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April 29, 2001

By Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D.

Following the Great Council of Chiefs Meetings in March, the President of Fiji, on the advice of his trusted legal aide, appointed Ratu Tevita Momoedonu Prime Minister for 24 hours and then unceremoniously dismissed him and reinstated the Interim Government of Laisania Qarase as the caretaker Government of Fiji. The Peoples’ Coalition members looked in shock as the President justified his actions by arguing that the vanua fully supported the Interim Government and that it was in the national interest for the team to continue. Former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry was dismissed before the appointment of Momoedonu, who was to pave the way for the Qarase team and general elections by the end of August 2001. In fact, it has been revealed that the course chartered by the President was already disclosed to Qarase and key members within the Interim Government before it was made public. Clearly, this was done to give the indigenous Fijian political parties a head start in negotiating a grand Fijian alliance.

The President, however, in this instance, acted outside the provisions of the 1997 Constitution and as a result, his actions have been challenged by former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, the human rights lobby group Citizens’ Constitutional Forum (CCF), and members of the Peoples’ Coalition Government. The President cannot unilaterally dismiss the lawfully elected Prime Minister without reconvening the constitutional Parliament and allowing for a free vote on the PM. The constitutionally correct process, following the 1 March 2001 Fiji Court of Appeal judgment, was to reconvene the Parliament and allow for a vote of confidence on Chaudhry. If Chaudhry survived the vote of confidence, then the previous Parliament would have been lawfully allowed to continue and complete its term as mandated by the May 1999 general elections. However, if Chaudhry lost the vote, then he would have had to accept defeat and advise the President, who then would dissolve Parliament and then appoint a caretaker government, which has the support of the House.

The 1997 Constitution is instructive on the issue of executive authority and there is no "reserve authority" vested in the office of the President as erroneously imputed by some misguided legal advisers in Fiji. Once it was revealed that Fiji would go to the polls in August 2001, the SVT (Soqosoqo Vakevulew ni Taukei) Party started marathon meetings with other nationalist parties to form a grand indigenous Fijian coalition. The plan to form a united front against the Peoples’ Coalition Government was hatched, following the swearing in of Mahendra Chaudhry as Prime Minister of Fiji, and once again became a crucial issue following the disaster of 19 May 2000. By sensationalizing issues such as the Land Use Commission and Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act (ALTA), aspiring politicians, who lost the May 1999 election, engineered anti-Chaudhry sentiments and attempted to unite indigenous Fijians.

The Commander of the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the Fiji Military Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Viliame Seruvakula, recently divulged evidence of a conspiracy against the Coalition Government. According to him, a number of businesses and politicians were behind the 19 May takeover. While Seruvakula did not name the conspirators, he certainly let the cat out the bag by inferring that those behind the mess were entirely motivated by greed. Daily Post journalist and feature columnist Mesake Koroi also analyzed the events leading to the 19 May hijacking of an elected government and on 23 April inferred that Sitiveni Rabuka, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, Apisai Tora, Ratu Osea Gavidi, Adi Litia Cakobau, Ratu Epeli Kanaimawi, Ratu Talemo Ratakele and Jim Ah Koy as persons who were associated with the bungled takeover.

The 19 May 2000 hijacking of the Chaudhry Government was the biggest tactical blunder in modern Fijian history. Business interests along with politicians masterminded and financed the takeover with the assistance of the members of the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit (CRWU) and the Fiji Intelligence Service (FIS). The objective was to hijack the Government and then to unite the army and the indigenous Fijians against Chaudhry. While the first part of the operation went without a glitch, the second stage of uniting the army failed when some senior officers refused to be party. When support from the army could not be guaranteed, the strategists inside the Parliament sent their emissaries to nearby villages and invited them to form a "human shield" inside the complex to starve off any pre-emptive strike by the FMF. Not only that but with some very skilful public relations exercise some influential chiefs were brought on side and even given the go ahead to broker a peaceful end to the hostage crisis.

By then, unfortunately, an indigenous Fijian police officer was murdered and the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, was whisked away to safety, following threats of assassination and widespread civil unrest. The hostage drama continued for 56 days and it was only following the signing of the ill-fated Muanikau Accord and the promulgation of the Immunity Decree and installation of a sympathetic President Ratu Josefa Iloilo and Vice President did the hijackers relinquish part of the arms and vacated Parliament House. By the end of the siege, the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), which is the supreme traditional authority in Fiji, was basically left in tatters and plagued with internal chiefly rivalry over the political future of the country.

