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By Dr. Sanjay Ramesh

The month of September was a charged one in Fiji politics. The land issue came head on as Fijian groups put aside their differences to put a united stand against the government proposal on ALTA. Of particular importance, perhaps, was the Great Council of Chiefs meeting and the emergence of a Fijian lobby to unseat the current government. Besides that the people of Cakaudrove went to the polls for the second time in five months to elect a successor to former Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka.

At the beginning of the month, the Government of Fiji promised sugar cane farmers cash compensation of between $25,000 to $30,000 Fijian dollars for those who choose money over resettlement. Seven cane farmers evicted from their farms after the expiry of their land leases have opted for compensation from the Government. The National Farmers Union reported that farmers from Tagitagi, near Tavua, would be paid between $20,000 and $25,000 later this year. (1) It is anticipated that farmers in large numbers will choose cash payments. Meanwhile the Fijian landowners indicated that they will never agree to the extension of Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act (ALTA). Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, however, argued in favour of the extension and his government unsuccessfully submitted a proposal to both the Native Land Trust Board and the Great Council of Chiefs. Seeing trouble on the horizon, the Deputy Prime Minister of Fiji Adi Kuini Speed called on landowners to look at the bigger picture, since sugar remained the backbone of the economy. While the Government was trying hard to quell indigenous Fijian landowner fears on ALTA, voters in Cakaudrove went to the polls on 2 September to elect a new representative to the Parliament, following the resignation of former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who is now the Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs.

According to the Electoral Office, estimated cost of having the by-election was $189,000. There were some 15,652 voters registered for the election, 80 more than those registered in the May 1999 general elections. Of the 15,662 registered voters, 8,049 are males and 7,603 females. The voters are made up of 11,518 Fijians, 2,239 Indians, 1,863 others and 42 Rotumans. Of the 15,572 registered voters in the May general elections, 14,066 cast their votes. (2) In what was an anticipated result, SVT’s Ratu Rakuita Vakalalabure was declared the winner on 4 September. With the SVT jubilant over the result, the government had problems of its own after going ahead and reducing the Housing Authority loan interest rate to 6 percent. According to the Minister for Housing, Dr. Ganesh Chand, there will be a gradual reduction of Housing Authority’s interest rate to six per cent across the board. Dr Chand confirmed that the process had started with the announcement that people earning between $3500 and $6500 would pay six percent interest. (3) As it turned out, Housing Authority residents bitterly criticised the 6 percent loan as a farce, orchestrated by the government for political expediency.

In another development, Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry presented a submission to the Native Land Trust Board in Labasa on 7 September, recommending that ALTA be amended to include a minimum term of 30-year leases to be reviewed in the 25th year. On renewal the lease is to be extended for a further 30 years. The Government argued that land used for intensive commercial agriculture such as piggery, poultry, egg production, bee keeping and hydroponics to be excluded from the ambit of ALTA. Also, the government wanted amendments so that the rental system is based on up to a maximum of 10 percent Unimproved Capital Value. (4) Meanwhile a consultant engaged by the previous government, Cyril Farrow, pointed out that the government gesture on ALTA was unrealistic and that the views of the landowners were not taken into consideration before the deliberation. Joining Mr. Farrow was Tui Sabeto Ratu Kaliova Lumuni and Tui Ba Adi Seinimili, who claimed that the government recommendation was "one-sided." Chiefs after chiefs denounced the government for being insensitive and on 8 September Cakaudrove Provincial Council in an emergency meeting rejected the government proposal outright. (5) On 13 September Fijian activists gathered at the Suva Civic Centre to denounce the government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. More than 200 people attended, including Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei, Fijian Association Party, Party of National Unity, Fijian Nationalist Party and the Christian Democratic Alliance. "They said that no amount of reassurance would remove the fear that their rights were under threat as the election results revealed that the Indian community could not be trusted. Landowners were also disturbed by the fact that within its first days in power, the Government was making pronouncements on how lands, which Fijians described as their only remaining asset should be dealt with." (6)

