Countries in political turmoil are fortunate indeed and blessed, if they have persons of stature, who have the capacity to bring opposing views or even warring factions together.
Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi was one such person, a national treasure, whose gifts, sadly, were not taken advantage of by those in power and their advisers.
It is ironic that with his untimely passing, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi now receives an endless series of accolades: “a great son of Fiji, a brilliant mind, a wise adviser, a meritorious high chief, a pillar of ethics, a font of humility, a committed social reformer, a defender of the weak and vulnerable, an irreplaceable loss for Fiji”, … and many more.
These accolades are fully deserved.
But their delivery only after Ratu Joni has passed on, underline the harsh historical reality that those who assumed power with the 2006 military, including some who are praising him today, were complicit in Ratu Joni’s ejection from his high office of Vice President of Fiji, where his widely acknowledged and scarce talents were so badly needed.
Many of the people who today easily praise Ratu Joni, need to ask why they did not raise their voices when this great principled man was illegally and forcibly ejected from his position as Vice President, and would Fiji have been better had they done so.
Ratu Joni could have easily compromised his principles and enjoyed great material personal benefit, as others have.
But he refused to compromise, even though it led to his marginalization from high office and great personal cost.
The ongoing tragedy for Fiji’s future generations is that our society, for the last ten tumultuous years, has not held up Ratu Joni as a leader worth emulating, despite his praiseworthy principled opposition to illegality, breaches of human rights and denials of natural justice, which have sadly become the norm in the fields of civil service, law, politics, society, academia and religion.
The ongoing tragedy is that the current social consciousness is being manipulated to encourage Fiji’s younger generation to emulate those who have used force to impose their wishes on Fiji people.
If Fijian parents can use the sad opportunity presented by Ratu Joni’s death to go beyond the flood of accolades and encourage their children to recognize and practice the principles that Ratu Joni passionately believed in and practiced, then his untimely demise will not have been in vain.
To merely mouth the platitudes now that Ratu Joni is gone, is to perpetuate our current illusion of a just, fair and humane society, an illusion which Ratu Joni quietly struggled to dispel.
A brilliant career
Many writers will outline Ratu Joni’s brilliant career.
A few of his close personal friends may reveal their privileged memories of the great man, and his personal travails even while contributing to national life, despite the challenges.
For all know that Ratu Joni was not afraid of tackling the many nationally sensitive political and social issues, especially those pertaining to the indigenous Fijian and other communities, which he always tried to balance with the legitimate needs of others.
All know of Ratu Joni’s frequent calls for ethical and committed leadership, and good governance from all citizens in the private, corporate and public spheres. NGOs like Citizens Constitutional Forum and Fiji Women’s Rights Movement well know his dedicated involvement with social and political organizations for reform with equality for all ethnic groups, women and children, especially after the 1987 coup and movement towards the 1997 Constitution.
There will be many accounts of his excellent performance as a High Court judge, or his untiring enlightened work as Vice President of Fiji, ever ready to use his office to launch works that he believed would bring economic, political and social progress to our society, without marginalizing the weak and vulnerable. The corporate world well knew of his commitment to constitutionality, law and order, without which the business world of contracts would fall into chaos, with total loss of investor confidence, and suppression of economic growth and well being. He was also a friend of the union movement and the need to protect the most vulnerable workers, such as those covered by Wages Councils.
The many accounts will praise Ratu Joni’s excellent command of law, politics, economics, religion, and society, and indeed, his command of the English language, as is evident from his book A Personal Perspective, a collection of his presentations and commentaries to various professional, political and social gatherings.
There will be many truthful accounts of his great gentleness, his warmth and humility, his unassuming nature, and his genuine multiracial character, with many multiracial friends from all walks of life .
Though Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi never dwelt on it (he always signed himself as “Joni”), he was a nephew of the great Ratu Sukuna, with all the chiefly linkages to justify appointment to high position himself, although merit alone justified his appointment.
No one will dispute that here was a man who was the ideal President of all Fiji.
So why was he removed from office?
freedom of the media and free speech?"
Did the military’s legal advisers, among whom were some of Ratu Joni’s close personal friends, believe that Ratu Joni as Vice President would be an uncompromising obstacle to the military decrees that were to be passed, including those infringing on basic human rights, of freedom of association and assembly, freedom of the media and free speech?
Did they expect that Ratu Joni would have objected to the unilateral closing down of the Great Council of Chiefs, the discriminatory suppression of the Methodist Church (even though he opposed the idea of Fiji being a Christian State), the media censorship, the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution and the eventual imposition of the 2013 Constitution?
