May 14 is the anniversary of Fiji’s first coup.
The coup-d’etat on 14 May 1987 not only deposed the month-long
Labour-led coalition government of Dr. Timoci Bavadra, it set Fiji
on a self-destructive path of political instability and turmoil
which persists to this day.
The coup was instigated by racist elements and their greed for power.
The legitimately elected Coalition government of Labour and the National Federation Party took office on 14 April 1987, after winning a historic victory at the polls which ended the 17-year rule of the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara
Determined to escape the mistakes of another April, when a decade earlier in 1977 the democratically elected NFP government of Siddiq Koya dithered, and was denied the opportunity to form a government, Dr. Bavadra’s team moved with speed to form a Cabinet and install a government.
But elements were already at work to unseat the new government. Easter 1987 saw the origins of the Taukei Movement, in Dr. Bavadra’s own backyard at Vuda, aimed at destabilizing the nation.
Led by defeated Alliance politicians like Apisai Tora, the Taukei Movement spread anti-government propaganda, stirring up deep-seated fears and apprehensions of the indigenous community (well instilled under the British Colonial Government’s divide and rule policy) towards Fiji-Indians.
Although Bavadra’s Cabinet was equally divided between ethnic Indians and non-Indians, they branded it an Indian government. They spread fear among the indigenous Fijian people that the new government would take away their land rights and remove other safeguards guaranteed and protected by the 1970 Constitution.
This was indeed a lie. Fijian interests were well and truly entrenched under the 1970 Constitution and could not be amended without a 75% majority in both Houses of Parliament.
Bavadra’s Government had only four more seats in the House of Representatives than the Alliance Party. It clearly, therefore, lacked the numbers to touch laws relating to the Fijian community, even if it wanted to, which it certainly did not.
Furthermore, indigenous interests were protected by additional safeguards placed in the Senate. No law interfering with Fijian rights could be enacted unless it had the support of the 14 representatives of the Great Council of Chiefs in the Senate. These 14 nominees of the GCC exercised the right of veto over any changes to the law regarding the Fijian people.
So how could Fijian interests be threatened by the Bavadra Government? Nonetheless, the lie was spread to inflame indigenous feelings towards the coalition government and set the stage for an army intervention.
The Taukei Movement resorted to arson attacks on buildings and offices owned by the Indian community, to incite and create unrest. There were marches ending in petitions calling on the Governor General to act because indigenous rights and interests were being threatened by an “Indian dominated” government.
The Bavadra government acted fast to diffuse the situation and re-assure the Fijian community that their interests were not threatened by the government nor did the government have any intention of removing the special rights and privileges enjoyed by the community.
As a result, the nation was well on its way to accepting the new government when Sitiveni Rabuka hijacked Parliament that historic day on 14 May 1987 with 7 armed members of his elite troops.
Rabuka took members of the Government hostage in the name of protecting indigenous rights. They were held at gun point overnight at Government House but were later transferred to Borron House and kept captive for 6 days until he had consolidated his position as the head of a military government.
The story is long. Once released the ousted government of Timoci Bavadra swung into resistance mode. It used its links with the international trade union movement to fight back with trade embargoes and other forms of sanction to bring the military regime to its knees.
Meanwhile, thousands of people, mainly Fiji-Indians, fled the country for a more secure future overseas. Long, long queues outside overseas missions became a regular sight as frightened residents sought visas to escape the racism at home.
Experienced senior Indian civil servants were to resign faced with discriminatory practices at the work place. Scores of professionals just left the country depleting Fiji of skilled and professional workers – a problem which plagues us to this day, following two other coups.
Within months of the May coup, the trade embargo placed by overseas trade union solidarity, coupled with a harvest boycott by cane farmers forced the regime to negotiate with the ousted Bavadra government.
An agreement on a government of national unity was agreed under the Deuba Accord on 24 September 1987.
The Accord was signed at mid-day on 25 September but within hours Sitiveni Rabuka staged his second coup. This time, the takeover was extremely ferocious – scores of citizens: politicians, judges, trade unionists, journalists, academics and community leaders were arrested and taken either to the Naboro Prison or Queen Elizabeth Barracks.
He declared Fiji a Republic and we were ousted from the Commonwealth. The lash back was long, violent and repressive. Although the road back to some semblance of democracy took several years, Fiji has never regained its pre-1987 coup genuine democratic status. It was truly labelled at the time as the “rape of democracy”. As a nation we lost our innocence forever.
Rabuka had set a precedence of overthrowing elected governments which was emulated in 2000 by George Speight and his military henchmen hiding behind the catch-cry of indigenous rights, and in 2006 by Voreqe Bainimarama, albeit for other reasons.