BAINIMARAMA: “We should differentiate the GCC which has been made political in the past and the Chiefs who are very much a part of our lives and will remain with us in future....The British used the GCC to serve their own purpose. They had hereditary Chiefs of their own, their dukes, earls and barons, so they were very comfortable dealing with the hereditary chiefs of their own.”
RO KEPA: “Madam Speaker, the GCC or Bose Levu Vakaturaga is like the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, the Rotuma Council, the Fiji Muslim League, and other such bodies where servants to the people meet to discuss issues affecting their people...If government does not want to fund the re-establishment of the GCC, then we the indigenous people will fund it. We will run it. Regardless of what the Prime Minister says, it is our human right.”
Fijileaks: We believe the only way to test Fijian commoners support for the re-reinstatement of the GCC is for Government to allow the chiefs to call on their subjects to march with them through the streets of Fiji. We doubt they will come out. The chiefs should have acted when the GCC was abolished, and not retreated and hid like frightened mongooses in the bush from the dictatorship in Fiji. Was it because they did not have the support of their subjects? Ro Kepa, at least, stood up to Bainimarama & Co. Maybe self-funded GCC (without hefty salaries to those running it) is the way forward for the chiefs, minus politics!
From Fijileaks Archive, 17 March 2015:
By VICTOR LAL
Fiji's Daily Post, July 2000
The Fijian Commoners will be imprisoned by George Speight and Chiefs’ escapades: 'One dead, the other powerless to be born'.
The failed businessman turned rebel coup leader, George Speight, might have succeeded in ousting a democratically elected government and escaping criminal charges but in the process he and his henchmen have set back the progress and development of ordinary Fijian commoners.
In their crude racist submission to the Great Council of Chiefs, the group have once again silenced the voices of their ordinary fellowmen who seemed to have been coming out of the shadow of their chiefs. In stripping Mahendra Chaudhry of his political power, the group have, in fact, stripped the ordinary Fijian of his or her power.
For once again, it is the traditional chiefs who are being called upon to decide the fate of the Fijians and non-Fijians alike: the very role they were groomed to perform during Fiji’s turbulent history.
The Circus Showman and Educated Mule
In the old and dusty records of the British Colonial governors experiences, stored in the vaults of Rhodes House, the University of Oxford's library on Colonial and Imperial studies, I found the following letter to the Colonial Office in London from one of the many governors to Fiji, Sir George O' Brien. The letter, written from Government House in Suva, is dated the 14th of December 1897. The subject matter is Britain's policy of governing Fiji through the native chiefs. Governor O'Brien, who successfully argued against the federation of Fiji with New Zealand and Australia, wanted to express his mind on 'native policy' in a few words privately. And he did indeed, in a language which made me cringe on the first reading of his letter.
The Governor O’Brien’s Letter
The colonial governor O'Brien begins his letter by informing the Colonial Office that 'the situation in Fiji reminds one of nothing so much as the story of the circus showman & and his educated mule.' He continues the letter in the following vein: ''Ladies & gentlemen'', he (the showman) is reported to have said, ''you see before you a most remarkable animal - an educated mule. I have educated him myself. For the last 15 years I have done nothing but educate him. And the consequence is that I am in the proud position to-night, as I shall presently show you, of being able to make him do anything I like.'' Governor O'Brien continues:
'So with the Fiji Government and the Chiefs. After many years of governing Fiji through the chiefs we are able to make them do anything we like.'
It is not surprising, therefore, that some radical native Fijians have branded the chiefs as 'colonial or bureaucratic chiefs'. Others have accused them of being experts at political manipulation; they are fronts for big-time multi-national companies and commission agents, they promote racial hatred; they thwart every genuine move towards national cohesion and democracy; in short, theirs is, in many senses, a role actually subversive of the unity, progress and stability of this country. They have held back the economic, educational, and political progress of commoner Fijians. The very existence of these traditional rulers is inconsistent with the main goal of our struggles and efforts: building a united country, democracy, and a just, fair and stable political order.
Some claim that the Great Council of Chiefs, based as it is on inheritance, is not only thoroughly undemocratic, but most of those who man it are part of the tiny class of Fijians whose activities are some of the main causes of the country's racial problems. If democracy is to grow and flourish, its roots must be planted in a healthy, vibrant soil, and not on a murky and undemocratic foundation. The radical Fijians claim that at the grass-roots level, democratic structures, specifically democratically elected village, district, and local government councils and committees, manned by the elected representatives of the people should be established to decide matters of Fijian and national concern.
The defenders of the chiefs, on the other hand, have welcomed them as 'boundary-keepers' or mediators between different races who have used their authority and prestige, not to mention the strong weapon of coercion at their disposal, to stabilise crisis situations, and only to re-establish their chiefly control of Fiji.
Understandably, the deposed President and the paramount chief of Lau, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara was concerned with the way politicians played with the lives of his people during the last elections. Addressing a meeting of the Lau Provincial Council in Moala, Ratu Mara said these were evident in the statements made, in which chief's were insulted. In a sombre tone, the President and Tui Lau, Ratu Mara asked why statements such as 'don't elect your chiefs but elect a commoner because its easier to deal with them' were made to his people only. And according to Ratu Mara, the situation was worsened when the leader making those statements said nothing about other high chiefs from other provinces. He named numerous provinces whose high chiefs also contested the May elections.
Ratu Mara was referring to statement by the former Prime Minister and leader of the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT), Sitiveni Rabuka, now the chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs. The former PM had made such statements saying it is easier for the common people to approach commoner parliamentarians with their needs than it is to go to chiefs for help. Ratu Mara said he has been dwelling on the issue for quite sometime and has reminded his people, that those who are chosen to lead in government must always respect their chiefs. He asked the meeting to discuss ways in which all the chiefs in the province could support each other.
Traditional Authority in Colonial Era
British colonial rule was established following the Deed of Cession in 1874 whereby Fiji became a possession and dependency of the British Crown. In Ratu Seru Cakobau's words, the self-styled 'King of Fiji', the British were called upon to 'exercise a watchful control over the welfare of his children and people; and who, having survived the barbaric law and age, are now submitting themselves under Her Majesty's rule to civilization'. Of the several factors that had compelled the Fijian chiefs to pass their country to the British Crown, one was the menacing threat from the restless white settlers. Soon after the Deed of Cession the British government appointed the aristocratic Sir Arthur Gordon Hamilton (later Lord Stanmore), as the first Governor of Fiji.
