Democracy and the Fijian Chiefly System

  Democracy and the Fijian Chiefly System: 
Pragmatism, Compatibility and Contradictions*

By Subhash Appanna**
Fiji, once held as a shining example of multi-cultural democracy, is now considered a pariah by most of its traditional “partners” because of what is considered to be “continuing political instability” emanating from coups that have plagued the Pacific island state since 1987 when the gun was first accepted as the instrument of choice to change government within a democratic framework. At the centre of all major political decisions, from 1874 (when Fiji was ceded to Britain) to 2006 (when Commodore Bainimarama took control of government), lay the Fijian chiefly system. This paper critically examines the changing role(s) the Fijian chiefly system has played historically right from the time the chiefs were engaged by beachcombers to establish some sort of a centrally-organized authority in a fragmented Pacific Island (pre-1874), to the signing of the Deed of Cession (1874), to independence in 1970, to the first coup of 1987, through all other coups until 2006 when the Bainimarama government declared itself opposed to the structure of chiefs in Fiji. The paper then provides a provocative in-depth discussion of what role the Fijian chiefly system could play from here onwards or whether it has surpassed its use value for governance in Fiji.

Since 1987 when the gun was first accepted as the instrument of choice to change government within a democratic framework, Fiji has been maligned, vilified, cajoled and assisted, at different times to varying extents, towards developing a functioning democratic framework of governance.At this point in time the search continues while Fiji is considered a pariah by most of its traditional “partners” because of what is considered to be “unacceptable” continuing political instability emanating from the latest of the coups that have plagued the Pacific island state since 1987.

There is a marked difference between the 2006 coup and those preceding it in that it has not sought to find justification in the notion of Fijian self-determination, cultural protection and preservation. Instead, it has sought to propagate the more universal notion of equal opportunity, equal weightage and equal impact of individual votes. In the process, the Bainimarama regime has hobbled the Methodist Church, sidelined the Fijian chiefly system and strengthened the government apparatus in rural/Fijian Fiji by elevating the role of divisional commissioners, district officers and Roko Tuis. Each of these changes has lasting implications not only for what emerges as the framework for governance in Fiji, but more importantly for what was painstakingly developed and accepted as Fiji-style democracy until the 1987 elections tested its unspoken assumption of power in perpetuity for the Fijian establishment-backed political party (Appana, 2009).

Since 1987, many of the assumptions behind that framework continued to come up for scrutiny as Fiji’s political equation became multi-polar, diminishing the significance of the ethnic variable that provided much of the rationale for earlier bi-polar models of governance.

The strategic use of Indian immigrant labour to make the new colony economically viable introduced with it the question of the role and status of a sizeable and increasing number of Indian immigrants after indenture was abolished in 1916. This question was only partially answeredthrough the period of colonial rule,when concern for the sugar industry outweighed quaint questions about democratic rights, until the issue appeared to have vanished in the urgency of the constitutional conferences (1965 & 1969) and subsequent euphoria of Fiji’s independence in 1970. Fijian concerns, on the other hand about being flooded and pushed aside by immigrants was assuaged to a large extent by pragmatic use of the Fijian chiefly system to provide the backbone to what was established, developed and propagated as the democratic model of governance for Fiji.

It is well appreciated that at the centre of all major political decisions, from 1874 (when Fiji was ceded to Britain) to 2006 (when Commodore Bainimarama took control of government), lay the Fijian chiefly system.

This paper critically examines the changing role(s) the Fijian chiefly system has played historically right from the time the chiefs were engaged by beachcombers to establish some sort of a centrally-organized authority in a fragmented Pacific Island (pre-1874), to the signing of the Deed of Cession (1874), to independence in 1970, to the first coup of 1987, through all other coups until 2006 when the Bainimarama government declared itself opposed to the structure of chiefs in Fiji. The paper raises a number of key points about the changed context, related agendas and the challenges these pose to not only the chiefly system, but to what emerges as the new framework for governance in Fiji. It provides a provocative in-depth discussion —based on the precepts of pragmatism, compatibility and contradiction— of what role the Fijian chiefly system could play from here onwards or whether it has surpassed its use value for governance in Fiji.

Fijian Social Structure – a fossilized construction
After Fiji’s cession in 1874, Governor Gordon’s “indirect rule” was designed to “seize the spirit in which native institutions had been framed, and develop to the utmost extent the capacities of the people for the management of their own affairs, without exciting their suspicion or destroying their self-respect” (quoted in Legge, 1958, p.204). When Gordon established the Great Chiefly Council (later GCC and then Bose Levu Vakaturaqa or BLV) in 1875, he was enshrining the chief within the national government machinery. Government in Fiji was thus predicated on the back of a traditional system that was shaped, fossilized and maintained by the colonial administration. In his landmark study on power in pre-colonial Fiji, Routledge (1985, p.5) writes, “the traditional socio-political order consisted of small, kinship-structured and locality-oriented entities fighting and intriguing for advantage over one another.” Political power play, intrigue and internecine rivalry had no small part to play in these socio-political adjustments. Toward the end of the 18th century circumstances pushed these vanua further into combining to form still larger units called matanitu (confederacy). Thus these social units emerged “within the context of political processes”, and therefore, were “power constructs articulated by the continual exercise of force” (Routledge, 1985, p.29). In the 19th century, as contact with beachcombers, missionaries, traders, planters, and labourers began to impact further on internal social and economic relationships, strategic alliances and kinship bonds began to take on a new significance. It was this social and political organization of Fijian society that the colonial administration encountered and subsequently entrenched through its administrative strategy of “indirect rule”.

