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The general’s goose

11 September 2017

Extract | Fiji’s tale of contemporary misadventure reveals the challenges of inheritance

Right:

Sitiveni Rabuka talks to journalists after declaring himself head of state on 1 October 1987. Steve Holland/AP Photo

Sitiveni Rabuka talks to journalists after declaring himself head of state on 1 October 1987. Steve Holland/AP Photo


His admirers saw him as a charismatic leader with a dazzling smile, a commoner following an ancient tradition of warrior service on behalf of an indigenous people who feared marginalisation at the hands of ungrateful immigrants. One tourist pleaded with him to stage a coup in her backyard; in private parties around the capital, Suva, infatuated women whispered “Coup me baby” in his presence.

It was easy to overlook the enormity of what he had done in planning and implementing Fiji’s first military coup, to be seduced by celebrity and captivated by the excitement of the moment, and to plead its inevitability as the final eruption of long-simmering indigenous discontent. A generation would pass before the consequences of the actions of Fiji’s strong man of 1987, Sitiveni Rabuka, would be fully appreciated but, by then, the die had well and truly been cast. The major-general did not live happily ever after. No nirvana followed the assertion of indigenous rights. If anything, misadventure became his country’s most enduring contemporary trait.

Rabuka understood from the very beginning that the path he took in overthrowing a new and democratically elected government on 14 May 1987 might ultimately prove his undoing, and not only for logistical reasons. Assertions of racial exclusivity or supremacy hung uneasily in a world that was still mired in postwar politics. Globalisation and its accessory, multiculturalism, had yet to be fully comprehended, let alone embraced globally — not that his followers paid much attention to how the world viewed their actions.

Rabuka declared himself the saviour of tradition in a country whose indigenous peoples still saw themselves as respectfully hierarchical. Democracy threatened the paramountcy of what they held to be indigenous interests; it threatened Fijianness and the traditional relationships that Fijianness entailed. This was justification enough, and Fiji’s first coup followed this script. Soon after, the country’s traditional chiefs met and returned leadership to the Fijian elite, which had ruled the country since independence in 1970. There the matter might have rested, perhaps uncomfortably but with seeming inevitability. Unfortunately for the coup’s architects, political actions tend to have unintended consequences that are less easily dismissed.

Rabuka came to power by overthrowing a democratically elected government that many Fijians viewed as illegitimate because the basis of its power lay predominantly with the votes of the descendants of Indian migrants. But he did so by first overthrowing his own military commander, a high-ranking Fijian chief. Within five months, he would also turn his overwhelmingly Fijian military machine against the same chiefs to whom he had initially entrusted power. He believed that they were about to cut a deal with the very politicians he had overthrown, leaving him out in the cold and possibly exposed to charges of treason. This unscripted intervention, however, brought its own difficulties.

Declaring Fiji a republic could not hide for long the fact that the military was not itself well positioned to seize control. Nonetheless, this second coup set the scene for a new and prolonged confrontation with the Fijian elite, even after Rabuka changed his mind after three months, restoring the Fijian elite to power and delivering a new constitution heavily weighted in its favour. When solely communal elections were finally held in 1992, Rabuka emerged as the country’s first elected, republican prime minister. For commoners like himself, democracy enabled a more meaningful future. But the experience took its toll. Within a short time he would learn that democracy is best practised by reaching consensus with all of a country’s citizens. In other words, apartheid and aristocratic privilege could not form the basis for the economic growth and prosperity everyone craved, especially the Fijian people on whose behalf he claimed to act in 1987.

Reaching that point proved difficult, not least because accommodating his country’s marginalised minorities and introducing a new democratic power-sharing constitution in 1997 meant challenging everything he had at one time stood for, including his popular support base. Rabuka would not be the first political leader to discover that hero status has a short shelf life. More importantly, he would learn that there were others less persuaded of the value of his transformation who would seek to emulate him and, in time, earn his country the epithet “Coup-Coup Land.”

