March 20, 2012

Rt Joni Madraiwiwi: Fiji's 2001 Elections: Our Country at the Crossroads

5 August 2001

Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, a Fijian lawyer and former judge, who was appointed Vice President of Fiji, delivered the following 'Parkinson Memorial Lecture at Suva's University of the South Pacific on 15 August 2001.

In a little over a week, we will be having a general election, perhaps the most important in our history. It is being held against the background of the events of 19 May, 2000 and all that transpired. The result and the developments that follow will determine if the process of renewal begins or we embark on a period of instability and prolonged decline. The choices are that stark. As we prepare to look forward to the prospect of a return to democratic government and another beginning, there are several unresolved issues which haunt us still. The elections, while a welcome development have a surreal feel about them. The politicians pontificate and manoeuvre with eloquent manifestos and pronouncements saying little about the challenges we must confront. The future is uncertain compounded by the absence of a commitment from all participants to abide by the outcome regardless of the result. At this critical moment there is a need to reflect on what and where we are and where we are going. We are a divided society, but the ethnic differences so often remarked upon by observers and lay people alike are but one aspect of the problem. To the ethnic divisions extant since 1879 with the arrival of indentured labourers from India and the racial policies followed by the British Colonial administration, we now have intraethnic differences most recently apparent in the Fijian community. The rural / urban divide, provincial loyalties, eastern and western ties, professional and non-professional as well as chiefly and commoner interests have all played their part. These tensions are caused by the impact of change and modernity. One therefore has to look beyond ethnicity to understand that promoting national unity will require separate but complimentary approaches. Those interest groups must be allowed to express their views and engage while the ethnic divide can best be bridged with understanding for which trust is required.

At this time, there is a need for reconciliation and forgiveness both between and within communities. Insufficient regard has been given this issue by those in the political process. It is important because of the nature of the hurt, violence and suffering (inflicted and sustained) went deeper and was far more widespread than in 1987. For politicians, it is a delicate matter as a good many of them were directly affected. To that end His Excellency, the President, must be commended for having apologised and called for reconciliation. There ought to have been more recognition of it given his status. At the same time there must be an acknowledgement of the pain and suffering that was inflicted by some against others. And there must also be justice. Some have attempted to characterize all that happened as political and to claim this should be put behind us. To do that is to ignore the criminal aspects of the conduct of those concerned. Justice requires that those who broke the law regardless of the nature of the cause be punished for it. Those who played a leading part in the flouting of the law on 19 May 2000 and following must bear the consequences of their actions. The resistance to this proposition demonstrates an unwillingness to acknowledge the thuggery, brutality and violence that accompanied the taking hostage of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. There has to be an accounting for the climate of fear and oppression that was created as well. The issue which concern all of us as citizens of this country, irrespective of our political beliefs and ethnicity, is this: if we are to forbear all legal proceedings against the perpetrators of the events of 19 May 2000 what does that say about our sense of right and wrong? What does it say to those that were directly and indirectly harmed by their actions? Without an accounting, we encourage repetition of this conduct, make light of the pain and suffering people endured and suggest to the impressionable that such conduct is appropriate.

How then does one rebuild trust between our people. What is needed is a concerted initiation that focus on the places and people that were subjected to the violence and assaults that broke out last year. The trauma and suffering these victims endured continues. The process of rebuilding and healing will take time. It cannot be rushed. This should not only be seen in terms of Fijian and Indo-Fijian. Among Fijians, the manner in which the Republic of Fiji Military Forces dealt with Fijian supporters of George Speight in Vanua Levu, Tailevu and Kalabu has endangered much bitterness. The uprising of 2 November 2000 with its repercussions are still being felt. This too will need to be rebuilt. We cannot afford to have wounds fester creating fertile ground for resentment and dissatisfaction.