The youngest son of the forth Earl of Aberdeen, in Scotland, Gordon, who had earlier ruled Trinidad (1886-70) and Mauritius (1870-74), arrived in Fiji with a reputation-although his true intentions have since been closely questioned-as 'an uncompromising guardian of native rights', and his influence can still be found in the land policies in Fiji. He also introduced a new ethnic group into Fiji-the indentured Indian labourers-in order to provide a work force for the colony's cane fields, while simultaneously safeguarding Fijian culture through the chiefs.
Consequently, the chiefs-Fiji's traditional rulers-were recognized by the British colonial government. Through the system of indirect rule, evolved by Lord Lugard in West Africa, and applied by his successors elsewhere, separate Fijian institutions were established to facilitate ruling them. These institutions, while creating a 'state within a state', gave the Fijian chiefs limited powers to rule their subjects, and to deeply influence the subsequent history of the colony. The objectives underlying Gordon's policies were similar to those which had given rise to colonial practices elsewhere: a divide and rule policy whereby the colonial government divided in order to rule what it integrated in order to exploit.
The partnership between the chiefs and Gordon not only enabled, according to the historian R. T. Robertson, 'the domination of the eastern chiefs particularly over the west, but it also resulted in the rise of a new type of bureaucratic chief, aware of the need to adjust to the demands of the colonial state if they were to achieve their class aims'. Others have written elsewhere that the ruling Fijian class had greatly benefited from colonial education, as the Council of Chiefs demanded that Fijian commoners should not receive education in the English language. The result was that very few Fijians, mostly of chiefly rank, entered the civil service as junior members of the 'bureaucratic bourgeoisie'. The white planters of the colonial era, however, condemned Gordon's native policy, and saw one of the most powerful chiefs in Fiji as only fit to be a white man's gardener. But the chiefs saw their roles through a different mirror-as guardians of the commoner Fijians.
It must be pointed out that the Deed of Cession was never universally accepted by Fijians, especially those of western and central Viti Levu. These people were the first to rebel against the colonial order, 'believing that it implied also domination by eastern chiefs who had signed the Deed of Cession'.
Chiefs in Post-Independent Fiji
When Fiji became an independent nation on 10 October 1970, it was the traditional eastern chiefs in the Alliance Party who took control of the nation's political leadership, with only two brief interruptions in 1977 and 1987. It was only in the recent elections that the chiefs found themselves not at the helm of government. The first high-profile challenge to chiefly rule came from one Apolosi Nawai [described as the Rasputin of the Pacific], who was banished to the island of Rotuma in 1917, 1930 and 1940 for portraying himself as the Messiah of the Fijian people. The demise of Nawai, however, failed to discourage other Fijians from taking up the challenge.
In the 1960s it was Apisai Tora who was in the forefront of western dissent against the eastern chiefs; in the 1980s it was Ratu Osea Gavidi and his Western United Front. But in 1973, the late Sakeasi Butadroka, a former Assistant Minister in the Alliance government, declared an all-out verbal war on Ratu Mara. The legitimacy of chiefly rule, based on traditional norms, faced an internal challenge. Butadroka himself is from a non-chiefly background and hails from Rewa province whose paramount chief is Adi Lady Lala Mara. But Butadroka described his dispute with Ratu Mara as a political one claiming that 'European politics and traditional matters are two different things'.
He went on to state that 'in traditional matters I greatly respect this man of noble birth and I have also reverence and try at all times do what is right'. Thus Butadroka (a man who had 'lost his senses', according to Ratu Mara) permanently revolutionized Fiji's politics, paving the way for other disgruntled Fijians to follow suit in the future. He had finally broken the tenuous thread of political tolerance for the chiefs, and the effects were to be felt in the future, especially during elections in Fiji.
In the 1987 general election, the Co-Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tupeni Baba, than the chief spokesman for the NFP/FLP Coalition, offered the following explanation as to why the Fijians were no longer going to elect people merely because they were chiefs: 'The Fijians have always viewed the Alliance as being the Fijian party. That base is being eroded. For the first time Fijians are being offered a list of credible Fijians standing against the Alliance. These Fijians can match the Alliance on its own front. They have comparable experience and now-how. For the first time there are Fijians who are willing to sacrifice their jobs and positions. Fijians will no longer elect people merely because they are chiefs.'
The Coalition seemed to have caught the Fijian people's imagination. The message to them was clear, as the late Prime Minister Dr Timoci Bavadra told one Fijian political gathering: 'There is a need to realize the difference between the traditional role and our democratic rights as citizens of this country.' He also called on the Alliance Party to stop employing abuse of Fijian tradition as a means of furthering its political ambitions. In a statement apparently directed at other Fijians caught in the traditional struggle, Bavadra made his position clear: 'I have great respect for both my great uncles, the Tui Vuda and the Taukei Nakelo in so far as the traditional chiefly system is concerned. But I beg to differ from both of them as far as political belief and standing are concerned…My loyalty to the Tui Vuda as chief of the Vanua is unshakable. But as far as my political affiliation is concerned I owe allegiance to my party. We belong to two different parties and we have different ideologies.' Moreover, the sorry state of the Fijian's plight must be blamed on the Alliance, for it was under the Alliance government that the Fijian remained in the economic backwater. The Alliance hit back with a vengeance.
Some leading Alliance candidates demonstrated the resurgence of Fijian nationalism in a bewildering variety of pronouncements. For example, Ratu David Tonganivalu warned that the Fijian chiefs must remain a force for moderation, balance and fair play against such extremism. He said the chiefs were a 'bulwark' of security for all and custodians of Fijian identity, land and culture. Ratu David, himself a high chief, said to remove chiefs would 'pave way for instability'. Ratu Mara also joined the political fray. Declaring that 'I will not yield to the vaulting ambitions of a power-crazy gang of amateurs-none of whom has run anything-not even a bingo', charged that there was an FLP ploy to destroy the chiefly system.