The Rabuka legacy was not confined to military coups. It also ensured that democratisation didn’t extend fully to the economy. In part, this was both a colonial and postcolonial legacy, but the retention of centralised economic control was also a contemporary defensive mechanism. Rabuka could only avoid the personal consequences of his actions and maintain control over the levers of power by prioritising the growth of his military, buying elite support with state resources, paying off cronies and increasing the roles of traditional chiefs. Despite the politically important rhetoric of affirmative action for Fijians, these political priorities meant paying lip service to economic and social development for the mass of his people. For those of Indian descent, at best it meant neglect.


By their nature, coups focus on control of the state; hence, they are unlikely to weaken the state’s centrality in economic and social life. Despite some attempts after 1987 to suggest that Fiji’s early coups followed a determinedly postcolonial economic trajectory, they were far from revolutionary. If anything, they were backward-looking, embracing a false memory of peaceful communal harmony and order, though with one important difference: the colonial era was over and government had been restored to Fijian leadership. That was the central purpose of the coups and it would remain the raison d’être of post-coup administrations.

There were limits, then, to what ordinary Fijians could expect from the restoration, as Rabuka told an Australian journalist in 1988, “Fijian people will have the political say in their country and [a constitution to] safeguard their birthright, their land, their forests, the minerals and things; but not one that would make them so strong that they do not need a central government.” In other words, authority would never be decentralised, civil society would always face constraints and development would continue to be bureaucratically led, as it had been ever since the country’s high chiefs and colonial authorities had created the golden age of Fijian administration back in the 1940s. Rabuka never had any intention of challenging the legacy of its chief architect, Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, even if sometimes — when he was out of favour with the chiefs, and particularly Sukuna’s protégé, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara — he articulated the frustration it engendered in neglected commoners.

Central government should never be challenged, Rabuka reminded a group of Fijian trade unionists in 1991. It was “the goose that lays the golden egg.” But for whom did the goose lay its egg? Clearly not ordinary Fijians — at least, not those who subsisted in rural villages and certainly not those who increasingly flocked to urban slums looking for work. There were limits to what they could expect if hierarchies of administration and power were to be respected.

This view, while not originating with Rabuka, had tremendous repercussions for the small state. Fiji might have the largest and most diversified economy among the independent island states of the southwest Pacific, but its economic performance over the next two decades served only to promote emigration and spiralling poverty. That poor performance added to the background dissatisfaction that Fijian rivals would employ to challenge Rabuka electorally in May 1999 and, a year later, to mount their own “civilian coup” against the political coalition that they had inadvertently caused to succeed him.

That coup could not succeed without military backing, but it did enable the formation of a new post-Rabuka political force that, over the next six years, would achieve the kind of Fijian political unity Rabuka had only been able to dream of, in part by reaching accommodation with supporters of the abortive 2000 coup. Yet, in terms of economic strategy, it was essentially Fijian Paramountcy 101, the post-1987 strategy reasserted and with a similarly narrow group of Fijian beneficiaries intent on capturing for themselves what wealth remained to be squeezed from the nation.

In itself, this did not doom the government, which won fresh elections in 2006 and finally made significant overtures to its parliamentary opposition by forming a multiparty cabinet, as the 1997 constitution had intended. Multiracial accommodation now seemed possible. But the coup attempt in 2000 left another, less easily resolved legacy by exposing deep fractures within the military that, within months of the coup’s resolution, exploded into a bloody mutiny designed to remove the military commander, Frank Bainimarama, and restart the coup. The mutiny collapsed but, from that moment in November 2000, the commander became increasingly intolerant of the government he had put in place and especially of its efforts to accommodate those responsible for the 2000 coup, against which he publicly campaigned. An increasingly shaky multiparty cabinet and continued controversy over affirmative action programs provided his officers with additional ammunition to question the direction of the Fiji state and to launch its “coup to end all coups” in December 2006.