The Constitution remains a topical issue. The political parties are divided about whether there should be changes to it. The nationalists are adamant that it is inimical to indigenous interests without specifying details. When pressed they argue that it waters down the paramountcy provisions of the 1990 Constitution. They have particular complaints about the removal of Chapter III that mandated affirmative action for Fijians and Rotumans. Both the Labour and National Federation Parties are adamant that no amendments to the Constitution would be entertained. Objectively, the interests of indigenous Fijians appear adequately protected. However, inasmuch as a significant number of Fijians seem to consider their interests are insufficiently safeguarded, there is a problem. Perception is reality: they see therefore there is a problem. No amount of convincing persuades them otherwise. So let us deal with it. This need not necessitate another Constitution Review Commission. A Parliamentary sub-committee can investigate the concerns before reporting to Parliament on the matter.

A related problem issue is the affirmative provisions of the Constitution as set out in Chapter V. Some indigenous critics argue that the present provisions diminish or make light of the programmes to assist indigenous Fijians and Rotumans. This has been accomplished by placing these initiatives on the same footing as those for other ethnic communities. In the context of the programmes that have been in place since independence, whether by way of scholarships in education, assisted business loans under the aegis of the Fiji Development Bank or the assorted initiatives of the Ministry of Primary Industries, large sums of tax payers' monies have been expended. Yet more is to allocated under the various affirmative action initiatives promoted by the political parties. What is cause for concern is the scale of the expenditure and its seeming inability to redress the imbalance with the other communities. Despite the depressing statistics, there has been little attempt at any stage for a systematic review of the initiatives and how they might be improved. The provision of these monies has become an end in itself providing a convenient (if ineffectual) riposte to those who demand special privileges for indigenous Fijians. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that many of the beneficiaries of this government largesse are those who have already benefited (ie. those from the emerging middle classes) at the expense of those who are in real need.

In the upheavals that followed the attempted coup on 19 May 2000, the Fiji Military Forces have played an ambivalent role. The fact that George Speight and his allies miscalculated the support the military would provide for them is some cause for celebration. In 1987 they unquestioningly backed Lieutenant Colonel Rabuka in the face of alleged threats to indigenous interests. In May 2000 elements in the military adopted an interventionist approach, some played both sides and others were neutral. The result was confusion and a lack of resolve. They abrogated the Constitution on 29 May 2000 and removed the President. Yet they also arrested Speight and his cohorts after waiting out a hostage crisis involving the elected Prime Minister and Cabinet. Their loyalties such as they are have been to the Bose Levu Vakaturaga, the President and to the State in varying degrees and in that order. The military continues to see itself as a Fijian institution with some developing ties to the State. Its reluctance to intervene and the existence of factions within the institution leave it open to subversion by forces hostile to the democratic system. In the short term, the exposure of the officer and other ranks to the principles of accountability must continue. Practically, the need for such an armed force in such numbers is doubtful. The initial problems began in the military itself. They present a complicating factor that must be handled delicately but firmly. The place of the military is as servant of the democratically-elected government of the state. The availability of arms to unscrupulous parties who remain ready and willing to subvert the democratic institutions of the state pose serious questions about the capacity of the military to control its own affairs. Elected governments ignore these issues at our collective peril.

How do we put in place long term measures to safeguard our democratic form of government? The institutions of the judiciary and parliament as well as the executive are insufficient to assure our fragile democracy of their own. Can we derive some support from our traditional and cultural norms as aides. The principles that underlie the democracy and human rights as universal concepts have fallen in the face of sustained assaults whether in the name of indigenous rights, military power or force of arms. It has happened no less than three times in the past thirteen years. The reason is simple. Too few numbers of people in this country sufficiently understand these concepts let alone whether they are worth defending. The judiciary and parliament are categorized particularly by Fijians as foreign institutions irrespective of the argument that the rights and freedoms they seek to protect are universal values. Unless we address these problems with practical solutions and initiatives, we will sadly go to the way of other coup-prone countries.

