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Fiji: Civil Society Demands Powerful Minister Resign

An alliance of civil society organizations in Fiji has demanded the economy minister’s resignation amid a bleak economic outlook. 

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Fiji: Civil Society Demands Powerful Minister Resign
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An alliance of civil society and non-governmental organizations from across Fiji’s education, health, and development sectors have joined forces to call for the immediate resignation of Minister for Economy Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum due to the “economy failing at an alarming rate under his leadership.”

The umbrella group for the organizations involved, the Fiji CSO Alliance for Covid-19 Humanitarian Response, said in a statement on May 27 that the economy, especially as the COVID-19 outbreak in the country worsens, would be better served under a new minister for the economy.

“He has displayed a profound lack of economic knowledge necessary for this mandate,” the statement said. “We can see the surge in the number of requests for assistance from across the country. And yet, the Minister for Economy is completely out of touch with the urgent help that so many Fijians desperately need…it seems like the minister is either tone deaf or perhaps oblivious to it.”

The alliance said Sayed-Khaiyum, who is also Fiji’s all-powerful attorney-general and the minister for justice, aviation, climate change, communication, public service, and anti-corruption, should reflect on his multiple portfolios and leave the economy to qualified economists. 

The alliance includes the Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises & Development, Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, Citizens’ Constitutional Forum, Social Empowerment and Education Programme, femLINKpacific, Rainbow Pride Foundation, and the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement.

While up until just a few weeks ago Fiji had staved off a major COVID-19 outbreak, the economy, which is extremely dependent on the tourism industry, has been shattered. According to the World Bank, Fiji’s economy contracted by 19 percent in 2020 – the most severe contraction in Fiji’s history – and is on course to contract a further 4.7 percent this year, while unemployment rose to 27 percent.

Earlier this year, Sayed-Khaiyum told Parliament that government debt was projected to increase to around 83 percent of gross domestic product by the end of July 2021.

Worsening the situation, Fiji is now dealing with its first major outbreak of the virus. Since the outbreak stated in April 2021, the country has recorded 368 cases and four deaths. After containment efforts last month cases began to drop, but with cases now rising again it is expected Fiji will announce new lockdown measures in the coming days, further impacting the economy. 

On top of COVID-19, Fiji has faced an onslaught of deadly cyclones since the pandemic began, beginning with Cyclone Harold in April 2020, Cyclone Yasa in December 2020, and Cyclone Ana in January 2021. 

President of Fiji’s National Federation Party Pio Tikoduadua said in March that Sayed-Khaiyum appears to be even more “disconnected with reality” than usual.

“He is now saying that unemployed people who are receiving their Fiji National Provident Fund payments should look for work, where, in an economy crushed by government debt and COVID-19, does he suggest people should ‘look for work,’” he said.

“It is not long to the next election. We should be preparing to kick out this heartless and aimless government. That will be when the people of Fiji tell Mr Sayed-Khaiyum to ‘look for work.’”

The CSO Alliance’s calls for Sayed-Khaiyum to resign isn’t the first time the man, often called A-to-Z for his wide-ranging ministerial powers, has come under pressure from the public. 

In July 2020, a formal complaint was lodged with Fiji police by a woman who alleged that Sayed-Khaiyum, back in the 1980s, when he was suspected of being a part of the Indo-Fijian pro-democracy group known as the Fiji Freedom Fighters, planted two bombs that killed one bystanders and caused “severe injuries” to her family members, who were the assumed targets of the attack. 

Fiji’s public prosecutor said there was insufficient evidence to determine whether or how involved Sayed-Khaiyum was in the bombings, but nonetheless many Fijians felt he should step aside as attorney-general, given the power he holds over those who investigated him.

A copy of the CSO Alliance’s statement demanding Sayed-Khaiyum resign was sent to the attorney-general’s office, but there has so far been no response.

“The Minister for Economy has had 365 days to put in place a recovery plan but that has not happened…We demand [he] take heed of this advice and resign immediately. Let us not waste another 365 days,” they wrote.