Unfortunately, like all coups, the immediate impact of this fourth coup was simply to make long-term planning more difficult. Its economic consequences proved as disastrous for the beleaguered nation as those experienced nearly twenty years before. It further debilitated already weakened state institutions and bitterly divided once-thriving civil organisations. Despite fluid promises to introduce transformative constitutional changes, the military consolidated its role as the nation’s final political arbiter, leaving citizens to wonder at the state in which they found Fiji when they emerged from the glare of elections in 2014 to survey their new democratic landscape.


Those tumultuous years didn’t take place within a vacuum. They were part and parcel of the human story that is every bit as connected to the world as any other national story. Fijians exist because they derive from a wider set of Pacific migrations and interactions that began over 6000 years ago, far away in the South China Sea. During the nineteenth century, their diverse descendants were enveloped by the global reach of European economic, social and political activities, their peoples Christianised and their social structures transformed. For the first time they became Fijians, rather than Lauans or Kai Colo, although those late pre-colonial identities persisted, at least for political purposes, in the contemporary era. Any form of identity, whether based on race, religion or nation, is a social invention.

Becoming a British colony from 1874 further deepened change: new political structures and a colonial economy based on sugar and the labour of imported Indians, whose own country had been even more transformed as a result of British conquest. Fijian chiefs fought to retain some measure of control over their people and were accommodated in so far as the colonial system of indirect rule proved effective in maintaining order. But historically, accommodation was short-lived; during the 1960s the global anti-colonial “winds of change” swept across the Pacific and, from late 1970, Fiji found itself an independent Third World nation, active on the world stage in pursuing postcolonial agreements on trade access and sugar, the law of the sea and peacekeeping duties for an increasingly pressed United Nations.

Fiji may be small and relatively insignificant compared with large Pacific rim countries, but it is just as integrated into the globalised world of aid, education and training, health, labour, media, militaries, migration, mining, NGOs, politics, religion, regions, tourism, trade, transport and unions; the list is endless. It might seem odd today that a country that is so successful in utilising global opportunities for the benefit of its people has been so undermined by insular introspection. But, in the age of Donald Trump and Brexit, we should more easily recognise Fiji as an unexceptional example of humanity, one whose study offers insights as useful for understanding our world as those offered by any society.

Central to an examination of both are notions of development and modernity. We sometimes patronisingly assume that development is a concern only for countries seeking to catch up with already “developed” countries. Indeed, since the second world war, modernising and collectively improving society has become a central goal of almost all societies, and a vast array of multilateral and international civil organisations now exists to assist states to achieve economic growth or direct attention to human and social development. But this focus should not seduce us into overlooking the reality that development concerns all societies, however they rank themselves globally. Commonality is often obscured by the shifting character of development debates, which range from basic infrastructure and social wellbeing to issues concerning ageing populations, changing technologies, economic competitiveness, inequalities and climate change.

If we were able to return to the early nineteenth century, when a quickly evolving industrial revolution created the most dramatic changes human societies have ever faced, we might be less inclined to view development in binary terms. Many of the features of what was once called Third World development were in evidence, as people sought to reconstruct states and systems of governance to cope with the stresses of change and their consequences for regional balances of power. At that time, development came to be conceived of as progress, and its leaders took great pride in asserting that it also denoted national or racial superiority, using development to justify acts of aggression against neighbours or distant peoples.

What we sometimes call the age of colonialism or imperialism — a time that saw the world carved up between a few leading industrial nations but also afflicted by devastating wars — was simply one manifestation of the desire to actively develop and change societies. And, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notions of fitness and human evolution were used to justify either the occupation and incorporation of whole societies or the rapid expansion of inequalities within societies. Development, always universal, carries with it tremendous baggage.

