Vision for Fiji

Graham Davis | May 01, 2009
Article from: The Australian

Bainimarama has some important allies, not just the venerable President but several progeny of Fiji’s old ruling elite – the Mara and Ganilau chief families – that took the country to independence from Britain in 1970.

Joining us for tea and pancakes at the barracks is someone lofty in physical stature and status, Tevita Uluilakeba Mara, Bainimarama’s army chief of staff and the younger son of modern Fiji’s founding father, Kamisese Mara. The country’s newly appointed Vice-President Epeli Nailatikau – a former high commissioner and head of the military before being deposed by Sitiveni Rabuka in the 1987 coup – happens to be married to one of Mara’s daughters, Adi Koila. She’s a former senator who has particular cause to detest indigenous extremism, having been one of Speight’s hostages in the 56-day siege of the parliament in 2000.
Bainimarama confirms that the new Vice-President was his first choice in 2000 to lead Fiji after the Speight coup but Nailatikau declined the role, so he turned to Qarase. On such fateful choices can a nation’s destiny depend.

Then, there’s Defence Minister Epeli Ganilau, Bainimarama’s predecessor as army commander who handpicked him for the post in 1999. He comes from another distinguished family, that of former governor-general and president Penaia Ganilau, and also married one of Mara’s daughters, Adi Ateca. Unlike many chiefs who were bitter rivals, the elder Mara and Ganilau forged a partnership in nation-building that served Fiji well in the years after independence and was notable for their strong personal friendships with people of other races.

But they came to be envied and resented by certain other chiefs, who were the hand in the glove of Speight’s intention in the 2000 coup to rid Fiji of what he identified as the “Mara clique”. Now that Nailatikau, Mara’s son-in-law, is in line to succeed Iloilo as president, some believe the Mara clique is poised to make a comeback, though with Bainimarama in charge running a common agenda.

While no one can be certain of it – given the venal nature of Fijian politics – many will hope this signals a return to some of the more enlightened aspects of the elder Mara’s rule. Chief among these were a healthy economy, infrastructure development and above all the notion, largely abandoned by Mara’s indigenous successors, that Fiji can succeed only with all races working together as one nation.

The point is that many of those around Bainimarama aren’t the coup-making thugs that have brought Fiji to its knees in recent years (though some, of course, put Bainimarama in this category), but individuals of genuine achievement with some of Fiji’s bluest blood coursing through their veins.

Unlike other chiefs who’ve aligned themselves with the indigenous cause, these individuals are also imbued with the vision of their fathers of a multiracial Fiji where indigenous values are respected but all races enjoy the same opportunities.

Mara’s dream was to emulate the success of his friend Lee Kuan Yew in creating a smaller but equally thriving version of Singapore in the South Seas. Replete, of course, with the same respectful media and intolerance of anything or anyone posing a threat to national unity. As with Bainimarama now, this theory holds that in developing countries with nascent democratic structures, keeping the peace comes before freedom of expression.

Mara’s vision was lost in the naked opportunism of the likes of Rabuka in the coups of 1987, Speight in 2000 and, arguably, Qarase in the months before Bainimarama says he had to draw a line under Qarase’s own racist agenda.

Had Qarase got his way, Bainimarama maintains, his reconciliation bill would have seen Speight and his violent ilk again strutting the streets of Suva. And his coastal resources bill would have made non-indigenous Fiji citizens obliged to pay cash to their neighbours to use the seas. Another of Qarase’s proposed bills put a question mark over the sanctity of freehold title.

Some opponents, notably in legal circles, argue that Bainimarama acted prematurely in 2006 because a power-sharing arrangement with the Opposition, forced on Qarase by the constitution, might have been a brake on the more extreme parts of his supremacist agenda. Dismissing this as naive, Bainimarama says his critics should focus more on Qarase’s record and what that would have meant for Fiji’s minorities, rather than support a process that would see Qarase restored.

He’s also asking Canberra and Wellington to better understand his own motives, to go beyond the power-hungry stereotype and genuinely examine why he took the journey from hero, for locking up Speight in 2000, to regional pariah nine years on.

“My vision for Fiji is one that’s free of racism. That’s the biggest problem we’ve had in the last 20 years and it needs to be taken out,” he explains. “It’s the lies that are being fed to indigenous Fijians that are causing this, especially from our chiefs who are the dominating factor in our lives. And the politicians take advantage of that. We need to change direction in a dramatic way.

“We need to get rid of Qarase and everything associated with the 2000 coup and begin entirely on a new path.”

That path is already evident in some of the faces in the corridors of power, overwhelmingly indigenous in recent years but now showing a modicum of diversity. More Indo-Fijians are appearing in senior roles, notably high-profile attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum – the bete noir of legal purists – and recently appointed Reserve Bank governor Sada Reddy, who replaced an indigenous Fijian, Savenaca Narube.

Bainimarama says he’d be appointing a lot more were it not for Australian and NZ travel bans on members of the regime, which are deterring some of the best and brightest potential recruits with family connections abroad. He’s also lifted the prohibition, under the abrogated constitution, on Fiji citizens holding dual citizenship, something he hopes will attract back many who’ve fled since 1987 and can return with their boltholes secured.

At 55, Bainimarama is part of the generation old enough to have grown up under reasonably enlightened British rule, with indigenous chiefs who commanded respect, and the promise of a bright future and independence as a beacon for other emerging Pacific nations.

Remarkably in republican Fiji, Bainimarama still sees himself as “a Queen’s man” and works, in all his offices, under photographs of the distant sovereign and her consort, junked after the second coup 22 years ago.
“I’m still loyal to the Queen. Many people are in Fiji,” he says. “One of the things I’d like to do is see her restored as our monarch, to be Queen of Fiji again.”

As they say, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. But maybe that’s what drives Bainimarama most of all; the notion, however quixotic, of a multiracial meritocracy belatedly fulfilling the great promise Fiji had in its early post-independence years, when a visiting pope John Paul II famously described it as a model for the developing world. Before the greed, the racism and the gun.

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