The Bainimarama Screw


The coup in Fiji on Tuesday was the result of a coercive psychological strategy developed, deployed and led by the Fiji Military Commander, Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, which, for the purposes of brevity, we will call the Bainimarama Screw. The aim of the strategy was to remove what Bainimarama saw as a deeply contaminated and compromised government that was acting against the general interests of all Fijians.

Officially, international condemnation of the Commodore’s actions has been universal. But I want to look deeper at what is really going on in Fiji.


The Fiji Military leadership has been condemned for meddling in the political affairs of the State and plotting to remove a democratically elected government. In almost all constitutionally legitimated polities, governed by reference to the rule of law, the military’s involvement in politics is strictly circumscribed.

The problem is that Fiji is not a normally functioning constitutional democracy. To pretend otherwise is to engage in legal fantasy, and deny crucial aspects of Fiji’s fairly recent history.

While official observers of the August 2001 and May 2006 Fijian elections pronounced them free and fair, to rely on these elections to buttress a constitutionalist argument is again to engage in fantasy. Realpolitik on the ground must always be taken into account.

A ‘coup culture’ was initially established in Fiji by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka when he executed a classic bloodless military coup against the Bavadra Labour Government in May 1987, legitimating his actions by claiming that Bavadra and particularly his Indo-Fijian supporters posed a threat to Indigenous Fijian supremacy in their own ‘Vanua’.

(The Fijian word ‘Vanua’ describes the entire Indigenous Fijian worldview, embracing land, language, culture, beliefs everything it means to be an Indigenous Fijian. It is a complex notion that can refer to the entirety of Indigenous Fijian life, or to a particular part of Fiji. While Vanua should not be over-emphasised, to overlook Vanua ties is to miss some extremely important dynamics in the current Fijian situation. For example, the Vice-President of Fiji, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, a former High Court Judge, is also the Roko Tui Bau (high chief) of the traditional Fijian confederacy of local Vanuas called Bau, where Bainimarara comes from. Both have traditional as well as contemporary, legally codified, obligations and responsibilities.)

The Fijian coup culture was reinforced when Rabuka granted himself and his key henchman amnesty for their actions. To make sure nobody could do to him what he did to the Bavadra Government, Rabuka had the former British SAS officer and retired Fiji Military Major, Ilisoni Ligairi, establish an elite Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit (CRWU).

Rabuka’s coups in 1987 he pulled a second one later that year when installed-Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kemisese Mara appeared to be deviating from Indigenous Fijian interests laid down a coup culture and created an elite military unit that was more loyal to its founder than to the military or even the country. Elements of the CRWU provided much of the muscle and the weapons used during the coup led by failed businessman George Speight in May 2000.

But if Rabuka’s were classic, bloodless, military coups, then the Speight-fronted putsch, which brought down the Labour Government of Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, was a tactical disaster.

Another crucial dynamic in contemporary Fiji which is often over emphasised is race Indo-Fijian interests versus Indigenous Fijian interests. Race often plays a powerful symbolic, rather than an actual, factor in Fijian politics. Although Chaudhry was a lightning rod for extreme nationalist coup plotters following his election in May 1999, Labour’s policies, including slowing and even reversing privatisation of government assets, played as much of a part in disaffection with his Government by alienating elements in Fiji’s business community.

One of the major pieces of unfinished business from the 2000 crisis is the charging and conviction of shadowy business identities who financed the gang that was fronted, very late in the plot, by Speight.

Present throughout all of this was the rising Fijian naval officer, Frank Bainimarama, who became Commander of the Fiji Military in March 1999.

Bainimarama played a large part in resolving the 2000 crisis. On May 29 that year, he abrogated the 1997 Constitution, installed a nationalist Great Council of Chiefs and appointed Senator and banker, Laisenia Qarase, as interim Prime Minister. The President, Ratu Sir Kemisese Mara, was pressured to resign, and was replaced by Ratu Josefa Iloilo. In many important respects, the removal of Ratu Mara amounted to another coup, this time a constitutional one.

What many observers regard as the crucial precursor to the current crisis, which still haunts and largely motivates Bainimarama, was the mutiny at the Fiji military headquarters in Suva on 2 November 2000 by members of the disbanded CRWU. The point of this was to kill Bainimarama, largely because of his role in ending the Speight putsch, and he barely escaped with his life. Following their capture by loyal soldiers, four mutineers were beaten to death.

