by Rajendra Prasad
Since the dissolution of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) in 2007 by the Bainimarama Government those of and from the chiefly clans, all over Fiji, have reacted variously. Largely, in the absence of any popular resistance, the Government decision has prevailed until now. However, with elections looming, the SODELPA Party, with ethno-centric ideology and following, is campaigning strongly to restore the GCC. Ro Teimumu Kepa, a paramount chief from Rewa is the leader of the SODELPA and holds the view that the GCC was a vital iTaukei institution and should be restored. It was established as an advisory body to the Government during the colonial era (1874-1970). However, after independence, the iTaukei elected their ethnic representatives to the Parliament and need for the GCC to provide such advisory service became obsolete.
GCC not missed
On reflection, such institutions are created to serve particular needs and interests of a society. Occasionally, as the society evolves, such institutions either strengthen or lose relevance and dissolve. The GCC has not met for the last seven years and it has been conclusively proven that no one has been disadvantaged except those that comprised it or those few who benefitted from it. Interestingly, the first coup in 1987 was executed by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka to restore the chiefly power and authority, as he claimed that the chiefs were the wise men in Fijian society, “…take the power and give it to commoners and you are asking for trouble.” However, once in control, Rabuka forgot about the chiefs and claimed the position of Prime Minister of Fiji and held it from 1992-1999. As if this were not enough, he, a commoner, became the chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs, which conclusively proved that the exclusivity of the GCC for hereditary chiefs was fictitious. Further, following Rabuka’s reign, he was succeeded by Laisenia Qarase, a commoner, which further repudiated the claim that right of leadership in Fiji was the preserve of the chiefs alone. Then why are the chiefs still treasured by such leaders? The sole reason is that chiefs, as territorial leaders, bear enormous clout in uniting their flock to vote for their parties. For this, no cost as reward was too great. For example, the Qarase Government was building a $F40, 000,000 meeting house for the chiefs! Radike Qereqeretabua, a Fijian intellectual referred to it as “a monumental folly of our time” arguing that such funds could have gone a long way in alleviating iTaukei poverty.
Individual rights inviolable
Now as the election is drawing nearer, the former beneficiaries of the GCC are acutely missing it. It is, therefore, not intriguing to note SODELPA’s stridency rising by the day. In the process, the true character and content of its leaders and party philosophy is coming to the surface. Claim to racial superiority and racial supremacy on the grounds of being the indigenous race is now being pursued with vigor. Indeed, such claim grievously contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, which is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Further, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in the 107th plenary meeting on September 13, 2007 does not claim that human rights of the indigenous people exceed the human rights of non-indigenous peoples. Simply, on the plane of humanity, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone is equal. However, equality for all does not mean that certain exclusive rights, to which the indigenous peoples are entitled, under traditional and customary rights, can also be subject to claim by others. But again such exclusive traditional and customary rights to indigenous peoples cannot and does not mean that they can subjugate or violate the rights of others.
Rabuka endorsed equality
Interestingly, when the 1997 Constitution was being considered, Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka had clarified to the Parliament that that there ‘was no provision in the Draft Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples nor is there any intention that there should be provision that would confer on members of any indigenous community anywhere in the world, inherent rights of paramountcy or predominance over other citizens.’ Instead, he clarified, that the intention was to ‘obligate the State authorities in the countries concerned to ensure that members of their indigenous communities, as individuals and as groups, are given the same fundamental rights and freedoms as constitutionally guaranteed for all citizens’. However, since 1999, following defeat of his SVT Party at the polls, Mr. Rabuka has been wondering in the wilderness and was courting the extremist fringe but with little success. His use by date has long expired but for him, having tasted the blood of politics, it is not easy to hang the boots. Besides, the seismic shift in the political landscape of Fiji means those who sang hymns of racial hatred will no longer have the benefit of the music provided to them, as of right, by the RFMF!
