NOUMEA — Yann Celene Uregei, leader of the United Kanak Liberation Front/People's Congress (FULK/CP), died following a long illness, in his home in the suburbs of New Caledonia/Kanaky on April 7.
"Old Yann", as he was respectfully known, had started his career in the early 1950s, only shortly after Kanaks had gained full citizen rights.
Born in Tiga (Tokanod), Yann Celene Uregei was known for his strong political intelligence and passionate philosophical studies. He went to Vanuatu, Fiji and Australia to study, thus setting up pan-Pacific relationships with other nationalist movements, a network which he was going to draw upon during his whole life.
As minister of foreign affairs in the provisional government of Kanaky (1985-1990), he set up the controversial "Libyan trainee" program in which young Kanaks were sent to Libya for technical and political training.
He travelled intensively around the world to popularise the Kanak cause. Together with Jacques Boengkih, he was the driving force behind the steadfast lobbying at the United Nations that led to the UN putting New Caledonia on the list of countries to be decolonised.
Very critical of the 1988 truce that led to the Matignon Accords [with the French colonial administration), he mourned the slaying of the two Kanak leaders, Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiweine Yeiweine, but also said that the fallen leaders had "abandoned" the young fighters who were massacred by the colonial army in 1988 in the Gossannah Cave of Ouvea after an ill-fated attack and hostage crisis on the Wadrilla police station. This statement led to his party, the FULK being expelled from the Kanak Liberation Front (FLNKS) and to its subsequent political marginalisation.
In 1992, the FULK changed its name to People's Congress and reoriented its policies towards the defence of "Kanak custom" and "religious values", claiming that FLNKS had sold out the idea of independence in exchange for subsidies from Paris.
Catering to an audience of about 2000 militants, mostly in the Loyalty Islands, the People's Congress changed its name back to FULK for the 1998 elections, in which it scored only a few votes.
Yann was diagnosed with cancer in 1997 and spent his last years in his home in Noumea. His passing will be mourned by many in New Caledonia, whether they be pro- or anti-independence, for the integrity of Yann Celene Uregei was respected by everyone.
[Abridged from Kanaky Online, at <email@example.com>.]