Flags in Vanuatu are at half-staff as the country mourns President Baldwin Lonsdale, who died Saturday of a heart attack at the age of 67. Lonsdale served as Secretary General of Torba Province and became an Anglican priest before he took office as head of state in 2014. We have more from Neal Conan in today’s Pacific News Minute.
While the position of President is largely ceremonial in Vanuatu, Baldwin Lonsdale will be remembered for two crises, both of which happened when he was away from his country. The first was Cyclone Pam, the category 5 storm which devastated Vanuatu in March 2015, while he attended the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan. President Lonsdale’s appeals sparked an international humanitarian response. The disaster also formed the basis of his eloquent statements on behalf of the Paris accords on Climate Change.
Just seven months later, President Lonsdale was en route to Samoa when the greatest political crisis in the country’s history erupted. Under Vanuatu’s constitution, the prime minister acts as head of state in the President’s absence, and Prime Minister Marcellino Pipite took advantage of that loophole, to pardon himself and 13 other members of parliament who had just been convicted of bribery. President Lonsdale immediately returned home and revoked the pardons - “We, as a nation, have to stop these crooked ways,” he declared in a televised address, and vowed to ”clean the dirt from my backyard.”
The president’s principled stance provided an opportunity for his country to act against a longstanding culture of corruption and political impunity.
After his body lies in state, President Lonsdale’s remains will be flown to his home island of Mota Lava. Under the constitution, an electoral college will gather to select Vanuatu’s eighth held of state within three weeks.