has been taken from him. He requires that passport to get that international treatment. It's not returned to him for six or seven months and Sprent insisted, as did others, that this was deliberate and he was being punished.

ELIZABETH:

So, what you’re saying is that the Nauruan government is possibly responsible for Sprent Dabwido’s eventual death?

MARTIN:

So, initially, Sprent kind of thought that perhaps this is incredibly crucial thing was subject to some incompetence, but it became very clear to him and others that in fact it was deliberate - they were deliberately withholding that passport. When he gets it back. He comes to Australia for treatment but by this point it's terminal. His partner Luci is as certain as Sprent, that the withholding of his passport was deliberate punishment for his political views.

ELIZABETH:

Sprent Dabwido has been denied access to his own passport by the Nauruan government. He’s being denied essential medical care that he can only access overseas. Why is a former President being treated in this way?

MARTIN:

So, Sprent Dabwido was I guess one of the more prominent figures of the so-called Nauru 19. This is a group of men comprised largely of former government members. So after the Waqa government came into power in 2013, the Waqa government kicked out of Parliament opposition MP’s on the grounds that they had been speaking to international media. There was little to no basis for this law. In 2015, there are protests organized by the Nauru 19. They are then arrested.

[Protesters yelling]

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Unidentified journalist

"They were first charged with offences linked to a demonstration outside Parliament back in June 2015"

MARTIN:

So the Nauruan government alleged riotous behaviour and affray and assault and the Nauru 19 said this was an entirely lawful and peaceable protest. So this goes through the courts for some time. And it's not until September last year, that the retired Australian Justice Geoffrey Muecke, writes a damning judgement throwing it out and saying that the prosecution of the Nauru 19 was an affront to the rule of law. And so in their persecution of political opposition, there are a number of kind of levers for that for that persecution. One was the abuse of visas and passports, so preventing those entering the country or preventing Nauruans from leaving. But another, is that money, and that most jobs are dependent in one way or another directly or indirectly with the processing camps. And so what emerged was a blacklist – an unemployment blacklist. This was this was a physical thing as well – it wasn't this kind of Nixonian secret. They’re lists and they were posted up on the camps and it was a list of political opposition MPS, their friends, family, and supporters. And it said “thou shalt not give these people a job.”

ELIZABETH:

I mean this is an imperilled democracy in Nauru.

MARTIN:

Entirely and it's been said as much for some time now. But it's been occurring largely without consequence because the Australian Government has been that dependent upon Nauru hosting offshore processing, and essentially prosecuting Australian domestic policy overseas that the Nauruan Government feel like they are excused from the censure or criticism of the Australian Government.

[Music starts]

ELIZEBETH:

How does Nauru react to Sprent Dabwido’s death?

MARTIN:

So Sprent Dabwido’s body is repatriated. The plane arrives early in the morning.

[Plane sounds, unidentified people murmuring]

MARTIN:
There's quite a crowd waiting for the return of their former president. There's representatives from various community groups that he was involved in. There are weightlifters, footy players, scouts, of course members of the Nauru 19. They take turns carrying the body to the tray of a ute.

[Music ends]

[Plane taxiing in Nauru, people's footsteps]

MARTIN:

During this time there were fears for unrest about Sprent's death and its circumstances, and a belief that the government was responsible or at least partially responsible for his death. There was another rumour which sort of considered what the President would do. It's customary in Nauru for the president to attend every funeral.

ELIZABETH:

Every funeral?

MARTIN:

Yeah. Keep in mind it's a country with a population of 11,000. So there was consideration about what President Waqa would do. Would it be inflammatory to not attend or would it be more inflammatory to be there? He doesn't attend the Nauruan funeral.

ELIZABETH:

And then the president who arguably set up the conditions in which Nauru now finds itself he's now dead. And he says he regrets largely what he did or at least the part he played in it. What is next for the country?

MARTIN:

The timing is interesting. So there are elections shortly. It hasn't been made public what date that is. Those running have told me that they suspect it to be August 10. Now, as Luci told me the great hope is, and the great hope of those who have been persecuted, maligned, denied treatment, denied their passports, is that the Waqa government is voted out. But similarly uniform amongst those kind of those punished by the Waqa government is a pessimism. They don't believe that's gonna be the case.

ELIZABETH:

Why?

MARTIN:

It's pretty easy to rig. There have long been accusations of bribery, the Waqa government whilst the regional processing centres are kind of packing up, there's still a lot of wealth. Three years ago, they passed a law which said anyone running for parliament and who was a public servant needed to resign three months previous.

ELIZABETH:

After self nominating ... they have to …

MARTIN:

That's right yeah. And we have similar laws here, but in Nauru three months previous is considered much too onerous.

ELIZABETH:

Financially?

MARTIN:

Financially, correct. So to kind of render one unemployed to then run in an election that many consider rigged is too high a gamble. Laws have also been passed making it much easier for Nauruans to vote in different electorates.

[Music]

And it's been put to me that this makes kind of dramatic gerrymandering possible. And there's this ... there's this simple point that the Waqa government for many years now has been aggressively opaque.

ELIZABETH:

Marty, what responsibility does Australia have to Nauru ... given our involvement to this point?

MARTIN:

What the Australian Regional Processing Centre has done is embolden an aggressively corrupt government. It has empowered it. And because of the kind of client-state relationship we have here, Nauru benefited greatly or especially its government did from the Australian patronage. But Australia really needed the regional processing centres to continue. And what this is done, is not just embolden the Waqa government with all of the money that it's granted, it's emboldened them in knowing that Australia will not say anything about its flagrant abuses of the law and its persecution of its own citizens.
So, the regional processing centres didn’t create corruption in Nauru, but it did wildly distort a country.

ELIZABETH: Marty, thank you so much. We appreciate your time.

MARTIN: Thanks, Elizabeth.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

New minister for emissions Angus Taylor has called on Labor to back the Coalition's 26 to 28 per cent emissions reduction target. Taylor, who had climate change added to his energy responsibilities in the new Morrison ministry, has said the election gave a mandate to the Coalition's targets. Labor had campaigned on a more ambitious 45 per cent reduction.

And in Japan, a knife attack at a school has seen three people killed, including the suspect. More than a dozen people were injured in the stabbings at a primary school for girls south of Tokyo.

This is 7am.

I’m Elizabeth Kulas.

See you Thursday.

Sprent Dabwido is a former president of Nauru who signed the deal with Australia to establish a detention centre there. Days before he died, he told Martin McKenzie-Murray about his regrets and the ways in which that deal has destroyed democracy on the island.

Guest: Chief correspondent for The Saturday Paper Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Background reading:

Nauru on the edge in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein and Ruby Schwartz. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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#nauru #refugees dabwido democracy australia




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03: Death of a president