Dr Baba, speaking for FLP, denied these charges. He accused Ratu Mara and others of attempting to reverse the tide of history in order to prevent the old Fijian order from dying, saying it was a desperate bid by Ratu Mara to cling to power, and added that political manipulation of Fijian people's emotions on the eve of a general election devalued democratic leadership. Whether the Alliance was attempting to reverse the tide of history or not is questionable, but one thing is clear; history was not only repeating itself but had come full swing, except that the main players now were Fijian commoners versus the chiefs. In the past, it was the Indo-Fijian politicians who used to take the Fijian chiefs to task over political and traditional authority. The establishment and perpetuation of the separate Fijian Administration however made it extremely difficult for them to establish alternative bases of legitimacy.
The Chiefs and the Indians
The Indo-Fijians are all chiefs and no commoners. In the context of Fijian politics, therefore, their political leaders have always found themselves caught in the conflicting traditional, bureaucratic, and charismatic forms of authority in Fiji. The Indo-Fijian leaders had agreed to confer veto power to the chiefs in the Senate during the 1970 Constitutional Talks in London, which meant that for the first time in Fiji's history, the Great Council of Chiefs suddenly enjoyed its say in the mainstream of Fijian politics. In the old colonial days, much of what was deliberated was often decided in advance by judicious consultation between the chiefs and the colonial administrators.
Ironically, in post-independent Fiji it was the very Indo-Fijian leaders who attracted virulent criticism whenever they condemned the 'political chiefs' in the Alliance Party or their traditional institution-the Great Council of Chiefs.
In the 1982 general election the Indo-Fijian leaders were accused of collaborating with the infamous 'Four Corners' programme on elections in Fiji which claimed that the present leaders of Fiji were descendants of the Fijian chiefs who 'clubbed and ate their way to power'. But the most vicious attack on the Indo-Fijian leaders was made in the Senate where one Fijian senator, Inoke Tabua, stoutly defended Ratu Mara, his paramount chief. He warned: 'I want to make it clear in this House that whoever hates my chief, I hate him too. I do not want to make enemies but to a 'Kai Lau' like me, if someone is against my chief he is also against me and my family right to the grave.'
Tabua refused to isolate politics from chieftaincy. Understandably, as Ratu Mara himself had told the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the 1982 election that his evidence should be considered and treated in the light of his three main roles in Fiji: 'On the one hand I live, think and act as an ordinary citizen of this State and also as a chief in the Fijian traditional social system. I am also a politician and leader of the Alliance Party, which is closely interested in these proceedings. And, lastly, I am Prime Minister of this State and leader of its government.' It was these three roles that dominated the sentiments and minds of Fijians when it came to passing judgement on the actions of Indo-Fijian leaders during the general election. They invoked their traditional ties with their chiefs to condemn the Indo-Fijian leaders.
The Ra Provincial Council and the Great Council of Chiefs, through two resolutions, tried to reassure the Fijian people of their determination that Fijians should, and always would, rule Fiji. The first tentative step was taken during a meeting of the Ra Provincial Council which resolved that the offices of Governor-General and Prime Minister must be reserved for Fijians and that this should be the subject of constitutional changes, a demand first voiced by Butadroka's FNP in the 1970s.
The Council also proposed that the composition of the House of Representatives should be two-third Fijian and one-third all other races. The Council also resolved that the two resolutions be forwarded for inclusion on the agenda of the Great Council of Chiefs meeting scheduled for November 1982. Council members were of the opinion that the issues should be discussed at the Bau meeting, when the chiefs from the various traditional Fijian confederacies discussed issues of Fijian interests.
Both resolutions were condemned by the Western United Front (WUF) and the NFP, then in a Coalition pact for the 1982 election. The WUF expressed surprise that some Fijians still felt so strongly about the last general election and dismissed as totally unfounded the allegations that the Fijians and their traditional systems had thereby been insulted. WUF also considered that there was nothing derogatory in the 'Four Corners' programme. While linking the programme with the Alliance's involvement with the Carroll team, WUF's general-secretary said, 'Cannibalism was part of life in Fiji in the early days and we Fijians are descendants of cannibals. What is wrong with that? Only powerful chiefs in those days enjoyed on bokolas. I cannot find why some Fijians are annoyed about the Four Corners programme'.
The Great Council of Chiefs moved to endorse the two manifestly racist resolutions thus presenting itself in the eyes of the Indo-Fijian community as the political champion and promoter of Fijian nationalism, as preached by the FNP. The resolutions were finally passed despite the abstention from Ratu Mara and then Deputy Prime Minister, Ratu Penaia, who pointed out that to change the Fiji Constitution required the consent of a two-thirds majority in both Houses. The role of Ratu Mara, who abstained from voting, did nothing to allay Indo-Fijian fears. As an NFP/WUF Coalition statement later charged: 'It should be apparent even to a political novice that the whole exercise was carefully stage-managed to intimidate non-Fijians, especially Indians and the Fijian supporters of the Coalition'.
It also expressed surprise that Ratu Mara had abstained from voting rather than opposing the two resolutions. Ratu Mara replied angrily that he 'was is no way obligated to his political party to say what he did or said in the Council'. It was during the debate on the resolution that trade unionist Gavoka had likened Indo-Fijians to dogs; and Mrs Irene Jai Narayan, branding the Bau resolution as racist, went on to state: 'To liken Indians to dogs…is a grave and unwarranted provocation to the entire Indian community. It is now obvious that those indulging in the abuse of Indians are not reacting to any so-called insults…[but] because the NFP/WUF Coalition dared to challenge for power in the last general election and came within a whisker of wresting it from the Alliance.'
Mrs Narayan further observed: 'It is indeed curious that the controversial motion came up while the Prime Minister claims that the worst insults he received were from Fijians themselves, why the focus of attack and resolution adopted by the Great Council of Chiefs have been designed to rob of the few rights they (Indians) have left to live in the country of their birth.' Clearly, the statement continued, racial policies espoused by the FNP leader, the commoner Butadroka, had found greater favour with the chiefs than had the so-called multi-racial policies of the paramount chiefs leading the Alliance Party.
