Part VII, The 1990 Constitution by Subhash Appana
Changes in Constitution-Making in Fiji Part VII – the 1990 Constitution
By Subhash Appana
The last article argued that the May 1987 coup essentially created a moment of truth for the powers that be at the time; this basically meant the GCC and the military under the benign guidance of Ratu Penaia and (to a lesser extent) Ratu Mara. There was no arguing the seniority and experience of Mara at that juncture. Fiji needed him to minimize the international fallout and stabilize the domestic situation.
The immediate anticipated question was: what sort of a constitutional framework would ensure power in perpetuity for the Fijian and an acceptable political voice for the Indo-Fijian. Rabuka’s defiance and the emergence of multiple demands among newly-seen leaders of Fijian factions that had hitherto resided grudgingly under the Alliance umbrella complicated the situation in unanticipated ways.
Given the distrust, fear, unclearly-articulated ambitions and often-violent demands of the Fijian at the time, there was only one direction in which deliberations on a new constitution would go. It had to ensure that there was no doubt about the paramountcy of Fijian interests especially in national decision making. And it had to include overwhelming assurance that there was no threat to the Fijian way of life.
Very conveniently, the Fijian way of life was left to be defined according to convenience. There was no room for meritocracy, contested decision making, transparency, accountability, etc. Anything that was done in the name of the Fijian was considered good and acceptable. Any questions raised were seen as threats to things Fijian. Shut up and accept, was the rule!
The 1990 constitution was thus made by the Fijian seemingly for the Fijian. Few realized that it was going to create too many openings for a hijacking of national decision making processes for personal gain. The National Bank of Fiji went to the tune of $250m. Development Bank had lost $220m under Qarase’s stewardship before stops were put in place largely to save government from another damning banking disaster.
The problem was that the 1990 constitution had not considered the importance of enshrining checks and balances to prevent plunder in the public domain. It was a flawed document that had to be accepted given the circumstances. Ratu Mara saw it as the best that could be legitimized at that point in time given the realities of the situation. He however, somehow uncannily managed to get inserted into the document the provision for a review in 7 years.
That paved the way for dialogue between Rabuka and Reddy that would lead to the historic 1997 constitution. This process however, was not without its challenges in forging human relations and common understandings across a socio-political divide of vast proportions. It helped greatly that Rabuka was fighting a political battle for survival throughout his reign – this served as a classroom like no other.
Rabuka thus woke up to the realities of the production-distribution equation mentioned earlier. He realized (like Mara did all along) that Fiji needed both its Indians and its Fijians – there was simply no other way for progress in the country. Reddy’s diplomacy, persistence and sincerity helped forge a lasting bond between the two leaders and Fiji found itself with a new broadly accepted constitution in 1997.
Claims were made later by ambitious ethno-nationalists that 6 of the 14 provinces had opposed that constitution. The fact was that it was passed unanimously at a GCC meeting where Rabuka emphatically stamped his mark both as a politician and leader to be reckoned with. This was not missed by those who would scheme the events of 2000 when the trashing of the 1997 constitution reached its zenith.
The reasons for the 2000 coup are manifold; Dr. Steven Ratuva used the onion peeling framework to eloquently discuss the multiple reasons leading to that coup. One point was clear, economic interests of influential individuals and groups were under threat by the Chaudhry government. Not enough had been made; greed was at work.
They hadn’t manoeuvred and entrenched themselves into key positions after 1987 only to be thwarted by an upstart before ambitions could be fulfilled. Chaudhry had to go and he did go. Unfortunately, too many realized too late that they had been used in the process to legitimize that illegal change in government. This was the main cause of the Bainimarama-Qarase acrimony that led to the 2006 coup.
Now we find ourselves faced with the task of drafting yet another constitution that hopefully will deliver for the country as a whole. It should not be forgotten that the 1997 constitution was arrived at through an extended process of consultations and that it had broad-based support. Unfortunately for its architects, communal concerns of politicians led to its emasculation on the issue of cross-cultural cooperation.
The spectre of political success based on communal voting totally turned that constitution on its head when it was finally endorsed. What the Reeves Commission submitted and what came out especially in its electoral provisions was as different as cows and camels. Thus another expensive attempt at drafting a constitutional framework for a multi-cultural community was bushed by the myopic concerns of clouded politicians and their advisors.
There is no point in evaluating the 1997 constitution here because we have already embarked on drafting a brand-new constitution. The consultation process is almost over and the eminent commissioners have clearly seen how little is known about what to expect from a constitution. Someone wants traditional garb and hairstyle to be constitutionally enshrined.
Another wants wild pigs to be removed by guns because they destroy farms. A good number still want Fiji declared a Christian state because they fear an erosion of Christian focus among our people. Let the constitution ensure that we freeze all that we as a people cannot stop from changing because of the vicissitudes of time and changing human demands appears to be the rationale at play.
This is a forlorn wish, a lament in the face of change. The circumstances have indeed changed drastically and Fiji needs an appropriate constitution that facilitates and helps the nation manage and gain from this change. For this, it is critical that we identify what is different in the context now when compared to 1965, 1970, 1977, 1982, 1987, 1990, 1997 and 2000.
Next, we look at the changed circumstances in summary as we conclude this series. 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