Changes in Constitution-Making in Fiji Part VI – After 1987
Changes in Constitution-Making in Fiji Part VI – After 1987
By Subhash Appana
The last article argued that by 1987 Mara’s hold on the Fijian polity through the Fijian chiefly system had weakened enough to present Fiji with a new PM in Dr. Bavadra for the first time in 17 years. This centralizing of the traditional Fijian system was always flawed because it refused to acknowledge the inevitability of change – of new ideas, new aspirations, enlightened endeavours, individual pursuit of success, etc.
For those who attempted to seek success outside the ambit of the traditional socio-political system presided over by the chief, new political parties had to be explored. This is why disgruntled elements joined Butadroka as early as 1975. That voice of demand and dissent had always been managed and subsumed within openings offered by government in the form of the Alliance Party.
Apolosi Ranawai’s demand was for access to business opportunities held tightly by white planters. Butadroka wanted to run buses “like the Indians”. There was a tortured link between government support and running business stemming back to the paternalistic policies of the colonial government. Times had changed, but Fijian expectations from government had not only increased but hardened.
Ratu Mara was holding a hot political egg with his bare hands. To what extent could Fijian economic (and other) expectations be met without adequate monitoring and commensurate accountability? By the same token, to what extent could the chiefly system appease and contain changing Fijian demands? These were one-dimensional-looking questions with two prongs: production and distribution.
The Fijian component of Fiji’s political equation appeared to emphasize distribution with no concern for production. That was for government to work out provided the ever-increasing and changing demands for distribution were adequately met. To further complicate the Alliance predicament, what constituted “adequate” was easily open to redefinition. Any anti-Mara mischief maker could play with this.
Thus the alarm bells that began ringing in April 1977, then in 1982 were harbingers of inevitable defeat. When Mara’s Alliance Party finally did lose in April 1987, an unsuspecting Fijian electorate was apparently caught absolutely unawares. What was not meant to be had happened! The Indians had tricked Fijians into joining the FLP! Little India in Fiji! How dare they disrespect chiefs!
The Fijians thus were not willing to accept the verdict of the ballot box. And more importantly, even though Ratu Mara made his famous speech on “democracy is alive and well in Fiji”, his defeated colleagues rejected the outcome. In that silently crackling cauldron all that was needed was an outlet for Fijian reaction. That’s where Apisai Tora and the Taukei Movement emerged. Fiery ethno-nationalist speeches, hymns, sermons, nationalistic songs, food, transport and an underlying threat of unmitigated violence became part of an orchestrated movement against the Bavadra government. When the RFMF Bati moved in to restore power where it belonged on 14th May 1987, Fiji was simply trying to force back an inadequately articulated desire for change among the Fijian electorate.
That desire was going to present itself in unexpected ways in the future and the coup phenomenon would assist it in unforeseen ways. Fiji’s once-celebrated, now-maligned coup culture is a direct result of attempts to appease the Fijian electorate within a paternalistic political framework that denied the existence of ever-widening fissures and fractures within the Fijian polity – this is the root cause of the coup culture.
Straight after that coup was executed, every attempt was made to stem this aspiration for change and capture Fiji back within a traditional framework that was not only inappropriate, but was largely fictional in the first place. Centralizing the GCC as the main arbiter in negotiating stability and normalizing life in Fiji after May 1987 was the first step in this direction. That also started the ultimately debilitating process of politicization of the GCC – more on this later.
The emergence of the Methodist Church as a champion and bastion for Christian (read Methodist) Fijian aspirations was the second major shift in attempting to stem the tide that threatened the traditional Fijian system. The Sunday Ban herded the Fijian back into the fold as the chosen of God. An intense indoctrination process followed and, with that, traditional linkages and allegiances were reaffirmed under God’s guidance.
Never in the history of Fiji was the population more clearly divided than during the era of the Sunday Ban. Neighbours told on neighbours to settle old scores or petty jealousies. It was us-n-them, the chosen vs the infidels, the accepted vs the unaccepted, the believers vs the non-believers, the right vs the wrong, God vs Satan. That ban played the role of justifying human inhumanity within God’s humanity.
Another highly symbolic development that attempted to reaffirm the chiefly hold on Fiji’s polity took place after the September coup of 1987 as, after struggling with the reins of government for three months, Rabuka handed power back to Ratu Penaia Ganilau in a stirring traditional ceremony on 5th December 1987. Rabuka stood at the head of traditional Bati that day as he sought forgiveness and reaffirmed support for the high chief from Tovata.
The political processes at the time were clearly focused on re-entrenching and reaffirming the traditional Fijian system. There was no room for any other concerns even though a large chunk of Fiji’s population were simply watching through a shroud of doom. Few realized that the return of Mara as caretaker PM, following the December handover from Rabuka, would even the keel for changes that would deliver later.
It was Mara among the Fijian leadership at the time who understood best the need for Indians in Fiji. It was he who appreciated best the production half of the equation that was largely being forgotten in focusing on distribution for myopic political gain. After all a captive tax base, a captive human skills base, etc. within a politically powerless polity could not be dismissed on the basis of fired up ethnocentric dreams.
Fiji needed its Indians as much as it needed its Fijians. Distribution had to be matched with production – there was no other way. But a tortuous process had to be negotiated amid a torrent of expectations that the 1987 coup, and Rabuka’s experiment with power, had unleashed. The 1990 constitution was thus an inevitability that paved the way for 1997.
Next, we will look at the 1990 constitution, Rabuka’s epiphany and the 1997 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 firstname.lastname@example.org