Ratu Tevita Mara Flees Fiji: Why and What Effects?
|Pita Driti (left) and Ratu Tevita|
By Crosbie Walsh
Colonel Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara, popularly known as Rokoului —until recently the fourth highest ranking officer in Fiji military, son of revered former PM and President the late Ratu Mara, brother-in-law to the President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, and former close associate of PM Bainimarama— has fled to Tonga.
A Tongan patrol boat the Savea, that Tonga says (and Fjii disputes) responded to a distress signal, south of Ono-i-Lau, took him to Nuku’alofa 370 km away where, because of his high status, he has been accommodated by the royalty.
He has now made a statement accusing Bainimarama of being a dictator and calling for his removal. This is what he had to say .
There are obviously two big questions to ask about this high profile defection: Why did he do it and what will be the effect?
Forget the rumour spread by Michael Field last year that the fallout with the PM was all about sexual improprieties with both Pita Driti and Ratu Tevita involved. This may have been a factor, but it was not the reason for his flight. No, Michael, I don’t think Ratu Tevita was keeping a second family in Nausori. Forget also the rumour that the PM was about to expose the Mara-Ganilau families’ involvement in the National Bank of Fiji scam, and the story that Ratu Tevita was implicated in the $3m missing from the Fiji Pine Trust, and alleged misuse of Lau provincial money. These also may have been factors but even collectively they are not the reason for the flight.
Forget also that there has been a major ideological break with Ratu Tevita no longer favouring multi-racialism. Prior to mid-2010 Ratu Tevita was frequently seen in Bainimarama’s company and the body language between them was good.
So what brought about the change?
I think the central reason for the defection needs to be traced back to last October when both men were sent on leave following the sexual allegations . The rumour at that time was that they had asked the President to ask the PM to step down. In March the rumour spread that they had been arrested, along with fellow officer Mohammed Aziz. Then, last week the two appeared in court charged under the Crime Decree with “uttering seditious comments.” They appeared before Suva Magistrate Mrs Alofa Seruvatu, a close friend of the Mara family.
Ratu Tevita, released on bail, was due to appear again before the court on May 31 and Pita Driti the next day. They may then have been faced with a less sympathetic court.
Whatever led to Ratu Tevita fleeing, it has been brewing for quite a long time. The fact that he failed to hand in his passport and report to the police on Friday means that he has breached bail conditions. He now has bail breaking and fugitive from justice added to the charge of sedition. Ratu Tevita has cast his dice and there is no way of turning back.
The immediate reason why he fled now, at this point in time, is the likelihood of being found guilty of what he claims are “trumped up” charges of inciting mutiny and seditious comments. He claims to have been told of plans to imprison him for “at least a year without trial.” There is no way of verifying the claim but he was released on bail last week and there is no good reason to suppose this would not have happened again while he awaited trial. No one in recent Fiji history has been imprisoned for a year without trial.
The more general reason seems to revolve around his claim that Bainimarama is behaving like a dictator. “For inexplicable reasons," he said, "Commodore Bainimarama, weakened by ill health, morally and intellectually bankrupt, is no more than Aiyaz Khaiyum's hand puppet, and his megalomania is inspired entirely by the self-importance of a lowly and inadequate man." He then accused Aiyaz Khaiyum of causing Fiji’s tight security, saying he was a “megalomaniac incapable of understanding principles of decency and respect.”
His complaint, then, is that Bainimarama was heeding Sayed-Khaiyum, not listening to certain members of the Military Council, and that since being send on leave he (and Driti) had been side-lined from all decision-making. “The advice which we, as senior officers, had offered the commander in an attempt to soften the regime's approach to public dissent were seen by Khaiyum as a direct threat to his person and his megalomania is inspired entirely by the self importance of a lonely and inadequate man,' he said.
It should be noted that his complaint was not about military rule, the People’s Charter, the Roadmap, the need to remove corruption, reform the public service, amend the constitution or about electoral reforms that would remove racially-based constituencies and political parties.
He was a key figure in the 2006 Coup and he has publicly supported all of these measures until very recently, when he first felt personally threatened. He says he advocated a “soften” approach, presumably referring to media censorship and the Public Emergency Regulations.