Another Fijian senator, Ratu Tevita Vakalalabure, warned that unless Indo-Fijians united with Fijians and if what happened in the 1982 general elections was repeated at the next, probably 1987 election, 'Blood will flow, whether you like it or not. I can still start it. It touched me, and also touched my culture, tradition and my people. We have carried this burden too long'. The political maverick Apisai Tora also entered the fray, claiming in Parliament that the action of the NFP in the 1982 election was a show of arrogance (viavialevu) and insults heaped on the Fijian chiefs could only be made by people belonging to the lowest caste (kaisi bokola botoboto). Tora's passionate outburst however came as no surprise to many political observers who had closely followed his political career.
In 1977 he had hit out at the chiefly system in Fiji and said many Fijians were getting 'fed up' with the 'archaic' system, and that Fijian chiefs were using chiefly status to gain and keep power. He had also told another political rally in September 1977 that the Fijian chiefs were out to 'threaten' Indo-Fijians by indirectly telling people not to vote for the then leader of the NPF, Koya. 'Do not subjugate the future of Fiji in the hands of the power-hungry Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. And whatever provocation people are under we do not want any violence in this (1977) election'.
It is not surprising therefore that a decade later the rightful place of the chiefs in the national life of the Fijians again became a burning issue when the Fiji Labour Party went into coalition with the Alliance Party's political arch rivals, the NFP. But it was also to herald the arrival of a military-cum civilian dictatorship following the two military coups in 1987. In fact, the writing was already on the walls, as a Fiji Sun editorial had feared shortly after the Bau meeting in 1982:
'The Great Council of Chiefs has passed an incredible resolution calling for a constitutional change which, if it occurred, would change Fiji overnight from a democracy to an autocracy, or even a dictatorship. It is a horrendous thought. For many years Fiji has been held up to the world as a multi-racial society which works-where two races with widely disparate religions, culture and ethnic backgrounds have lived and worked harmoniously for a hundred years. Now, with a stroke of a pen, a group of our most respected elders and statesmen are prepared to throw all that away and march backwards into the 19th Century and beyond.’
The Fijians in the Fiji Labour Party
The rise, fall, rise, and the fall of the Fiji Labour Party can be attributed to two primary reasons. In the perspective of history, the formation of the FLP and the statements of its leaders saw the rebirth of the 'agitational politics' whose origins can be traced to militancy among the Indo-Fijian labourers on the sugar plantations.
The most notable were the strikes and riots of 1920 which, in the words of the historian turned Alliance government minister Dr Ahmed Ali, 'heralded a new facet of Indians: their assertiveness and willingness to enter into confrontation with other groups in their effort to obtain what they considered equality of treatment in a land to which they had come as immigrants but where they were fast anchoring permanent roots'. Their descendants have since continued the struggle and, with one notable exception, the strikes these days have assumed a multi-racial rather than a racial dimension.
We have already recalled Dr Baba's explanation on the shift in Fijian political thinking. In 1987 a Fijian sociologist, Simione Durutalo, who later became a founding vice-president of the FLP, blamed the British for introducing communal politics into Fiji and creating a situation of occupational specialization along communal lines. Durutalo, in terms of class struggle, condemned the Alliance and the NFP for perpetuating those divisions.
He further maintained that the political nature of the crisis confronting the people of Fiji could not be discussed without a closer look at the state structure built up during the colonial period. He noted that in the phase of decolonization, power was transferred through virtually unchanged government institutions, to largely hand-picked heirs, the new ruling group in Fiji.
For example, laws were changed from Ordinances to Acts but their contents remained the same. The colonial Parliament changed its name from Legislative Council to House of Representatives (with an appendix, the Senate) but its whole racial foundation and electoral system remained the same, as did the education and public health system, the Council of Chiefs, and the army and bureaucracy.
Durutalo also recalled the remarks of Professor Ron Crocombe of the USP that many Fijians failed to realize that what they believe to be their ancient heritage is in fact a colonial legacy. He claimed that the British used the economic disparity between the Indo-Fijians and the Fijians to increase the Fijian ruling class dependence for protection on the colonial government.
The creation of the 1944 Fijian Administration, the NLTB and the constitutional guarantee on Fijian matters were cited as examples. Durutalo also charged that the British manipulated local, regional, and ethnic differences to emphasize divisive rather that unifying national interests. Such divisions were then deposited in the independence Constitution to assail the cohesion and survival of the new Fijian state from its inception. Ethnic differences, he maintained, and the use of the new Fijian chiefs, were the main instruments used by the colonialists to defuse and neutralize the 1959 Oil and Allied Workers' strike.
In summary, Durutalo, himself a commoner, indirectly appealed to the underprivileged Fijians and Indo-Fijians to unite and undermine the established political order. In his opinion this could be achieved 'if Fijian society produces the political will that is required to overcome the present impasse, and the labour movement, with the trade unions at the centre, is the only force which now has the potential to produce that political will to take us out of the present inertia'.
The Alliance Party responded in kind. Tradition was mixed with politics. For example, Ratu Mara, in his September 1986 address to a mini-convention of the Fijian Association, called upon the Fijians to remain united in order to retain the nation's leadership. He told the meeting that despite being outnumbered by Indo-Fijians, Fijians had political leadership; if they became divided this leadership would slip away from them. In reply, the future prime minister Dr Timoci Bavadra immediately criticized Ratu Mara for raising the race issue.
He also lodged a formal complaint to the Director of Public Prosecutions asking him to investigate whether Ratu Mara's remarks contravened the Public Order Act, under which Butadroka was jailed for six months in 1977 for inciting racial hatred. Bavadra went further:
'In previous elections, the Alliance fear tactic [included] asking people whether they wanted an Indian Prime Minister; now, with the historic uniting of all races under the umbrella of the Coalition, the leader is a Fijian, so the question is whether a non-chief should be Prime Minister. One would thus imagine that if an equivalent chief from another province challenged Ratu Sir Kamisese, the Alliance question would be: 'Can we let a Prime Minister of Fiji come from any province but Lau?'.
From this analysis emerge two inherently contradictory tendencies of exclusives’ and accommodation among the conservative, nationalist and moderate Fijians. While the traditionalists were advocating the retention of the old established order, Durutalo was calling upon the disgruntled Fijians, especially the Fijian commoners, to respond to the demands of practical politics, rather than surrender to the forces of conservatism.
