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Bernard Dowiyogo, 57; Six-Time President of Troubled Island Nation

March 11, 2003|From Associated Press

President Bernard Dowiyogo, the pragmatic leader of the environmentally devastated South Pacific island of Nauru, has died. He was 57.

Dowiyogo, who was in the United States on official business, died Sunday at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., of complications from a heart operation five days earlier.

His heart condition was a byproduct of diabetes, a common ailment on Nauru, a tiny island about halfway between Australia and Hawaii.

Since Dowiyogo returned to the presidency for a sixth time in January, his health had deteriorated. At one point, he needed emergency surgery from an Australian doctor visiting the island.

During the 1980s, Dowiyogo earned a reputation as a radical in South Pacific politics for his sharp criticism of France and the United States for atomic weapons testing in the region.

He was also known as one of Nauru's more pragmatic leaders, but one who never managed to stem the waste and corruption on an island that has been devastated by decades of phosphate mining and now faces economic collapse.

Nauru, the world's smallest independent republic, is about the size of the District of Columbia and is almost completely dependent on phosphate deposits, mined as fertilizer for use around the world.

The mining has caused extensive damage to Nauru's vegetation and soil. It produced a great deal of wealth for island residents, but much of the money was squandered, and the phosphate supply is nearly exhausted.

Nauru's budget deficit last year was $15 million, about half of its gross domestic product.

In 2001, Nauru agreed to accept hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries who had traveled by boat to seek asylum in Australia. In exchange, the island receives $10.6 million a year in aid from Australia.

Born in 1946, Dowiyogo became an elected member of Nauru's 18-seat parliament in 1973. He served his first term as president in 1976-1978 after ousting the island's head chief and first president, Hammer DeRoburt, who helped win independence from Australia in 1968.

Over the next 25 years, Dowiyogo navigated the unpredictable Nauruan political landscape -- serving as president for terms as long as six years and as short as 15 days.

Dowiyogo is survived by his wife and four children.

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