Fast forward to March 2001, and the Fiji Appeals Court hears a case brought by an Indo-Fijian sugar cane farmer, Prasad, against the Interim Government of Fiji. In its judgement, the Court held that Bainimarama had illegally abrogated the 1997 Constitution, but in spite of this it ruled that it could not reinstate the Chaudhry Government because of the ‘doctrine of necessity’ (a legal device used to navigate between rigorous application of the law and recognition that some situations require more pragmatic responses) recognising the chaos this would have caused. Instead, the Court reinstated the 1997 Constitution and called on the Interim Government to hold elections as soon as practicable. These were held in August 2001, and returned Laisenia Qarase as Prime Minister, in coalition with the pro-coup Conservative Alliance Mataniu Vanua party.

Among Ministers and other politicians in the Government, and in senior civil service positions, there remain individuals either convicted or suspected of involvement in plotting the May 2000 coup and attempted execution.

For Bainimarama, anybody even tainted by association with the events of 2000 has no place anywhere near government or administration.

In January this year, Bainimarama embarked on his strategy of psychological coercion against the Qarase Government, partly as a lead-up to the elections in May. The major circuit breaker in this earlier version of the Bainimarama Screw was Vice-President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi drawing on both his Vanua and constitutional authorities to mediate an uneasy truce between Qarase and Bainimarama. At that point, the major irritant for Bainimarama was the Government’s plans for a Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity (RTU) law, which contained amnesty provisions for convicted 2000 coup plotters.

The May 2006 elections returned Qarase’s Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) Government, and in this term, unlike in his first term, Qarase invited the Labour Party to join his Cabinet as provided in the 1997 Constitution, seriously weakening the Party as an effective Parliamentary Opposition. The SDL and its supporting minority parties attracted a significant majority vote, especially among Indigenous Fijians. At least some Indo-Fijians probably voted for the SDL, rather than traditionally supporting Labour, out of concern for possible adverse economic consequences should the SDL not gain a significant majority and more instability ensue. The decline in the sugar industry, and rise of tourism as Fiji’s major industry, plus significant departures of Indo-Fijians
in a brain and labour drain, eroded Labour’s former power bases as well.

Following the 2006 elections, the Qarase Government, arguing it had an electoral mandate to do so, pressed ahead with the RTU (commonly referred to as ‘The Bill’) which was vigorously opposed by many sectors of civil and legal society and other pro-Indigenous Fijian legislation, including reforms to the always difficult Indigenous lands administration system, and a law to return ownership and control of foreshores and littoral zones to traditional land owners known as the Qoliqoli Bill. A feature of this Bill was the establishment of a Qoliqoli inspectorate with what appears to be greater access, inspection, and sanction powers given to landowners than is conferred on the Fiji police. Bainimarama wanted nothing of this, and made his vigorous objections loudly known.

It is extremely important to note that, despite allegations by the Police Commissioner, ex-Australian federal Policeman Andrew Hughes, on ABC TV’s 7.30 Report on Tuesday night, there has been absolutely no hard evidence of Bainimarama acting out of any perceived self-interest throughout this strategy, or as a front man for some shadowy cabal.

By late October, Bainimarama’s escalating attacks on the Qarase Government prompted Police Commissioner Hughes to warn that they were potentially seditious, and that the Director of Public Prosecution would investigate accordingly. Bainimarama responded by adding Hughes to his list of those who must resign, or be removed.

The past week has seen the Screw progressively tightening. The fact that Bainimarama made a trip to New Zealand for a granddaughter’s christening just last week showed supreme confidence that his strategy would remain on track and intact.

Finally, in a statement on Tuesday night, Bainimarama announced he’d taken over executive control of Fiji using the ‘doctrine of necessity’ under the 1997 Constitution, precisely the same doctrine that the Appeals Court deployed in the Prasad case of March 2001, with the Military Commander arguing that the Government was no longer fit to do its job.

Nobody’s been arrested yet but key opposing players have had their movements restricted, placing in position another key facet of the Screw: to create the legal justification, flimsy though it might appear, for the coup on the basis of the doctrine of necessity. (That is, if Government Ministers are unable to attend Cabinet meetings, they must be unfit to govern.) As the coup was consolidated, Government Department CEOs, the acting Police Commissioner and key senior police staff were summoned to the Military headquarters, and the Senate was adjourned for an indefinite period.

Constitutional lawyers will be already dissecting the Bainimarama Screw by reference to the precedents to which he alluded in his statement on Tuesday night, particularly Prasad’s case.

Civil society, which is extremely vigorous in Fiji, could well engage in non-violent resistance to the coup, in much the same ways they protested against the Speight-fronted anarchy. Being acutely aware of the Suva chaos in May 2000, and the more recent mayhem in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, the military has checkpoints all over Suva and surrounds, partly to intercept any extreme nationalist Qarase supporters coming into town from the hills.

And everybody fervently hopes and prays that the Bainimarama Coup remains bloodless.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.