The rest is history. The FLP-NFP Coalition romped to power in the 1987 election with Dr Bavadra as prime minister, only to be cut down by a third-ranking Fijian soldier Sitiveni Rabuka and his cohorts. As for the change in the political landscape in 1987, with the Alliance, comprising
mostly chiefs, becoming the major Opposition party, with Ratu Mara as leader, Ramrakha's words are instructive: 'And the Chiefs who have yielded so much power, and have made Fiji what it is today. Yes, they too have to recognise this change…a political adjustment has to be made. The genius of the Fijian people allowed them to cede this country and remain in charge of it. Their society has come down the centuries intact; their people still cling to their valued culture, tradition and customs.' But with a fundamental difference; the mutli-racial FLP-NFP Cabinet was like 'a new marriage taking place, a meeting of minds of the educated elite in Fiji, an elite which will bring in a new era to the country'.
In April 1987 it seemed that a majority of Fijians had quietly accepted the leadership change. Ratu Mara's resignation statement was also greeted quietly. He told the nation:
'You have given your decision. It must be accepted. Democracy is alive and well in Fiji…The interests of Fiji must always come first. There can be no room for rancour or bitterness and I would urge that you display goodwill to each other in the interest of our nation. We must now ensure a smooth transition to enable the new government to settle quickly and get on with the important task of further developing our country. I wish them well…Fiji was recently described by Pope John Paul as a symbol of hope for the rest of the world. Long may we so remain. God bless Fiji.'
But almost as soon as Bavadra and his ministers were sworn in, they began to attract not good wishes but a stream of curses. A Fijian nationalist movement calling itself the Taukei, led by no other than Tora and a few prominent Alliance personalities, sprang up. Tora announced a campaign of civil disobedience and called for the 1970 Fiji Constitution to be changed in so far as to guarantee Fijian chiefly leadership in government permanently.
Shortly after the Alliance's defeat, its most powerful arm, the Fijian Association, convened a meeting and passed a vote of no confidence in the new government. Among those who attended this meeting, which was chaired by the newly-elected Alliance MP and FNP convert of old, Taniela Veitata, were Ratu Mara's eldest son, Ratu Finau Mara who was a lawyer in the Crown Law office; Qoriniasi Bale, the former Attorney-General; Filipe Bole, the former Minister of Education; and Jone Veisamasama, general secretary of the Alliance Party who, in 1983, was secretary to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the 1982 general election.
What followed shortly before the historic coup can be summed up by two key players. Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, now the Leader of the Opposition, told Islands Business magazine of May 1988 that for more than six hours on April 19 he and Rabuka, later joined by Jone Veisamasama, 'talked about different options'.
It was on 19 April that the groundwork for the coup was laid and according to Kubuabola, 11 May was the day his co-conspirators decided to proceed with its execution. He also claims that when it was learnt that Parliament would not sit on Friday they had agreed to bring forward the coup to Thursday. Another crucial intermediary between the Taukei Movement and the military, the Rev Tomasi Raikivi, provided his house in Suva as a centre for overall planning. Thus it was there that Rabuka met the other conspirators on Easter Monday, nine days after the defeat of the Alliance Party. We will let Rabuka explain the rest, as he did to Eddie Dean and Stan Ritova in his infamous autobiography No Other Way. He went to Rev Raikivi's for,
' … What he understood was an ordinary 'grog' party. It was early evening, and he just walked in, as he normally would, throwing his 'sevusevu' of yagona towards the bowl where the 'grog' was being mixed. 'I saw all these people sitting down, and realised it was some kind of a meeting. Some of the people greeted me, although I could not see everyone clearly because it was fairly dark in the lounge-room. Nobody asked me to leave.' When his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he discovered the gathering was 'quite a formidable group'. He says it included Ratu Finau Mara, Ratu George Kadavulevu, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, Ratu Keni Viuyasawa, the brother of Brigadier Epeli Nailatikau, Filipe Bole, Ratu Jo Ritova of Labasa, Ratu Jale Ratum, 'Big Dan' Veitata, and the host Raikivi. Another leading light at this meeting was Apisai Tora.'
This handful of allegedly God-fearing men, some of chiefly rank, told their plans to Rabuka, exchanged opinions, and turned to Gold for help. On 14th May 1987 when the parliamentary session began at 9.30am, one of the conspirators, Taniela Veitata, stood on his feet to repeat to the House his October 1985 'Tribute to Chiefs' speech. The chiefs in Fiji were the guardians of peace, he declared. As long as chiefs were there, political power would never grow from the barrel of the gun. Unfortunately other races had not thanked the Alliance Party for its racial harmony. He did not spell out the punishment for the other races 'ingratitude' or pose the rhetorical question: what if chiefs are not in power?; in fact he did not have to, for shortly afterwards Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka, and a 'hit squad' of ten soldiers, led by Captain X, launched the first military coup against a democratically elected government of the South Pacific, ending the Coalition's 33 days in office. In short, democracy died in Fiji on Thursday 14 May 1987; albeit temporarily. Captain X has been identified as Isireli Dugu, and his second in command was Captain Savenaca Draunidalo, the ex-husband of Adi Kuini Bavadra Speed. Rabuka later explained that it was the calling of God to execute the coup. Another was the frontal attack on the 'chiefly system' and its rightful place in national politics; and the personal attacks on Ratu Mara, that Rabuka claimed were too much for ordinary commoner Fijians.
What happened in the next years until the passing of the new non-racial Fiji Constitution; the rise to power of FLP, and the demise and rise of Rabuka - the 'Hero of the Fijian Revolution' need not ve revisited except to point out that the Great Council of Chiefs appropriated to themselves a high profile role during these turbulent years.
The Great Council of Chiefs
In 1972 the Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga) took a bold step forward-the Council decided that members of Parliament in both Houses who were indigenous Fijians would be members of the Great Council of Chiefs. By doing this, they gave out three NFP Members of Parliament, Captain Atunaisa Maitoga, Isikeli Nadalo, and Apisai Tora a voice in the Council of Chiefs. This move, taken quietly and without any fuss or bother, according to Ramrakha in 1978, came as a great surprise to the Members concerned, and they took full advantage of it all. But it was a major concession to make. Here were these members who belonged to a Party that was undoubtedly predominantly non-Fijian in membership, and was often suspect in the eyes of the rank and file Fijian, and its members were freely allowed to participate in the deliberation. It was a thoroughly progressive move on the part of the Council. And yet the leader of the NFP, Koya, made a blunt call for its abolition.
