FIJI’S UNIQUE COUP STILL UNFOLDING

Commentary

FIJI’S UNIQUE COUP STILL UNFOLDING

By Steven Ratuva

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Jan. 6) - Debates about the legality or illegality of the coup aside, now that a new order is consolidating itself with a reinstated President and new Prime Minister, it's important at this stage to make a sober examination of the coup in a broader perspective to help us make sense of what has happened, is happening or may happen.

A BBC reporter asked me the other day whether the coup "has ended" after the commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, Commodore Frank Bainimarama handed back executive authority to the President Ratu Josefa Iloilo. My reply was that the handover was not a reversal of the situation. Rather the move was part of the broader coup dynamics, which would help facilitate the appointment of the interim government by the President and pave the way for the military's "cleaning up" campaign and elections and re-democratization in the future.

Coup as a process

The word coup is the short form of "coup d'etat", a French word which literally means, "a sudden blow to the state." In its current usage it refers to displacement of political leadership either by military or other means.

There are different types of coups, depending on the methods used. One of the most widely deployed types of power displacement in history has been referred to as "palace coup." This involves individuals or groups within a particular regime displacing the regime leader in an extra-legal manner. Way back in 1962 B.C., Pharaoh Amen-em-het Sehetep-ib-re of Ancient Egypt was killed in a palace coup.

Even the famous Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was overthrown in a palace coup in 555BC and was replaced by Nabonidus a half-mad, reclusive scholar who ate grass believing he was a goat.

During the 20th century a number of palace coups took place in various African, South American and Asian countries.

Interestingly, in pre-colonial Fijian politics, palace coups were prevalent with members of the ruling chiefdoms deposing their close relatives from power.

This is neatly captured in the term "vuaviri", a very specific Fijian term with similar meaning as coup d' etat. Mary Wallis, the wife of an American trader, who became very close to the Vunivalu of Bau in the 1850s, witnessed and wrote about how Rokotuibau and his men staged a coup against the Vunivalu. Later, the Vunivalu remobilised and staged a counter-coup to re-possess political power on Bau Island.

Another type is referred to as "constitutional coup" where a leader is displaced through means deemed within the bounds of constitutionality. The sacking of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by Governor General Sir John Kerr in Australia has been described as a constitutional coup of sorts by some political analysts. The 2000 US Presidential election which saw Bush claiming victory through controversial (some say illegal) circumstances has also been described by some as a constitutional coup.

In 1977 when the Governor-General Ratu Sir George Cakobau appointed Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara as Prime Minister, despite the fact that the opposition National Federation Party won the election, can also be classified as a constitutional coup.

Perhaps the most widely known type of coup is that which is carried out by the military. Military coups, some of which are very violent and bloody and some bloodless, have changed in character over the years.

There was a period in the 20th century when military coup leaders would remain in power for a long time as in the case of Chile under General Pinochet as well as other Latin American, African and Asian countries.

The more recent trend has been to stage "lightening coups" which would be immediately followed by the installation of a civilian government to provide public legitimacy. In many cases military leaders would "civilianise" themselves by joining the civilian government and even standing for election. Some like Flight Lt Rawlings of Ghana later became popular elected civilian leaders. The 1987 Rabuka-led coup falls into this category.

With Bainimarama joining the interim government as Prime Minister, we may see the same civilianisation process in place, although he has decided to hold on to the military commander's position.

Whether he will stand for the next election is another question.

There are broadly two characteristics of coups which define how they are justified by the perpetrators. Firstly, some coups are "reactionary" in nature in that they are meant to maintain the status quo against any attempt to reform the system. The Fiji coups of 1987 and 2000 were reactions against the shift in political power away from the indigenous Fijian power bloc and were aimed at maintaining Fijian political paramountcy.

Similarly the CIA- backed coup in Chile in 1972, while more ideological and economic in nature, was also reactionary in the sense that it was aimed at putting a stop to the socialist reforms by the newly elected Allende regime and reinstating a conservative pro-American regime.

Secondly, some coups are "reformist" in nature. In other words, they are justified by the argument that the existing regime needs fundamental institutional reform and ethical transformation. Amongst others, the coups by Flight Lt Rawlings in Ghana in 1981 and General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan in 1999 and the 2006 Bainimarama coup fall within this category. In many of these cases, the intended aims have been difficult to achieve due to various reasons.