Part of that baggage is our tendency to dichotomise the world. How easily do oppositions such as First World–Third World, developed–developing, north–south, East–West, tradition and modernity roll off our tongues, encapsulating generalisations and stereotypes that have long since lost their validity, if indeed they ever held any. Nation-building responses to industrialisation over the past two centuries have also led us to regard nations as essentially natural homogeneous units, to neglect or suppress evidence of internal diversity, and to reify culture and modernity. Consequently, we still tend to believe that homogeneity is an essential element for successful development, with the result that we fail to accommodate diversity within our models for growth.


Contemporary globalisation renders failure more dangerous. One only has to listen to debates on multiculturalism and migration to appreciate the continued strength of attachment to perceived national norms. Because many developing countries were created with attention to essentialised differences rather than national norms, their inability to successfully pursue the development examples purportedly set by the early industrialising countries, those we often misleadingly describe as the West, has been attributed — over the past half century or more — to their plurality or lack of cohesion. The argument becomes more convoluted still if we claim that the basis of Western development lies in free markets and democracy, something that most Western countries didn’t enjoy until recently. In other words, these features were products of development, not its prerequisites.

Democracy is often held to be the result of a peculiarly Western cultural inheritance traced back to classical Greece or the English Magna Carta. This interpretation obscures the complex social and economic struggles that made different forms of democracy possible, a triumph of mass society and the growing middle-class nature of developing societies. Democracy was never a historical feature of European societies or something that grew naturally from their past. Many only became democratic after 1945 and some have only experimented with democratic institutions since 1989. Even the United States only extended full democratic rights to all its adult citizens in 1965, Australia in 1967.

Of course difference can always be used to rationalise pathways and institutions that are markedly dissimilar to the norms of many comparatively wealthy countries today. Invariably such arguments amount to little more than political pointscoring. Development is not a Western project. The goals of development and the circumstances under which it occurs constantly change. At one time, development was simply a state project. Today, it is far more diverse, enveloping everything from the individual to regions.

It is important to understand the fluid nature of human relationships and development. Nothing is homogeneous or static. Everything interacts and is in constant flux. Under such circumstances, dichotomies do not describe reality, only perceptions of reality. We might look at subsistence farmers and regard them as traditional, but how traditional are they if they also produce for an urban market, make use of motorised transportation, and use mobile phones to mobilise market data?

Globalisation also fosters novel relationships and enables ways of seeing the world that prioritise human empowerment. It is this agenda that is often perceived as a threat to “traditional” powerholders who exploit the modernity–tradition dichotomy for self-serving purposes. Thus, globalisation, democracy and contemporary social movements have more in common than many people realise. Rather than assume an opposition between modernity and tradition, we might better argue that almost all societies are modern because they are all engaged — however unequally — with a globalised world.

Modern Fiji in 1970 confronted development through the lens of race and privilege. When development failed to satisfy Fijian expectations and constitutional paramountcy tempered by multiracialism failed the privileged elite, Fiji’s coup season began with Rabuka’s 1987 attempts to mandate absolute Fijian dominance. When they too failed to deliver economic transformation, Fiji restored multiracialism in 1997, hoping that communal electoral reform alone might compensate for its development biases.

That initiative was doomed by two responses. First, a civilian coup in 2000, which swept aside a multiracial government and, through the military, reinstated the country’s elite to power; and, second, a military coup in 2006, which rejected the communal basis for multiracialism and sought to address the biases inherent in Fiji’s development strategies. That latter coup has, to date, endured; following elections in 2014, Bainimarama emerged as prime minister, leading a new multiracial party that overwhelmingly dominates the new parliament. A weakened and confused iteration of the old party of the Fijian or Taukei elite survived; an echo of the past, it would soon be led by the very man who had first sought to transform Fiji by military means — a resurrected and much older Rabuka, a man now haunted by his past. •

This is an extract from The General’s Goose: Fiji’s Tale of Contemporary Misadventure. Buy a print copy, or download it for free from ANU Press.

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