Furthermore, the Fijian derives his identity from his links with the qele and the vanua to which he belongs and which belongs to him. The Fijian social structure is, in turn, designed based on this link as Fijian society is organised around the turaga (chief).There is a chief at every level of the Fijian social hierarchy, and at the apex stands the paramount chief of the matanitu. “The scheme … is of a hierarchy of chiefs, graded in relation to one another according to the relative position of the units under their command” (Nayacakalou, 1975, p. 37). The institution of chief has traditionally been surrounded by a degree of mysticism. Tuwere (2002, p. 54) says that “in old Fiji, the chief represented the god”. The installation ceremonies are closely linked to the gunu where the god is believed to enter the new chief through the traditional drink of yaqona. Sahlins (1985, p. 75) puts it more bluntly when he says that the Fijian chief is perceived to be the embodiment of god. In fact the chief has generally been accepted as being the embodiment of the kalou-vu or progenitor – this made him a key structure within the traditional framework of governance. Very interestingly, the office of the chief was traditionally an achieved position (Nayacakalou, 1975, p. 39). Conquests and warfare were a common means of acquiring chiefly office. Certain outstanding traits, characteristics, and/or circumstances could also lead to the assumption of chiefly positions.

The succession process of traditional Fijian leadership as well as the physical chiefdoms therefore, were not a part of “tradition” as is now made out to be. The three confederacies (Tovata, Kubuna and Burebasaga) plus the chiefly households that dominate these chiefdoms were part of the “invented tradition” of the colonial administration. Many of the chiefly disputes that have begun to arise from the cracks of these “reinventions” can be better understood when seen from this perspective. In contemporary Fijian society, seniority of descent and political dominance have become key factors in the selection of chiefs. Chiefly authority, on the other hand, rests on the consent of his people. A chief who loses the support of his people is referred to as Turaga vakasenitoa (literally like a hibiscus which does not have fragrance).

This support is now dependent on generosity with personal wealth, knowledgeability, political clout, traditional as well as modern power networks, and official positions in the formal administration. Thus it is in the chiefs’ personal interests to aspire to positions within the bureaucracy and politics; his progress within this however, can no longer be guaranteed as he faces increasing competition from enterprising and ambitious commoners.

Roles Played by Chiefs
The significance of the chief in helping govern the country, connecting the Fijian to the national administration as well as rallying mass Fijian political support was well appreciated by colonial administrators, and later, politicians. Howard (1991, p. 27) writes that, the GCC “was used by Gordon to help legitimate his efforts to create a stable and uniform colonial state, and his power over the council was considerable”. This led to strategic use of chiefs in prescribed administrative positions in the colonial administration as the need to keep the Fijian within the ambit of national administration continued to escalate especially after the 1920s when the indentured labourers began to acquire “free” status and embark on competitive endeavours to forge a new life in an essentially hostile environment.

At this stage the “divide and rule” doctrine became increasingly important to ensure that the two communities did not inter-mingle to the extent that either changed the prescribed orientation and position of the other in the wider scheme of governance for the country. To this end, the Fijian chief played a key role in keeping the Fijian community organized separately from the rest of the country via the bureaucratic apparatus that preceded the Fijian Administration – a parallel government apparatus that helped retain and maintain the protected and special status of the Fijian. This is where the chiefs were employed most effectively in maintaining the Fijian community as a unified and generally satisfied grouping.This acceptance, of the centrality of chiefs, by the colonial administration was in no small measure due to pressure and support from “hard-pressed European mercantile capitalists.”

The establishment of the Fijian Administration in 1944 firmly entrenched the chief as a permanent part of the national bureaucracy. In fact this bureaucratic-political formation virtually created a “state within a state” from 1945-1960. Subsequent setting up of exclusive schools further facilitated the access of chiefs to bureaucratic and leadership positions. This centrality of the chief in the colonial administration made it inevitable that they would play an increasingly active role in Fiji’s politics.

As mentioned earlier, chiefly involvement in politics was linked to their indispensability within the doctrine of “indirect rule” as well as the all-encompassing, reified, leadership position they held within the Fijian psyche. Fijian representation in the Legislative Council between 1904 and 1965 was through government selected nominees of the GCC. From the 1920s through the 1950s, as the Indo-Fijian voice for political representation became increasingly more assertive, Fijian (and European commercial) opposition to this was mainly articulated by and through the chiefs. This political voice of the Fijian chief moved to centre stage during the multi-racial December 1959 Oil and Allied Workers strike led by Apisai Tora and James Anthony, when it invoked Ratu Mara, Ratu George Cakobau and a handful of other chiefs to address a counter rally at Albert Park on 10 December 1959. The chiefly voice had thus steadily gained a direct place in Fiji’s political landscape, and it would strive to entrench itself further as the full import of the dilemmas contained in juxtaposing traditional authority with modern democratic rule began to emerge. During the constitutional conferences of 1965 and 1969, chiefs were at the forefront of negotiations for Fiji’s independence, and in 1970 it was the Big Four – Ratu Mara, Ratu George Cakobau, Ratu Edward Cakobau and Ratu Penaia Ganilau—  who steered Fiji through independence. Without their direct backing the Great Council of Chiefs would not have accepted independence.

