A Good Coup?


While most media attention on Fiji last week focused on former Labour Party Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, being appointed interim Finance Minister, it was Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama’s choice of two other ministers in his interim government that gave a much more telling sign of the coup-leader’s agenda. Last week’s appointment of Ratu Epeli Nailatikau as interim Foreign Minister and Ratu Epeli Ganilau   as interim Fijian Affairs Minister signal something of a return to the ideals propounded by the ‘founding father’ of post-independence Fiji, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.


In essence, Mara sought a united, multi-racial, multi-religious Fiji in which indigenous Fijian interests and aspirations would always be protected and respected, but not at the significant expense of other ethnic interests and aspirations. The Rule of Law, as set out in the 1997 Constitution, (which Mara supported, and which was a significant improvement on the earlier, racist, 1990 Constitution,) would ensure this occurred. To be sure, Mara also fully recognised that politics is the art of compromise, and his vision of ‘the Pacific Way’ idealised an Islander process whereby decisions would be arrived at through, sometimes protracted, consensus.

Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, a son-in-law of Mara, was Fiji Military Commander when Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka pulled off the country’s first coup in May 1987, and was subsequently removed from his post. He was later Fiji’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, then a roving ambassador for Fiji, Speaker of Fiji’s Parliament between 2001 and 2006, and the UNAIDS Special Ambassador for the Pacific. Aside from the ousted Vice-President, the universally respected Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, Nailatikau is probably the most generally respected Fijian High Chief.

New Australian High Commissioner to Fiji, James Batley, (who was until recently the Special Commissioner to RAMSI), will have a formidable local minister with whom to deal. Foreign Minister Downer will not win any regional plaudits either, should he denigrate or refuse to deal with Nailatikau.

For as long as I have had a serious grip on Fijian issues, and as a Queensland journalist who reported on the demise of the Bjelke-Petersen regime and the Fitzgerald Inquiry, I have argued that Fiji needs a Fitzgerald-style inquiry to deal with endemic corruption and decisively institute far better governance. Post-Fitzgerald, Queensland had an Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC) which unravelled the State’s notorious gerrymander, and has a permanent corruption investigative commission, now called the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC), similar to ICAC in New South Wales.

During 2006, then Fijian Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes, who, as a senior AFP officer would well recall the Fitzgerald Inquiry and similar investigations into police and official corruption here, occasionally commented that Fiji needed a major ‘clean out’ of corruption.

The problems with this proposal in Fiji are its small population three-quarters that of metropolitan Brisbane its significantly smaller and far more vulnerable economy, its uneven governance infrastructure, and a severe dearth of talent. That’s not to say that Fiji doesn’t have suitably qualified lawyers and investigators it’s just that there aren’t enough to go around normal lawyerly activities and properly staff or appear before a serious, and certainly lengthy, inquiry which, among many other things, must puncture Fiji’s notorious ‘cones of silence’ which have seriously retarded investigations into the 2000 crisis.

Only Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi , the ousted Vice-President, has the necessary combination of traditional mana and modern legal expertise to head a Fijian Commission of Inquiry, and a bunch of excoriating investigative lawyers and incorruptible police, like Fitzgerald’s indomitable ‘Untouchables’, is needed to staff the thing. Madraiwiwi has returned to private law practice in Suva. (I developed these arguments in an article for Web Diary in December.)

Last week, Bainimarama asked for Australian and New Zealand assistance with investigating alleged corruption in the Qarase Government, and conducting a long delayed census (which hasn’t occurred since 1996) prior to revising electoral rolls, and holding elections to return Fiji to civilian rule. The snap 2006 election, which returned the Qarase Government, was conducted without these needed, and usually routine, administrative reviews being done.

By week’s end, the Kiwis were warily interested in coming to the party, but Canberra flatly refused to have anything to do with assisting Fiji with a corruption investigation because the request was coming from an illegitimate, coup-installed, regime.

‘Australia will not do anything to encourage or support the illegitimate government’s efforts to discredit the democratically elected government it overthrew by force of arms,’ a DFAT spokesperson told the ABC.