Supremacy but no benefits
But let us go back to history on the claim for political supremacy. The iTaukei, in practice, enjoyed political supremacy since independence except for one year (1999-2000) and until 2006. So from 1970-2006 (35 years out of 36 years) every Government was iTaukei dominated. What difference did it make to the ordinary iTaukei, (excluding those who were close to the ruling elite) who continued to live in grinding poverty? With ownership of over 90 per cent of all land in Fiji and entitlement through traditional and customary resources, they had a right to prosperity but all was lost because of their leaders who failed to guide them on prudent and effective use of such resources. The leaders prospered but not their people. So, supremacy of indigenous political rights has been tested in Fiji’s white heat of racial hatred, which benefitted only a select few and not the broader community that they purported to serve. What hurt most was that Indo-Fijians were blamed for iTaukei privation and the real culprits escaped. This great lie had created a crevasse in race relations that benefitted a select few to the detriment of the majority and the nation. This is the legacy of the British colonial rule that used ‘divide and rule’, placing communities against each other to benefit from the spoils. While it did so, it spawned a powerful group that allied with it to facilitate the plunder of the nations that it ruled. Following independence, it bestowed the governance of such nations in the hands of such groups, wherever it could. In Fiji, the vastly modified chiefly system became the most powerful tool in the hands of the British to rule Fiji and after independence the chiefs with their associates were maneuvered into position of power and authority to govern Fiji.
Racism in political discourse
The sad thing about it was that the despicable tool of racism continued to shape the future of the nation. In the first decade, following independence, multiracialism, multiculturalism and unity in diversity were widely preached but beneath the surface the ugly coals of racism smoldered. By the first election in 1972, after independence, he NFP members began distancing themselves from the Alliance Government, as fumes of covert racism reached their nostrils. The honeymoon period between the two parties, the Alliance and NFP, was over for good, as Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition rattled the Alliance Government at every turn. However, the Alliance Party effectively used such attacks by the NFP, predominantly Indo-Fijian, as anti-iTaukei. It worked. Fiji’s racial divide worsened. It advantaged the iTaukei elite but not the nation or its peoples at large, including the iTaukei. The system had created prosperity for the chosen few and bestowed poverty to others. Truth was submerged in the debris of political lies, as the iTaukei elite maintained iTaukei unity through fear that Indo-Fijians posed gravest threat to their customary and traditional rights, including land ownership. It worked.
The iTaukei united and voted for their ‘champions’ and they retained their hegemony. It was in the interests of the iTaukei elite to keep the two races divided to continue their political dominance. If it lost, the RFMF was there to retake through the power of bullet what was lost through the ballot. Consequently, the power, authority and position of the iTaukei elite, led by chiefs and their associates, were unassailable. In 1987, the iTaukei elite lost and dutifully, the RFMF moved in and deposed the Bavadra Government and restored them back into power. The hidden purpose of the RFMF was realized and revealed. Democracy was trashed and decried as foreign flower. It was repeated in 2000 but with a vacillating commander and divided RFMF until it degenerated into a mutiny that claimed the lives of eight soldiers. Ratu Inoke Takiveikata, the Qaranivalu (chief of Nausori) was implicated for his role in fomenting the coup, aimed at killing the commander (Bainimarama) of the RFMF and replacing him with one that shared the ideals of the ruling iTaukei elite. With this, politics in Fiji became a blood sport. This event shook the RFMF to the core and it transformed itself and, in the process, changed from being part of the iTaukei establishment to one that took upon itself to rid the establishment from people who used iTaukei rights as a façade to secure their political hegemony for power, perks and privileges. In Fiji, the British model had degenerated grievously.
Legacy and road ahead
One of the most telling legacy of the British colonial rule was that it left a far more vicious ruling elite than itself. If the British were discreet in using racism, the post-independence ruling elite were bold, audacious and malicious. To the ruling elite in Fiji means justified the end. The Indo-Fijians were its direct victims and iTaukei were its unsuspecting victims. Both suffered the debilitating effects of its rule, as the plunder of the nation continued. The military coup of December 5, 2006 deposed the ruling iTaukei elite from power, accusing it of corruption and racial discrimination. The interim Bainimarama Government has ruled from 2006-2014. It has removed all forms of racial discrimination and strongly advocates equality, justice and dignity for all. Benefits to the iTaukei in this period have been phenomenal. What it said it delivered and, importantly, it dismantled the edifice of racism, enabling children of Fiji to think and see each other as one people. The Bainimarama Government has established the template for a future government, following the proposed elections on September 17, 2014. Indications are that if SODELPA comes back into power it will revert to the politics of the old, restoring the Great Council of Chiefs and advocating past policies and practices. Will the nation again be the captive of the chosen few? Only the voters of Fiji can decide. God Bless Fiji.
(Rajendra Prasad is the author of Tears in Paradise – Suffering and Struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879-2004)
-- Originally published by the Fiji Sun 24 August 2014