The long-term solution lies in increasing levels of education and in the activities of civil society. Since 1987 there has been an appreciable increase in the number of organisations comprising particular interests. They have shown a capacity to organise and work with each other that augurs well for the future. They provide a counterweight to the power of the state and represent the voluntary will of ordinary people banding together for a particular purpose. This may need some reinforcement by the incorporation of some cultural symbols to bring the institutions closer to the people. Perhaps it is time that we considered adopting the Bose Levu Vakaturaga in a second chamber of Parliament in place of the Senate. It is not an original idea and has been mooted before. It might also comprise appointees from other communities as well. The justification would be that as an important cultural symbol for indigenous Fijians it also embraces other groups as recognition that chiefs have a standing and regard that is cross-cultural. Since 1987 the Bose Levu Vakaturaga has functioned on occasions as a de facto third chamber of Parliament. This would presuppose a re-evaluation of the composition and structure of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga. The President as head of State and symbol of natural unity is nominated by the Bose Levu Vakaturaga.

It is apparent that all the political parties recognize the imperative for competent and honest administration. However it is a recognition that is wanting in commitment and sincerity. Because these factors are considered expendable and are not worthy ends in themselves. They are for some only acceptable provided the political system delivers to them the spoils of power. It is difficult to combat the strong appeals to ethnic identity. Many respond because the appeal engenders a sympathetic response as against those who do not belong. The summons is particularly effective where it is made in a situation of perceived disadvantage. This tends to overwhelm all else. What matters is that we get our own kind into positions of influence and power because they belong to us and will look after our interests. This is the basics for the appeal to ethnicity. It is damaging because everything is subservient to this requirement. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that this article of faith is based on a fallacy: that indigenous rights are superior to all other rights. They co-exist with all other human rights and are equal but not superior to other rights. Criticism is often leveled at the democratic system of government, The rebels were fond of referring to the 'matanitu' vanua in which consensus politics was followed. Other Fijian politicians compose it favourably with our present system of government. With hindsight, the Samoa system with appropriate modifications ought to have been adopted. The complete acceptance of western democratic structures, apart from the appointment of Bose Levu Vakaturaga appointees in the Senate, in some respect was in advance of the understanding of democratic principles, particularly in the rural areas, It was a decision made by indigenous Fijian leader themselves although at odds with the consensus approach of the chiefs and elders, Having said that, there is no turning back. The decision-making process has been broadened and Fijian Society is the richer for it. Most prominent in this are women and youth. Moreover the plethora of Fijian political parties also indicates how receptive Fijians are to choice and that is a characteristic of democracy. The receptivity to the concepts is uneven but growing and no contemporary Fijian leader has seriously suggested that his/her followers resume the ordered consensus of the Vanua. It is too limiting, exclusive and non participatory. Those arguments were most recently made in the last session of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga to little avail.

The most concrete steps the political parties can take in the direction of stability is a practical one. No one denies that our country has just endured the most difficult year in its history. Neither is it disputed that the demand for stable and competent government pressing. A commitment to work together for a stipulated period by all parties is surely not impossible. In lieu of that an understanding that those which remain on the opposition benches will neither make mischief nor intrigue against the government. If the welfare of the people "salus populi" is their guiding principle there ought to be few obstacles. Absent the posturing and the supposed ethnic tensions, what barriers are there to working together? This is not a naïve assessment. It is a calculated one.

Based on past performance, personality, ideology and ambition have been pragmatically altered, shelved and frozen respectively when politicians have been faced with the prospect of power. It can be done again. Especially if the alternative is the bleak scenario of factory closures, hotel vacancies widespread redundancies and mass unemployment. Those are the choices which we face and about which no one should have any illusions. In this regard, consider the following: the uprising in the military though contained suggests continuing tensions, a demoralized and underpaid police force that has little community support, a fractured judiciary, understaffed health services, diminished civil service, demoralized private sector and declining sugar industry; all suggest the enormity of the problems ahead and the imperative for a stable government. The most fascinating aspect of Fijian politics has been the preoccupation, or perhaps, obsession with Fijian unity. It is a subject that all Fijian leaders have dwelt on at length. Fijians must unite so they can continue to wield political power. This has long been the basis of indigenous political domination since independence based on the demographics of our population and the distribution of seats in Parliament. Why then is it merely empty rhetoric? Repeated political initiatives to unite have little success. As have attempts by the Bose Levu Vakaturaga. The churches have also met with failure. These outcomes are all the more mystifying in the face of two considerations. First that both the Fijian leaders and their people understand that indigenous political hegemony is only possible through unity. Second, the prospect of defeat is not a sufficient catalyst to galvanize efforts in that direction. This leads to two conclusions. Either the Fijians as a group are not sufficiently exercised to care, a shift away from the preoccupation with ethnicity or, more ominously, there is a tacit acceptance on the availability of extra parliamentary options to remedy the problem.