The NFP had often advocated absorption of the Fijian Affairs Board into the mainstream of political life and coming under the ageis of one single administration, and it had advocated the ultimate redundancy of the NLTB by giving titles to the Fijians, and giving them the incidents of ownership short of power of sale. Reaction to Koya was savage. Personally, Ramrakha remained unconvinced that the Council of Chiefs had outlived its usefulness. On the other hand, the Chiefs themselves 'must recognise that we live today in a basically democratic society, and that changes will have to come'. Ramrakha continued: 'I would ask the Chiefs to behave as Chiefs: there are many mountains to be moved; there is a great deal they have to do. Your society still looks to you to deliver the goods-you are subjected to old pressures, and new ones. The only reservation I make of the Great Council of Chiefs is that we do not hear enough from them.' Ramrakha had uttered these words two decades ago; in the 1987 street demonstrations against the Bavadra government, led by Tora and others, he however found himself the target of Fijian anger through one of the placards which read: 'K.C. Ramrakha-the deserter, shut up.'
Ironically, these Fijian demonstrators were totally oblivious to Ramrakha's role at the 1970 Constitutional Talks where he and other NFP delegates gave the Council of Chiefs the power of veto on decisions affecting the Fijian race. Another irony, in fact a comical farce, was the pronouncements of Tora at the demonstrations: 'We shall recover the rights of Fijians sold out in London in 1970. We have no need for your system, your democracy. We shall never have such things imposed on our paramountcy…They [Indians] have tried to blackmail us with economic power. It is becoming Fiji for Fijians now. We took in the Indians which Britain brought us…They won't learn our language, our customs, join our political parties. It is time for them to pack and go.' What Tora failed to tell his fellow demonstrators was that he had changed his name from Apisai Vuniyayawa Tora to Apisai Mohammed Tora after becoming a Muslim while serving with the Fijian forces in Malaya. He had provided the prefix 'National' to the Federation Party to form the NFP. As recently as July 1986 he asserted that 'Government policy is that Indian people are here to stay whether people like it or lump it. Without Indians Fiji would never have been what it is today, economic-wise and otherwise.'
Moreover, the Great Council of Chiefs finally gave to Ramrakha more than he may have bargained for in the 1970s. In the name of Fijian ethnicity, they hurriedly endorsed Rabuka's revolution and seized a large chunk of responsibility on behalf of the Fijian people through the promulgation of a new Constitution in 1990. In their pursuit for total and absolute control the chiefs, however, were also beginning to lay the foundation for their own gradual destruction for history, time, and the people were no longer totally on their side, not to mention the Colonial government. As a Maori professor, Ranginui Walker, declared in Auckland in 1987: 'The coup is nothing more than a shameful use by an oligarchy that refuses to recognize and accept the winds of change in Fiji. It would appear from this distance that the Great Council of Chiefs, still living in their traditional ways, have been misled. Their land rights are secure under the 1970 Constitution. But because they have not been taught their rights, they are readily manipulated and swayed by demagogues.'
The chiefs also launched a new political party, Soqososo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT), that it hoped would unite the Fijian people under one umbrella. The reality, as we know from the recent election results, turned out to be quite different. Some Fijian leaders questioned the wisdom of the Council of Chiefs, as a formal non-political institution, to sponsor a political party. Tora wanted to know what would happen to the dignity of the Council if it failed to capture all the Fijian seats. 'Our firm view,' he said, 'remains that the Bose Levu Vakaturaga should be at the pinnacle of Fijian society, totally removed from the taint of ordinary politicking'. The biggest shock was the election of Rabuka, a non-chief, to lead the SVT, who defeated Ratu William Toganivalu and Adi Lady Lala Mara. Butadroka was quick to respond: 'If the SVT delegates can put a commoner before the chief, then I don't know why a chiefs-backed party can do such a thing. - putting a chief-in this case the highest ranking chief, Ro Lady Lala-before a selection panel.'
The greatest shock of all was the recent election of Rabuka as the first 'independent' chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs. It is not surprising therefore to read of Ratu Mara's expressed concerns. Shortly after the first coup Rabuka wanted to exclude commoners from the Great Council of Chiefs altogether: 'I respect chiefs. I do not like the composition of the Great Council of Chiefs. There are so many non-chiefs there who will try to dictate the resolutions of the Great Council of Chiefs. The Chiefs are so humble, their personalities and their character do not make them forceful enough when they discuss matters. They will agree, they will compromise…whereas those who are not Chiefs in there tend to be very, very selfish.'
After Rabuka secured the prime ministership, he however began to develop ideological justifications for his ambitions. In August 1991, while professing to be a loyal commoner, he wondered whether it was appropriate for chiefs to involve themselves in electoral politics. Their proper role was at the local village level, because 'when it comes to politics, the chiefs do not have the mandate of the people'. While counting himself as an ideal candidate for leadership he reiterated that 'there are a lot of capable commoners who can play a very, very important role in the Fiji of the next decade'. He pointed out that 'the dominance of customary chiefs in government is coming to an end' and soon 'aristocracy' would be replaced by 'meritocracy'. Ratu Mara, who thought Rabuka was an 'angry young man, speaking off the cuff in any instigation', also faced Rabuka's wrath. Rabuka described Ratu Mara as a 'ruthless politician who has been allowed to get away with a lot. Maybe it's because of the Fijian culture that he is a big chief and because he was groomed well by the colonial government'.
The sudden change of Rabuka's tune on chieftaincy can be best illustrated by quoting Jone Dakuvula, a cousin of Rabuka. Accusing the 'colonial' chiefs of keeping the commoner Fijians in political subjugation and economic morass, Dakuvula had personally challenged Rabuka on Fijian unity, specifically for his remarks during the two coups that 'I want all the Fijian people to be on one side. The whole thing is a solidarity of the Fijians and then we can compete'.
In Dakuvula's words, 'This reactionary notion has no basis in history or current realities. We Fijians have never been united at any time, either at the village level or national level. The various confederations of competing and warring vanuas, now roughly reflected in the provinces, outline these divisions. Any experienced village chief will tell Colonel Rabuka that all Fijian villages are riven with competing divisions along family, tokatoka, mataqali and other lines.' Furthermore, Dakuvula maintained that any chief who claimed to command his villagers' loyalty and unity at all times these days was 'a liar'.