It has been argued before that this close involvement of chief with government tended to create a mistaken and misplaced belief that the Fijian chiefly system is synonymous with government (Appana, 2005). This continued to distort the functioning of what was implemented as a democratic system of governance once Fiji gained dominion status and after independence in 1970 – the problem persisted through to 2006, and Fiji is now once-again faced with the dilemma of how to incorporate the chiefly system into a modern system of democratic governance. The 1970 Constitution attempted to establish a legitimate place for the chiefs in national government when it not only gave them numerical dominance in the Senate, but also accorded them veto powers over any matters that affected Fijian land, customs or customary rights. Unfortunately, the full import of this was neither fully understood nor appreciated by the majority of Fijians as seen in the build-up to, and the aftermath of, the 1987 coups.

The role and conduct of the chief outside of these constitutional provisos has been unclear. There are no institutional mechanisms that allow the GCC to have a direct say on matters of national interest. Legally speaking, their contribution has merely been advisory. On matters of particular significance to Fijian traditional interests, the GCC adopts a position outside the ambit of the parliamentary process.

A number of prominent chiefs entered politics as natural successors to the colonial administration. Others recognised the need to enter public office and jockeyed for positions over the years. It has paid handsome dividends for chiefs to augment their traditional sources of power with modern ones emanating from holding public offices and engaging in business ventures. Even though traditional bonds weakened, chiefs continued to hold sway over their people, about 60% of whom are rural dwellers. This is because “chiefs are recognised by many as the guardians of those values that are essential to the life of a particular group or society”.

Chiefly influence is still dependent on political and economic clout, but the nature of this has changed markedly. Political parties actively court chiefs for blessings as this assures them of votes – not of the individual variety, but that of groupings. Rewards are then expected through appointments to public offices or partnerships in business enterprises.

In addition to this, chiefs (through the GCC) have been called upon to find “solutions” whenever Fiji has faced political uprisings. In 1987, when the country was plunged into its first coup crisis, the chiefs deliberated long and hard before supporting Rabuka’s coup. Their focus was not only on assuaging Fijian fears of “Indian domination”, but also on ensuring that Fiji came out of the disaster with as little damage as possible. Then again in 2000, after the initial trauma of the Speight upheavals, it was the GCC (with active military support) that played a key role in getting the hostages released safely from Parliament.

There is little denying that tradition, which is manifested in the Fijian chiefs and the GCC (as opposed to individual chiefs), has had a stabilizing and healing effect on the general populace of Fiji. This fact was recognised even before the coup phenomenon became a part of the political process in Fiji when Routledge (1985, p. 221) wrote that the “importance (of the traditional) as a cohesive force will continue, giving life and strength to Fijian society in the multi-cultural complexities of the contemporary state”. In fact, it can be argued that the GCC has actually operated beyond this and continued to give hope to all of Fiji’s people. The landmark1997 constitution was only promulgated after the unanimous blessings of the GCC. Indo-Fijian leader, Jai Ram Reddy’s address to the GCC on PM Sitiveni Rabuka’s visionary initiative on that occasion was a historic development of monumental proportions. Reddy humbled himself before the august body and reminded the chiefs that they were not only chiefs of the Fijians, but also chiefs of the Indo-Fijian community.

Unfortunately, this aspiration has not become a realisation yet largely because of Fijian insecurities and parochial interests; and Indian lack of conversance with the significance of the institution as well as the protocols involved.

History shows that Fijian fears and insecurities have been invoked to serve vested interests whenever the need has arisen and chiefs have played a central role in this mobilisation. Opposition against the Bavadra government of 1987 began with roadblocks into Tavua ordered by the Tui Tavua, Ratu Ovini Bokini. Subsequent meetings had a strong presence of chiefs who were agitating for personal as well as what was made out to be “Fijian interests”.Then again in 2000, it was both the overt and covert support of some of the chiefs that lent credence to and fuelled the anti-Chaudhry marches. Chaudhry had alienated the bulk of the chiefs and the GCC, in his haste to show economic progress. The chief thus, remained at the centre of government and governance in Fiji even though his hold and influence had undergone marked changes.

A Hybrid Model of Governance
It can be seen from the discussions so far that what evolved as models of government in Fiji were always a hybrid that was borne of two different frameworks of governance: one a traditional model and the other a purportedly modern one based on democratic traditions. Within this, the chief was expected to, and did, play the role of primary unifying force of the Fijian community. His influence and leadership was very much dependent on his holding a bureaucratic/ administrative position within the colonial administration. This was later supplemented with political positions via the GCC.

Through this setup a mutual dependency relationship was perpetuated between the Fijian, the chief and government. In order to maintain the centrality of the chief within this bridge between the traditional and modern structures at play, the chief was strategically allowed to play the role of provider as development projects, resources and assistance flowed through him from government. This distorted, to a damaging extent, the Fijian conceptualization of government as he saw the chiefly system as being synonymous with government. This also almost automatically ensured that the Fijian was given to expect special assistance from government as of right. As a natural consequence, it was inevitable that tensions would arise when the chief’s hold weakened and when Fijian demands became unmanageable.

