Dr John Momis, elder statesman of Bougainville politics and now presidential winner of the last two of three Bougainville elections, will lead a new Government that must make profound decisions about the political fate of the autonomous region in the east of Papua New Guinea (PNG) during the next five-year term.

The former Catholic priest, a leader in national politics since the 1970s and Governor of Bougainville at the time of the 2001 peace agreement which ended a decade-long civil war, won voters with his experience and track record of peacetime leadership.

Unlike some of his rivals for the top office, Momis was not a combatant during the conflict, sparked by deep local grievances associated with the Panguna copper mine, from 1989 to 1997.

Momis topped the race with 51,382 votes, far ahead of his nearest rival with 18,466, after polling closed on May 25 in a general election managed for the first time by Bougainville, rather than PNG.


International observers praised it for being peaceful, effective and transparent.

At the inauguration ceremony of the new Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) held in the northern town of Buka on Monday, June 15, Momis said the region was on the threshold of the most portentous years in its history.

"The Bougainville peace agreement is the real basis for us all being here today," he said.

"It provides us with an exclusive right to self-determination. We can choose and shape our future, a right unique in PNG and rare internationally."

The issue of independence was at the forefront of campaigning, reflecting a widespread desire by candidates and the estimated 172,000 voters for self-determination after more than a century of foreign control by Germany, Britain, Australia and finally Papua New Guinea, which claimed 20 per cent of the Panguna copper mine's profits in the 1970s and 1980s.

"I would like to see our Government entering into serious negotiations on the referendum and eventual independence for Bougainville," a landowner in the Panguna area of Central Bougainville, Peter Arwin, told the Herald, reflecting the views of many on the island.

"This will give the landowners opportunity to participate in making independent decisions over our resources."

The executive officer of the Bougainville Women's Federation, Barbara Tanne, said the incoming government must "focus on the path to achieving a peace at the end" by attaining good governance, sufficient control of state functions and weapons disposal.


Although "a few good and trusted leaders were not elected", they would all be needed to bring unity to the region before the referendum.

There are still challenges ahead - recent reports say about 2000 firearms are still in communities and with former combatant groups.

Momis acknowledged that "without much more complete weapons disposal, our law and order situation will only get worse and we risk major problems over implementation of the referendum result".

The granting of independence, even with a majority yes vote at referendum, depends on a joint agreement with the PNG Government that international standards of governance and disarmament have been met.

Building social unity also remains a work in progress, because of ongoing post-conflict reconciliation. And despite electoral success, the ABG is still working to have an effective presence in and be recognised by all communities.

The road to reconstruction and development is a long one. Progress has been made in improving roads, bridges and police resources.


But there is high unemployment and illiteracy among youth, and insufficient health services and access to power in many rural areas.

"The ABG must solve the problems faced by our people ... so we must pursue real improvements in health and education and basic infrastructure," Momis said.

Achieving many of these goals will depend on accelerating fiscal self-reliance, which is precarious - more than 85 per cent of the ABG's revenue is provided by the PNG Government and international donors.

Many of the political elite, including Momis, are advocating a return to large-scale mining to boost Government finances, although the President conceded that the Panguna mine would not reopen without the consent of local landowners and other new mining sites may be explored.

However, the move, which would mean the return of powerful international mining companies that have been central to local resentment and factional power struggles, remains a high-risk one.

Over the next five years there will be immense public expectations of independence and the transformation this is expected to bring to people's lives.


Bougainville's leaders must also manage people's ambitions and hopes before any possible political transition.