Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 17:46 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 17:46 | SYDNEY

The Fiji dilemma (part 2)


Graeme Dobell

9 June 2011 15:35

As it was for Suharto in Indonesia, the business and patronage dimension is vital for the longevity of Bainimarama's New Order. The military officers who are the foundation of the Order must be rewarded, just as those officers who resist must be squashed. 

On the reward side, the militarisation of Fiji's bureaucracy and society marches on. About forty officers have taken up tasks as CEOs/Directors/Managers of the public service and government bodies. To give one minor example – the funny side of a serious issue – the new chairman of the Fiji Rugby Union is a colonel. The skills and competencies of the Fiji military know few bounds.

Company directorships, board positions and sinecures are the very currency of New Order patronage. Business must pay homage, and those who fail are punished in Bainimarama's Fiji. Consider the lessons to be drawn from newspapers and the export of water.

The Rupert Murdoch example will have a continuing demonstration effect for those wanting to do business in Fiji. The way News Ltd was forced to 'sell' The Fiji Times was classic force majeure. The Australian company was relieved of its Fiji asset by the state, being given the option to either sell or be seized.

The crimes of The Times were many, but I suspect the daily barb that really hurt was the way the paper kept referring to the regime as the 'interim' government and Bainimarama as the 'interim' leader. This version of media lese majeste had the added barb of quoting Bainimarama's own words back at him. When the Supremo seized power for a second time in 2006 he announced that he was creating an interim government. An interim government that rules from 2006 to 2014 is quite a stretch (especially if that regime has its roots in Bainimarama's military government in 2000). 

The interim label no longer serves the regime's true interest, which is to entrench a permanent New Order as it remakes Fiji's constitution and politics. There is little sign of the Supremo watering down his hold on power, as the Fiji Water saga demonstrated.

The struggle over tax treatment of Fiji's hugely successful exporter of bespoke water saw the regime expel the manager of the company, David Roth. More significantly, the Defence and Immigration Minister, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, resigned over the issue because he refused to sign the Roth deportation order. At the time, Ganilau was acting Prime Minister because the Supremo was in China.

Ganilau served eight years as the commander of the Fiji military before having Bainimarama appointed as his successor in 1999. Even being the Supremo's original patron is no guarantee of having your voice heeded. It was around the time of the Fiji Water contretemps that Bainimarama forced two of his senior officers — Pita Driti and Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara — to take extended leave. The fiction about 'leave' was discarded last month when Driti and Mara appeared in the Suva magistrates court, charged with sedition. Driti, the Land Forces Commander, also faces a further charge of inciting to mutiny.

The sedition charges and Mara's dramatic escape to Tonga pose all sorts of challenges to the New Order. The strength of the Order has been the way the old dynasties had signed up or acquiesced. No longer, as The Economist noted

Mr Mara's flight from Fiji is a further sign of the growing breach between Commodore Bainimarama and the Mara dynasty. Ratu Mara died in 2004, but his family played a critical role in backing the 2006 coup. Mr Mara's brother-in-law is the current president, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau. Another brother-in-law resigned as defence minister in November after a quarrel with Commodore Bainimarama over arbitrary taxes imposed on a bottler of mineral water. After Mr Mara's flight, New Zealand’s foreign minister suggested that 'there is a lot to play out yet.' Rumours in Suva, Fiji's capital, are swirling. Though some claim that the president is plucking up courage to remove the prime minister, Commodore Bainimarama is more likely eventually to usurp the position of the president.

The equation for the Supremo is simple: which officers can he trust? Those who stay loyal must be given an ever-greater share of the spoils.

Photo by Flickr user neocorsten.