Sir Michael Somare, who led Papua New Guinea to independence and served 17 years as prime minister, has died in Port Moresby aged 84.
Sir Michael was PNG’s first prime minister following the nation’s independence in 1975 and was known as the Grand Chief and father of the nation.
He had other stints as prime minister and also served as foreign minister, opposition leader and governor of East Sepik Province before retiring from politics in 2017.
Sir Michael died early on Friday morning after being diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, a family statement said.
“Sadly, pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive cancers that are rarely detected early. We as a family had only two weeks to look for possible treatments for our father,” a statement from his daughter Betha Somare said.
“Sir Michael was a loyal husband to our mother and great father first to her children, then grandchildren and great granddaughter.
“But we are endeared that many Papua New Guineans equally embraced Sir Michael as father and grandfather,” the family statement said.
PNG’s Post-Courier newspaper reported Prime Minister James Marape calling for a week of mourning to “pay respect to this one person whom our country owes so much”.
“He is unmatched by anyone who comes after him.”
Mr Marape said his cabinet would meet on Friday to decide on a state funeral program for Sir Michael.
“He is universally loved in our country. May his memory bind our nation still.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra he had phoned Mr Marape and passed on Australia’s deepest sympathies to Sir Michael’s family and the people of PNG.
“I just want to honour him in his passing and reaffirm Australia’s great friendship – more than friendship – our family relationship with the people of Papua New Guinea,” Mr Morrison said.
He said Sir Michael had been the champion of the sovereignty and independence of the people of PNG.
“He was the light of his generation which has lighted up the path for Papua New Guineans today and into the future.”
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd said Sir Michael had been a friend of his for the last 25 years and more importantly had been a friend of Australia throughout his political career.
“The fact that Papua New Guinea and Australia remain friends to this day, and the closest of friends, owes a lot to Michael Somare’s personal contribution to the relationship,” Mr Rudd said in a video statement.
He said Sir Michael was an “historic figure” in the evolution of PNG’s independence in the 1970s and had “defended his country’s economic interests robustly”.
Sir Michael had been preparing to go overseas for treatment, his family said earlier this week, but after assessing options he had been placed in the best palliative care available in PNG.
He is survived by his wife Veronica and five children.