Government by Greed: Part 3 – Power in Perpetuity or Coup
By Guest Writer Subhash Appana
It is no secret that the architects of the 1970 constitution, apart from the Indian delegation, envisaged power in perpetuity for the Fijian Establishment-backed Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara…..
Democracy in Fiji was thus meant to ensure power in perpetuity to the Alliance Party and no one could really expect any different for the country. The role of the military as a protector of this shakily established façade of democracy was therefore, always open to revolutionary introspection – Rabuka’s coup should not have been such a big surprise.
Power in Perpetuity or Coup
It has been contended here that in the initial post-1970 scheme of governance (and politics) in Fiji, the Royal Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) was supposed to play the usual role of any military in a democracy – protect the constitution and everything it stood for. The problem arose in understanding what democracy entailed and what the constitution was supposed to stand for within a functioning democratic framework.
It is no secret that the architects of the 1970 constitution, apart from the Indian delegation, envisaged power in perpetuity for the Fijian Establishment-backed Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. In fact many have argued that this would have served Fiji best. I beg to differ - a benevolent dictatorship with periodic elections to perpetuate the carefully crafted façade of democracy based on ethnicity would have had limited life at best in a changing traditional context with a large immigrant community.
But that is not the point of this article; we want to see how the military’s role was kept hazy for those who could not “see” through the delirium and euphoria of independence. Firstly there was a direct link between the military hierarchy and national government – both had Fijian chiefs amongst a sprinkling of white key personnel. The chiefs at the apex of the chiefly system, and the military and government had very close blood ties.
Secondly, the electorate was expected to remain divided along ethnic lines forever. This, coupled with the expectation of a united Fijian government (with a multi-racial hue), and a bickering Indian opposition, was supposed to characterize democracy Fiji-style. In the event of any disruptions to these expectations, the disproportionate number of “Others” in parliament was expected to hold the balance of power – a powerful trump card for government.
Democracy in Fiji was thus meant to ensure power in perpetuity to the Alliance Party and no one could really expect any different for the country. The role of the military as a protector of this shakily established façade of democracy was therefore, always open to revolutionary introspection – Rabuka’s coup should not have been such a big surprise. The first jolt had already come in April 1977 when the NFP won against all expectations. Adroit constitutional and political manoeuvring prevented any unwanted fall-out at that stage.
|A young Brigadier -General Sitiveni Rabuka, who was identified as a tool to ensure continuous rule by Eastern Chiefs through Military intervention, if things did not work the Alliance Party way. Read Part 4 for more on this.|
After 1982, the writing was on the wall and talks began to emerge of a government of national unity. Political immaturity prevented this from materializing. In the meantime, a common political platform began to emerge among the working-classes as the Mara government started implementing necessary, but unpopular economic policies. One of these, the 1985 wage freeze, led to the formation of the Fiji Labour Party by Fiji’s main labour unions on 6th July 1985.
This heralded the arrival of a non-ethnic political platform in the country that up till then could only envisage politics through the ethnic lens. There was an expectation within the Fijian Establishment that democracy was only acceptable so long as it assured power and victory to the Establishment-backed party at any and every election. This was the Fijian position on government. And it stemmed from an omission to prepare them for real democracy and a commission to keep them distrustful of Indians, the main perceived political threat.
I recall an indicative incident in 1977. The NFP had won and was poised to form government as Fiji waited on edge. A pall of despondency and darkness descended on my village, Vuna in Taveuni. Life came to a standstill and there was much consternation, then confusion, then complaining among kava drinking. In a trip to the local liquor outlet, the Wainiyaku Butchery, an inebriated and unhappy chief lamented loudly, “sa oti - all is lost” to Adrian Tarte of the prominent Tarte family.
Adrian’s response, “no, nothing has gone wrong, that’s the way it is”. After that, there were mutterings as the group moved across the road from the butchery with boxes of Fiji Bitter. I was only a child then, but distinctly remember the frills-free emotional outbursts that followed. One point kept coming through, how could this happen to us! Our country cannot be ruled by outsiders, this is not right! That was the level of understanding of democracy that persisted into 1987 as Fiji geared for its most crucial elections yet.
And as mentioned earlier, a new phenomenon had entered the political scene in the form of the multi-racial Fiji Labour Party that espoused a non-ethnic, issues-focused political platform. Its victory-focused coalition with the Indian-dominated National Federation Party diluted this somewhat, but the writing was on the wall. On the other hand, Fijian unity had begun to fray within an outdating chiefly system as Butadroka pranced on his anti-Mara platform.
When Mara’s Alliance Party finally did lose in April 1987, an unsuspecting Fijian electorate was apparently caught absolutely unawares. What was not meant to be had happened! The Indians had tricked Fijians into joining the FLP! Little India in Fiji! How dare they disrespect chiefs! The Fijians thus were not willing to accept the verdict of the ballot box. And more importantly, even though Ratu Mara made his famous speech on “democracy is alive and well in Fiji”, his defeated colleagues rejected the outcome.
In that silently crackling cauldron all that was needed was an outlet for Fijian reaction. That’s where Apisai Tora and the Taukei Movement emerged. The first roadblocks were mounted in Tavua as Emperor Gold Mines decided its business interests were under threat from a socialist-leaning government. Fiery ethno-nationalist speeches, hymns, sermons, nationalistic songs, food, transport and an underlying threat of unmitigated violence became part of an orchestrated movement against the Bavadra government.
While this was happening, others had begun to explore the military option to right the wrong that democracy and an ungrateful, conniving Indian community had dropped on Fiji. The RFMF’s 3rd-ranking officer was suddenly playing golf on the same Pacific Harbour course as the defeated PM. More Alliance politicians had begun to appear openly at Taukei rallies. A drastic solution had to be found for Fiji. Coup was in the air. [Keep reading]
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Stay tuned - Part 4: The Military Card Had to Be Played
After the 1987 elections, as the orchestrated rebellion against the verdict of the ballot box became more strident and violent, a dark silent group began making overtures to the RFMF. And Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka was identified as the right choice to execute a coup-de-tat even though he was number 3 in the military hierarchy.
was finally in place: the taukei marchers, power preachers, escalating and apparently uncontrollable crime and violence, chiefly withdrawal, US complicity, key business support, and a primed military goon squad under the command of a committed senior officer. Next stop, treason at 10. Keep tuned.
[About the Author: Subhash Appana is an Indo-Fijian academic with Fijian family links. He was brought up in the chiefly village of Vuna in Taveuni and is particularly fond of the Fijian language and culture. Subhash has written extensively on the link between the politics of the vanua, Indo-Fijian aspirations and the continued search for a functioning democracy in Fiji. This series attempts to be both informative and provocative keeping in mind the delicate, distractive and often destructive sensitivities involved in cross-cultural discourses of this type.]