There were a number of assumptions within this framework that were to be tested severely over time, these included: that Fijians would always remain united under the chiefly system, that Fijian chiefs would remain united and operate harmoniously, that Fijian aspirations and demands would be met in perpetuity, that political opposition would never come from within the Fijian hierarchy, that political opposition would only come from the outside and hence galvanize Fijian unity and that the three underpinning pedestals of the traditional system - the lotu, matanitu kei na vanua - would never crack and buckle. Each of these was to fall with time and propel the country into coup-coup land.

Chiefs against Chiefs
As mentioned earlier, chiefly participation in the colonial administration began through the establishment of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) in 1876.The Chiefs were then immediately co-opted into the colonial administration to quell the violence that had erupted between the colonial forces and local hill tribes in Viti Levu. After this, they operated as minor functionaries where, in addition to being hired as officials and bureaucrats, some matters of importance to the Fijian were referred to the GCC for consultation and deliberation. This helped keep the Fijian chiefs within the ambit of national administration whilst retaining effective indirect control over the commoners. The traditional relationship of mutual dependence between the commoner and the chief was thus reinforced through the colonial administrative apparatus.

Over time, this relationship of dependency underwent a subtle but significant change as the dependence of the commoner on the chief increased, and the dependence of the chief on the commoner began to be replaced by his dependence on the colonial administration because the chief was now a bureaucrat in the Fijian Administration. This marked the beginning of a major distortion on the position and role of chiefs within the Fijian socio-political structure.A major assumption within this structure, with the GCC (and chiefs) mediating between the Fijian polity and the colonial/national administration, was that the GCC (and the chiefs) would remain united and revered. And as mentioned earlier, this has undergone drastic changes in recent times.

The 1987 coup unleashed a plethora of conflicting interests and ambitions that had flow-on effects on the GCC. One of the first significant acts of defiance against the GCC was seen when judges of the Supreme Court of Fiji rejected the coup and Chief Justice Timoci Tuivaga advised the Governor General (GG) to assume executive authority in defiance of Rabuka and his nationalist supporters. The GG refused to endorse Rabuka’s coup and a tug of war ensued until the CJ found a first breakthrough by calling on the GG to form a Council of Advisors to run government.When he arrived to address that crucial GCC meeting on 21st May 1987, the GG and paramount chief, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, was booed by coup supporters who saw his vacillation as a sign of opposition to Rabuka and his coup.This unprecedented act of disrespect and effrontery appeared to show that the GCC was divided.

More importantly, it appeared that vested interests could blatantly use and abuse the chiefs for personal advancement.This indeed turned out to be true as wholesale changes were made to the composition of the GCC in 1990 under the rhetoric of re-establishing chiefly power in national governance. Out of a total of 55 members, the GCC now comprised: 3 nominees from each of the 14 provinces and Rotuma, 6 nominees of the Minister of Fijian Affairs, the PM, President, VP and Sitiveni Rabuka (as the only life member). The provincial representatives did not have to be chiefs, and it became common to have chiefs and influential commoners making the provincial trio. Then the 6 nominees of the Fijian Affairs Minister comprised a mixed composition. In effect the GCC was turned not only into a divided entity, but one that was no longer the sole domain of the chiefs.

During the 2000 siege of Fiji’s parliament by George Speight and his supporters, the GCC was openly defied on a number of occasions by the military, other chiefs and Speight’s group. Decisional dithering and bickering amongst the chiefs prompted the Chief Justice to remark at one stage that the chiefs “were supposed to be the voice of reason, the voice of wisdom …But they are at war among themselves” (Australian, 6/6/00, p.9). Interim deputy PM, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau was scathing in his condemnation when he acknowledged the “unadulterated greed and the unbelievable arrogance (that) was shamelessly displayed by chiefs and people alike on May 19” (Scoop, 20/12/00). It is an open secret that chiefs were aggressively jockeying for positions of power and influence within the vacuum created by the coup.

One incident that broke out of the hallowed halls of silence of the GCC at the time involved one coup-intoxicated Naitasiri chief who broke protocol and berated yanuyanu or island chiefs saying that they were overstepping their marks as “visitors” to Viti Levu. In the aftermath of the bloody mutiny at the Fiji Military Forces HQ in Nabua on 2 November 2000, Commodore Bainimarama, who emerged in a strengthened position, was reported to have lamented that the instability “would not have happened if the chiefs had been united,” and that the chiefs should be “more honest and open to each other.”

Moreover, the SDL government had within its ranks a number of Ministers and senior members who were part of the illegal and treasonous Speight regime. This association of PM Qarase with coup elements created an unprecedented public divide within the ranks of the GCC.

