VANUATU'S FATHER WALTER LINI DIES AT 57

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (February 20, 1999 - Agence France-Presse)---Vanuatu lost its founding father and first prime minister yesterday when one time Anglican priest Father Walter Lini, 57, died.

The cause of death was not known but he had been ill for a long time.

He was to have been buried today on his home island of Pentecost, but such is his mana that the republic's Council of Chiefs has instead ordered his body lay in state at Parliament.

Monday will be a national day of mourning and it is likely his body will be taken to Pentecost on Wednesday.

His death is a poignant moment in Pacific history -- one of the last of the leaders who had to actually fight for the independence of his people.

Without him it is hard to imagine Vanuatu existing, even today.

Partly educated in Auckland, Fr. Lini grew up in the world's only Anglo-French condominium of the New Hebrides, a bizarre arrangement which saw the British and French posture constantly in front of each other while ignoring the indigenous Melanesians.

In the 1970s, as much of the rest of the Pacific was becoming independent, Fr. Lini and others formed the New Hebrides National Party, which became the Vanuaaku Pati.

Anglo-French hostility saw the group come close to guerrilla war but Fr. Lini, a soft-spoken intelligent man, instead resorted to seeking international support. Among the first to help him out was Samoa's Prime Minister Tupuola Efi who ensured the issue made it to the United Nations.

Independence in 1980 was marred by a rebellion led by Jimmy Stevens who wanted his own state on Espiritu Santo. While French and British military twiddled their thumbs in Port Vila, Papua New Guinean forces finally put down the revolt.

Fr. Lini, who first became chief minister in 1979 and retained the leadership until 1991, but only after elements within his own group formed a breakaway faction.

In 1987 he was hit by a stroke which left him something of a shadow of the lively character he was.

He remained in politics and until his death was Opposition Leader, heading the National Unity Party.

Although Vanuatu has become almost a by-word for political corruption, Fr. Lini's character was seldom sullied. He was a gentle character who left an abiding memory in a small Samoan village once when, instead of handing back a kava cup, threw it. Only later did he discover that was not the custom, but he was not embarrassed at it, instead laughing at the joke he had made of himself.

He is survived by his wife Mary and six children.

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