GOVERNMENT OF FIJI PRIME MINISTER

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MAHENDRA CHAUDHRY

By Dr. Sanjay Ramesh Suva, Fiji Islands June 30, 1999

The government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry settled in well, despite the 50-man protest march on 29 May 1999. The Minister for Health, Isimeli Cokanasiga, imposed an immediate smoke and grog ban on all medical and health centers. The directive to move quickly in establishing a respectable health care system came from Prime Minister Chaudhry, who emphasized a need for a clean and healthy hospital environment.1 Meanwhile the SVT party reconsidered its decision to hold a protest rally at the opening of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) meeting, which took place on 4 June 1999. While the SVT was still recovering from the loss at the polls, former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka in an interview with the Daily Post2 reiterated his party’s call to unite indigenous Fijians. All eyes were on Rabuka following the defeat of the SVT in the May general elections. However, like a true statesperson, Rabuka resigned with relief and requested that everybody provide full support to the new government. While Rabuka spoke of supporting the government, the Fijian Nationalist Party and the Party of Truth argued in favor of removing the President who was accused of assisting an Indian to become the Prime Minister of Fiji. Apart from a few mischief making and arson attacks on the part of those who lost the election, there was no major demonstration or attack against the new government. However, the new government had some teething problems.

The Minister for Agriculture, Poseci Bune, went and shot off his mouth over a possible candidate for Minister of Home Affairs. According to Bune, former army commander Ratu Epeli Ganilau was under consideration. Nevertheless, the Deputy Prime Minister Adi Kuini Speed clarified that the post will go to a successful Fijian Association Party candidate.3 With the speculation over a possible candidate for Home Affairs intensifying, the Prime Minister found himself defending charges of nepotism, after it was revealed that Chaudhry’s son, Rajendra Chaudhry, was the likely candidate for the position of Prime Minister’s Private Secretary. Rajendra Chaudhry was the Parliamentary Officer for the Fiji Labour Party and did a lot of work for the party leading up to the May 1999 general elections. The Fiji Labour Party is of the view that Rajendra will make immeasurable contributions to the Prime Minister’s Office, since he is familiar with party policies and protocols. However, the SVT believes that normal Public Service selection process shall take place and that Rajendra should not be appointed on the basis that he is the Prime Minister’s son. Apart from this ongoing debate, Fijian Association Party candidate Ratu Tu’akitau Cokanauto was declared winner of Tailevu North/Ovalau Open Seat after a Ratu Cokanauto outnumbered Nationalist candidate Viliame Sausauwai by 939 votes in a recount on 1 June 1999. Ratu Cokanauto gained 7,337 votes while Sausauwai gained 6398 votes. The required majority for one to win the seat was 6869. With Fijian Association set to increase its number of winning candidates to 11, the Nationalists sought a court injunction requesting another round of counting.

As everyone was waiting for the final result of the Tailevu Open Seat, the Deputy Prime Minister, Adi Kuini, issued a directive preventing the SVT from presenting a report to the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), regarding the party’s shocking performance in the 1999 general elections. Such a move was seen by SVT sympathizers as an attempt to gag the party from making presentations to the GCC. In response, Tui Labasa, Ratu Joeli Ritova, threatened to suspend all sugar leases on native land.4 He argued that Fijian protocol was breached due to Adi Kuini’s interference in the matter. Another furore caused by Adi Kuini was that involving the Province of Nadroga/Navosa. Adi Kuini called for a break up of this province into two separate and equal entities. This call was strongly objected to by the chiefs who argued that such a move would divide Fijians. While Adi Kuini was busy settling her score with the SVT, the Minister for Energy, Shiu Sharan Sharma, poured cold water over the previous government’s decision to restructure the Fiji Electricity Authority. While Sharma spoke against the proposed corporatization, he did urge the workers to take the opportunity and work hard so that electricity rates can be reduced by as much as 15%.5 With no more redundancies at the FEA, the Minister for Education, Pratap Chand, encouraged school teachers to work together and moved to scrap subject fees for the Fiji Junior exam papers.

