Fiji’s president takes charge

Fiji’s president takes charge (SMH)

Fiji is in a state of political flux after President President Ratu Josefa Iloilo announced he had repealed the country’s constitution, appointed himself head of state and set a 2014 election deadline.
He said on Friday he had also sacked all the judges and established a “new legal order” following Thursday’s Court of Appeal ruling that the country’s military regime was illegally appointed following the 2006 coup.

So much for rule of law and democratic contitutionalism Fiji-style. Here is the Court of Appeal decision (fairly large .pdf file) for those interested. Fiji actually has a Constitution which appears on its face to be very well drafted. Why do you think they’ve had no less than 4 separate coups/major constitutional crises in the last 20 years, in contrast to Australia which has had none in more than a hundred years?

There are clearly factors other than constitutional and legal ones in play here. What might they be?  Tensions between Polynesian/native and Fijian/Indians were obviously a large factor in previous coups. But is that still the case? I gather that a lot of Indians have simply “voted with their feet” and left Fiji for good.  Is it just that power has corrupted Bainimarama in the Lord Acton sense like Mugabe in Zimbabwe?  Or are there other factors?  I’m not as closely familiar with Fiji’s current situation as I should be.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Geoff Honnor
15 years ago

Yep, the Indo-Fijian ethnic dominance card is a bit harder to play given the flight of tens of thousands of Indo-Fijians over the last couple of decades. I think they’re now well under 40% of the population, down from 50%+ 30 years ago.

But the effects of the coups – the Speight putsch of 2000 in particular – linger on. Much of the substance of what’s going on appears to be inextricably linked with the experiences of the last four commanders of the RFMF (and their connections) during the events of 2000.

Ratu Epeli Nailatikau was deposed as commander of the RFMF by the first Rabuka coup, though he didnt appear to be too surprised or upset about it at the time. Rabuka subsequently appointed him to a number of diplomatic posts and he was Speaker of the Parliament during the Qarase government. Fell out with Qarase and joined Bainimarama’s government after the 2006 coup. Great grandson of Cakobau the unifier of Fiji and an aspirant to the Vunivalu title,the most senior chiefly title in Fiji. The last holder of the title was his uncle, Ratu Sir George Cakobau, who was Governor-General of Fiji prior to Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau. Ratu Epeli is also, a cousin of the King of Tonga and is married to Adi Koila Mara, the daughter of the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Adi Koila was one of the parliamentarians held hostage by Speight in 2006 and she loathes Laisenia Qarase for his subsequent “appeasement” of the plotters – among other things.

Sitiveni Rabuka deposed Nailatikau when he overthrew the Bavadra government. He initially handed power to the Governor-General, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau but, famously, staged a second coup when Ratu Sir Penaia attempted to reinstate the constitution. He proclaimed a republic and appointed Ganilau as President and Ratu Sir Kamisese as interim PM. Mara subsequently replaced Ganilau as President in 1992. Rabuka was elected PM in 1991 losing power to Mahendra Chaudry and the Fijian Labour Party in 1999. Rabuka was elected as Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs after his defeat (though not himself of chiefly status he had exceptionally been made a life member). Ratu Mara believed that Rabuka was associated with Speights putsch in May 2000 that resulted in Maras ignominious removal from the Presidency and Bainimarama believed that Rabuka was behind the army mutiny at Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva in November 2000 that nearly resulted in Bainimaramas demise. The unit that mutinied was the Fijian equivalent of the SAS and it was founded by Rabuka.

Rabuka has always denied these charges and was indeed – in proceedings before the High Court of Fiji in 2006 – found not guilty of two charges of inciting a mutiny. Its clear that Bainimarama thinks otherwise and its also clear that he thinks that much of the Great Council of Chiefs and the Laisenia Qarase government was lined up with Rabuka.

Rabuka was succeeded as RFMF commander by Ratu Epeli Ganilau, the son of Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau and also married to a daughter of the late Sir Kamisese Mara. Like Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, Ganilau was a Minister in Bainimaramas first post-coup cabinet and has just been named to the second. His father carried the Tui Cakau title one of the three most senior in Fiji and he hoped to succeed him. But in a two-way contest with his cousin Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, the Great Council of Chiefs chose to appoint the latter despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that hed been a strong supporter of the Speight coup.