For the Fijian people, unity was sold to them first by their British colonial masters and then by their leaders as the means by which they would preserve both their identity and their power. The diffusion of Fijian leadership combined with weakened traditional structures has altered the equation. Many Fijians do not appear particularly concerned by the call to unity for that presupposes an acceptance that this concept is good for them. Beyond providing them with a sense of security, what tangible benefits might they receive for supporting their leaders? It would seem that a fair number have concluded very little. This is a healthy trend and one to be encouraged. The reality is that beyond the safeguards provided in the Constitution concerning land, resources, customs and tradition, the proportion of indigenous Fijians in the population is such that it would be political suicide for any leader or party to govern in a manner considered inimical to their interests. This is not to deny the capacity of opportunists to inflame passions to provoke the more gullible among the indigenous community. However, with continued large numbers of the IndoFijian community continuing to migrate, the increasing indigenous majority, the safeguards in place for indigenous interests what justifiable threats can nationalists marshal? These factors demonstrate the speciousness of the arguments about perceived threats to indigenous concerns.

There has not been an integrated approach to the renewal of leases. The arguments continue as to whether the Native Land Trust Board Act or the Agricultural Landlord & Tenants Act Cap. 273 provides the better alternative. The Native Land Trust Board has adopted a policy of encouraging the landowners to resume their leases, particularly with regard to cane land. The rights of the native landowners to renew or resume their leases is undisputed. It is also not in contention that many landowners do not see a future in farming because of the low returns. There must be a preferable system to the one at present. There are now large areas of resumed land lying idle. Evicted cane farmers have left the land they farmed to be reclaimed by the forest. The sugar industry that has benefited this country for so long and so well is slowly dying. There is no end in sight to the problem. No one talks of solutions. There is no dialogue, simply disjointed pleas from either the displaced tenants or the landlords. This happens while the sugar industry deteriorates. It is ten years since the Landel/Mills Report recommended major changes in the sugar industry. Very little has been done. The difficult decisions become ever more harder to take. The result is impasse and inaction and the very real prospect of there being no sugar industry within a decade. The crux of these matters is the capacity of the economy to grow at a steady rate to be able to provide the foundation for jobs the creation of and fund capital works and infrastructure. But this can only take place in stable circumstances where there is an elected government in firm control. Local and overseas investment depend on the policies in place and the perception of there being social peace. The rapidity of telecommunication and development of information technology means that any crisis with that follows with its negative consequences is conveyed abroad instantaneously. We cannot escape the glasshouse effect of these innovations and all that entail. Neither can we retreat into a fortress mentality for we must trade with markets overseas in order to prosper. Lending agencies are routinely demanding certain levels of open government before they will treat with us. The people of this country apart from their ethnic concerns unique to their respective communities are interested in economic growth, better remuneration, education and jobs for their children. A government that is unable to deliver these basic services is sooner replaced, irrespective of ideology or ethnic composition.

We have survived bitter divisions in our society. Reconciliation requires us to put aside our differences and forgive the injuries done to us just as justice is essential to that equation. Those who have done wrong and broken the law must be punished. There can be no setting to rights or settling of accounts without that element. Until that is done there will be no finality to our collective nightmare. Until we all accept that simple fact the sense of hurt and betrayal continue. It is time to move forward together. Stronger for the bitter experiences we have shared, wiser for the suffering inflicted on us and more compassionate for having the capacity to forgive. For all its faults and cruelties, Fiji remains a country full of promise and hope simply demonstrated by the goodwill that has endured and the love we have for this land that is our home.

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