While government ministers were busy making life better for the lower classes, Fijian landowners from Serua took their land claim right to their imperial overlords. In what is an unprecedented land claim, the Serua Mataqali is claiming $17 million in compensation for the purchase and sale of their land during colonial days. "The sale which dates back to the days of Sir Arthur Gordon, Fiji’s Governor-General in 1800, was described by the mataqali Vunimoli of Serua as illegal. And they have raised the matter with British Prime Minister John Major."6 Land claims have increased in recent years and many landowners concede to the fact that the British colonial administration unlawfully and without any rightful excuse alienated native land. In the case of Serua, the landowners argue that due to the action of the colonial government, they have little land left for their own use. As landowners consciously reassess their past, the Great Council of Chiefs met on 4 June 1999 and elected former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka as the Council Chairman. Rabuka defeated Tui Vuda Ratu Josefa Iloilo after securing 32 of the total 50 votes cast. Meanwhile President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara requested chiefs to shy away from self-centeredness, greed and racial intolerance. "Speaking at the Great Council of Chiefs meeting, Ratu Sir Kamisese said it was time that all races worked together. He pointed out that some chiefs were more interested in filling their pockets and tended to forget about their leadership responsibilities."7 Also attending the GCC meeting was the new Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who gave his government’s unwavering support in assisting indigenous Fijians and Rotumans. By the virtue of amendments to the Fijian Affairs Act in 1993, Chaudhry is now an official member of the GCC. However, the Fijian Nationalists are furious at the fact that a non-indigenous Fijian is a member of the Great Council of Chiefs and they are also equally apprehensive about the appointment of Rabuka as the Chairman of the Council. As the debate over GCC membership and appointment continues, revelations surfaced on 8 June 1999 that several ministry officials were under investigation for allegedly destroying government documents. The Minister for Youth, Ponipate Lesavua, cut short his trip after receiving a directive from PM Chaudhry to thoroughly investigate the allegations.

On the diplomatic front, Australia appointed its new High Commissioner to Fiji. "She is Susan Boyd, who replaces former High Commissioner Greg Urwin. She takes up her appointment next month. Ms. Boyd has also been accredited as High Commissioner to Tuvalu and will be Australia’s permanent representative to the South Pacific Forum Secretariat. Ms. Boyd was until recently Australia’s consul-general in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) in China."8 Australia enjoys a good working relationship with Fiji and both countries recently concluded a bilateral trade agreement which will see a continuation of preferential access to Australia of Fiji goods. Of most importance perhaps is the clothing, footwear and textiles industry, which is anticipated to continue solid growth into the next millenium.

Besides changes on the diplomatic scene, the government ended weeks of speculation by appointing Jiogi Uluinakauvadra to the post of Minister for Home Affairs. On 10 June 1999, Uluinakauvadra was officially sworn in by the President. Also sworn in on that day was the Assistant Minister for Health, Gunasagran Gounder, who will be based in Lautoka.9 The government of Fiji believes that some government services should be decentralized in order to serve those who are in rural or peri-urban areas. Apart from decentralization, Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry has warned his ministers against taking overseas trips for personal purposes.10 Meanwhile, the Deputy Prime Minister, Adi Kuini Speed, surprised everybody by suggesting that Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry convert to Christianity. Speaking at a religious gathering, she stated that the task of converting the Prime Minister was made easier by the inclusion of 11 Fijian Ministers in the new government.11 Adi Kuni’s comments have been seen as irrational and insensitive by those from non-Christian backgrounds.

Besides the furore over Prime Minister’s conversion, the first joint sitting of Parliament took place on Monday 14 June 1999. However, the first session of the new Parliament was marred by controversy. First of all, some eight Senators were missing from the session, after the President of Fiji rejected the eight Senators nominated by the Leader of Opposition, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola. Secondly, the Parliament elected Doctor Apenisa Kurisaqila as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. It is believed that Kurisaqila will fill in for Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, who is expected to take the Speaker’s chair after three months. Thirdly, the government broke from tradition and elected Gyanendra Prasad to the position of Deputy Speaker. In fact, the opposition proposed Jim Ah Koy to the position, but this was unacceptable to the Prime Minister.12 Earlier the government had agreed to appoint Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu13 to the position of Deputy Speaker. However, all that changed when FLP MP Joeli Kalou was told on Monday morning that the opposition had changed its mind and chose Jim Ah Koy. Frustrated by the decision of the President and the government, the SVT took its grievances to the court, claiming that the Joint Parliamentary sitting be declared null and void. Meanwhile, a confidential correspondence was obtained by the Daily Post wherein the nature of the dispute between the President and the opposition was revealed. According to the President, the opposition is expected to nominate four members from the FLP, one SVT, one FAP and two at his discretion. A list of names submitted to the Office of the President on 11 June 1999 was in the opinion of the President unconstitutional. It was also revealed that the first list of names submitted included Fijian Nationalist Party leader Sakeasi Butadroka. Here is a list of names submitted by the Leader of Opposition.