He said Rabuka need look no further that the position and history of his mataqali. Dakuvula went on the claim that 'what the Taukei Movement and the Great Council of Chiefs proposal will achieve is the exact opposite of what they desire: it will result in provincialism, parochialism, unhealthy rivalries, patronage, corruption and the discrediting of the chiefly system'. Strangely Rabuka, on becoming prime minister, himself began to invoke the 'Melanesian' model of achieved leadership against the 'Polynesian' model of ascribed leadership. He compared his paramount chiefs (Mara included) to the banyan tree 'where you don't see anything growing', and suggested that they should step down.
Chieftainship versus Democracy
A general review of the trend of events clearly reveal that commoner Fijians have become increasingly strident in their criticism of the traditional chiefs, displaying spontaneous or calculated outbursts of individualism. One governor, Everard im Thurn, in 1905, dared to point out that excessive subordination of the Fijian people by their chiefs was a serious impediment to their progress and, indeed, a danger to their survival as a race.
In his opening address to the Council of Chiefs, he outlined what were to him the worst aspects of chiefly rule in Fiji:
'You Fijians have done very little to help yourselves. You few chiefs are fairly prosperous. But your people-such of them as are left-are mere bond servants. They work for you partly because the law to some extent compels them. The reason why they do not care to work more for themselves is that your chiefly exactions prevent them from gaining anything for themselves-and property to make life interesting to them…Do you know what we mean by the word 'individuality'?…the man that has individuality uses his own brain to guide his own actions. He thinks for himself…he uses his own hands for his own benefit. To him life will be worth living. That is the habit of thought which we and you should encourage the Fijians.’
The late Dr Rusiate Nayacakalou, in his study of modern and traditional Fijian leadership, warned that 'attempts to displace existing leaders are viewed with suspicion and jealousy and may be met with drastic action'. It also reflects the trauma of an indigenous people struggling to encompass tradition within the framework of democracy. Ratu Mara's call for respect of the chiefs is a familiar one. When the SVT was formed, Durutalo said: 'This is the last hurrah of the chiefs. It is an attempt to stem the tide and salvage their hold and support of the Fijian people. There has been a gradual erosion of their political influence, accelerated particularly in the urban areas and this is a last ditch attempt to contain that'. The perennial question is how: through chiefship or democracy?.
We often hear in Fiji that 'a chief is a chief by the people'. On 6 May 1972 Ratu Mara told the Fiji Times that 'there is a misconception that the chiefs form a club and think as group…The chiefs are the chiefs of a group of people. They think more in line with the groups of which they are chiefs rather than their own class'. But one Tevita Vakalomaloma argued five years later (2 February 1977), in a letter to the Times to the contrary: 'Most of the Fijian chiefs no longer serve their people. In fact most of them think that the people have nothing to do with their privileges and status. What they are forgetting is that they are what they are because they have people below them. In other words, a chief is a chief because he or she is supposed to have some people to lead'.
The Alliance however blamed the Fijian Nationalist Party for the sorry state of affairs. In the Nai Lalakai (14 November 1977) it charged: 'They [the FNP] have divided families, mataqalis, villages, vanuas and our race, severing our Fijian bonds, weakening our traditional and religious life and our political unity.' The FNP, however, argued to the contrary, claiming that it was under the Alliance chiefs that Fijians so-called special rights and interests had been exploited for the chiefs' own economic and political benefits. In 1989 the FNP submitted that the chiefly system be abolished altogether.
What is really at issue, then, is what form of leadership should the Fijian commoners follow to remain within the traditional communal system? In 1982, the old Fiji Sun newspaper editorial, commenting on the Bau resolution, called for its rejection as well as a firm statement from the Alliance government, and put the issue in perspective:
'The sticking point is the question of the place and role of the chiefly system, now and in the future. It is not possible for the two systems to operate in tandem successfully at national level.' It is clear from recent pronouncements that the modern day chiefs still live, or pretend to live, in two worlds, 'one dead, the other powerless to be born'.
The great Fijian leader Ratu Sukuna was also a man of two worlds, that of the traditional Fijian and the official European. His biographer, the Australian Deryck Scarr, a rabid anti-Indian historian, argues that Sukuna attempted to keep the Fijian society close to its 19th century moorings, to the 'classic patterns of his childhood'. For Sukuna, 'the true religion of the Fijian is the service to the chief'; he was cynical on the value of democracy, and as an aristocrat, remained sceptical about 'how far ability can carry a man in modern society'. Ratu Mara, in the preface to Scarr's biography, Ratu Sukuna: Soldier, Statesman, Man of Two Worlds, (1980), hails Ratu Sukuna for bringing the Fijian society into the 20th century.
But as one reviewer of Scarr's book put it, 'the Fijian people cannot afford to contract out of the 20th century and seek succour in the traditional society of Sukuna's childhood'. Moreover, Ratu Sukuna had little understanding of, and even less sympathy for, the predicament and aspirations of Indo-Fijians, 'Mother India's more enlightened children', who should have accepted their designated place in the colonial hierarchy instead of challenging it, and whose lives were deeply affected by Ratu Sukuna's activities.
The self-contained, self-sufficient Fijian world of Ratu Sukuna's time, and that of other high Fijian chiefs like Ratu Mara, has vanished beyond recall. Ratu Sukuna's view on the rightful education of Fijian commoners may be the starting point of the historical departure. He believed, 'in bigger and brighter villages, with schools teaching, for the most part, agricultural subjects and handicraft rather than academic groundwork'. It seems that the modern day commoner Fijian has other perspectives on education and political power in contemporary Fiji. He believes in 'ability' and not 'chiefly' status for his or her rightful place in Fijian society.
The Educated Fijian Commoner: A Mule or a Galloping Horse?
It is interesting to draw a parallel with educated commoner Fijians and their rightful place in Fijian society with those of the sons and daughters of Indo-Fijian indentured labourers. There was firm opposition towards education of Indo-Fijians. A former chairman of the Levuka School Board, D.J. Solomon, told the 1909 Education Commission: 'If an Indian desires to educate his children let him pay for it himself. This question should not be considered one moment by the Government, for to educate an Indian is to create inducement for crime on the part of the educated Indian and oppress the uneducated Indian'.
