One morning around 18 months ago I was standing atop a drought-blighted hillside graveyard. The Fiji national anthem was played at one point, which was distinctly strange because this assembly of martyrs was outside Harare in the cursed African nation of Zimbabwe. Perhaps the bandmaster liked the tune, but most of the people there were, for survival’s sake, blindly loyal to one nearby man; Robert Mugabe. He gave a rambling speech about the glories of his liberation wars and went on about how the world did not understand Zimbabwe and its traditional ways. You feel physically ill when in the presence of such diatribes; what you see with your own eyes makes a complete mockery of the words. Mugabe is 83 years old; the life expectancy of ordinary Zimbabweans is just 33. He’s consuming his own people in pursuit of immortality.
Now for the benefit of Fiji’s current rulers – whose restricted intellects can be seen from the fact that if they had thought for a minute, they wouldn’t have staged a coup at all – I do not equate Fiji with Zimbabwe. Nature has been very cruel, of late, to Zimbabwe; she has always been generous to Fiji. It’s merely its citizens who make a mess of it.
Still, some accidental parallels are present. Mugabe’s thugs were running Operation Murambatsvina, aimed at driving opposition supporters out of the pathetic squatter camps they were obliged to live in. Over 700,000 people lost their homes. The translation of Murambatsvina is “clean up”. Voreqe Bainimarama shares Mugabe’s clean up fetish.
What made me think of the anxious morning on Zimbabwe’s Heroes Acre was listening to Colonel Pita Driti’s April 12 speech at Queen Elizabeth Barracks (QEB). It sounded the same xenophobic rant. Driti later seemed to realise that he’d removed his own big toe with his shots. He also demonstrated vividly his personal ambitions to take power. Is he the next Shane Stevens? That he is part of the Murambatsvina Triumvirate is odd; am I the only one to remember his distinctly ambiguous behaviour during George Speight’s coup. That he did not end up in Nukulau is a tribute to his craftiness; or quiet recognition that he leads a significant and dangerous clique within the Republic of the Fiji Military Force (RFMF). Coup V or VI is going to come from him. Some one other than Ilisoni Ligairi turned the 1st Pacific Meridian Squadron aka the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Unit from a specialist defender of democracy to an enemy of it. That person is still in the RFMF and don’t imagine for a moment the new anti-corruption squad will go after him.
Whatever virus Driti had was catchy because Bainimarama was also foot-shooting under the guise of a war on Washington (Please, some one, lend him a copy of Peter Seller’s “The Mouse that Roared” – just to lighten things).
So, why am I now writing my own invitation to a re-education session at QEB? One reason is the fate a couple of contacts in Suva. One used to be outspoken but had a QEB conference session and is now a quiet little mouse. Remember “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”; military lobotomy and all is quiet. Another was always good for coffee, including the day before Murambatsvina. Righteous outrage followed but then something happened; the coup turned out to be aimed, not at clean up, but at indigenous rule.
This too is a post humorous tribute to Robert Keith-Reid. Way back in 1987 he was hauled up to QEB for a severe thrashing in the name of Sitiveni Rabuka. He used to speak of it later, with a kind of shudder, but unlike the current generation of pussy cats, it did not shut him up. He was angry and outspoken right up until his death during the elections last year. The first time he went back into QEB after 1987 was in 2000 to witnesses Bainimarama announce his First Coming as the Saviour of Fiji.
I’ve also some obligation thanks to “Speight of Violence; Inside Fiji’s 2000 coup” which I wrote with former Foreign Minister Tupeni Baba and his academic wife Unaisi Nabobo-Baba. As anybody who has read it will realise, I carried most of the narrative and expressed most of the opinions over what the coup was about. The Babas wrote personal accounts, one as a hostage, the other as a waiting wife. In the book I wrote Fiji had not confronted the real lessons of 2000. Because of this, I wrote two years ago, Fiji, would quickly suffer another coup.
It had been a good exercise in writing a history of an event a couple of years on; the trivial and the significant become re-arranged.
Now it can be argued that 2000 real coup was not when Speight and whoever else he had in his band overthrew the always venal Mahendra Chaudhry on May 19, 2000 (one can only speculate on whether the family scrapbook containing all his statements on the importance of democracy made in 1999-2000 are being kept). It wasn’t Speight who ultimately kept Chaudhry out of office after he got his freedom. It was not Laisenia Qarase. The man who usurped power in 2000 was Bainimarama.
Perhaps this was why he was always so angry with Lieutenant Colonel Filipo Tarakinikini. Was the handsome hill tribesman really in on the first Bainimarama coup - only they fell out in a battle for the spoils. Tarakinikini is Fiji’s Molotov; in perpetual exile waiting for an ice pick. Driti was with the other coup.
May 2000 had nothing much to do with Speight at all; the bald one was an opportunist who dropped the ball. Bainimarama did too, but he eventually got rid of those who blocked him.