Despite the differences, in most cases these coups were carried out through the invocation of the "doctrine of necessity". In its broad sociological meaning the doctrine of necessity refers to the notion that if one intends to bring about a desired outcome but is not allowed to by law then it would be deemed "necessary" through humanitarian reasons or political expediency, to act outside those laws. The same doctrine (although under different names and guises) has been used in a variety of ways including medicine (to separate Siamese twins), in war (such as the invasion of Iraq) and of course in coups.

An unusual coup

The Fiji coup has been described by commentators as "coup by stealth", "creeping coup", "peaceful transition", and "indirect coup". A friend of mine even suggested that it is not strictly a coup. Of all the coups in the world I have studied, the 2006 Fiji coup was probably one of the most unusual as it defied all the conventions in a "classical" military coup where everything was based on secrecy, surprise and speed (the "triple S"). The 2006 coup was not based on secrecy, surprise or speed.

It was a gradual and publicized process taking months, weeks and days. It was the culmination of differences between the government and the military which provoked demands for reform by the military, leading to threats and finally warning of a takeover before the actual assumption of executive authority. It was very open and public.

The military pre-warned about what was going to happen leading many who still believed in the "triple S" scenario to doubt that there would be any coup at all. To be absolutely honest, I was also part of that doubting bunch arguing that there would be no coup. When it happened, I was baffled and started re-assessing where I went wrong.

Stages of a coup: Where are we?

A coup is not an event, ending during the day of the takeover, rather it is a process with a particular set of dynamics, which sustains and legitimizes it. In any military coup, there are basically five stages of execution.

The first is pre-coup planning involving the mobilization of human, logistical and importantly ideological resources. The second is displacement of the existing regime and taking over of political power by various means. The third is consolidation and legitimisation of the new political authority. The forth is transformation of the political system along the lines of the coup agenda. The fifth is the normalisation stage involving the re-establishment of the democratic processes and institutions through elections.

The 1987 coup took a total of five years from stage one to stage five. On the other hand, the 2000 coup barely went past stage two. Although Speight and his coup perpetrators successfully displaced the government, they could not capture state power as the military moved in, thwarted their plan and paved the way for an interim government and eventual elections.

In the 2006 coup, the pre-coup developments were long, progressive and very public. The taking over of political power (stage two) took place on 5 December when Commodore Frank Bainimarama assumed executive authority. Since then, both stages three and four came into play simultaneously. Consolidation of political authority (such as the attempt to form the interim government) and political transformation (such as the clean up campaign) are taking place at the same time.

This is quite normal in most other coups around the world because in order to consolidate the new regime's authority, transforming the old regime needs to take place. Sometimes transformation comes ahead of consolidation and vice-versa. We are now at the third and forth phases of the coup.

In the consolidation and transformation stages, a number of significant developments normally happen but by and large they usually involve invalidation of the old order through extra-legal means and generating popular consent using new forms of legitimacy to sustain the new order. In the 2006 Fiji coup these processes involved the crippling (and later reinstatement) of the President's office, dissolution of parliament, re-orientation of the civil service loyalty, purging of boards and CEOs, reversal of old policies such as VAT and containment of protests by coup opponents.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the consolidation and transformation stages has been making a compromise between the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) and the military, especially in relation to the appointment of the President. The GCC resolutions in its last meeting were deemed unacceptable by the military and in response ignored them. The military went ahead and activated one of the options available to itself which was the return of executive authority to the President Ratu Iloilo.

Ironically, while on one hand the military's action to return executive authority to Iloilo may have thrown the GCC off-guard, it would have also pleased the GCC to see that their resolution to recognise Ratu Iloilo as President has been fulfilled. But the GCC's dilemma is whether they would accept the legitimacy of the new interim government. If they do then the new interim government will be provided with more legitimacy and the GCC will become a part of the new order. However, if it doesn't then it may need to struggle harder to make itself relevant in the new order.

The most important part of the consolidation and transformation stage would be the formation of the interim government under PM Bainimarama, which is expected to carry out the responsibility in further executing the transformation (or in this case "clean up") program, under the direct supervision of the military.

What about stage five? When will we have an election? During the 1987 coups it took us five years from stage one to stage five (1987 to 1992). In 2000 it took us only one year before the 2001 election. What about this time around? Before any election, a number of major changes will have to be put in place.

First we need a national census to determine the number of people and eligible voters in Fiji. The last census was in 1996 so our population figures are ten years outdated. This will be followed by voter registration and the re-drawing of the boundaries. Realistically, all these will take at least 2 to 4 years before we are ready for an election. Meanwhile, a happy new year to all.

Dr. Steven Ratuva is a political sociologist at the University of the South Pacific. These views are his own and not of the institution.

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