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Jone Dakuvula Examines The Fijian Coup

By Jone Dakuvula

DR ROBERT WOLFGRAMM, of Monash University, published a long article (Daily Post, July 15, 2000) under the title "Why Democracy Has Failed" amongst Fijians. He did not define his subject, "Democracy", and particularly what it means in an ethnically divided country such as Fiji. Democracy as I understand it in a limited sense means elections, civil liberties and the right to organise. It could have a more radical meaning but that is the fundamental challenge facing all people of the world including indigenous Fijians in the 21st Century. Wolfgramm asserts that indigenous Fijians have never been asked whether they want constitutional democracy and its values. He believes Fijians still prefer their vanua and to be ruled by their Chiefs. This is like saying indigenous Fijians have not been asked whether they should have the Methodist Church, Capitalism, the modern state, public roads, Fiji Bitter, or academics analysing them for that matter.

Dr Wolfgramm should read Dr Esther Williams' and Kaushik Saskena's (of U.S.P) book, "Electoral Behaviour and Opinion in Fiji". This comprehensive study showed that 44% of the voters said the Chiefs had no influence over their votes in the 1999 General Election. Only 9% said the Chiefs did influence their votes. 36% (mostly Indo-Fijians) did not answer the question.

Contrary to what he asserts, a form of liberal Parliamentary system of Government based on regular elections and written Constitutions (albeit four so far) had operated quite successfully in Fiji for close to forty years since before the close of the colonial era. For most of that period, indigenous Fijian leaders held political power in the modern state, only briefly interrupted by about 13 months of two Fiji Labour Party Governments. Dr Wolfgramm should have asked the more specific mundane questions, such as for example: Why were there military-inspired Coups that overthrew these elected Labour-led Governments? And the answers are fairly pedestrian.

In May 1987 and May 2000, characters such as Sitiveni Rabuka, Apisai Tora, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola and George Speight and their followers did not like the result of the Election and got supporters in the Fiji Military Forces to help over throw the newly elected Labour Government. And did they consult the Vanua, Fijian Chiefs or for that matter the Fijian people before they organised the Coups? But rallying some of them after the act was done was convenient and easy because many indigenous Fijians in the vanuas believe that the modern state also belongs to the Fijians, or to the "Vanua," and not to "others".

It is unclear whether Dr Wolfgramm is in favour of election as mechanism for changing government and holding our political leaders accountable. I might be wrong, but he seems to favour the old Colonial System of the Council of Chiefs nominating our Fijian Members of Parliament. He needs to tell that to Speight and his "wannabee Ministers" who prefer to dictate to the Chiefs who they should accept. But if he still believes in General Election then, the more relevant question is, what type of electoral arrangement and Parliamentary system of Government is more likely to produce results that might avoid characters like Tora or Kubuabola, resorting to other methods that overturn the result! Notwithstanding my reservations about the Alternative Vote Electoral System, I thought the device of requiring the leader of the major party after an Election to invite the parties with more than eight seats into Cabinet is a pragmatic solution to the problems of governance here. It ensures that all political communities are likely to be represented in a Coalition government. It was not fool proof solution especially with the S.V.T not included, it was free to arouse the Fijians. Any system can be wrecked by fanatics, as we have learnt to our cost.

The 1997 Constitution

Contrary to Dr Wolfgramm's belief, the 1997 Constitution was not the work of what he calls "Constitutional Romantics". The Members of the Reeves Commission were very experienced hard-headed "Constitutional realists". Over a period of 18 months, they received thousands of submissions from individuals, community groups, religious groups, organisations and political parties. They also had the benefit of advice from local and overseas scholars and experts on specific subjects of relevance and from all these, the Commissioners produced their Report with 694 recommendations for changes to our system of Constitutional Government.

Wolfgramm judged the Reeves Report thus:

Realists argue that democracy cannot force itself, it cannot be imposed against the consent of the affected. To do so would amount to constitutional rape.

He makes this assertion even though the Commission had undertaken the widest and most intensive public consultation ever since independence. Thereafter, the Report was discussed over a period of about six months by the Joint Parliamentary Select Committee on the Constitution and, most of its recommendations were adopted with some modifications. A Fijian version of the Report was unanimously endorsed by the Bose Levu Vakaturaga. In both Houses of Parliament, the Constitution was also passed unanimously in June 1997. If that process is what Dr Wolfgramm calls a "constitutional rape" then we must wonder about his credentials as a student of Fiji's political history.