During the 56 days siege, thugs were unleashed on Indo-Fijians and in parts of Fiji, Muaniweni, Dawasamu and Dreketi, Indo-Fijians were attacked, their homes ransacked and some physically assaulted and robbed. Many fled to Lautoka Girmit Centre in the west for refuge, while others sought sanctuary with their friends and relatives. The pain and suffering of Indo-Fijians continued unabated throughout last year as indigenous Fijian landowners refused to renew sugar leases, forcing many Indo-Fijian farmers to seek alternative accommodation. The sugar lease situation was aggravated by the political posturing of the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB), which pursued its own agenda of squeezing the farmers and deliberately misinforming the landowners. A number of farms that were taken last year by indigenous Fijian landowners remain uncultivated and this has led to decapitalization and economic distortions. With sugar still being a major foreign exchange earner and with disastrous economic downturn following the events of 19 May, common sense is slowly creeping in and leases are being extended.

While the land debate still remains a hot topic in the next general elections, the moves by the nationalists to unite indigenous Fijians have so far fizzled badly. On Friday 20 April, nationalists convened in Suva to agree on a single constitution and a platform for all indigenous Fijian political groups. However, unfortunately, Sitiveni Rabuka, Adi Kuini Speed and SVT’s Ro Epeli Maitini were not invited. Meanwhile, a day earlier, indigenous Fijians calling themselves "moderates" agreed to jointly promote respect for the constitution and the rule of law. Joining hands in this endeavour are Sitiveni Rabuka, Adi Kuini Speed, Dr. Tupeni Baba, and Ponipate Lesavua. Underneath, these larger groups are bitter factions and just about every indigenous Fijian political party is split. The SVT has been ruptured by decision of some Cakaudrove and Macuata chiefs to form their own Conservative Democratic Alliance Party. Members of the new party were unhappy with the SVT leadership and the decision by the SVT management to open the party to non-indigenous Fijians. Besides the SVT, the VLV is split between the moderates and the hardliners with the sacking of Poseci Bune, who has since joined the Party of National Unity (PANU). VLV leader Ratu Josaia Rayawa is working with the SVT and a faction of the Fijian Association Party and nationalists to form a united Fijian front for the next general elections.

At the last count, there were some 23 political parties, including the Coalition of Independent Nationals Party, Farmers and General Workers Coalition Party, Fiji Labour Party, Fijian Association Party, General Electors Party, General Voters Party, Lio'On Famor Rotuma Party, Nationalist Vanua Tako Lavo Party, Natural Law Party, New National Democratic Party, New Nationalist Party, Party of National Unity, Party of the Truth, Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei, Tawavanua Party, United General Party, Veitokani ni Lewenivanua Vakaristo Party, National Federation Party Viti Levu Dynamic Multiracial Democratic Party, Conservative Democratic Alliance, Ba Kaiviti, Taukei Workers Party, and Fijian National Congress.

Of particular importance is the political manoeuvring by the Interim Minister for Agriculture, Apisai Tora. On Wednesday, April 11, the President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, at the Ba Provincial Council meeting indicated that Tora had intentions to launch a new party, following his failure to convince PANU to join a grand Fijian coalition. This was the beginning of a campaign by Tora to convince the chiefs of the west not to back PANU, which was seen to be too closely associated with the Fiji Labour Party. Armed with a new party constitution and policy, Tora launched a new party, Ba Kaiviti, on 27 April. PANU leader Ponipate Lesavua and Meli Bogileka expressed grave concern over the manner in which the outcome of the meeting was decided. All in all, Ba Kaiviti has the support of former Prime Minister Ratu Tevita Momoedonu and various other chiefs from the west. Whether Ba Kaiviti joins SVT, VLV, nationalists and a faction of the FAP in a grand coalition is yet to be confirmed.

One thing is certain, that the indigenous Fijian parties have united to ensure that an Indo-Fijian does not become Prime Minister of Fiji. However, these parties are light on policy and do not have a comprehensive strategy on improving the economic and social condition of the Fijian grassroots. Worse perhaps are indications that there are many personal ambitions and interests at play within the Fijian coalition and this may create further political instability following the August elections.

©Sanjay Ramesh April 2001

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