Changes in Constitution-Making in Fiji

Part 1. Background to the 1970 Constitution and Early Elections  
By Subhash Appana

The Ghai Commission recently began its work on re-inventing a constitution for Fiji. This is a process that we’ve gone through three times already: first during the London Constitutional Conferences in 1965 and 1969, then in the aftermath of the 1987 coup and more recently, when the Reeves Commission went on an extended mission to bequeath Fiji with a lasting constitutional framework of governance – all of these ended in failure! Here, I take a brief look at each of these undertakings in attempting to identify what is different this time around.

For those who came in late, the London Constitutional Conferences that bequeathed us with the 1970 constitution were primarily focused on charting a roadmap to independence for Fiji. Despite the worldwide movement for independence that had surged inexorably through the 1960s, Fiji was almost an afterthought on the British agenda. I say “afterthought” because when Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana, 1957), Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia, 1964), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania, 1964), etc. unleashed the demand for independence on the back of Pan-African nationalism, Fijian independence was considered a mere imagination of its immigrant Indians.

In the lead up to independence in 1970, there were compelling reasons for the reluctance to declare Fiji independent. A cadre of loyal Queen’s Knights, who held sway in London (and their local cohorts), were not convinced that independence was the best option for Fiji’s future. The most compelling reason was that independence would have challenged, and inevitably changed, the power positions of these White Knights and their compradors. This was opposed, as in Rhodesia, with rationalizations that pointed at a rout by people who were not ready to run government.

Let’s go to Rhodesia first. Rhodesia gained independence from Britain and became Zimbabwe in 1980. The struggle for independence was prolonged because entrenched white settler interests in the country felt that too much was at stake. They were not prepared to risk losing national influence if a black government were to ascend to power via the ballot box. For a while the two main tribes - Mashona and Matabele – were divided. So the Ian Smith government used this to justify staying in power even through the use of force.

Later, when Robert Mugabe (Mashona) and Joshua Nkomo (Matabele) forged an unexpected alliance, Smith was abandoned by the British and ultimately had to bow out despite support from South Africa. Mugabe then became the father of Zimbabwe and as time went on the Mashona-Matabele fractures led to a renewal of tribal rivalries. Zimbabwe still struggles with that as Mugabe refuses to believe that “other” ideas are needed to help the country.

It was almost the same in Fiji where the two "tribes" contending for control were the Fijians and the Indo-Fijians. At that time (1960s), the Indians outnumbered the Fijians and it was very likely that given the institutionally-created separateness of the two communities, the Indians would win the independence elections. This would have led to all kinds of problems for the white power brokers as they had almost invariably worked against the Indian community ever since the Indian arrived on the shores of the undeveloped country as indentured labourers (1879-1916).

The London Constitutional Conferences thus faced the challenge of designing a constitution that ensured power in perpetuity for the Fijian Establishment-backed political party and a meaningful political voice for the Indo-Fijians while meeting the basic requirements of a constitutional Westminster-type democracy. Power in perpetuity was guaranteed in the 1970 constitution through the inordinate number of General Elector allocations in parliament.

The Generals had 8 seats in the 52 member parliament. Moreover, a number of cross-voter seats were engineered to always fall to the Alliance Party. There were a number of assumptions behind this arrangement. One, that the indigenous Fijian would remain united and vote as an ethnic bloc for Ratu Mara. Two, that the Generals would always support Mara. Three, that the Indians would be fragmented with its business interests supporting Mara.

This held true in the 1972 elections when Ratu Mara garnered some 25% of the Indian vote and most of the rest. The Indian-dominated National Federation Party duly took up its designated role of opposition and played it so well that by 1977 they (and by extension the Indians) were seen as the “opposers”. Unfortunately, the assumptions that had propped the 1970 constitution unraveled at the 1977 elections when the Alliance lost against all expectations.

That election will be dealt with later. Now, we need to identify what was different in the context that gave birth to the 1970 constitution. Firstly, the Fijian community was largely rural and unexposed to thinking outside the ambit of the chiefly system when it came to deliberations on government. The few educated were strategically absorbed into the Alliance Party. The Fijians thus voted as a bloc within the traditional chiefly framework. They were also highly suspicious of Indo-Fijian aspirations and intentions in what they saw as a threat to their way of life in their own country. And they had good reasons to think like that.

Secondly, the Indo-Fijians were very “Indian” at the time. Institutionalized separateness and special treatment of Fijians had ensured that there was minimal cultural integration. In one case, an Indian youth who had taken a Fijian wife/partner and moved into a Fijian village in Navua was forcibly removed and imprisoned by the authorities. Indo-Fijian labour had also been systematically exploited ever since 1879, so the Indo-Fijian did not trust any government that had white presence and inadequate Indian representation.

They viewed the white presence in government with extreme suspicion. This hampered a healthy development of Indian trust for the Alliance Party as expected by Ratu Mara. The Indian also saw himself as having proprietary rights within a colony that he had helped develop with his inadequately-appreciated toil, tears and tax. He was acutely aware that the Fijian was not part of the tax paying category at the time.

Thus the 1970 constitution was designed in a clearly-demarcated bi-polar environment. Divisions and fractures within the two groupings would appear later to condemn the use value of that constitution. Heightening expectations and demands would hound all subsequent constitution-making processes. Next, we will look at the failure of the 1970 constitution. Keep tuned.

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
Sent: 16/8/12


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