Bainimarama also wants to recall the former Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, Peter Ridgeway, an Australian lawyer, who was suddenly sacked in the middle of 2005. The suspicion was that Ridgeway’s investigations were getting too close to charging the financiers of the Speight-fronted putsch, and other miscreants with close links to the Qarase Government. Ridgeway did not dismiss the suggestion of his recall, but told ABC Radio’s AM that a proper authority would need to be in place to give him the necessary powers to return to his work.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

Ratu Epeli Ganilau, appointed to the crucial Fijian Affairs portfolio, is Ratu Epeli Nailatikau’s brother-in-law and son of former President the late Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau. He was Military Commander between 1992 and 1999 (recommended that Bainimarama succeed him) and was Chair of the Great Council of Chiefs when Laisenia Qarase disrespectfully removed him in July 2004 for his public criticisms of the more extreme nationalist policies being pursued by the Qarase Government. (Ganilau’s removal won the Qarase government few points, even among its more nationalist supporters.) He is also the leader of Ratu Mara’s old political party, the National Alliance. As Fijian Affairs Minister, Ganilau at least has the credibility to be taken seriously as he grapples with what is certainly Fiji’s most difficult issue: land.

The other new interim government ministers are spread across ethnic and political groupings, and as of writing, no serious criticisms have been mounted against the appointees, except in Fiji’s Blogosphere, and for the circumstances which led to their appointment. They certainly don’t appear to represent an organised cabal of self-serving military stooges jostling to get their own snouts and trotters into the trough after chasing the last lot out of the pig pen.

A fortnight ago, the Director of the constitutionally-legitimated Fiji Human Rights Commission, Dr Shaista Shameem, released her controversial analysis of the Bainimarama coup, which basically argues that the two Qarase governments, elected in the 2001 and 2006, were illegal and that, to protect Fiji from the extreme policies of the Qarase Government, the Military had the constitutional responsibility to act. Needless to say, Shameem was roundly criticised from several quarters, including by several leading lawyers and NGOs. It was a pity her 32-page paper  was not better annotated and footnoted.

Some wry amusement came last week when Peter Foster reappeared, with secretly shot videos  of SDL party  officials apparently explaining how they rorted the 2006 election in some key Suva electorates. The Military promptly fed the videos to Fiji TV and beyond. If Foster thought his efforts for the Military would get him out of court on immigration and fraud charges, he was mistaken, and has been apprehended after fleeing to Vanuatu.

Also last week, the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), after typical vacillation and indecision, finally announced its support for the Bainimarama coup, after executive authority was returned to the President, Ratu Josefa Ililo, and Bainimarama took on the interim prime ministership. The GCC was later joined by the influential Methodist Church, and by the Catholic Church, who both urged their members to pray for the interim government, despite remaining opposed to the coup in principle.

Meanwhile, Fiji is still under a State of Emergency; the military checkpoints strategically deployed around Suva and other key locations remain, driving peak hour commuters crazy; vocal opponents of the coup are out of the country, lying low, or being taken to military camps for a talking to and occasionally a roughing up some have been prevented from leaving Fiji; and a small group of pro-democracy activists continue their Thursday lunchtime vigils at Suva’s Anglican Cathedral. Britain and New Zealand have relaxed their travel warnings to Fiji somewhat, but Australia’s remain in place, particularly for Suva, along with travel bans on the Fiji military and interim government officials. The pragmatic-as-always business sector, particularly the tourism operators, are quickly accommodating themselves to the new Fijian order. Oh, and Suva’s water and electricity problems continue as if nothing has happened.

The coup is still in progress, as University of the South Pacific political sociologist, Dr Steven Ratuva, wrote in the Fiji Times a fortnight ago, and its consolidation and then governance transformation stages could take several years to run their courses. Suva is also awash with rumours, themselves destabilising, as Ratuva later opined.

Aside from the disgraceful monstering of its fairly few and harmless outspoken opponents, an emerging pattern of apparently random Military intimidation needing prompt officer discipline to prevent, and its usurpation of civilian power, Commodore Bainimarama’s coup appears to be proceeding along rather promising lines.

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.