Since a new government came to power in Fiji on December 24, 2022, following national elections, there has been much to unpack. On Christmas Eve Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka was elected by MPs as Fiji’s prime minister by the narrowest of margins, one seat. Rabuka governs with a brittle coalition of three parties, “The People’s Coalition,” in a parliament where his predecessor, Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, who wielded extraordinary power in Fiji over the past 16 years, remains with his other Fiji First MPs, one seat away from regaining power.
Despite this tenuous grip on power, Rabuka’s government has wasted no time in unleashing an ambitious agenda of domestic reforms, intended to draw Fiji out of its deep and painful post-pandemic economic doldrums. They are also aimed at quickly dispensing with many vestiges of Bainimarama’s Fiji, in which loyalists were positioned throughout the government and its agencies and laws sharply curtailed fundamental freedoms.
A slew of investigations, suspensions, and retirements ensued at such a pace in the first two weeks of 2023 that the commander of the Royal Fiji Military Force (RFMF), Major General Jone Kalouniwai, issued a troubling statement. Kalouniwai reminded the new government of the RFMF’s constitutional obligation to ensure the “well-being” of all Fijians. Although Kalouniwai was rebuked and has since publicly demonstrated loyalty to the new government, he nonetheless introduced the specter of Fiji’s traumatic political past– four coup d’etats since 1987 — into this very new political era.
History, and its wounds, overshadow Fiji in 2023 and its future path in myriad ways. At the center of this history is Rabuka. Rabuka first came to global attention as a colonel in the RFMF on May 14, 1987. By 1987, Fiji had been independent of Britain for 17 years, a period politically dominated by the Alliance Party and its iTaukei (Indigenous Fijian) leader, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. In April 1987, Mara’s government fell to a coalition with the Labor Party led by Timoci Bavadra and the National Federation Party, which was dominated by Indo-Fijians.
This 1987 electoral outcome reflected Fiji’s demography. The country was approaching parity between its iTaukei and Indian population, predominantly descendants of Girmityas (indentured laborers) brought into Fiji to work Britain’s colonial sugar industry in the islands from 1878 onward. (Sugar, along with tourism, remains the mainstay of Fiji’s economy though sugar production is in decline.) After the April 1987 election, Fiji’s Indian population dominated both the nation’s economy and government.
According to his 1988 book, “Rabuka: No Other Way, His Own Story of the Fijian Coup,” Rabuka said he was carrying out “a mission that God has given me” of ensuring “the survival of the Fijian race” in the islands God had “chosen” for them. Rabuka installed a caretaker government, yet he was so dissatisfied with it that he led a second coup on October 7, 1987. Fiji was declared a republic, breaking official ties with the British Crown. A new government was installed and Rabuka took a seat in its cabinet.
These race-based political machinations were echoed in widespread reprisals against the Indo-Fijian community, resulting in a devastating “flight of financial and human capital,” particularly of highly skilled professionals, accompanied by a crash in tourism and sugar. A new constitution was written in 1990 that enshrined racial inequality by giving “protection to the interests of the indigenous Fijians, their values, traditions, customs, way of life and economic well-being.”
In 1992, Rabuka was elected prime minister and served until he lost the 1999 election. During his premiership Rabuka oversaw a constitutional amendment in 1997 to embrace “the descendants of all those who chose to make their homes in these islands,” describing Fiji as a “multicultural society.” This shift allowed for Fiji’s reinstatement as a British Commonwealth nation, signifying the end of Fiji’s time as a pariah nation.
This status was short-lived. After Rabuka’s 1999 election loss to a majority Indo-Fijian government, another coup was led by civilian George Speight with rebel RFMF soldiers. Speight held Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his cabinet hostage for 56 days from May 2000. Speight was found guilty of treason in 2002 and continues to serve a life sentence, commuted from a death sentence, for these crimes on an island off Suva along with his accomplices. Like the 1987 coups triggered by Rabuka, the Speight coup devastated Fiji’s tourist-dependent economy, and the nationalistic sentiment behind it that aimed to exclude Indo-Fijians from heading government once again returned Fiji to international ignominy.
Now Rabuka is back in power, the fate of George Speight has been the subject of much speculation. Rabuka has said that due process will be followed, and Speight’s case will be reviewed by the “Mercy Commission,” which investigates prison sentences on request. As such, there is no date set for Speight’s release, Rabuka said recently.
The long shadows of the Speight coup loom over the present in other ways. The long political reckoning sparked an ongoing battle between Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, elected in 2001 after serving as interim leader following the coup, and the commander of the RFMF, Frank Bainimarama. Not only was the fate of the 2000 coup leaders a constant source of tension between the two men, but they were also divided over the question of iTaukei nationalism.
When Qarase won the May 2006 election, tensions with Bainimarama escalated. Despite Qarase conceding to Bainimarama’s demands to drop controversial legislation that aimed to enshrine iTaueki traditions and interests, Bainimarama led Fiji’s fourth coup in December 2006. Despite attempts at reconciliation, Bainimarama assumed control of the nation and ruled it as a dictatorship until elections were held in 2014, which his party, Fiji First, then won.
Before the 2014 restoration of democracy, Qarase was charged, convicted, and jailed for a year for abusing his office, inflaming ethnic tensions, and failing to perform his duties. At the time, Amnesty International deemed Qarase’s conviction and jail term politically motivated. Qarase was also no longer able to participate in Fiji’s political life. Rabuka, however, who had entered civilian life after the 1999 election loss, reentered the political fray and contested the 2018 election. Since his return to power, Rabuka has evoked the memory of Laisenia Qarase, who died in 2020, in his social media posts and so revives the history of what happened to him under Bainimarama’s rule.
The echoes of history are visible in numerous ways in 2023, but there are also significant changes. Rabuka cuts a very different figure today than he did 36 years ago, when he led the first of Fiji’s four coup d’etats. Now Rabuka’s image emphasizes an empathetic leader who is a pater familias, a seasoned grandfatherly figure intent on putting Fiji to rights after the 16 Bainimarama years. Rabuka has repeatedly apologized for his role in the 1987 coups and now styles himself as a man of the people guided by his devout, but now far more tolerant, Christian faith.
The country he is again ruling is also very changed since 1987. Not least is the huge demographic shift that has seen Fiji’s Indian population decline to the point that it is now their community, and not iTaukei Fijians, at risk of so-called “extinction.” Economics and limited opportunities have driven younger generations of Indo-Fijians to emigrate, leaving a population that now makes up about 38 percent of Fiji’s more than 920,000 people. Land ownership is overwhelmingly locked into iTaukei possession, which dramatically impacts expansion in the agricultural sector for Indo-Fijians. Added to this structural circumstance are ongoing economic problems stemming from the pandemic that present more serious problems for the new government wanting to retain its young, educated people of all backgrounds. This is a problem facing other Pacific nations and territories too.
Despite these fundamental changes to personalities and the makeup of Fiji, it remains to be seen if Rabuka will be able to successfully lead Fiji out of the Bainimarama era. Bainimarama’s Fiji First is one seat away from returning to power and Bainimarama and his former deputy prime minister and attorney general continue to foment discord. The Rabuka government’s response to these challenges has been via expanded investigations into wrongdoing that has so far ensnared many officials, including Sayed-Khaiyum and as of February 1, Bainimarama himself.