The ascension of Ratu Epeli Ganilau, an FLP government nominated member of the GCC, to the prominent position of GCC Chairman, helped paper over the ominous rifts that were threatening a number of political groupings within the Fijian establishment. The GCC Chairman’s strong public pronouncements on the need for tolerance, multiracialism and reconciliation tended to grate against government rhetoric on special Fijian rights and privileges. Ratu Epeli was also consistently calling for the paramountcy of the rule of law in dealing with coup elements. This came to a head when Ratu Epeli asked the Vice-President, Ratu Jope Seniloli, a Kubuna chief, to resign because of his involvement in the 2000 coup. Government’s initial response was to attempt to discredit him through the media. In a scathing public attack Information Minister Simione Kaitani, a commoner, called for his resignation accusing him of causing divisions among his own people and being disrespectful to his high chief, the Tui Cakau (Fijilive 22/6/04). Similar attacks followed from Ratu Josefa Dimuri who also called for Ratu Epeli to step down as chairman of the GGC for his alleged involvement in the removal of former president Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. He then reintroduced the Kubuna-Tovata tug-of-war that was a major part of the hidden power struggle in the 2000 upheavals by saying that Ratu Epeli, a high chief of Tovata had insulted the Kubuna people by calling for the resignation of their high chief, the vice-President (Fijilive, 22/6/04). Ironically, by saying this publicly Ratu Josefa was himself insulting a high chief linked to his own vanua of Macuata. These outbursts exposed publicly, for the very first time, open, undignified and unchiefly acrimony among ranking chiefs in Fiji. It also eroded further the already frayed mana of the chief.

Three Divided Houses
In the Fijian conceptualization of matanitu or government there are three distinct geographically demarcated, but kinship-linked political entities as “Fijians speak of Fiji in terms of Kubuna, Burebasaga, and Tovata” (Tuwere, 2002, p. 30). The intricate web of kinship relationships that bind each of them were a part of the transient traditional social order before colonization in 1874 (Routledge, 1985, p.5).This was later extended across the three matanitu through inter-marriages and enduring tribal linkages. At the pinnacle of each confederacy (matanitu) sits a chiefly family led by a benign chief who is accepted and respected by his vanua. These kinship-linked socio-political groupings of matanitu have been used in structuring the administration of Fijian society by successive governments in Fiji. Integral to the effective functioning of these administrative structures has been the institution of chief. The assumption has been that each of the three households would remain united and hold the wider traditional power structure together. Unfortunately, at this point in time, two of the three paramount chiefly houses in Fiji are virtually irreconcilably divided.

With the passing away of Tui Cakau, Ratu Glenville Lalabalavu in 1999, Tovata endured an unprecedented and silently acrimonious power struggle between two cousins: Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu and Ratu Epeli Ganilau. Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu was finally installed as Tui Cakau in April 2001, but the people of Cakaudrove have been divided on this. Ratu Naiqama’s involvement with the 2000 coup also tarnished his image to some extent. His rival Ratu Epeli Ganilau’s removal from chairmanship of the GCC by a government in which Ratu Naiqama was DPM, tended to widen the rift between these two chiefly cousins of Tovata. Furthermore, the removal of Ratu Naiqama from Deputy-PM by Bainimarama in 2006 and the subsequent inclusion of Ratu Epeli as DPM has damaged relations at Vuniduva (seat of the Tui Cakau) virtually beyond repair. On the other hand, the confederacy of Kubuna has been without a head called Vunivalu since the passing away of Ratu Sir George Cakobau in December 1989, because of intense internal disagreement among the cousins of the House of Mataiwelagi in Bau. When pushed on this issue, senior title aspirant, Adi Samanunu Talakuli, was reported to have said that the Cakobau family had not talked about the issue for some time and that they would "wait for God's time". This in Fijian-speak meant that it would probably not be done in this lifetime. The third confederacy of Burebasaga has a unanimously endorsed and installed Roko Tui Dreketi, Ro Teimumu Kepa who appears to lack the larger-than-life profile of her late sister as her track record does not show any public-prominent positions of the type needed to propel a chief to larger-than-life status in Fiji. In fact, Ro Teimumu’s husband, Sailosi Kepa, had a comparatively larger public profile before she became Roko Tui Dreketi. Moreover, she has been defied from very close by Rewa after the 2006 coup. This came to the fore in a bitterly acrimonious public debate on the historical status of Vei Dovi between her spokesman and a prominent member of the Vunivalu of Rewa clan.

There is thus little arguing, that with the passing away in May 2004 of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, in July 2004 of Adi Lady Lala Mara, and the death of President Ratu Josefa Iloilo in 2010,the Fijian establishment has been left with a yawning leadership void. Fiji does not have any unanimously installed paramount chiefs of larger-than-life stature anymore. This, and the fact that all three paramount chiefly households are divided, plus the fact that chiefs have begun to openly speak against other chiefs, clearly shows that the Fijian chiefly system is no longer the enduring unifying force that it once was when it was used by successive governments to provide the foundation for an acceptable democratic system of governance. The system has also been facing increasing challenges from the Fijian commoner. It needs to be noted that these demands and challenges have been boosted by the periodic occurrence of coups in the country when the chiefly structure has been at its weakest.