The Methodist missionary, Rev J. W. Burton, had this qualification: 'The training which suits admirably a boy at Eton (in England) or one in our Australian High Schools may not be useless., but probably vicious in its effect upon a Fijian nature. We have made a tragic mistake in India in raising up a few to inordinate heights of suitable education and thus divorcing them from usefulness to the Commonwealth. A half-educated Indian babu, with his staccato English and metronomic syllables is torture enough; but a Fijian babu-! May heaven forfend'.
The manager of the Vancouver-Fiji Sugar Company, E. Duncan, in 1914, was not to be outdone: 'We most emphatically do not require an Indian community of highly educated labourers, with the attendant troubles the 'baboo' class has brought to the Indian government teaching and preaching sedition and looking generally for immediate treatment on a parity with educated Europeans accustomed to self-government for many centuries. We require agriculturalists only and the education provided by the colony (or planter) should for that reason be but elementary, and in as far as possible, technical on these lines'.
The quotations provided illustrate in detail, according to Dr Ahmed Ali, the former Education Minister in Mara's Alliance government, 'European attitudes towards Indians and the place that they felt Indians should have in Fiji. Not surprisingly their views were in conflict with Indian aspirations. Their determination to keep Indians as labourers and to deny them equality and reserve for them a separate compartment in the colony were also steps that thwarted the integration of Indians into the wider society. Europeans who opposed them did so not only because of beliefs in Anglo-Saxon racial superiority but also through fear and resentment of Indian competition'.
A similar parallel can be drawn between the role and place of commoner and individual Fijians in the overall Fijian traditional society vis-a-vis the chiefs and the Great Council of Chiefs. The rise of commoner Fijians through the Fiji Labour Party in 1987 brought the conflict between commoners and chiefs to the forefront of Fijian politics. Their dissent and criticism of the chiefly leaders could not be dismissed as racially motivated attacks upon Fijian institutions.
They refused to abide by the tenets of tradition and custom while the chiefs were entering the world of commerce and business and doing well for themselves. As Bavadra asserted: 'By restricting the Fijian people to their communal life style in the face of rapidly developing cash economy, the average Fijian has become more and more backward. This is particularly invidious when the leaders themselves have amassed huge personal wealth by making use of their traditional and political powers'.
It can be argued that modern-day Fijians (teachers, doctors, journalists, skilled workers, and civil servants) represent, in many ways, the coming of age of a new generation of Fijians who have achieved success by the dint of their individual efforts and sacrifices. They are role models for the young Fijians and not the tradition-bound chiefs of the Fijian villages.
Why? As Professor O. H. K. Spate had reminded us in 1959, 'The functions of the chief as a real leader lost much of their point with the suppression of warfare and the introduction of machinery to settle land disputes, but constant emphasis seems to have led to an abstract loyalty in vacuo, to leaders who have nowhere to lead to in the old terms and, having become a sheltered aristocracy, too often lack the skills or the inclination to lead on the new ways. Hence, in some areas, a dreary negativism: the people have become conditioned to wait for a lead which is never given.'
The impasse could only be broken with the advent of liberal democratic values, of which individualism as the defining characteristic.
But it seems that the chiefs, averse to individualism, have once again turned to the chiefly system, a system which according to the late Bavadra, 'Is a time-honoured and sacred institution of the taukei. It is a system for which we have the deepest respect and which we will defend. But we also believe that a system of modern democracy is one which is quite separate from it. The individual's democratic right to vote in our political system does not mean that he has to vote for a chief. It is an absolutely free choice'.
Democracy, that great swear word which denotes freedom and choice, is the Achilles heel of Fijian politics. The question is: whose version of democracy - the Fijian or European one?. On 16 December 1965, speaking in the Legislative Council, Ratu Mara, while arguing against common roll which would bring Indo-Fijian domination, argued that it was European culture 'to which only we will submit as Fijians, and to no other culture'.
In 1987, on losing power, he claimed that 'Democracy is alive and well in Fiji'. In other words, the people of Fiji, including the commoner Fijians, had exercised their democratic right to choose who should lead the Government of Fiji. The FLP-NFP victory brought to the fore also the true and proper place of the traditional rulers and the chiefly system in modern Fiji.
Overall, in the 1987 general election there was a genuine meeting of minds of educated commoner Fijians and the descendants of educated coolie Indo-Fijians, the two groups most feared by the chiefs, colonialists, and Indo-Fijian merchants in Fiji. For the next 33 days, the people of Fiji enjoyed their choice of government until Rabuka, with his 'men on horseback', came on the scene to proclaim: 'The chiefs are the wise men in Fijian society, guardians of our tradition. Take that power away and give it to the commoners and you are asking for trouble.'
Will he now, as a commoner, hand back the power - the chairmanship of the Great Council of Chiefs-to the traditional chiefs, as many are demanding from him, including Georghe Speight.?
The Great Council of Chiefs has once again ridden on the minority crest of Fijian racism and nationalism to portray themselves as ”fathers of the nation”
George Speight and a circle of inward-looking commoner Fijians, it seems, have once again set back the opportunity for commoner Fijians to create a multi-racial Fiji where their own individuality and voices could be heard in the affairs of the nation. They have consigned commoner Fijians to be the subservient 'educated mules' of the chiefs, as the chiefs allegedly were in colonial days to the British.
It will take a long time for Fijian commoners to be individual, strong-minded, and fiercely independent 'galloping horses' in a multi-racial and modern Fiji, and the larger world around them?
The Great Council of Chiefs has once again re-inserted itself at the helm of Fijian politics – through the backdoor and with the help of a barrel of a gun.
In the guise of Fijian nationalism, George Speight has escaped from the clutches of the law for his alleged criminal activities in a court of law and the Great Council of Chiefs have once again stepped into the centre court of power which was gradually slipping away from their clutches.
The commoner Fijians will be made to pay the price for Speight and the chiefs’ great escapades.
The release of the hostages means that Fijian commoners, led by their chiefs, have once again being imprisoned in the cloth of tradition, although ‘tradition should be a guide and not a jailor’.
P.S. This column of Victor Lal was written before George Speight was finally nabbed and sent to prison for treason