Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 01:42 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 01:42 | SYDNEY

South Pacific Supremo


Graeme Dobell

10 September 2009 13:51

A day in the life of Frank Bainimarama, South Pacific Supremo: after breakfast, drive up to the military headquarters in the barracks overlooking Suva. A bit of paperwork and then out for a vigorous game of touch football with the boys (troops). A leisurely lunch in the mess with his officers, who are the source of the Supremo's power. After lunch, back to the office where there might be time to play some video games.

This is a relaxed regime for a man who has total control over his country's government, even as its economy careers down the hill. Consider the array of ministerial medals he now wears: Prime Minister and Minister for Public Service, Peoples’ Charter For Change, Information, Sugar, Finance, National Planning, Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation, Civil Aviation and Acting Minister for Indigenous and Multiethnic Affairs and Provincial Development. All these titles for one man gives an indication why Fiji's recent history has been bizarre and its immediate future looks even unhappier.

The sense of strangeness centres on the persona and purpose of Frank Bainimarama. For a long time, the South Pacific consensus was that Bainimarama was a smart man with much to offer. No longer. Calling the Commodore a military dictator once struck a jarring note. No longer. For some details of what the Supremo is doing to Fijians, consider the latest Amnesty report on the regime's 'wide range of repressive tactics to stifle any protests and intimidate its critics'.

The Supremo is a dictator, but the dictator label may not be the most worrying bit. The really scary point is that the Supremo often seems both disconnected and feckless. He shows little urgency about the economic, social and political damage he is visiting on Fiji. And there seems an almost infantile glee in the ruin he is visiting upon the Pacific Islands Forum.

Sometimes the reasonable Bainimarama persona peeks through. His speech in July on a Framework for Change showed elements of comprehension about Fiji's crisis. Yet the Supremo's talk of the mandate he'd been granted and the problems he had to confront contained no hint that much of the mess and all of the mandate were of his own making.

One way to comprehend the mess is to see Fiji as being in the ninth year of a continuing crisis. And Bainimarama has been at the centre of the turmoil from the start. As I’ve written previously, the Supremo has staged two successful coups, in 2000 and again in 2006. Using that timeline, he sees nothing unusual about continuing to exercise power for a further five years. Indeed, in Frank’s universe, he can always change his mind and push out the timetable well beyond 2014.

 Such a vantage point enables the Supremo to argue that he is making Fiji's reality and the rest of the world needs to get real. Here are his words from the Framework speech:

My appeal to the international community is that Fiji has and continues to seek engagement, not disengagement. The principles of internationalism and sovereign dignity require dialogue. A new legal order exists, a new Government exists and September 2014 has been set out as the date at which elections must take place. This is the reality.

If you want to delver further into how Fiji came to where it is now and where it might be going, have a look at an excellent (and free) e-book put together by three of the best Pacific hands in the business: Jon Fraenkel, Stewart Firth and Brij Lal. They have edited a tome of 486 pages entitled, 'The 2006 Military Takeover in Fiji: A coup to end all coups?', for the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program at the ANU. 

 Photo courtesy of