2006 coup leader and 2007-22 Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and the former police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho appeared before the Suva magistrate’s Court on 10th March, after being held in custody overnight. Two days earlier Bainimarama resigned from parliament and surrendered his position as Leader of the Opposition.
Bainimarama and Qiliho are getting a taste of their own medicine. Opposition MPs have repeatedly been taken into custody for ‘questioning’ over the past 16 years, in some cases as a precursor to the laying of charges.
One might have cause for concern that the new Rabuka-led government is using the same draconian tools of its predecessor to deal with its opponents, including long suspensions from parliament, claims of ‘inciting unrest’ and linked police investigations, but the new government does need to deal sternly with efforts to subvert its elected authority.
Given the simultaneous spurious claims that the new government is in breach of that 2013 constitution and the several statements of military commander Jone Kalouniwai in support of Rabuka, as Prime Minister, and Pio Tikoduadua, as Home Affairs minister, these appeals to the rank-and-file in the military are indeed seditious.
Likewise, the arrest of the suspended police commissioner, Sitiveni Qiliho, follows post-election complaints that he was inciting unrest by claiming evidence of ‘stoning’ incidents directed at ‘minority communities’ in the wake of the election, which he used as a pretext to call out the army onto the streets. These claims were almost universally denounced, even by senior officers in the police force. The military commander did not order a major deployment.
However, the current charges against Bainimarama and Qiliho relate to the shutting down of a 2019 investigation into alleged evidence of irregularities at the University of the South Pacific in 2019 against former Vice Chancellor Rajesh Chandra and former Pro-Vice Chancellor Winston Thompson. Those allegations prompted a long battle between the Bainimarama government and USP, which included the suspension of the government grant to the university and the deportation of current Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia.
The 2019 BDO report highlighted ‘that oversight, governance, and control of remuneration is a key weakness across the USP’, including irregular payments of inducement allowances and bonuses and weak handling of consultancy payments. In themselves, these would be indicative of poor management, and potentially nepotism, but not necessarily breaches of law or issues that could easily be proved to entail breaches in law. But the BDO Auckland report did also suggest that these various payments were in contradiction with USP policy.
The arrest of Bainimarama and Qiliho was due to their alleged intervention to stop the police, and Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), from laying charges. The DPP has stated that ‘the former PM, Voreqe Bainimarama, and the suspended police commissioner, Sitiveni Qiliho, are alleged to have arbitrarily and in abuse of authority of their respective offices, terminated an active police investigation’ (press release, 9.3.2023). We can expect further charges on other matters relating to irregularities during the Bainimarama government’s many years in office.
After 16 years of FijiFirst rule, people in Fiji remain fearful of a further coup or some other attempt to dislodge the lawful government. Many expect a ‘plan C’ following FijiFirst’s December failures to entice the three-seat party SODELPA into coalition and the failed appeals in January to the military commander and the President to take action. The fact that the President and the Commander stood firm is highly significant. We are witnessing the end of the Bainimarama era.
Bainimarama’s resignation from parliament, and as opposition leader, follows his suspension for three years after making a speech condemning the President and calling for action on the part of the military rank-and-file. Since parliament serves a four-year term, he could only have returned shortly ahead of its dissolution. Hence, both FijiFirst’s main leaders are out of parliament. Bainimarama and his former right-hand man Aiyaz sayed-Khaiyum have said that they will lead the challenge to the Rabuka government from outside parliament. More likely is that FijiFIrst will now change dramatically in character. Already two former ministers have resigned.
Bainimarama’s January appeal to constitutional office-holders associated with the FijiFirst government to refuse to resign is unlikely to carry much weight after he himself has now resigned. Already, the Supervisor of elections and the prison’s commissioner, Bainimarama’s brother-in-law Francis Kean, have resigned. Bainimarama’s daughter, at the Sports Council, has indicated that she is not renewing her appointment. More are likely to follow.
Viewed in longer historical terms, the Bainimarama government proved unable to survive either as an elected government through FijiFirst or as an authoritarian regime. Both were tried. Over 2006-14, the then military-backed government ruled by decree, but there was limited support for perpetual authoritarian rule. The claims of that government to be advancing an anti-corruption, pro-meritocracy and developmental agenda stood uncomfortably alongside its continual use of repression and media censorship to silence opponents.
When FijiFirst switched to elected authority, it handsomely won the 2014 election with 59% of the popular vote. It briefly looked as if the coup-makers had cemented popular authority, but FijiFIrst never transitioned into a real political party, in the full sense of that word. It avoided establishing branches around the country, except in a nominal sense to conform to its own draconian party laws. It cancelled municipal council elections. Its candidates were all required to hero-worship Bainimarama. Independent ambition or initiative were frowned upon. Bainimarama treated his own ministers with contempt. At the party’s December election rallies, he and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum endlessly fiddled with their mobile phones rather than listening to their candidates’ speeches. Fiji First’s vote declined from 59% in 2014 to 50.02% in 2018 to 42.6% in 2022. If it had got back into government in December, and it was close to so doing, that decline would have continued.
If the new government survives, the December 2022 election will be Fiji’s first lasting transition of power since independence. Changes of government in 1987, 2000 and 2006 were each followed by coups, the first within a month, the second exactly a year later and the third after eight months. In that sense, the situation remains precarious, but in the past the threat of coups came from either sizable ethno-nationalist social movements or from the military. The fact that powerful constitutional office-holders, particularly the President and the Military Commander, have sided with the Rabuka-led government augers well, even though some of those in the military continue to defend the 2006 coup as if it were a ‘heroic’ act. The 2013 Constitution remains a great imposition on the people of Fiji. Elected representatives were not involved in its formulation. It was not endorsed by a referendum. Nevertheless, it cannot be amended without the backing of 75% of MPs followed by the support, in a referendum, of 75% of registered voters.
Given continuing military support for the 2013 Constitution, the new government is well advised to tread cautiously. There is no need for haste. Yet there is nothing in the 2013 constitution that prevents the initiation of a constitutional review. Such a review would anyway require extensive consultation among political parties, civil society organizations and the general public. For the present, the Rabuka-led government is well-advised to secure its own position and to ensure the durability of the transition. It is necessary to deal firmly with would-be spoilers of the new order, but without pursuing vendettas against all those who assumed positions under the FijiFirst governments. Three months on from the change in government, the initial signs are promising.
Jon Fraenkel is Professor of Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington.