Government by Greed - PART 5: 1987 - The Impossible Coup
Guest Writer-Subhash Appana
A political coup-de-tat has few civilian parallels in terms of rationale, planning, logistics, back-up support, follow-up and consequences. In Fiji, the unthinkable had happened at the April 1987 elections – the carefully camouflaged and internally inconsistent myth of democratic power in perpetuity was finally blown. First there was disbelief, then consternation, then confusion followed by complaining and anger. It is at this point that the coup-makers stepped in to provide guidance to a relatively small portion of the country that appeared to be reeling like a plane without a pilot.
The message that these saviours brought was not about democracy and the inevitability of changes in government, but on how the Fijian people were under threat from the greedy, dishonest and covetous designs of the “kai Idia” or the Indians. This was an old message that had potent political traction and it became the mantra that rallied the masses. Local reggae band Rootstrata, came up with a stirring number about Fijian self-determination, the Fijian way – ‘o cei o ira (who are they), they sang. There was thus no other way for Fiji at that juncture.
Rabuka clearly stated this in his (now oft-questioned) book, “No Other Way”. Of course if the Fijian leaders, especially the traditional ones had spoken up and stemmed the tide, coup might have been avoided because the rationale for it would have been nipped – no disturbance, no need for coup! The problem was, this was very difficult and it did not leave (or create) room for a re-look at Fiji politics in order to change it and make it more appropriate to the changing times. Bavadra & Co were hardly likely to re-think a model that had just brought them to power.
There was a more significant development within those orchestrated disturbances that has so far been given scant notice by analysts of the 1987 coup and Fiji politics. The framework within which the disturbances were unleashed involved a cadre of fiery, reactionary, peripheral leaders, who had been agitating for public recognition, as front men. Behind this frontline was a group of shady “controllers” who, in turn, were following directives from a high command. The public only got to see the “faces” and has continued to speculate about the “non-faces”.
More importantly, at some stage the rebellion acquired a momentum and direction of its own. The front-men, who were supposed to follow directives and exit centre stage when required, suddenly had too much power, energy and ambition. Taniela Veitata, Manasa Lasaro, Jona Qio, etc. began to plan and make independent pronouncements. Those who were supposed to be under control were suddenly out of control. That’s where the 1987 coup went wrong, and that’s what Fiji is still reeling from today.
Coming back to the planning of that coup, the plotters needed backing from a number of quarters. Firstly, they needed a smattering of lower-level traditional leaders – there was no shortage of these. Then they needed leaders in an urban setting. And of necessity, this included peripheral unionists, churchmen and thugs. All those whose political (and therefore, economic) ambitions had somehow been kept in check by the Mara government suddenly sprang to centre stage.
This was the opportunity they had been waiting for and they made the most of it while chanting the potent mantra of “down with the kai Idia”. Defenders of the Fijian heritage suddenly sprang up all over the place as the fever took hold and rebellion gained momentum. Many supporters joined simply for want of nothing better to do, many were drawn by the power of the preachers and the occasion that was created. Many thought they were really defending the Fijian heritage. Many expected fallouts and were already fingering Indian houses that they’d move into.
That was the nature of the rebellion that preceded Rabuka’s coup.
A second, more important concern that troubled the plotters of that coup was what would happen afterwards. For an orderly transition from the brink of created chaos, they needed to fall back on Fiji’s main leaders who commanded traditional Fijian backing – they needed leaders who could control both the masses as well as the keepers of the law (police and military). This meant they had to have the support of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau and Ratu Sir George Cakobau. These three leaders stood at the pinnacle of the Fijian chiefly system ie. the traditional power structure at that point in time.
|The original Coup-maker-Sitiveni Rabuka, who has now gone into oblivion, and the coup culture he opened up in 1987 still affects Fiji.|
The Fijian traditional administrative system that was shaped and fossilized by Governor Arthur Gordon after cession in 1874 has the country divided into 14 provinces which are in turn grouped into 3 confederacies – Kubuna, Tovata and Burebasaga. Each of these confederacies is headed by a paramount chief. In 1987, Kubuna was headed by ex-Governor General Ratu Sir George Cakobau. Tovata was headed by the then GG Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau. And Burebasaga was headed by Lady Ro Lala Mara, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’s wife.
Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara was thus not a paramount chief in his own right, but he was the husband of one. On top of that, he had been groomed for and headed the modern structure of government that was essentially juxtaposed on the traditional structure. Moreover, Ratu Mara had been earmarked to lead Fiji by Fiji’s most prominent colonial-era chief, Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna. In fact it was Ratu Sukuna who played cupid in helping hitch Mara with the young lass from Burebasaga who would later become the Roko Tui Dreketi, the paramount chief of Burebasaga.
|Former Roko Tui Dreketi, Adi Lady Lala Mara with husband Ratu Sir Kamiseses Mara. It is said that it was Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna who was instrumental in helping Ratu Mara wed Adi Laldy Lala Mara.|
The coup plotters of 1987 had to prepare to contend with the expected fallout after Rabuka executed his Treason at 10. Fiji would be rudderless and leaderless amid the vacuum that would be created by removing the Bavadra government. The trouble-makers were mainly urban Fijians who had been harnessed for the disturbances. They could be controlled by their newly-created leaders up to a certain extent only. The main source of stability had to come from traditional sources – the paramount chiefs.
And the 1987 coup did have either explicit or implicit support from this all-important source as without military and chiefly support a political coup-de-tat was not possible in Fiji at that point in time.
Next, how could this be true? Keep tuned, coming in Part 6:
“…….. force and violence are necessary complements of any coup-de-tat. And in order to “build” the scenario to justify a coup, an orchestrated process is activated. The aim is to create a situation that allows a treasonous, yet quietly-supported, coup-maker to say “there was no other way”. This is exactly what happened in Fiji, and that is exactly what Rabuka said after he executed the Father of All Coups on 14th May 1987. The common thread that bound all who supported that coup was the perceived need to protect the Fijian heritage and save the Fijian race from Indo-Fijians.
[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.]