The nominations were rejected by the President, who chose not to make an appointment under section 64 (1) (c) of the 1997 Constitution. Apart from the fall out with the President, the opposition was displeased with the appointment of Gyanendra Prasad to the position of Deputy Speaker. The SVT claimed that the Fiji Labour Party was abusing its majority in parliament and was forcing the opposition to acquiesce to its demands.

With the first serious constitutional challenge underway in the court, some members of the SVT were not particularly pleased with what was going on. On 18 June 1999, it was disclosed that Ratu Inoke was likely to loose his position as the leader of the SVT. Rumors are that disgruntled party members have formed a Grand Coalition Party.15 Besides the problem in SVT, there are also unconfirmed reports that the People’s Coalition (FLP/FAP/PANU) is on the verge of collapse. At a Fijian Association Party caucus meeting on 17 June, Adi Kuini condemned those who leaked information to the media regarding a possible no confidence in the leadership of the party. While the push and pull continues within the Fijian Association Party, the government is busy finalizing a bill on a national minimum wage. However, Fiji businesses have expressed caution over such a move, while the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) believes that a minimum wage will greatly improve the lives of low paid workers.

As the argument over minimum wage heats up, it was revealed that an inquiry will begin into the alleged burning of official government documents on 18 May 1999. The Permanent Secretary for Justice, Alipate Qetaki, has been appointed as the chief investigator, who will begin his work on 24 June 1999 and forward a complete report to the Secretary of Public Service by 23 July 1999. Among those summoned to appear before the inquiry are Minister for Sports Ponipate Lesavua, Secretary to Cabinet Jioji Kotobalavu, Permanent Secretary for Youth and Sports Fusi Vave, Head of Crime Stoppers Ms. Kelera Tokalau and government Archivist Setareki Tale.16

It is believed that on 18 May 1999 Ms. Vave and her accomplices removed and burned cabinet documents. Apart from that, the former Prime Minister and the Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs Sitiveni Rabuka handed in his resignation to the Secretary General to Parliament, Mary Chapman, on 17 June 1999. Meanwhile, Rabuka was appointed as a special emissary of the Commonwealth to assist in diffusing the turmoil in the Solomon Islands. However, the government expressed concern that the Commonwealth Secretariat by-passed the government of Fiji in making the appointment. On the hot seat was Fiji’s ambassador to Britain, Filimoni Jitoko, who communicated the offer from the Commonwealth to former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka. While the Minister for Foreign Affairs criticized Fiji’s Ambassador to Britain, speculations on Prime Minister’s Private Secretary was finally laid to rest on 18 June 1999 when the Fiji Public Service Commission approved Rajendra Chaudhry’s application for that post.17

With the position of PM’s Private Secretary finalized, attention on 20 June 1999 turned to Ba Sangam School where Sanatan Dharam Pratinidhi Sabha leader and NFP spokesperson Harish Sharma criticized the Deputy Prime Minister, Adi Kuini, for her remarks on converting Hindus to Christian. On 22 June 1999, it was confirmed that members of the Shree Sanatan Dharam Prathinidhi Sabha will picket outside Parliament next month to protest against moves to convert Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry to Christianity. The Sabha applied for a permit at the office of the Suva District Officer on 21 June 1999. Vice president Swani Maharaj said Sabha members had expressed their support. Mr. Maharaj said the protest would coincide with the last day of Parliament sitting on July 2, 1999.18 As the controversy over Adi Kuini’s comment heats up, things have started to get a bit shaky for the People’s Coalition.

Members of the Fijian Association Party are upset over Prime Minister’s Senate appointment. A faction from the FAP argued that they have not been given fair representation by the PM and besides that, the faction is also furious over recent comments on ALTA. As a result of this ongoing frustration, a group from the Fijian Association met with members of the SVT in a move that is said to be a step in the direction of severing all ties with the Fiji Labour Party. Not only the FAP, but informal talks were held by members of the Party of National Unity (PANU) on 21 June 1999. It is believed that they too are displeased with the state of affairs and may be reconsidering their support for the government. In total the two parties hold 15 seats, but their departure will not be enough to topple the Fiji Labour Party, which holds 37 seats majority in a 71 seat Parliament.