Commoners against Chiefs
Reported public proclamations against chiefs by commoners began with Sakeasi Butadroka when he formed the Fijian Nationalist Party in 1975 and started to criticize Ratu Mara and his multi-racial policy on Fiji. This came to a head just after the 1987 coup when he called Ratu Mara “bloody Judas Iscariot” before a milling crowd of confused people in front of the newly-besieged Opposition Office.  Straight after this, coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka engaged Mara in a protracted battle for leadership of government that involved unprecedented defiance and intrigue within the undeclared power struggle. Ultimately Rabuka managed to accomplish the following: he beat Ro Lady Lala Mara for the position of leader of the GCC;created Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT) Party in 1990 in a GCC meeting; he beat back a leadership challenge from Mara protégé Josevata Kamikamica to become PM in 1992; he became the first and only permanent member of the GCC in  1990; he became the first commoner chair of the GCC in 1999; and he was part of the group that sent Mara away from Government House on 29th May 2000. After the signing of the Muanikau Accord between the military and Speight on 9 July 2000, civil defiance and violence was escalated throughout the country in an attempt to intimidate and influence the forthcoming GCC meeting. When questioned about this, rebel Jo Nata boasted that this was like “holding a gun to the chief’s heads” (Australian, 13/7/00, p.7). In 2001, army spokesman Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini was reported to have said that the chiefs were “riddled with personal agendas” and incapable of impartial, decisive action (DP 2/12/01). This was unprecedented at the time from an active army officer and a commoner at that.

After Laisenia Qarase became PM in 2001, a number of commoner members of his government openly criticized chiefs without censure – Simione Kaitani has been mentioned earlier in this article. Qarase went one further when in June 2004 he refused to renew Ratu Epeli Ganilau’s nomination as one of government’s six representatives on the GCC. This prematurely ended Ganilau's term as Chairman of the Council as its regulations require the Chairman to be a member. Qarase continued with his campaign to push through reforms regardless of intermittent disapproval from chiefs when he accepted 2000 coup tainted individuals into his government and even gave a number of them cabinet positions. Of particular significance was the fact that PM Qarase and Attorney General Qoriniasi Bale, commoners from the same province of Lau, spear-headed the Reconciliation Tolerance and Unity (RTU) Bill through all the provincial councils, including the Lau Provincial Council in July 2005 when the council met at the Fijian Teachers Association building in Suva, where the Mara family vehemently opposed the initiative as they saw it as an affront to the late Ratu Mara. This was a major show of strength bordering on defiance by professional commoners against traditional authority. Later another Lauan, Anare Jale, challenged the dominance of the Mara clan in Lau in June 2008 by contesting the chairmanship of the Lau Provincial Council against Roko Ului Mara (Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba). When he lost, he threatened cession of Ono-i-Lau to the Kingdom of Tonga. It is of interest to note that Jale was appointed CEO of PSC by Qarase and was married to Emele Duituturaga, the CEO of Social Welfare.

Similar acts of defiance against chiefly heads of provincial councils were seen in other provinces. In Ba, former Ba Holdings chief executive officer, Isimeli Bose filed proceedings in court against Ratu Tevita Momoedonu, Chairman of Ba Holdings Ltd. over his sacking by the new board (FT 23/9/06) at a shareholders meeting in Vuda in late July 2006. Bose, a former senior minister in the Rabuka government, had earlier shown his displeasure by storming the Rogorogoivuda House and damaging property with 20 other men. In Tailevu, Josefa Serulagilagi was elected in May 2009 to chair the Tailevu Provincial Council for the eighth time after being disqualified from being a member of the council in December 2008. He was brought back into the council through a Fijian Affairs Ministry nomination and contested the post of chair against high chiefs Adi Samanunu Cakobau and Ratu Cokanauto Tu'uakitau. Serulagilagi polled 90 percent of the 47 votes (FT 28/5/09).

Commoner assertions of individual rights and aspirations are clearly being pitted against chiefly authority with greater regularity. This is closely linked to an ever-widening rural-urban divide that continues to shrink the domain of the chief. Figures released at a Lau Provincial Council meeting in Deuba on 17th August 2010 highlighted mass migration to Viti Levu as a major concern as given existing trends, the Lau Group’s population would be decimated to 5000 by 2050 (FT 18/8/10). Moreover, the rural-urban divide is now more blurred than ever as more urban dwellers and retirees have begun to increasingly return to their villages and more rural dwellers engage in commercial enterprises. The urban-rural flow comprises two groupings: one that is not immersed in the traditional system that props up the chief, and the other being ex-paid employees who have access to retirement funds and property removing their reliance on traditional structures for sustenance. This has already begun to impact life in rural Fiji. In fact at a Macuata provincial council meeting at Naduri Village in Macuata, newly-installed President, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, said that in many provinces many villagers were no longer concerned about the affairs of the council because the council did not have any real value to them anymore (FT 13/11/09). This tendency is also seen in recent exhortations by provincial councils and Roko Tuis calling on people to be prompt with their soli ni yasana (provincial levy). The manner in which the Fijian views his traditional obligations and his place within Fijian society is obviously very different from that encountered and fossilized by Governor Gordon in 1875.

There is little arguing that the Fijian chiefly system played a key role in supporting and complementing the different models of governance in Fiji at different times. It needs however, to be noted that what the colonial administration “froze” as the traditional Fijian chiefly system in 1874 was based on the context and prevailing power relationships at that point in time on an ever-changing power-political stage. This fossilization did not foresee the challenges that would inevitably test and threaten the system. The chiefly system thus formed the back of the liberal-democratic system that presented the “face” of government in Fiji after independence in 1970. It was therefore very important that the hierarchy seen at the back (i.e., the chiefly structure) reflected that seen at the front (i.e., the government) – this was accomplished, at times with great difficulty, through the appointment of chiefs in key positions within government, the bureaucracy and the military.

