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Enele Sopoaga; A dynamic leader in the south pacific

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Update : Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Enele Sosene Sopoaga was born 10 February 1956. He is a Tuvaluandiplomat and politician who was Prime Minister of Tuvalu from 2013 to 2019. He was elected to Parliament in the 2010 general election. He served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Environment and Labour in Prime Minister Maatia Toafa‘s short-lived government from September to December 2010. Following an unsuccessful bid for the premiership in December 2010 (with Toafa’s support), he became leader of the Opposition to prime minister Willy Telavi‘s government. He became caretaker prime minister on 1 August 2013 following Telavi’s removal by the Governor General, in the context of a political crisis. A day later, on 2 August 2013, the opposition successfully voted out Telavi’s government in a no confidence vote. Following this, a ballot was held to elect the new prime minister of Tuvalu and Sopoaga won with 8 votes to 4. He was sworn in on 5 August 2013, and created his ministry the same day.

Personal life and education

Sopoaga received a Certificate in Diplomatic Studies from Oxford University in 1990, and a master’s degree from the University of Sussex in 1994. Sopoaga and his wife, Salilo Enele, have three children. He is the younger brother of Saufatu Sopoaga, who was prime minister from 2002 to 2004.

Career in administration and diplomacy

From 1980 until 1986, Sopoaga served as an Education Administrator within the Ministry of Social Services. He became the Assistant Secretary of the Ministry of Social Services in 1986. He was the Assistant Secretary and European Union National Authorizing Officer, Department of Foreign Affairs (three years), and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Economic Planning (two years), both between 1986 and 1991. Sopoaga was the acting officer within the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Economic Planning from 1991 until 1992. He then served as the Permanent Secretary (the highest civil service position) and European Union National Authorizing Officer within the Tuvaluan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Economic Planning from 1992 to 1995. Additionally, Sopoaga served as Tuvalu’s High Commissioner to Fiji. He also simultaneously served as the Tuvaluan High Commissioner to both Papua New Guinea and Samoa. From 1995 to 1996, he was the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Sports and Human Resource Development. He subsequently served as his country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2001 (when the Permanent Mission of Tuvalu was established) to 2006. He also served as the vice-chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) from January 2002. He has been described as “Tuvalu’s climate change negotiator” tasked with raising the profile of the dangers posed by climate change in Tuvalu and other small island nations.

Political career

In 2010, he decided to go into politics, and stood for Parliament in the general election on 16 September 2010. Sopoaga, who was elected to parliament for the Nukufetau constituency was expected to pose a strong challenge to Ielemia for the office of prime minister during the formation of a new government. In the event, however, neither Ielemia nor Sopoaga stood for the premiership, and Maatia Toafa was elected prime minister. Toafa formed a cabinet composed largely of first time MPs who had given him their support, and appointed Sopoaga as deputy prime minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Environment and Labour.

Leader of the Opposition

Maatia Toafa’s government was brought down on 21 December 2010 by a motion of no confidence in Parliament, by eight votes to seven. The motion was reportedly due to MPs’ concerns about the budget, and in particular possible restrictions on the government’s funding of Tuvaluans’ medical costs abroad. With a new prime minister due to be chosen on 24 December, Toafa announced that he would not be standing for the job, but that he hoped Sopoaga would be chosen by parliament in his place. Sopoaga stood for the premiership, but lost to Willy Telavi by seven votes to eight. He thus became the Leader of the Opposition. He continued to call for international initiatives to tackle climate change, including “adaptation techniques”, a transfer of affordable sustainable technologies to vulnerable developing nations. This would enable sustainable living, he said, and address the issue of Tuvalu’s dependence on donor countries. He told Radio Australia that Tuvalu was now suffering from “long, serious” periods of drought, affecting crops. He has also stated that, to respond to the overcrowding of Funafuti, Tuvaluans on the outer islands should be given the economic means to live on their home island rather than move to the capital. One other issue he raised during a talk on Radio Australia was the need for independent media in Tuvalu, presenting news in an accurate rather than “rosy”, ‘pro-government’ manner. He stated that Tuvaluans’ “right to correct information is curtailed by censorship”. The latter concern led him to set up, with two other people, the Tala o Matagi newspaper company (meaning “Story of the Wind”) in June 2011. Emphasizing the people’s right to “reliable information” on politics and other issues, for the betterment of themselves and of the nation, he explained that the newspaper would begin as a short, bilingual weekly newsletter in Tuvaluan and English, issued in one or two hundred copies. In early 2012, he criticized the Telavi government’s decision to establish formal diplomatic relations with “countries that have unsettled political issues of concern to the international community” – namely, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Armenia (the latter in the context of its territorial dispute with Azerbaijan). Sopoaga suggested that the establishing of diplomatic relations with specific foreign countries should be decided by Parliament, not solely by the Cabinet.

Prime Minister

Sopoaga became prime minister in a caretaker capacity following the dismissal of incumbent Willy Telavi by Governor-General IakobaItaleli on 1 August 2013. In a secret ballot held during an extra session of parliament three days later, Sopoaga was elect as Prime Minister of Tuvalu by 8 votes to 4. He was sworn in by Italeli on 5 August 2013and created his ministry the same day. A day after being sworn into office, Sopoaga said he was ‘confident’ of retaining office in the next general election, and he would ensure the country had a strong voice in the fight against climate change. He promoted a number of high-profile Tuvaluan politicians back to cabinet, including Vete Sakaio who was appointed the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Public Utilities; and Maatia Toafa, who was appointed Finance and Economic Development’ Maatia Toafa was previously the prime minister of Tuvalu from 2004 to 2006 and again in 2010. Following the 2015 general election, Enele Sopoaga was sworn in as prime minister on 10 April. He said his administration will focus on working to make Tuvalu less vulnerable to climate change and global economic forces. Enele Sopoaga as Minister for Public Utilities and Infrastructures launched Tuvalu Atoll Science Technology Training Institute (TASTTI) on 20 December 2017. He was re-elected as a member of parliament in the 2019 general election. Following the general election, on 19 September 2019, the members of parliament elected Kausea Natano from Funafuti as prime minister with a 10-6 majority.

Establishing Tuvalu’s National Advisory Council on Climate Change

On 16 January 2014 prime minister Enele Sopoaga established the National Advisory Council on Climate Change, which functions are “to identify actions or strategies: to achieve energy efficiencies; to increase the use of renewable energy; to encourage the private sector and NGOs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to ensure a whole of government response to adaptation and climate change related disaster risk reduction; and to encourage the private sector and NGOs to develop locally appropriate technologies for adaptation and climate change mitigation (reductions in [greenhouse gas]

2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21)

Prime minister Enele Sopoaga said at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) that the goal for COP21 should be a global temperature rise of below 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, which is the position of the Alliance of Small Island States. Sopoaga was appointed the lead spokesperson for the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) at COP21. He said in his speech to the meeting of heads of state and government: Tuvalu’s future at current warming, is already bleak, any further temperature increase will spell the total demise of Tuvalu. For Small Island Developing States, Least Developed Countries and many others, setting a global temperature goal of below 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels is critical. I call on the people of Europe to think carefully about their obsession with 2 degrees. Surely, we must aim for the best future we can deliver and not a weak compromise. His speech concluded with the plea: Let’s do it for Tuvalu. For if we save Tuvalu we save the world. Enele Sopoaga described the important outcomes of COP21 as including the stand-alone provision for assistance to small island states and some of the least developed countries for loss and damage resulting from climate change and the ambition of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century.

S M Masud Rana

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