FIJI COUP: THINGS FALL APART

Commentary

By Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. - William Butler Yeats

As I watched the events in Fiji unfold, a line in William Butler Yeats’ poem came to mind: "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold." It was from this poem that the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, borrowed the title of his famous novel, Things Fall Apart.

Last week, after months of tense verbal exchanges between the military and government, the military staged Fiji’s fourth coup in twenty years. It seems that when Sitiveni Rabuka executed the first coup in 1987, he let the coup genie out of the bottle and no one, since that time, has been able to put it back in.

This coup unravels political and legal issues that, if not addressed, could see "things fall apart" in this South Pacific island nation. More generally, it highlights challenges for Pacific Island countries, especially in light of the politically-motivated riots in the Solomon Islands and Tonga earlier this year.

On December 5, the Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Force (RFMF), Commodore Frank Bainimarama, announced that he had assumed executive power, and after "having stepped into the shoes of the President," Ratu Josefa Iloilo, dismissed the prime minister, Laisenia Qarase. He then appointed a military doctor and retired public servant, Dr. Jona Baravilala Senilagakali, as interim prime minister.

In the days that followed, Bainimarama sacked a number of senior public servants who were critical, or perceived to be critical of the military takeover. They were sacked because, as the Commander puts it: ". . . we cannot, under the current state of affairs, have with us those who are working, and will work against the military within the system." Amongst them was the Commissioner of Police, Andrew Hughes, who was in Australia at the time, and Acting Commissioner, Moses Driver. Only weeks earlier the police was preparing to charge the politically outspoken commander for sedition. A week after the military takeover, more than half of the Chief Executive Officers (CEO) in the Public Service were served their termination letter.

Commodore Bainimarama said that the military takeover was to "clean up" the corrupt Qarase-led government and prevent the government from passing three controversial bills: the Reconciliation, Qoliqoli, and Land Claims bills. In the weeks prior to the takeover, the commander submitted a list of demands to the government. Despite the fact that the prime minister had caved in to all the main demands, the military went ahead with the takeover.

In his "takeover address" Commodore Bainimarama presented himself as the savior of Fiji – the man to rescue the country from the corruption of the Qarase-led government. Indeed, long before the military takeover, there were allegations of corruption and mismanagement, and relationships between politicians, public officers, and the private sectors that demonstrate conflicts of interest. Further, it was alleged that the Qarase-led government was introducing policies and legislation designed to benefit its political supporters and cronies, many of whom are at the higher echelon of Fijian society. Commodore Bainimarama, therefore, said that the military’s action was "necessary to steer our beloved nation into peace, stability, a just solution and to preserve our Constitution."

He couched the military takeover under the "doctrine of necessity", which under English common law recognizes that there may be situations of such an overwhelming urgency that a person must be allowed to respond by breaking the law.

The coup, he claimed, was executed within the ambit of the Constitution because "the RFMF not only believes in the Constitution but it also believes and adheres to constitutionalism." He told the nation that "the RFMF could have carried out unconstitutional and illegal activities but has not done so and will not do so."

Ironically, the forceful overthrow of a civilian government is itself unconstitutional. And in the days following his "takeover address", the military’s actions violated the same constitution it claimed to "preserve". Freedom of speech, for example, was severely restricted, and those critical of the military were warned, harassed, threatened, or taken to the RFMF headquarter to be "cautioned."

The legal implication of the military’s action is something that legal pundits, especially constitutional lawyers, are watching with interest. Past coups in Fiji have provided interesting constitutional cases. It is likely that when things calm down, the courts will be asked to deliberate on the legality of the coup and events surrounding it.

Perhaps Commodore Bainimarama thinks that he could repeat his May 2000 feat, when, following the George Speight-led coup, he intervened, assumed power, and imposed martial law. But the circumstances at that time were different. In 2000 the commander assumed power following a coup which led to the admission by the Fiji Police – as contained in a letter from the Police Commissioner to the President – that it could no longer guarantee the security of the nation. The military stepped in to ensure national security.

Furthermore, the political dynamics behind this coup are different from the previous ones. In the previous coups, the perpetrators posed themselves as champions of indigenous Fijian rights, fighting to ensure the political supremacy of indigenous people visa vis the Indo-Fijian population. Race was an important variable in determining people’s political allegiances, however ill-informed that might have been. Consequently, there was support from certain sectors of the indigenous Fijian population for previous coups.