This participation of chiefs in public offices, and more particularly in national politics, within a framework that has not adequately demarcated or reconciled the traditional structure of Fijian society with the modern structure of Fiji society has continued to render the institution of chief vulnerable in the face of unrelenting and inexorable change. Nayacakalou saw this problem way back in 1975 when he wrote:

There are already changes toward a more democratic type of leadership. But the process is difficult owing partly to the resistance of groups which have a vested interest in the preservation of the old order, and partly to actual conflict of authority between traditional and modern leaders.

The hybrid structure that continued to be used contained within it the dilemmas inherent in juxtaposing traditional authority with modern democratic rule. Moreover, the advent of education as well as the inevitable influences of modernization that could not be prevented from affecting Fijian society, led to subtle redefinitions of the institution of chief as his role within the modern structure underwent expected as well as unexpected changes.The institution of chief has therefore been under increasing pressure that has taken on the proportions of a siege of late with Commodore Bainimarama declaration that chiefs pose a major obstacle in the path to true democracy in Fiji.

This paper has focused on three main sources of seemingly insurmountable, and increasingly expanding, challenges to the chiefly system. In a clear break from protocol, conflicts among chiefs have begun to be played out in the public domain. This has had a damaging effect on the persona of the chief as well as established and expected relations between the chief and, to some extent, between the vanua they represent.

Secondly, the fact that two of the three paramount chiefly houses are virtually irreconcilably fractured makes it extremely difficult to see a unified, cohesive chiefly system operating within the GCC as was the case when the “Big Four” held the Fijian polity’s allegiance, loyalty and respect. There is no longer any later-than-life chief in Fiji in the same mould as Ratu Sukuna, Ratu Edward Cakobau, Ratu George Cakobau, Ratu Penaia Ganilau and Ratu Mara – this has created a leadership void that will be extremely difficult to fill through the traditional structures that worked in the past.

Thirdly, Commoner dissent, demands and public defiance of chiefs is potentially the most potent of the challenges faced by the chiefly system. When this is seen in light of demographic movements among the ethnic Fijian community – where not only is there a continuingly increasing flow towards urban centres, but a reciprocal flow of retirees back to villages – it is not difficult to see that the chiefs traditional positioning within his domain is under threat from within as the relationships within villages have begun to change drastically.

The mana of the chief thus continues to lose its lustre at an increasing rate largely because of its weakening traditional bases within a modernising political-economic environment. Despite that, there is little denying that tradition, which is manifested in the Fijian chiefs and the GCC (as opposed to individual chiefs), has had a stabilizing and healing effect on the general populace of Fiji. This fact was recognised even before the coup phenomenon became a part of the political process in Fiji when Routledge (1985, p. 221) wrote that the “importance (of the traditional) as a cohesive force will continue, giving life and strength to Fijian society in the multi-cultural complexities of the contemporary state”.

The on-going dilemma between preserving the traditional system to maintain the stabilizing influence of the chiefs, and meeting the increasing demands of what is no longer a bi-polar, but a multi-polar political framework, needs to be resolved without any fuzzy areas in upcoming attempts to develop a functioning democratic system of governance for Fiji. The initiative will need to identify compatibilities and contradictions between the traditional and the modern in the current context, and this will have to be guided by pragmatism.


Appana, S. (2005). “Traditional Leadership at the Cross-roads: the Fijian Chiefly System”, Working Paper #00-012, SSED, University of the South Pacific, ISBN: 982-01-0680-X.

Appana, S. (2009). “From Democratic Dictatorship to Democracy in Fiji”. In conference proceedings, 11th Pacific Islands Political Studies Association (PIPSA) conference, 3-4 December 2009, University of Auckland, NZ.

Australian, 6/6/00; 13/7/00

Daily Post, 2/12/01

R.A. Derrick, A History of Fiji (Revised Edition), (Suva: Government Printer, 1950).

M.C. Howard, Fiji: Race and Politics in an Island State, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1991).

Fijilive, 22/6/04

Fiji Sun, 21/5/87

Fiji Times, 9/11/00; 23/9/06; 28/5/09; 13/11/09; 18/8/10.

B.V. Lal, Power and Prejudice: The Making of the Fiji Crisis, (Wellington: The New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 1988).

B.V. Lal, Broken Waves: A History of the Fiji Islands in the Twentieth Century, Pacific Islands Monograph Series, No.11. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992).

I. Lasaqa, The Fijian People Before and After Independence 1959-1977, (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1984).

J.D. Legge, Britain in Fiji, 1858-1880, (London: Macmillan, 1958).

Maddocks to Secretary of State, 30th December 1960, CO1036/812.

Nayacakalou, R.R. (1975). Leadership in Fiji.Melbourne: OxfordUniversity Press.