Members of the Great Council of Chiefs were deeply implicated in but also deeply divided over – the Rabuka coups and the fault-lines have deepened since. The result has been the increasing marginalisation of divided chiefly authority against the rise and the rise of the unified military which along with the Methodist church used to be the bulwark of support for traditional authority. Bainimarama sees the GCC as his enemy and the [self-interested] support of highborn men like Nailatikau and Ganilau offers an ideal – and continuing – divide and rule opportunity.

Nailatikau believes he should be Vunivalu but his cousins (the children of Sir George Cakobau) are equally convinced they should be and they were/are Speight supporters.

The support of Mahendra Chaudry and the FLP for Bainimarama also bolsters the juntas position given the fact that Indo-Fijians are still very much the wealth-generators in Fiji. Theres equally no doubt that the FLP is now locked into Bainimarama having so transparently nailed their colours to his coup takeover mast. The expectation of retribution should he fall approaches the apocalyptic.

Bainimarama talks the talk on a unified Fiji purged of its ethnic division but theres no evidence that hes committed to it beyond political expedience. It could just be that his enemies – Taukei/GCC/Qarase are Fijian nationalists so hes not etc.

Whatever, its a tragic turn of events for a country that could and should – have had a diametrically different experience to the one it has had over the last two decades. I suspect that Bainimarama is less addicted to power and more convinced that his ‘Bula’ brand of rugby, religion and regulation is what’s needed to “clean things up” at this juncture. “The boys” have to sort things out. He’s not particularly reflective or insightful as a quick trip to the “Commander’s Intent” column of the RFMF website will verify and it’s unlikely that he’s in it for Swiss bank accounts and the chandelier and gold-plated taps bure makeover. I suspect he simply thinks that he’s right, he’s needed. And he’s got the guns…..

Geoff Honnor
15 years ago

While I slave away you go and move the goalposts, Ken! Yep, of course, be my guest re cross-posting.

15 years ago

An underlying siurce of tension is the land title system, which was set up by the British and placed the bulk of land in the hands of Fijian indigenous tribal owners.

There’s discussion of the problems this has caused here. As Indians’ leases have expired and many owners have refused to renew them, agitation has mounted to address the problem. As far as I can tell, nothing has been done.

Geoff Honnor
15 years ago

“An underlying source of tension is the land title system, which was set up by the British and placed the bulk of land in the hands of Fijian indigenous tribal owners.”

Yes although “unfair land title system” can also of course be read as, “honouring indigenous land rights.” In essence 85% of Fiji is communally held by indigenous Fijians (and traditionally leased to Indo-Fijians for farming) – only 10% is freehold. There are lots or arguments for and against redefining leasehold arrangements (some work quite well for both parties – the Nadi/Denarau resort zone 99 year leases etc) and for defining a fair and equitable return on investment. Than there’s the ongoing communal versus individual ownership debate.

But it’s hard to see Bainimarama – or any Fijian pol – advocating major changes to indigenous title.

15 years ago

Re-echoing my thoughts here, here, here,

I think Geoff is pretty much on the money here (well hey, he’s ex-Navy and they get to see rather more of the world than most branches of the armed forces or many civilians. Incidentally a vaguely related point. When elements of the US Army and USAAF canvassed others over mounting a coup against FDR in the mid-30s, it was the USN and USMC leadership who were totally dead against it and went public. However this does not excuse Bainimarama for mistaking “Commodore” for “Lord High Protector”.”)

However, there’s also a quarter of billion at least in mahogany plantations in Fiji which no one yet has worked how to sensibly exploit. That’s the new sandlewood in the room.

Also MikeM, the Indians sticking on in Fiji are not doing it because of land issues.

Final make of it what you will point. The CIA’s Head Of Station in Fiji once asked me while really pissed (both of us) what the hell message is being sent by a Fijian nodding diagonally over a bowl of kava.

I was too young, unworldly and nervous (I was dating his daughter) to say then “the medium is the message”.


[…] posts on Club Troppo here and here