What his actions underscore too is the danger implicit in the RFMF’s existence. In its entire lifetime it has not driven off one foreign enemy. It has not fought one single battle in its own right in its existence. Its only combat was as part of a New Zealand force in the Solomons and while their endeavours there were heroic, they were not influential or particularly outstanding. They were not called upon again to fight after the Solomons. For much of their life too they have been a a racially based force; a matter of shame they have yet to recognise.
Their peacekeeping work is no doubt worthy, but lets make it clear here. Nations provide soldiers for such duties for one of two reasons; because they believe in being good global citizens (in which case the go along with the global rules), or they need the money. Fiji rejects democracy and it is obvious that they are soldiering, not for a cause, but for the money. Fiji soldiers are the girmit to the world’s messed up zones.
It’s a complete myth too that Fiji makes money out of war-whoring. The UN pays for some of it, but raising soldiers is still a net cost to Fiji. Putting soldiers into Lebanon, or Croatia or Iraq means Fiji’s hospitals do not have the services they would otherwise have. Soldiers in Baghdad mean Vanua Levu’s schools do not have books, much less computers. And imagine the clean and reliable water the people of Suva could have if the soldier’s money was spent on pipes. Soldiers – any soldiers in any nation – are a drain, dead or alive. Fiji’s fascination with soldiering is a costly adolescent boy fantasy. They have, on more than one occasion, systematically wrecked Fiji’s economy. They cost a fortune and every so often they stage coups, usually just after the hard pressed civilians have got the GDP moving back into positive territory.
Just imagine if Fiji had no army! Perhaps Tonga might have invaded Lau, and Tuvalu might have plundered Rotuma. A lot of money could have been saved though; Fiji could have made it as a First World nation. The truth that Fiji’s people need to understand is that no one is planning to invade Fiji and if they were there are easier ways to do it. Foreign invaders could just take over Fiji’s banks, fast food joints and cinemas. And some supermarkets and the odd island or two; Waikuya for example, or Turtle Island. But, of course, Fiji would never let foreigners take over like that?
And what an incredible joke Fiji and the UN are now playing. They are off to Baghdad to help in the no doubt noble venture of keeping warring Muslim factions from destroying each other. Meanwhile back in Fiji various Sunnis are actually filing in the previously elected posts around the place. It has a kind of manic madness about it all.
Epeli Ganilau (seeing the cohorts have scrapped the GCC the “Ratu” business can now be skipped) gave a press conference last December just after the coup. In the elections earlier in the year his cobbled together political party had won no seats and few preferences. It was worse; no one could remember what it was that his party even stood for. But packed into his pokey little office near Marist he told us all we had to accept reality, roll over and surrender. Help the new order, he said. He was duly rewarded with a military burble in a cabinet no one recognises. I was struck with the way a former military commander simply surrendered like that. He just gave up (unless, of course, he was part of the coup – but he denies it). Gosh, he said, the odds are too bad, let us drop our arms and bend over. The RFMF has only one significant bravery award to its ranks; that granted Sefanaia Sukanaivalu who was killed trying to fight the inevitable, but was cut down in a heroic defence against impossible odds. Ganilau would define Sukanaivalu was a misguided fool. Surrender, not glory, is his order.
The leadership of Zimbabwe, like those who have claimed Fiji’s leadership, are given to exclaiming that the world does not understand them. And that the world should leave them alone, although some of money from those who don’t understand would be welcome. Bainimarama and cohorts might want to consider something else: the world does understand what is going on in Fiji. The world does not like it. So long as Fiji wants to help itself the money of other taxpayers, it comes with conditions attached (oh, and Fiji’s need for foreign, tainted cash would virtually disappear it it did not have to pay for the RFMF each year).
What Bainimarama has not got – and a lot of Fiji’s people seem to have failed to get a grip on – is that the world is simply not going to accept his rule. He can huff and puff as much as he likes but in the end, small countries are obliged to accept global rules. Some go their own way; North Korean and Zimbabwe for example. Its One World Frank; not One World and Fiji!
The global order – with its increasing acceptance of democratic rule (and yes, China is not but who can make it conform to that particular rule) – is actually to the benefit of countries like Fiji. This though is not an argument for globalisation or multilateralism; its much more brutally pragmatic than that. Bainimarama might escape prosecution in a Fiji court, but he’s doomed on the global stage where he cuts absolutely no ice. He can strut Mussolini-like for a while for local consumption, but in the end he will realise – as he must – that his triumph is pure mirage. What the Pacific Forum, the Commonwealth, the UN and the neighbours want, they will get. It is an inevitability. The only question is how much damage he and the RFMF will do before the light goes on in their heads.
Have no doubt here, the damage being inflicted to the people of Fiji, by the people of Fiji, is substantial and long term. A slide in GDP might sound strangely academic to most but the reality it translates into is poverty, disease and failure.
Bainimarama launched his second coup (his first was in 2000) differently this time, saying he wanted to end the coup culture. It is up there with the never to be forgotten Vietnam military expression, destroying a village to save it.
Fiji is heading to another coup; the only person who can head it off now is none other than Bainimarama himself.