His complaint was about Attorney-General and Cabinet member Sayed-Khaiyum and his influence on Bainimarama who he only now sees as “ill and morally and intellectually bankrupt.” Ratu Tevita shares Driti’s dislike of Sayed-Khaiyum. It is generally known that last year Driti asked the PM to get rid of Sayed-Khaiyum and threatened to resign if he did not. Bainimarama chose Sayed-Khaiyum.
My explanation, then, is that the side-lining of both men led to their seditious comments and intentions, and to Mara’s flight to Tonga. Essentially, it is about personalities and personal influence, not about any principle higher than self-interest.
I think Mara’s declaration from Tonga ('When this hateful dictatorship has been eradicated, all of us who once served it shall answer to the Fijian people for the part we played and I will gladly submit to their verdict”) is also about self-interest. In the idiom, he is protecting his back and hoping those who have consistently opposed Bainimarama will welcome him back into the flock.
The immediate effects are obvious. Whatever Bainimarama says, this is a major embarrassment and setback that will be taken as evidence of widespread discontent against his government, that will harden international opinion, and offer the ever-hopeful the prospect of an uprising against him. It would be unwise, however, to read too much into either assumption. One man in exile is one man in exile. Ratu Tevita is no Napoleon.
The New Zealand coverage of the news had TV journalist Barbara Dreaver predicting strained relations between Fiji and Tonga over this “very serious” situation and hinting that the Tongan navy had “spirited” Ratu Tevita “away.” This is supported by Bainimarama’s statement that the Tongan navy breached Fiji sovereignty in sending a vessel to “rescue” Ratu Tevita close to Kadavu and well inside Fiji territorial waters. He also called for Mara’s extradition.
This is certainly serious but a possible clash between the two armies that was also mentioned (along with the contested ownership of Minerva Reef) is most unlikely. It makes a good news story but my guess is that while Mara will be welcomed in Tonga —his relationship with the King ensures this— it will not be long before today’s news becomes tomorrow’s history.
More important is the likely effect within Fiji. The defection will slightly strengthen the hidden opposition but without support from the military they would be wiser to wait reforms planned for next year, and not further jeopardise their participation by speaking out now. Rumblings may also be expected from Lau but are unlikely to have much effect.
The reactions of the Mara family is more difficult to gauge. Adi Koila, Ratu Tevita’s sister, is married to the President and is a power in her own right. She was a Cabinet Minister in the FLP-led government led by Mahendra Chaudhry and was held hostage by Speight after the 2000 coup. I think she will stay supportive of the Bainimarama government. Her elder sister Adi Ateca is married to Ratu Epeli Ganilau. Both originally supported Bainimarama, and probably still do, though less enthusiastically after Ratu Epeli decided earlier in the year to retire from politics for unstated “personal reasons.” Of the older children, this leaves Ratu Finau who seems to have opted out of the political scene and Adi Litea whose husband Henry Dugdale is strongly opposed to the Bainimarama government, and who may have influenced Ratu Tevita’s recent actions. This suggests that a unified Mara (and Ganilau) stance seems unlikely.
The critical relationship, of course, is that between Bainimarama and the military. My sources indicate that had Ratu Tevita and Driti acted earlier, some time from the Abrogation of the Constitution in April 2009 up until mid-2010, they might —just might— have found some support from other senior officers, although probably not enough to stage a coup-within-the-coup. The same sources say events have so discredited both men that they now have no meaningful support in the military.
This leaves one further question: Ratu Tevita said he had urged moderation but was not listened to. Will his defection result in an easing of censorship and the lifting of PER. I very much doubt it, and fear it could have the opposite effect. This is a great pity because, apart from the defection, this might be the best time to expect some moderation of the government’s position.
Bainimarama will have taken heart from Australia possibly softening position. And he knows that New Zealand might lift the sanctions that are likely to cripple Fiji’s chances at the Rugby World, if Fiji shows signs of progress towards parliamentary government. Lifted PER even partially, reactivating the Electoral Office and bringing forward the political dialogue on constitutional and electoral reform due to start next year would have been clear signs of progress.
We just have to cross our fingers and hope that Ratu Tevita has not caused a conciliatory opportunity to pass unused.
The only touch of humour in the whole affair was posted on Facebook "Geez ... the Maafu's and the Cakobau's are still at it ... the year is 2011."
What Bainimarama had to say