Fiji’s Half Century of Independence

By Émile St Clair

Fijians on 10 October 2022 celebrated their National Day, and looked forward to the 2022 general election, whose exact date at that time was yet to be announced. Fiji Day prompted at least two high-profile articles in Fiji’s national press, those of Mahendra Chaudhry and Dr Subhash Appanna. Both articles are rooted in Fiji’s recent history, with as good a starting point as any located in the country’s constitutional changes conferenced in London in the July of 1965. At that point A. D. Patel, leader of the Indo-Fijians, demanded full self-government, with an elected legislature, established along the lines of universal suffrage, a condition rejected by the ethnic Fijian delegation, who feared loss of control of natively owned land and the resources it yielded, should an Indo-Fijian government predominate. The British meanwhile were determined that Fiji be self-governing and eventually independent. Having no better choice, Fiji’s chiefs negotiated for the best deal they could get.

Appanna in his article, ‘Citizenship and Belonging’, has as his main focus ethnic tensions throughout Fiji’s independence, from the cabinet system of government established in 1967, when Ratu Kamisese Mara was the first chief minister, to the 1970 electoral formula, with its timetable for Fijian autonomy and Fiji’s position as a Commonwealth nation, and on thereafter. Central to the 1970 formula was a distribution of power between the indigenous population and the country’s Indo-Fijians, those whose ancestors had been brought in as indentured slaves for work in the sugar plantations. In the capital Suva, on 9 October 1970, the British flag was lowered for the last time, with the Fijian flag raised in its place on the following morning, 10 October 1970 – Independence Day. Seventeen years after independence, as Appanna highlights, the two major political ethnic groupings were still at a point of conflict. Obstacles to finding a shared way forward were mountainous, so it seemed.

The situation had deteriorated to the point in 1987 where the National Federation Party, Indian-dominated, was joined in coalition by the new Labour Party, which brought with it powerful support from Fijian and Indian trade unionists. The coalition achieved success in the April elections. The new government and a legislature marked by Indian interests saw widespread Fijian protest, with leaders of the new administration arrested. Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka led a coup d’état, demanding greater protection over Fijian rights and settled Fijian dominance in all future government. Compromise through civilian rule proved difficult, and with poor political progress Rabuka led a second coup, reimposing military rule. In the last days of 1987 Fiji was declared a republic, and the 1970 constitution was revoked. One result of that was Fiji’s expulsion from the Commonwealth. Thereafter Rabuka appointed a new civilian government, with a new constitution, with emphasis on a greater share of power in the hands of native Fijians.

The Market in the Capital Suva

Rabuka was elected to parliament under the 1990 constitution, and became Prime Minister in 1992. Later a Constitutional Review Commission was briefed to recommend changes that would reduce constitutional ethnic bias. Throughout the mid-1990s the country’s politics focused on constitutional revision, with a set of recommendations proposed in September 1996. In the following year Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth, with constitutional changes approved a year after that.

Fiji’s first prime minister of Indian ancestry was Mahendra Chaudhry, elected in May 1999, but not without Nationalists opposing his premiership. In his first months in office arson and bomb attacks in the capital Suva were linked to extremist agitation. In the August a no-confidence motion was put forward by nationalist legislators, but Chaudhry survived. In the May of the following year a group led by businessman George Speight took Chaudhry and his government hostage. Chaudhry was deposed, with Speight claiming only to be acting in the interests of indigenous Fijians. Speight was supported by rebel members of the army’s counter-revolutionary warfare unit. The coup was followed by widespread looting and destruction of Indian-owned businesses in Suva. The president, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara (who for most of the post-independence period had served as Prime Minister), declared a state of emergency and assumed power. Negotiations ran aground. The army declared martial law. Chaudhry was stripped of power.

In July 2000, in order to re-establish democratic principles, a Fijian-dominated interim administration was installed, civilian in character. The Bose Levu Vakaturaga or Great Council of Chiefs appointed Ratu Josefa Iloilo as Interim President. After fifty-six days of confinement, the rebels released their hostages, whom they’d held captive in parliamentary buildings. In the following November Fiji’s High Court ruled that the military-installed government was not legitimate, and decreed that May’s ousted parliament was still the country’s governing authority. Legal appeals went on into 2001. By then the Great Council of Chiefs reconfirmed Iloilo as President. A general election was called for in August and September. Chaudhry did not retain his post, and in September 2001 the interim premier, Laisenia Qarase – of the nationalist Fiji United Party – was confirmed as Prime Minister. Tensions between the military and the elected government did not diminish, while there was also the wider political landscape to consider. For example, in 2002 there were plans to privatise the sugar industry, which faced a parlous future after the withdrawal of EU subsidies. In the continuing power struggle, while Qarase’s party achieved slender victory in the May 2006 elections, in December the military leader Voreque Bainimarama seized power. He dismissed Qarase and established himself as the country’s sole leader, as brief a manoeuvre as that might be. He restored executive powers to President Iloilo in 2007, who promptly named Bainimarama Interim Prime Minister. Bainimarama himself appointed an interim cabinet, promising imminent scheduled elections, but without committing to a timetable. He curtailed activities of the Great Council of Chiefs. In 2009 the Fiji Court of Appeal ruled that the Bainimarama government had no legal authority given the 2006 coup, which prompted President Iloilo’s announcement that since he’d abolished the 1997 constitution the country’s judges could consider themselves dismissed. Iloilo delayed national elections until 2014 and appointed a new interim government. Again, Bainimarama was Prime Minister. Bainimarama has been a major force in Fiji politics ever since.