However, the problem of Dr Wolfgramm is not his scholarship but rather his political beliefs. He seems to support the George Speight-led Coup, whose moment of "Constitutional revolution" was inscribed in Clause B(b) of the Muanikau Accord thus:

The 1997 Constitution which they believe are repugnant to the preservation and protection of the rights and interests of indigenous Fijians in Fiji.

Who were the actual rapists of democracy?

It has been argued by some of Speight's supporters that the majority of Provincial Councils had rejected the Reeves Report, and that this was evidence that the majority of indigenous Fijians had repudiated the 1997 Constitution. And that Prime Minister Rabuka's Government had unwisely implemented the Reeves Report against the opposition of a majority of Fijians. There is really no firM basis for this belief. Dr Williams' study that I have referred to above revealed 39% of the voters in 1999 thought the new Constitution was a good one, 24% said it was not a good one and 37% either did not know or had no opinion.

At the end of July 1996, Commissioner Tomasi Vakatora was asked by the Prime Minister to explain their Report to the Provincial Councils. He started with the Lomaiviti and the Nadroga/Navosa Provincial Councils. Both Councils supported the Reeves Report. At that stage however, opponents of the Reeves Commission in the S.V.T. intervened at the Prime Minister's Office and directed that Tomasi Vakatora should stop his visits to the Provincial Councils because they argued it was not his responsibility to explain the Report to the rest of the Councils. This was to be left to the Politicians. It was these Politicians, Jim Ah Koy, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, Koresi Matatolu, Berenado Vunibobo and others, who then successfully campaigned in the other Provincial Councils for the rejection of the Reeves Report, in the expectation that this would put a stop to any further progress at the upper levels. These opponents of the Reeves Commission even succeeded at the S.V.T. Caucus in persuading Prime Minister Rabuka that they be free to vote according to their conscience in Parliament. They were permitted to do so. They did not vote against the Constitution Amendment Bill.

Post 1999 General Elections

However, when the S.V.T. was defeated in the 1999 General Election, they then agreed with members of the Nationalist Vanua Takalavo Party (with Rabuka sidelined to the Great Council of Chiefs Chairmanship), to campaign for the removal of the Chaudhry led-Government. They used the earlier rejection of the Provincial Councils as justification for the removal of the 1997 Constitution. Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama and his men from Queen Elizabeth Barracks agreed. They compelled the President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara (illegally and against his will) to step down so they could introduce an "Abrogation of the Constitution Decree".

Dr Wolfgramm argues later in his article and I quote:

Those who have had democracy imposed against their wishes will soon want to repudiate it. They will, having had bitter experience of it, become understandably suspicious of its purveyors.

This statement again presumes that there was was widespread repudiation of Constitutional democracy by indigenous Fijians two years later, in 1999. In the last election, many Fijians were disappointed especially with the unexpected result for the S.V.T. under the new Electoral System. But again it cannot be claimed that a majority of Fijians had rejected democracy either in May 1999 or in May 2000. In the May 1999 Election, the S.V.T. got only 34.4% of the Fijian votes. The Fijian parties who joined the Government had 61.3% of the total Fijian votes.

It was clear that there had been a massive rejection of the S.V.T in the last Election by the indigenous Fijians who voted for other parties. In the 1992 and 1994 Elections, the S.V.T. had received about 66% of the Fijian votes. The marches in May 2000 leading up to Speight's coup numbered at most 10,000. They were the consequence of a relentless propaganda campaign, for about one year by the S.V.T. and the N.V.T.L.P, based on misinformation and sometimes out right lies about the Governments Policies. The indigenous Fijians were aroused to a level of suspicion and hatred of Mahendra Chaudhry and Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and even Sitiveni Rabuka, as evident in the distorted and false pamphlets written by the S.V.T. and Speight's supporters. These were distributed widely all over the country before and after the coup.

Fijian Chiefs

Wolfgramm claimed that the coup of Speight demonstrated that Fijians were as dedicated as ever to their Chiefs. What in fact the Coup showed was the ruthlessness of some ambitious Fijians who are not chiefs, but who merely wanted to use the Chiefs to get into positions of political power. At the last B.L.V. meeting, George Speight's agents strongly pushed for the B.L.V's final endorsement of all that Speight's group wanted. They were unsuccessful because of the resistance of some Chiefs, who demanded the release of all the hostages first before they could proceed to decide on the Presidency and Vice President.