This coup, however, uncovers divisions amongst indigenous Fijians; something that had always lurked below the ethnic discourse that dominated Fiji’s political landscape in the past decades. Indigenous Fijian reactions towards this coup will likely be different and much more complicated than in the previous coups.

Indigenous Fijian reactions to this coup will be determined by the ‘vanua politics,’ especially the role and authority of traditional chiefs. At the center of this is the Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga), an institution that carries significant moral and political power, and respect amongst indigenous Fijians.

Interestingly, this coup challenges, not only the rule of law, but also the centrality of chiefly authority as manifested in the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC). This is partly because of perceptions that some chiefs have unequally benefited from current arrangements without redistributing the benefits to their people.

In reaction to the military takeover, a number of chiefs called on their people in the military not to support the commander’s "illegal takeover". Amongst them was the Tui Namosi, Ratu Suliano Matanitobua and Marama Roko Tui Dreketi, Ro Teimumu Kepa, who called on their men in the military to "lay down their arms and return to their villages." The soldiers from Namosi, however, refused to heed their chief’s call and came out in the media expressing their support for the commander. Further, a delegation from Nabukavesi Village in Namosi this week presented their sevusevu (present) to the military commander to show support for the military takeover.

In another show of defiance to chiefly authority, Commodore Bainimarama shamelessly ordered the eviction of his own high chief of the Kubuna Confederacy, the Vice-President and Roko Tui Bau, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, from his official residence. Ratu Joni is a man who, for many Fijian citizen, represents unity. He is not only a high chief, but also a former high court judge and respected member of the legal fraternity who took on the Vice-President position with much reluctance.

His dismissal and eviction is not likely to go down well with the people of Bau and the Kubuna Confederacy, and other Fijians – defiance of chiefly authority is like to attract repercussions. Already, it has attracted criticism from the Chairman of the GCC and Tui Tavua, Ratu Ovini Bokini.

This coup provides an interesting insight into the complexities and dynamics of indigenous Fijian politics. This will be played out next week when the GCC meets to determine the future of the country. The legal issues aside, the role of the GCC is important – it is like the central pillar, holding things together. Hence, all eyes and hopes are now of the GCC as it attempts to pull together the institutions of modern government with the politics of the vanua. The burden on chiefs will be much greater now than ever before.

Commodore Bainimarama, despite his shows of defiance, wants the GCC to meet and reappoint the President, Ratu Iloilo. But, any such "reappointment" will imply that the GCC recognized the commander’s dismissal of the President as legitimate, hence the need for his "reappointment." It will be interesting to see how the GCC deals with this, especially given the Chairman’s insistence that Ratu Iloilo is still the legitimate President.

In the next few weeks many legal and political questions will be asked and, hopefully, answered. Legally, an important question will be whether the military regime is able to establish a government that demonstrates a total, effective, and acceptable control of Fiji that is ultimately recognized by the courts as legitimate. This will be difficult given the potential for continuing opposition to the military regime. For Commodore Bainimarama, this is a complicated legal and political passage to navigate. It is now too late to back out. If he does, he could be charged with treason.

Politically, the military has the challenge of holding together an increasingly divided indigenous Fijian community. This will become difficult as the socio-economic impact of the coup begins to affect people’s lives. Already, major industries such as sugar cane and tourism have been severely affected and hundreds of jobs lost.

In times like this, it might be ideal to ask people to simply stand by and let things unfold in the name of peace and security, as the commander regularly asks. But, human beings are complicated and there will always be people who are unwillingly to simply stand by and watch. The next few weeks will, therefore, be challenging for Fiji.

What is certain, though, is that the events in Fiji raise important concerns about the future of democracy and the need to re-examine the relationship between the military and the civilian government. Further, these events provide an insight into the dynamics of indigenous Fijian politics and how it fairs in a rapidly changing global environment. These issues are important, not only for Fiji, but for other Pacific Islands countries as well.

I have lived for many years (and through three coups) in Fiji. Over the years I come to identify with and love the country and its people. I hope that the center will hold and things will not fall apart. But, being a vulagi (visitor) I can only watch and hope.

Dr. Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka is a Research Fellow at the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program. The views expressed here are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the East-West Center.

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