A Stock Take on Fiji – October 2010

Subhash Appana reflects on a second visit to Fiji within nine months.

I recently went on a short trip to Fiji to present a paper on “Creating an Enabling Environment for Indigenous Business in Fiji” at the USP-organized conference on Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship in the South Pacific Island Countries (16-17th September 2010).  The landmark event was opened by PM Voreqe Bainimarama who again pledged the support of government to any initiative that would help the country haul itself out of the economic doldrums that the ongoing global recession has induced all over the region.

During the traditional welcoming ceremony (sevusevu) preceding the actual opening of the conference, the PM appeared relaxed and at ease with both his position and the considerable responsibilities he carried on his shoulders. His presentation was also done with concern and conviction – a far cry from the reactive image portrayed in the foreign media based on earlier encounters when the PM was under siege from every quarter. This was a confident PM focused on providing assistance where necessary to help the country move forward.

As I moved around Suva, some nine months after my last visit, I couldn’t help observing, asking, analyzing and evaluating the state of the nation as it continues to weather all kinds of storms in its path to a new framework for politics and governance that would set Fiji on the right direction after failed earlier attempts. That 1997 constitution promised so much, but failed because of political intervention in its final implementation – the lament can continue, but who does it help?

As I mused, I noticed that Suva had become remarkably clean; was it that people had become more civic minded or was it that the SCC and its cleaners have begun doing a better job? Then I looked at the clogged Nabukalou Creek and shook my head. There was no doubt that our people are the warmest and friendliest on earth - that was loud and clear. There were also fewer hasslers and potential thieves around the streets. The taxi drivers appeared to have improved in attitude, the market vendors were jovial and full of life. Fiji was pretty good despite the doomsayers.

I also got to hear the inevitable negatives around the place: that the government was about to pack up because of internal disagreements, that Attorney-General Khaiyum was profiteering at the expense of the nation, that the Charter was a lost cause after all, that this person was about to be fired or that person was on the line, etc. That the economy was not recovering because of incompetence, that the common people were just waiting to get rid of the government, and that 2014 was a smokescreen, etc. The list of black musings went on.

After my return from that very pleasant, fruitful and encouraging trip where I saw lots of promise and progress, as well as complaints, I have been inundated with questions about my impressions about the country now. If I paint a positive picture, there will be detractors. On the other hand, if I paint a negative picture, there will again be detractors. Thus I present here some hard evaluations about Fiji that I believe are timely and will be useful for all stakeholders who have the country at heart.

Fiji’s economy teeters on the edge of disaster like most economies at this point in time. Government has implemented and encouraged an inward-looking policy that is not only the only sensible policy given the circumstances, it has tremendous transformative potential that will help greatly further down the line. People are being encouraged to use the land, grow more produce, become self-sufficient in vegetables and root-crops, etc. - these are laudable undertakings that focus on our strengths. As we proceed, this will lessen financial pressures on the individual and help the economy overall.

On the issue of competence in government, I doubt too many expected the current team to come this far. Sure there have been changes along the line, but government does not have a free field to choose its key personnel from. The ill-conceived sanctions imposed by Australia and NZ have deprived it from accessing the best because the fear of losing their hard-earned PRs has kept them away. You will recall that these two countries even tried to dissuade the legal eagles from Sri Lanka, luckily that failed.

Few appreciate that it is this deprivation of human resources and distrust attendant in recruiting or promoting from among those who were part of the Qarase government that has forced government to turn to the only source it can trust – the Fiji Military. This is why we have so many military appointments in the public bureaucracy. And they haven’t been doing too badly either. All one has to do is follow the workings of the divisional commissioners to see how they have endeavoured to bring government assistance directly to the people.

We can keep going along this line, but the most important issue that I feel needs thought here is the issue of whispering and rumour-mongering that inevitably pervades any environment that does not allow for a public venting of ideas and opinions. In an environment that still has pockets of distrust and resentment after a forced change in government, the malicious tongue can wreak havoc. This is compounded when government does not prioritize PR and when the economy goes through prolonged contraction that is felt, sometimes acutely, in everyday life.

This is the ideal environment for mischief-makers to ply their trade in and flourish. I can’t help recalling the tight, anticipation-laden days when George Speight and his band of mercenaries held centre stage while Fiji waited with bated breath. Anyone who claimed to have entered the parliamentary complex became an instant source of much-awaited information as the media was heavily muzzled and skewed. That’s when we heard about the tunnel running from Government House to the Mason’s lodge in Levuka – this would’ve been pretty useful for civilians now.

We also heard about the bloody orgies and kana tamata among the Masons. One day Chaudhry’s frozen body was seen being transferred from one room to another. Then we were told the chiefs had accepted Speight’s leadership and that he was already installed as PM. We even heard that Major Ligairi reconnoitered the country on the back of a shark late at nights while he was incarcerated on Nukulau! These rumours kept doing the rounds and gaining momentum because there was no mechanism for public rebuttal and verification at the time.

The popularity of all the current anti-Bainimarama blogs is also largely dependent on the absence of any free public debate that allows for adjustments and corrections that ultimately lead to identification of truth and facts. Thus if there’s anything that needs attention now, it is the need to pre-empt damaging speculation about the country and its government. Fiji needs a vent to burst the rumour bubble that is causing it so much damage both at home and abroad. This is not a difficult proposition – all it needs is the will.

Subhash Appana is an academic and political commentator. The opinions contained in this article are entirely his and not necessarily shared by any organizations he may be associated with both in Fiji and abroad. Email appanas@hotmail.com


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