On the Buses, Suva

Appanna reflects on it all –

• The 1970 constitution 
• The two major ethnically identified political parties
• Obstacles militating against common objectives between the two communities
• The 1987 multi-ethnic coalition
• The 1970 constitution overturned
• The 1987 coup, and with it reports of violence, robberies, rape, all manner of atrocity
• The second coup, Fiji as a republic, expulsion from the Commonwealth
• For Indo-Fijians the sense of loss and national isolation
• Ratu Mara’s success in incorporating Indo-Fijian interests into the 1990 constitution

– and by these reflections perhaps unconsciously underlines the importance of Fiji as a nation state with a written constitution, one surely serving all its citizens and respected by each alike.

A Typical Roadside Business, Savusavu

Chaudhry, a former prime minister of Fiji, as noted above, and the first of Indian ancestry, is the leader of the Fiji Labour Party, and his article, like Appanna’s, appeared in the October 8th edition of The Fiji Times – i.e. two days before Independence Day, mark of Fiji’s casting off the yoke of imperial rule. The title of Chaudhry’s article: ‘Are the people free?’

It is doubtful that Chaudhry thinks the Fijian people are. He asks to what extent in the fifty-two-year journey towards building a nation has the 2013 constitution and Bill of Rights ensured principles set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)? The actuality, he says, leaves a lot to be desired, when Fiji’s ‘free’ people live in fear of speaking out, of victimisation, of discrimination, when the reward for agitation against the status quo is detention and persecution. These are Chaudhry’s prime examples of Fiji’s Bill of Rights undermined in its key points. He cites many other violations: little adherence to the protection of workers’ rights; restrictive impositions on the trade unions; abrogation of the right to peaceful protest; denial of the right of union officials to engage in formal politics; short-term contracts imposed on civil servants; the lost right of civil servants to appeal against perceived unfair promotions, unwarranted transfers, unwarranted disciplinary action; the removal of the right of public-service unions to collective bargaining, etc.

‘Freedom’ of the fourth estate Chaudhry also calls into question, with a culture of repression and censorship against the media. Prominent in his argument is the Media Industry Development Decree of 2010, where journalists who breach it often find themselves landed with fines, or even worse, jail terms, not the best conditions for national media to operate freely and independently. Chaudhry points also to recent amendments to the Political Parties and Electoral Act, of particular relevance given the coming elections. The right of candidates and political parties to appeal to the High Court against decisions of the Registrar of Political Parties and the Supervisor of Elections – that right has been removed. Further, political parties, activists and candidates are required to publish a financial breakdown, to the last cent, underpinning promises to the electorate. Is this, Chaudhry asks, the kind of flawed democracy Fiji wants?

Island Paradise

So to the general election of 2022, which was held on 14 December, for the election of fifty-five MPs.

Prominent campaign issues turned on a struggling economy, rising national debt, ethnic tensions, poverty. At the time of the election itself, the Fijian Elections Office (FEO) made use of an electronic app for the preliminary count, which failed momentarily due to a software glitch. For that reason the FEO took down the app as a temporary measure. That did not prevent Western media reporting on the issue, with the Guardian news website, in an article posted on 15 December, stating

‘Provisional results had the opposition People’s Alliance party hovering in the mid to low 40s and incumbent prime minister Frank Bainimarama’s FijiFirst party in the mid-20s four hours after polls closed. The results were taken offline for a number of hours and, when they returned, the results had flipped.’

The same report went on to say

‘Rabuka [of the People’s Alliance party] said the new data didn’t match the raw data the party has from polling stations.’

With the app returned to operation, and with the ruling FijiFirst party now shown to be leading, five opposition parties demanded the counting process be suspended and a recount begun, though observers claimed not to have seen significant voting irregularities, and added that whatever bug had got in the app, it had now been fixed.

Four of the nine parties contesting the election passed the five per cent threshold required for entry into parliament. Mahendra Chaudhry’s Labour Party was not among them, achieving only 2.7 per cent. FijiFirst won twenty-six seats; the newly formed People’s Alliance (PA), twenty-one; the PA’s coalition partner, the National Federation Party (NFP), won five. The Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), retained three seats. Therefore no party won an outright majority, but in the formation of coalitions SODELPA was the obvious kingmaker. So it turned out, with SODELPA forming a coalition government with the People’s Alliance and the NFP, ending FijiFirst’s rule and Bainimarama’s sixteen-year tenure as Prime Minister, replaced in that office by Sitiveni Rabuka of the People’s Alliance, the party he himself had formed. Rabuka, let us not forget, the instigator of the two military coups in 1987. That said, Bainimarama conceded defeat peacefully. It will be interesting to see further evolution in Fiji’s politics and social weal.

Émile St Clair is a travel writer, based in Nelson, New Zealand. He has a particular interest in Pacific Rim life, trade and politics.

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