Fiji Military in Our New Constitution
By Subhash Appana
The hottest topic in the country right now, despite the resounding political-economic and diplomatic successes of Commodore Bainimarama in PNG, is the new constitution. On the other hand, the most troubling thought in people’s minds is the role of the Fiji military and the spectre of coups that has dogged the country ever since it was decided in 1987 that a coup was not only needed, but acceptable for the country in order to ensure that “democracy was alive and well” in this our blessed country.
The reason why people think of coups in connection with the Fiji Military Forces is because each of Fiji’s coups has either been directly executed by the FMF or been backed by the same. In May 1987, even though Rabuka was the number three within the then RFMF, he had the backing of both the numbers within the force as well as the Fijian establishment – that helped legitimize and enforce that coup. The same happened in September 1987 after the Deuba Accord – between Ratu Mara, Ratu Penaia and Doctor Bavadra - displeased certain sections of the Fijian establishment.
In 2000, the Speight Coup was executed by a band of opportunists who had among them highly trained military personnel. This however, was only the first layer of the narrative. Ensuing layers showed chiefs, disaffected politicians, irate pastors, ambitious bureaucrats and threatened businessmen. The support structure for that coup however, did not end there - there was a direct military link. The CRW soldiers who ramrodded Speight’s siege of parliament for 56 days were an elite part of the FMF. Later they were joined by other soldiers led by Major Jo Savua.
The 2006 coup was both planned and executed by the FMF after a prolonged face-off with the SDL government extending to the installation of Qarase as interim-PM in July 2000. At that point in time, the FMF ruled within a framework of national emergency and Qarase was given the headship of the government executive by Commodore Bainimarama who had elicited an undertaking from the former banker that no coup-tainted persons would become part of government. This was later defied by an increasingly slick and pro-2000 coup Qarase. That was what led to the 2006 coup.
It can be seen from the brief history of coups outlined above that all of Fiji’s coups had military involvement. Thus it should be abundantly clear that only the FMF can successfully execute coups in Fiji. And by the same token, only the FMF can prevent coups in the country. This clearly spells that the FMF must have a role in the upcoming framework of government being proposed by the Bainimarama government. Just what that role would be, is not clear as we’ll see shortly.
It is with this in mind that a concerned Taveuni villager, Sevanaia Watekini, recently asked the AG if there were any provisions in the draft constitution that would guarantee there wouldn’t be any more coups in Fiji (FT 18/4/13). Mr. Sayed-Khaiyum’s response is interesting as he mentioned that indeed the draft constitution did have mechanisms to address this. Firstly, he referred to Section 130 (3) which states: The Prime Minister must appoint a Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, who shall be responsible for exercising military executive command of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces.
In the above proviso, the PM acts as Commander-in-Chief of the FMF. It needs to be noted that in earlier constitutions, the President was the Commander-in-Chief, but this did not prevent coups even though those Presidents were highly respected and loved (one might add). So how can the public be assured that by making the PM Commander-in-Chief, Fiji would re-bottle the coup genie? Sure, with Commodore Bainimarama as PM, we have an assurance. But what happens when he is no more?
The second explanation that the AG gave in Taveuni was that development is being carried to undeveloped rural areas of Fiji. He used the example of Naitasiri, implying that if that province had been assisted and developed adequately, the Naitasiri support for Speight’s coup would not have materialized. Sure, but didn’t the Qaranivalu play a role in galvanizing Naitasiri support? Is the chief no longer a force of influence within the traditional Fijian system? And how much assistance is enough to pre-empt coups?
It is obvious from the above that more thought needs to be given to the issue of the role of the Fiji Military Forces and coups. In fact, this appeared to also have crossed the AG’s mind when like a true lawyer he added, "I don't think any government around the world can guarantee to stop a coup but there have been mechanisms put in place to prevent a coup." It is these “mechanisms” that I wish to talk about next.
The draft constitution says: 130 (2) It shall be the overall responsibility of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all its residents. This however, becomes meaningless when a coup is executed by the FMF. The conundrum that arises is: can the military be given a constitutional role vis-à-vis government and coups? Two additional questions arise as corollaries: Can coups be prevented in Fiji? And what do we do in the event of a coup?
One possible proposal arises from the concept of “Guarded Democracy”. If the FMF were to be constitutionally established as the “guards” of democracy in Fiji, they would have the legal means to execute a coup to ensure that democracy delivers and is not hijacked as was the case that led to the 2006 coup. In other words, a coup of the type executed by Commodore Bainimarama would no longer be a coup as it would involve the military simply executing its role as the guards of democracy within constitutional provisos.
Fiji would then accept the coups (as has always happened) and we would find a constitutional path back to democratic governance while the military would return to barracks within the confines of the constitution. No international outcry from indignant, inadequately informed neighbours, no legal wrangles, no sanctions, less uncertainty, and most importantly an extremely cautious new government fully committed to the ideals of true democracy. Just think about it!
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