C.G. Powles, The Place of Chiefly Systems in Constitutions. In Fiji and the World: Research Papers of the Fiji Constitution Review Commission Vol. 2. B.V. Lal & T.R. Vakatora (eds), 325-47, (Suva: SSED, The University of the South Pacific, 1997).

R.T. Robertson & A. Tamanisau, Fiji: Shattered Coups, (NSW, Australia: Pluto Press, 1988).

R.T. Robertson & W. Sutherland,   2001.

D. Robie, Blood on Their Banner. Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific, (NSW: Pluto Press, 1989).

Routledge, D. (1985). Matanitu: A Struggle for Power in Early Fiji. Suva: The University of the South Pacific.

M. Sahlins, Islands of History, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Scoop, 20/12/00

I.S. Tuwere, Vanua. Towards a Fijian Theology of Place, (IPS/USP and College of St. John the Evangelist, Fiji, 2002).

Usher, L. (1992). Letters from Fiji 1987-1990. Suva: Fiji Times Ltd.

R.G. Ward, ‘The Pacific Beche-de-Mer Trade with Special Reference to Fiji’ in Man in the Pacific Islands: Essays on Geographical Change in the Pacific Islands, R.G. Ward (ed.), 91-123. (London: Oxford University Press (1972).

*  Paper delivered to the PIPSA Conference (8-9 December 2011), Apia, Samoa.
** Subhash Appana is the MBA research coordinator at AIS St. Helens in Auckland and an adjunct lecturer at the Fiji National University (FNU, Fiji). Prior to this, Subhash held a number of senior teaching and administrative positions within the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of the South Pacific. A respected researcher and political commentator, Subhash has presented a number of papers at noted international conferences. He is attached as a reviewer to a number of conference circuits as well as journals. His research interests and publications span the management, economics, governance, indigenous business, education spectrum.


Anonymous said…
Another brillant piece of analysis. This is essential reading for the likes of Jioji Kotobalavu and other the SDL apologists especially the Aussie based group led by Jon Fraenkel(Baledrokadroka, Mara, Kaitani, Sulu Dauniveivutu etc) who have all called for a political role for the GCC.

Until the GCC sorts out all their contradictions as explained by Appana, then they should not be given a political role for fear of being a further destabilising influence as chiefs engage in backstabbing each other etc.
Anonymous said…
Well done Subhas. This is an insightful piece about the chiefly system. One of its many functions was to act as bulwark against Indian domination. Indians, or course are becoming a spent force politically. This is another reason why the relevance of the system is in question. Ultimately it will be the indigenous Fijians who will decide the fate of the chiefs, whose record, at best, is chequered.
Anonymous said…
This is a masterpiece that gives a true picture of the chiefly system and how it evolved and embedded itself in the Fijian democracy. The chiefly system constrained the advancement of ordinary indigenous Fijians and if the chiefs are not removed now, they will continue to be a negative influence on them. The Govt should legislate and prohibit use of 'Ratu' and 'Adi'. Let those elected assume leadership roles and not those that claim it as birth right.
Homage required said…
In other areas of the world where a hierarchy persists in an evolved mode, "Noblesse oblige" was a duty and responsibility of those born noble. Their conduct was expected to remain noble during their lives on earth. It refers to the duties and responsibilities of the nobility.

It often did not. Many lost their heads. Some were innocent; they still lost their heads. Had we known history better, we might have reflected upon this a long time ago.

Public money had a role in all this. The peasantry grew to resent the feudal tithes payable upon land they tilled for the Feudal Lords. Often the tithes were burdensome resulting in hardship.

Today we use the overworked word 'elite'. Now evolved into 'celebrity'. Noblesse oblige cannot be applied to celebrities. They appear to owe nothing to anyone but still require homage?
Anonymous said…
Any institution that outlives its usefulness will suffer the wrath of the people, as happened (continue's to) during the Arab Spring. Democracy and Chiefly rule are incompatible and the chiefs should have been delinked after Fiji's independence. The chiefly system never operated on democratic principles and once they got constitutional recognitition they began to flap their wings and threatened democracy and left it in ruins. The 1970 Constitution was conceived by the Chiefs who ensured their dominance, the Chiefs influenced the 1990 Constitution and they retained their influence in the 1997 Constitution because the influence they held over their people was considered too valuable by the politicians and the chiefs did not disappoint in this regard. In the proposed Constitution they should not even be mentioned and be left to fade with the passage of time.
The natural dynamic is towards freedom said…
There is nothing 'chiefly' about Vladimir Putin. But the people are out on the streets decrying their tainted elections and no one less than Mikhail Gorbachev "The Man with Whom we may do Business" has spoken out to say that he should step aside.

Gorbachev "The Great Dissenter" - has again proved that he will not be arriving too late, that he is still 'in business' for the Russian People and not for his own interests. Like former Czech President Vaclav Havel whose state funeral has just taken place in Prague, he is a person who perceives the inevitability of change and the requirement to move with the times and the dictates of economics and the popular will. Freedom is the natural dynamic. It will never be thwarted indefinitely. President Havel stood for the validity of truth over lies. He was imprisoned for this belief on more than one occasion.

Popular posts from this blog

Fijian Holdings Scandal: Betrayal by their trusted sons

Lessons from Africa

The Ratu Tevita Saga, Coup4.5, Michael Field, the ANU Duo, and Tonga