It may be bad news to Dr Wolfgramm that the last Council of Chiefs Meeting had not changed it's earlier resolutions on how the current crisis should be resolved. The May 25th resolution had supported the 1997 Constitution as the appropriate framework for resolving the crisis. A leading Chief who had attended the last meeting told me that most of the Members of the B.L.V. had not accepted the Military's purported abrogation of the 1997 Constitution. Their understanding is that they had merely supported the review of the 1997 Constitution and with possible changes to it if George Speight's grievances, upon examination, are found to be legitimate and amenable to a "Constitutional Solution."

Dr Wolfgramm also seems to be sceptical about the relevance of modern principles of good governance to Fijian institutions such as the Provinces, the Vanua, the Chiefly system and the Native Land Trust Board. I believe that the endurance of the Fijian Vanuas and the system of Chiefly leadership can only be strengthened through the development of a culture of respect for the rule of law and adoption of modern principles of leadership and accountability within the indigenous Fijian social world. We have to reinvent our traditions.

I do not agree with Wolfgramm's thesis that we indigenous Fijians have to choose between liberal democracy and chiefly rule. He has utterly failed in his article to make a credible case that the values and institutions of a liberal constitutional democracy are hostile to or destructive of indigenous Fijian Vanua values. Indeed I believe the continuation of Liberal Democracy and its values is vital for the survival of the indigenous Fijian identity and the Vanua. In his ancestral homeland, Tonga, there is a movement gathering strength for a Tongan version of liberal democracy. In time it will succeed in bringing about popular changes that will give a new lease of life to the Tongan Monarchy. I doubt that even George Speight's supporters will agree with Dr Wolfgramm's argument that indigenous Fijians prefer Chiefly rule to liberal democracy, even though they seem to want to take us to a type of country where competing Vanua and Provincial Warlords decide who will be in power.

Wolfgramm's argument that Fijians prefer autocratic Chiefly rule to democracy therefore has no substance. What does Wolfgramm then make of Speight's supporters' success in rejecting the Bose Levu resolutions of May 25th? Or their persuasion of the F.M.F to force the resignation of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara from the Presidency? Their threats against Ratu Josefa Iloilo? Or their attempt at the last meeting of the B.L.V. to denigrate and diminish the status and influence of the members? Where is the traditional principle of respect and reciprocation that Wolfgramm harps so much about in these actions?

Constitutional Change

All that Dr Wolfgramm is doing in his pontifications in the Daily Post is pandering to Fijian nationalist prejudices with his simplistic labelling of people as "Constitutional Romantics." It is he who fits this label, not the U.S.P academics that he wants to denigrate. We are now having to learn the hard way that democratic principles such as equality before the law, equal political rights, indigenous group rights and general human rights are important not just to us but also other nations with whom we have relations in an increasingly inter-dependent global economy. Fijian indigenous rights in particular must be protected in accordance with principles that are universally accepted. The 1997 Constitution had achieved that, and recognised the Paramountcy of Fijian interests in the COMPACT Chapter as a guiding principle for resolving political conflicts. That is far as we can go, short of introducing political apartheid. We cannot have one special rule for indigenous supremacy for us Fijians and demand that the world either accept or "butt off". Should Speight and his gang win total political power, they will in due course find that their utopian dream of a modern and dynamic Fiji, based on a vague notion of indigenous supremacy will be meaningless with a run down economy, widespread unemployment and poverty, and qualified people deserting for other countries.

A Constitution that satisfies the prejudices (or the "souls" as Wolfgramm puts it of the minority extremist nationalists who support George Speight) will then not be worth the paper it is written on. For how can we expect people of George Speight's ilk to respect a new Constitution that they want to dictate to us when they will not abide an imperfect one that had been democratically implemented? If we are to change the 1997 Constitution, let us do it the right way, under the procedures of that Constitution.

The international community is telling us that we risk international isolation and severe decline in our standards of living, if we do not restore fundamental democratic and human rights values in our system of national government and dare I say, in the culture of the Vanuas. Having a totally Fijian Parliament, such as Speight's group are demanding, and depriving our fellow Indo-Fijian citizens of their political rights is not going to do us indigenous Fijians any good. It will reduce us to the status of a Pariah State in the international community. In such a situation, Speight's Fijian supporters will inevitably turn against him and his office seeking colleagues. Meanwhile, Dr Wolfgramm will remain a long distance student of Fijian political changes, enjoying the comforts and security of University in a liberal democratic country, whose democratic values he believes we indigenous Fijians are not good enough to have and to treasure.

AUTHOR NOTE - Jone Dakuvula is a political commentator and researcher with the Fiji Citizens' Constitutional Forum.

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