Almost certainly, they must have known that Ratu Joni would have refused to sign the numerous decrees that undermined basic human rights in Fiji, even as other Presidents signed them, later. In the midst of our national mourning, Fiji should have no doubt that Ratu Joni’s nationally valuable talents were marginalized, precisely because of his passionate and uncompromising adherence to constitutionality and the rule of law.
Ratu Joni was marginalized because he believed to the end that peaceful dialogue and compromise was the only lawful, right, decent and civilized way to resolve national political differences.
But Ratu Joni’s beliefs did not suit the agenda of those who chose to use force to remove elected governments and judiciaries, to impose their own form of dictatorial government and constitution, to deny public accountability and transparency to taxpayers for eight years, and to use political propaganda, intimidation of the media, and electoral bribery to unfairly win political power.
It is ironic that some of those today bestowing praise on the late Ratu Joni, would not support the peaceful cooperative processes and politics that Ratu Joni and other like- minded people had so painstakingly built up after the 1987 and 2000 coups.
It is sad that some of the good and influential people who are liberal today with their accolades of the late Ratu Joni, were silent when he was removed as Vice President.
Some might quibble that Ratu Joni, despite being the Roko Tui Bau and Vice President with all the status and powers, did not fight to defend his position: when told by the military to go, he quietly went, without public complaint. But that was the nature of the man.
Sadly, there his contributions to Fiji ended.
In the last years of Ratu Joni’s life, other Pacific countries- Tonga, Solomon Islands, Nauru- recognized and took advantage of Ratu Joni’s professional talents and innate wisdom.
As was noted two thousand years ago, a prophet is rarely recognized by his own country, friends or family!
A reluctant leader
Ratu Joni was a nephew of Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, who also groomed Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara for leadership.
While Rau Mara so successfully responded to the political challenges and was Fiji’s Prime Minister for seventeen years, Ratu Joni had no such political ambitions.
It was with great reluctance that Ratu Joni even became Roko Tui Bau, not because of personal ambition, but largely because he felt deeply, the weight of social expectations.
He was often overwhelmed by the burden of social leadership, once wryly and humorously admitting to close friends that his favorite pastime was to “peacefully stare at the ceiling”.
I suspect that Ratu Joni understood only too well, but without any bitterness, that social leadership of Fijians was a thankless task, often a one way street.
Like Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara before him in the coup of 2000, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi would also have felt the deep sadness that comes to leaders who are removed from office, without protest by their followers, the same who readily mourn at the leaders’ passing.
It is easy to be cynical of the crude simplistic interpretation of the Biblical saying “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”.
For Ratu Joni, who might appear to some to be a meek person, quite clearly never wanted to inherit the physical earth.
Ratu Joni’s “meekness” was simply a reflection of his principled refusal to use his considerable powers for his own material or political self-interest, a manifestation of the deep quiet moral strength that comes to those with a full awareness of their intrinsic worth, position and value to society- which some call “wisdom”.
Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi would have been more than pleased if the accolades gracing his death leads to even a few young leaders, to recognize and put into practice, the very principles and values that he deeply believed in and practiced, despite the personal cost that such commitment inevitably brings.
Unfortunately, this worthy inheritance of Ratu Joni will not fall like manna from heaven- it will have to be struggled for, against the odds prevailing in Fiji today.
Adi Lusiana, Ratu Joni’s family and his extended mataqali can rightly feel proud of the contributions this wonderful gentle person has made to the vanua, to Fiji and the wider Pacific.
I have been privileged to enjoy Ratu Joni’s friendship and support over the years.
It was always a pleasure to receive his terse emails beginning “kemcho and bula namaste”, humorously acknowledging my Gujarati and other origins.
Ratu Joni stepped up many times to launch my social publications such as my 2004 collection of articles (To Level the Playing Fields), the 2006 Voter Education Kits for the Fiji Elections Office (in English, Fijian and Hindustani), and my study for ECREA on Just Wages for Fiji, which formed the basis for restructuring the Wages Councils under Father Kevin Barr.
We both appreciated and shared the sorrow at the departure of many common friends, such as Savenaca Siwatibau, Amelia Rokotuivuna and Jayant Prakash.
Just a few months ago, Ratu Joni had agreed at my request to write the Foreword for my forthcoming four volumes of community education writings in economics, social and political issues- as I believed that only he can write, with such understanding, balance and wisdom.
With Ratu Joni’s untimely end, I will deeply regret that preoccupied with my “self-imposed exile from Fiji” (as Ratu Joni gently observed) I did not pursue more urgently the completion of my books and his foreword.
Working in Nauru the last few years, Ratu Joni understood only too well, the pain of exile. When he had asked me for the deadline for his foreword, I had written that there was no hurry and “you have some time”.
None of us have time on our side.