Anticipating Attempts at a Derailment of the Constitution Dialogue Process
The Bose Levu Vakaturaga or Great Council of Chiefs that was abolished last week was a government body established to advise government on itaukei affairs, but in recent years it exceeded its brief by partisan involvement in national politics. In 2006 it comprised 55 members; 3 chiefs nominated from each of the 14 provinces, 3 nominated by the Council of Rotuma, 6 by the Minister of Fijian Affairs in consultation with the President (who was appointed by the GCC on the recommendation of the the Prime Minister), the Prime Minister, the President and Vice-President (also appointed by the GCC), and former 1987 Coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka was a life member. None of the chiefs was elected and all of the members were itaukei.
The PM's abolition of the Great Council of Chiefs (and my posting suggesting the abolition had pre-empted the actions of the Constitution Commission and Constitution Assembly) have drawn a wide range of responses.
Bainimarama's decision to abolish the GCC does not affect the traditional rights of chiefs, most of whom, of course, were not members of the GCC, nor does his assumption of the chairman's role in the Provincial Councils detract from the role of the councils or their chiefly members. These moves are not an attack on chiefs as such, or on itaukei custom as paramount chiefs Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu and Ro Teimumu Kepa have claimed. Nor does the abolition run counter to "a right mandated by the United Nations" as Ro Teimumu and lawyer Nikolau Nanaikula would have people believe. Indeed, some prominent chiefs have supported his move, among them Macuata's paramount chief, Ratu Aisea Katonivere, who wants to see chiefs return to their traditional role and stay out of party politics (Fiji News, 17.3.12). Nonetheless, the GCC has been around for a very long time and many itaukei have come to consider it a traditional institution.
Bainimarama's intention is not to undermine the chiefly system. His sole purpose is to remove the potential of these government bodies to thwart government policies and possibly serve as rallying points for a counter-coup or widespread disruption at national or provincial levels. Ironically, the reality of this threat was admitted by Ro Teimumu Kepa in speaking against the disestablishment."The 2006 coup," she said, "has only lasted so long because government suspended the GCC shortly after taking power."
In other words, had Bainimarama not suspended the GCC his government would have been overthrown in much the same way, presumably, as the Chaudhry government was overthrown in 2006, by a "peaceful demonstration" supported by some chiefs, opposition MPs and elements of the itaukei and business elite, the hierarchy of the Methodist Church, a mob and a military faction.
Many people, and I am one of them, would have preferred to have seen the GCC reformed on the recommendations of the Constitution Assembly, and not abolished before the constitution process starts.
But Baimarama's record shows that he removes anticipated opposition before it can be moblised. Thus, acting Landforce Commander Col. Baledrokadroka was stood down in early 2006 because Bainimarama knew he could not be relied up if events eventually resulted in a coup. The opposition of prominent chiefs, the GCC, the SDL and the Methodist Church to government initiatives, most especially the NCBBF and the People's Charter, resulted in the suspension of the GCC, the suspension of the Chief Justice, and the cancellation of Methodist annual conferences, and then, after Australian appeal judges found the coup to be illegal in 2009, he abrogated the 1997 constitution, stripped the Fiji Law Society of its previous powers, had the judiciary reapply for registration, forced the sale of the Fiji Times, sidelined millitary officers Ratu Tevita Mara and Pita Driti, and imposed the public emergency regulations.
The new pre-dialogue environment
The lifting of PER, media censorship, and the announcement of the constitution dialogue process have again created a new, freer environment where clandestine efforts by those opposed to Government's Roadmap, constitution and electoral reforms, and the 2014 elections could derail the process. My original thoughts were than the abolition of the GCC pre-empted the Constitution Process, and in a way it does, but it also makes sense to pre-empt organized opposition to the process.
The comment last week by military spokesman Col. Tikoitoga that attention will now move to depoliticising the Methodist Church (which he said "has been politically affiliated with previous governments which is not their role") is a logical extension of the action against the GCC. As in the case of the chiefs, government is not against the church as such, indeed most of its members are Methodists, but it is against a church hierarchy that has politicised religion and it not committed to multi-culturalism.
A further indication of things to come is the reply of the Attorney-General to Prof Biman Prasad's published comments which compared Fiji's low GDP with Mauritius that has no military forces and a high GDP. The A-G called on Biman "to give his recommendation to the Constitution Commission rather than speaking out in the media ...What they should be doing is going and making the issues to the constitution commission, we all know what the issues are, we said that in 2000, we said that in 87, so please go to the constitution commission and make your submission there”."
This could suggest that only limited discussion will be allowed before the Constitution Commission calls for submissions, and that an open forum will not exist until the Constitution Assembly meets. I do not agree with the A-G. People need to talk freely and openly, and think about the issues in a seamless process leading into the official dialogue. But, if my previous assumptions are correct, this is but another example of trying to prevent a build up of organized opposition, and firmly established positions, before the Constitution process starts.
And if the CCF survey on which I commented last week (Preparing for Democracy Parts I-III) is any indication, there is a case for reasonable concern: the itaukei grassroots, could again be manipulated by their chiefs and talatala as they were in the coups of 1987 and 2000 and the elections of 2001 and 2006.
What we have is far from ideal —and far from the comprehension of Government's overseas critics— but if there is to be relatively open and free discussion, a relative consensus of opinion in the Constitution Assembly, and a relatively democratic election in 2014, this is probably the surest and safest way of getting there.
If all goes well, the outcome should most definitely be relatively better than it was before 2006. At least, all Fijians will be treated as full and equal citizens, and the prospect of future coups should be reduced when each vote has equal value, when the members of all political parties come from all races, and when no constituency is based on race. But I doubt even then that Fiji's democracy will meet with total approval. A new Fiji, like Rome, cannot be built in a day.
Later in the week, I'll comment — with the A-G's permission, of course!— on the views expressed in favour and against the GCC.