FIJI OPPOSITION ON THE MOVE

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 VIEWPOINT October 28, 1999

By Dr. Sanjay Ramesh

The month of October saw a hardening of Fijian dissent as rival parties put aside its differences to form a grand coalition to oust the government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry. However, unfortunately, the masterminds behind such a move are not getting the required support. In order to topple the government, the opposition needs support from the government MPs and this is not possible at this stage.(1) Nevertheless, endless covert meetings have raised suspicion regarding the motives of the opposition, which staged a spectacular walkout of Parliament on 7 October. On the same morning, a group of indigenous landowners from around the country peacefully protested outside the gates of Parliament House. Led by Fijian Nationalist Party Leader Sakeasi Butadroka, the protestors called for an end to Agricultural Landlords and Tenants Act (ALTA) and the discrimination in the allocation of senior civil service posts.(2) Recently, there has been a major reshuffle of senior civil service positions and this has caused concern among Fijians who feel that there is a deliberate attempt by the government to stack senior positions with its cronies. This claim, however, has been refuted by the government, which maintains that its policies are aimed at increasing efficiency and productivity.

While the opposition was plotting to do away with the government, the millennium bug surfaced, after problems in the Fiji Electricity Authority billing system. Not only FEA but the Department of Revenue, VAT, water and sewerage, and hospitals are facing continuous disruptions. Realizing the magnitude of the problem, the government ordered an investigation, which revealed that computer companies and corrupt officials had siphoned off millions of dollars. Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry on 10 October confirmed that the government paid out $23 million to companies, which failed to rectify the Y2K problem.(3)

With the Y2K problem continuing, the opposition kept up its pressure on the government by attacking Land Bills 15 and 16. The Bill aims to return Crown Schedule A and B land to original Fijian landowners. The opposition claim that all Bills dealing with Fijian land must be first dealt with by the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC). However, the Deputy Prime Minister Adi Kuini Speed refuted such suggestions and pointed out that in practice the cabinet advised the President on land matters.(4) Besides that, Adi Kuini claimed that the SVT had done a deal with the National Federation Party to oppose at all cost the land transfer bill. On 14 October,(5) the leadership of the Fijian Association Party was decided by the courts and as expected Adi Kuini retained her position. Meanwhile, the Fijian Association Party caucus meeting on 15 October turned into shouting match as both Adi Kuini and Ratu Cokanauto factions battled over the leadership of the party. Of particular concern for the Ratu Cokanauto faction was the presence of Adi Kuini’s husband Clive Speed, who was accused of spreading false rumors about the intention of the anti-Adi Kuini group. On Saturday 23 October, Adi Kuini Speed was elected leader of the Fijian Association Party at the Annual General Meeting. Adi Kuini amassed a total of 1,320 votes while Ratu Tu’uakitau Cokanauto pulled 1,239 votes. But despite the endorsement of Adi Kuini, problems remain between competing factions.

While Fijian Association members continued factional in-fighting, the people of Fiji went to the polls on 16 October to elect their representatives to various city and town councils. Due to splits within the governing People’s Coalition, the government did not do as well as it did in the May general elections. Apart from Lautoka, the National Federation Party/SVT and the UGP coalition did very well, winning most of the seats in the west and the east. The municipal elections were held under the old First Past the Post system and a quick analysis revealed that voter turnout was very low. However, the National Federation Party interpreted the results as a significant development for the party, which was annihilated in the May elections. The leader of the opposition, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, remarked that the low voter turnout was a protest against the government, which is accused of being insensitive to Fijian aspirations.(6) The government’s Land Bills have caused quite a stir among Fijians. As a result, the Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), Sitiveni Rabuka, has called on the GCC to block further developments on the bills.

Not only the land debate, but the opposition continues to make life difficult for the President of Fiji, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The differences over appointment of Senators saw a spirited legal challenge from the opposition and, on 19 October, the President ordered the opposition to submit the names of five remaining Senate nominees. The Senate issue was finally finalized on 25 October, following the swearing in of these five Senators. Ratu Viliame Dreunimisimisi, Josaia Gucake, Kuini Naqasima, Lute Powell and Ratu Inoke Seru were sworn in on the recommendation of the Fijian Association Party. Former Cabinet minister Berenado Vunibobo was sworn in to replace the late Senator Ratu Etuate Tavai.(7)

On the legal front, former National Bank of Fiji (NBF) chief Visanti Makarava was on 21 October acquitted of all charges of fraud. Mr. Makrava was charged for alleged official corruption, larceny by servant, fraudulent conversion and embezzlement while he was NBF's chief manager in 1994. He was alleged to have corruptly received the sum of $50,000 as benefit for approving a $400,000 bank loan for a company called Bula Piscatorial Limited.(8) The high court assessors found him not guilty on all counts. With most of those indicted for fraud acquitted, the whole saga points to an overt failing of Fiji’s outdated justice system. While reform is on the agenda, it will nevertheless take considerable time before a transparent and a less cumbersome system emerges.

Apart from the NBF debacle, the government once again frantically attacked media for being irresponsible. At a media function on 26 October, Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry warned the media to brace itself for regulatory measures if it fails to act responsibly. While launching of the Media Council code of ethics on Tuesday, Chaudhry reiterated the State’s responsibility to protect the innocent people wronged by the media.(9) The Chaudhry government has recently expressed alarm at the way in which the media reported on the land debate. Meanwhile, the National Federation Party entered the media debate by severely criticizing Chaudhry and labeling his style of leadership "dictatorial."

While the tussle with the media continues, one cannot but agree that there are certain destabilizing forces on the loose. The opposition seems hell bent of misleading the public on land bills 15 and 16. Since land remains a sensitive issue for Fijians, any reference to government legislation or regulation send shockwave throughout the community. In 1987, the Taukei Movement was in the forefront, leading a misleading debate on Crown Acquisition Act. Now the opposition has found another political card and with a Fiji Indian Prime Minister, it seems Fiji’s fragile multiculturalism is once again under considerable strain.

(1) "Sowing the seeds of a coup", The Review, October, 1999 (2) The Fiji Daily Post, 8 October, 1999 (3) The Fiji Times, 11 October, 1999 (4) The Fiji Times, 14 October, 1999 (5) Fijilive, 15 October, 1999 (6) The Fiji Times, 19 October, 1999 (7) The Fiji Times, 26 October, 1999 (8) Fijilive, 22 October, 1999 (9) The Fiji Times, 27 October, 1999

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