Apart from the land debate, the Fijian Association Party fell victim to factional in fighting, after it was revealed that there were plans to toss out Adi Kuini Speed as the party leader. The problem surfaced after party stalwarts rejected Adi Kuini’s nominations to the Senate. On 11 September, the Fijian Association Executive Committee elected Ratu George Cokanauto Tu’uakitau as the leader of FAP. Immediately, afterwards, Adi Kuini denounced the move and stated that the election was illegal. In another interesting outburst, Adi Kuini lashed out at the Leader of Opposition, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola for instigating the move to unseat her. (7) On 14 September, Adi Kuini was granted leave by the High Court to apply for a review. While Adi Kuini was battling to hold on to her post, Party of National Unity (PANU) members met on 13 September and agreed to remove Apisai Tora as the leader of the Party. Recently, Tora has been very vocal against the government and has criticised the Prime Minister for his stand on ALTA. Also ousted in the PANU purge is assistant secretary, Eroni Lewaqai. The meeting was chaired by party president and Tui Ba Ratu Sairusi Nagagavoka and was attended by Cabinet ministers Meli Bogileka and Ponipate Lesavua, MPs Akanisi Koroitamana and Eloni Goneyali. (8)

Besides problems within PANU and FAP, the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) met from 16-17 September at Raffles Tradewind Hotel in Lami and deliberated on a number of issues, including ALTA and on the inclusion of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry as a member. The scene indeed became a charged one when Adi Litia Cakobau moved to remove PM Chaudhry, while the President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara defended his inclusion. It was reported that some nine out of fourteen provinces supported Adi Litia’s motion, which is now referred to individual provinces for consideration. On ALTA, the chiefs virtually threw out a proposition by the government to extend agricultural leases. According to the Chairman of the Council, Sitiveni Rabuka, all leases will now be issued under Native Land Trust Act. (9) In other development at the meeting, a radical lobby group- Matabose ni Taukei ni Vanua called for the Government to be suspended and for the Great Council of Chiefs to appoint an interim prime minister. In a paper submitted to the GCC on the 16th,the group expressed concern over the current state of affairs and anticipated political changes in the near future. (10) It is believed that the group wants to rescind the 1990 Constitution and in its place put in provisions that prohibit non-indigenous Fijians from holding public office.

By 23 September, reports surfaced that moves were afoot to destabilise the Chaudhry government. Youth Minister Ponipate Lesavua confirmed that he had information of recent meetings aimed at ousting the coalition Government from power. The former police inspector revealed that those involved included nationalists, and successful candidates and others who wanted to change the Government. The most recent meeting is said to have been held at the home of ousted PANU leader Apisai Tora on 13 September. (11) Fearing possible trouble, the government has beefed up security around Cabinet Ministers. It is believed that nationalists around the country are going around collecting signatures for a petition against the Chaudhry government. As a result of a flurry of political activities among Fijian groups, the government has moved to tighten security for cabinet ministers and on 24 September, it was reported that both the army and the police were placed on alert. (12) On 27 September, Prime Minister Chaudhry acknowledged that there were moves to topple his government, but shrugged off suggestions that the group behind such a move had any teeth. (13)

At the end of the month, it was clear that Fijian groups were working together to undermine the government and the single most issue that added fuel to fire was none other than ALTA. While the government will use the Great Council of Chiefs recommendations to re-draft its land policy, it is not clear how it will tackle further negotiations with the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB). Endless reports have suggested that Fijian landowners want their land back and will not agree to any less than that. Moreover, the government’s proposal on ALTA was seen as an attempt to short change Fijian landowners, who remain disappointed with current tactics of the government. It is envisaged that if the government continues with the current course, it will lose whatever negligible Fijian support it has. Already, splits have emerged in two major coalition partners- PANU and FAP. It seems that Fijian parties are becoming disillusioned with the current government and, due to pressure from the grassroots, factional in fighting within Fijian political parties is increasing. In the coming months, the government has to re-think and restructure some of its policies if it is to avoid any form of racial confrontation.

Prepared by Dr. Sanjay Ramesh.

1 The Fiji Times, 1 September, 1999 2 The Fiji Times, 2 September, 1999 3 The Fiji Times, 4 September, 1999 4 The Fiji Times, 8 September, 1999 5 The Fiji Daily Post, 9 September, 1999 6 The Fiji Times, 14 September, 1999 7 The Fiji Times, 13 September, 1999 8 The Fiji Times, 14 September, 1999 9 The Fiji Times, 18 September, 1999 10 The Fiji Times, 20 September, 1999 11 The Fiji Times, 23 September, 1999 12 The Fiji Times, 24 September, 1999 13 The Fiji Daily Post, 27 September, 1999

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