While the coalition partners are desperately trying to stifle internal dissent, the government on 23 June 1999 disclosed that it will do away with the Fiji Intelligence Service (FIS). The former SVT government commissioned a report wherein it was recommended that the FIS be disbanded and merged into the Special Branch of the Fiji Police Force. In a press conference on the 23rd, the Prime Minister assured that those currently employed by the FIS will not lose their job. In other developments, the Prime Minister will pursue a restructuring of the sugar industry so that it is efficient and cost-effective. Also on the agenda are education reform and ALTA. Already the government has announced plans for an Education Commission, which will recommend modernization and reform of the education sector. As for ALTA, a workshop is planned for July. Apart from that, Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry left for New Zealand on the 23rd on a six-day official visit.19 During his trip, Mr. Chaudhry met with his New Zealand counterpart, Jenny Shipley, who hosted an official luncheon for him on 24 June 1999. After that, PM Chaudhry was introduced to the Parliamentary House. Mr. Chaudhry was invited by the New Zealand government on the state visit two weeks ago. Mr. Chaudhry will also meet with Minister for International Trade and Associate Minister of Finance, Lockwood Smith.

In Parliament, the Assistant Minister for Information, Lekh Ram Vyeshnoi, expressed disappointment with the media. The whole issue was brought to surface when Prime Minister’s security roughed up a journalist and as a result all media outlets in Fiji questioned the government’s commitment to a free press. In response, the Assistant Minister for Information ensured that the government was committed to a free press. As media groups and government come to term with each other, the new session of Parliament became fiery when, on 24 June 1999, opposition MP Jim Ah Koy accused the government of nepotism and corruption. Ah Koy charged that the appointment of Rajend Chaudhry as his father’s Private Secretary mocked of nepotism. The outburst came even though when the Prime Minister assured the House that the government will not use its majority to bulldoze legislation. The assurance was made following concerns from the opposition that the government would not heed its good advice. Mr. Chaudhry said, "I can understand their apprehension but let me hasten to assure them that my government will ensure the widest possible participation in the decision making process."20

As the opposition continues its attacks on the government, the Auditor General continues to highlight irregularities in the use of the Commodity Development Fund. The Auditor in his 1999 Report disclosed on 25 June 1999 that the fund was used by companies to pay off its loans and even then the companies could not become economically viable. In the line of fire were PAFCO, Yaqara Pastoral, and Wonder Gradens. In addition to that the Auditor General criticized the former ambassador to Australia, Isikeli Mataitoga, for misuse of public funds. While the Auditor General’s report was being scrutinized, the Ministry of Urban Affairs confirmed that municipal elections throughout Fiji will be held between 15-16 October, 1999. Meanwhile, preparations are under way for the Cakaudrove seat that was made vacant by the departure of former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who is now the Chairman of the GCC.

At the end of June, violent robberies once again rocked Fiji as masked hoods with guns created chaos. On Friday, 25 June 1999 a police officer was shot and injured during a foot pursuit. On early Sunday morning, thieves broke into the Capricon and Nadi Bay Motels and robbed the attendants at gunpoint. However, when Nadi Police caught up with the thieves, they found themselves confronting a shotgun. Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry expressed shock and disappointment and has called on the Ministry of Home Affairs to provide him with full details on his return from New Zealand. Meanwhile, the Police Force will be provided the latest in technology to battle hardened thieves.

Footnotes

1. The Fiji Times, 29 May, 1999 2. The Fiji Daily Post, 30 May, 1999 3. The Fiji Times, 31 May, 1999 4. The Daily Post, 3 June, 1999 5. The Fiji Times, 3 June, 1999 6. The Fiji Daily Post, 4 June, 1999 7. The Fiji Times, 5 June, 1999 8. The Fiji Daily Post, 9 June, 1999 9. Fijilive, 10 June, 1999 10. The Fiji Daily Post, 14 June, 1999 11. The Fiji Times, 14 June, 1999 12. The Fiji Times, 15 June, 1999 13. The Fiji Daily Post, 15 June, 1999 14. "Ratu Mara Tells Why its Illegal", Fijilive, 17 June, 1999 15. Fijilive, 18 June, 1999 16. Fijilive, 18 June, 1999 17. The Fiji Daily Post, 19 June, 1999 18. The Fiji Times, 22 June, 1999 19. The Fiji Daily Post, 23 June, 1999 20. The Daily Post, 24 June, 1999

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