Reflections on 50 years of independence…

  • 8th October 2020
  • 2020
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Fiji became a sovereign state, joining the comity of nations 50 years ago. But our people, as a whole, have yet to reclaim the freedoms they lost in the wake of the four coups that have dealt a crushing blow to the vision, aspirations and expectations with which our leaders set off in 1970: Mahendra Chaudhry

The true meaning of independence is complete freedom from domination.

As we commemorate our 50th anniversary of Independence on Saturday 10th October, our thoughts must be centred on whether we are really free as a people.

Fiji became a sovereign state, joining the comity of nations 50 years ago. But our people, as a whole, have yet to reclaim the freedoms they lost in the wake of the four coups that have dealt a crushing blow to the vision, aspirations and expectations with which our leaders set off in 1970.

These aspirations were aptly articulated by Fiji’s first Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara as he received the instruments of independence on 10 October 1970. He said he looked forward to “…a strong, united Fiji, rich in its diversity and tempered with tolerance, goodwill and understanding”.

They were the pillars on which Fiji, a plural society comprising several different ethnic groups, aspired to move forward: multiracial harmony and understanding, stability based on unity in diversity, social justice and equal opportunities, peaceful co-existence and economic progress.

It was realised even then that the task of nation building would not be easy – there would be serious challenges ahead and numerous hurdles to overcome in accommodating the different, and often conflicting, interests of our varied society. The legacy of racial animosity and suspicions left behind by the colonial era was still raw.

Even then we courageously plodded ahead, shouldering the yoke of self-government. And, indeed, the first 17 years of our existence as a nation was fairly exemplary, prompting Pope John Paul II to exclaim “Fiji – the way the world should be” when he visited in November 1986.

Alas, little was His Holiness to know that barely six months later Fiji’s façade of peaceful co-existence was to be shattered by our first coup d’etat of May 1987, to be rapidly followed by the second, four months later in September.

Early years of development

But before that, it is important to recall that against the backdrop of national unity and stability that existed in the early years of our independence, we took  significant strides forward in nation building under the Alliance Party leader Ratu Sir Kamisese’s able and visionary leadership.

These years saw major progress made across all sectors of our economy.

Investment in infrastructure saw the cutting and sealing of the Nadi-Suva highway, construction of the Lautoka Hospital with state of the art facilities, construction of the Monasavu Dam, the Vaturu Dam to supply safe clean tap water to residents in Nadi and Lautoka, the National Stadium in Suva etc.

Tourism industry expanded with the construction of several big, 4-5 star resort hotels along the Coral Coast and the Nadi Bay area – notably,  the Hyatt Regency (now the Warwick), the Fijian Resort, the Hideaway, the Naviti Resort, the much-expanded Mocambo, Tanoa International and the Sheraton, and closer to Suva, the Pacific Harbour complex with a cultural centre modeled along Hawaiian lines.

Significant attention was given to the rural sector with the development of our primary resources – sugar, forestry (pine and mahogany schemes), mining, fisheries (PAFCO), market gardening ( Sigatoka Valley project) and rice under irrigation schemes at Navua, Lakena and Dreketi.

The sugar industry, went through a phase of stabilisation and consolidation as the result of a more equitable sharing of proceeds and reforms ushered in under the Denning Award, and a guaranteed price for sugar from the EEC under the Sugar Protocol of the Lome Convention.

These primary produce formed the basis of our key exports and contributed substantially to our foreign reserves at the time.

Democratic and human rights were respected. Trade unions had a fair run under Ratu Mara’s benign patronage and sympathy for workers’ rights, and the establishment of Tripartite structures to deal with industrial matters.

All this resulted in the creation of a fairly stable society and urban growth, particularly in Suva. While incomes disparity was high with the creation of an elite class of the rich and influential, there was a growing professional and middle class, and notably little known levels of poverty.

However, despite the appearance of steady progress and the national well-being of these early years, cracks were beginning to surface bringing challenges that tested our commitment to multi-racial peace and harmony.

The first of these occurred in 1977 and served as a cautionary prelude to what was to come, a decade later, in 1987. I refer to the debacle that followed the National Federation Party’s close win in the 1977 general elections when its leader, Siddiq Koya was denied the right to form a government.

The watershed years

Relations were also turning somewhat sour between government and the trade unions culminating in a major confrontation over the wage freeze, and the formation of the Fiji Labour Party (FLP).

The watershed year was 1982 with the appointment of new faces in the Alliance Cabinet following its victory in the general elections that year. Government policies swung more to the right in sharp contrast to Ratu Mara’s earlier empathy with the ideals of democratic socialism. The tripartite machinery started to flounder under the challenge, as unions came increasingly into conflict with the government which refused to accept tripartite decisions, forcing them to arbitration – most of which they won, anyway.

Teachers were having their own battle with the Education Minister, Dr. Ahmed Ali.  Then came the clash over the Nicol and Hurst Award for civil servants. Finance Minister Charles Walker resigned when he couldn’t influence Prime Minister Mara into shelving the award.

Although Mara stuck by the award, his new Finance Minister Mosese Qionibaravi announced a unilateral wage freeze in the November Budget, effective 1 January 1985, completely ignoring the Tripartite Forum. Unions went on the warpath. With the NFP in disarray following serious internal bickering over leadership issues, the Fiji Trades Union Congress decided it had no option but to find a political solution to counter government’s increasing antipathy towards workers and unions. Thus came into being the Fiji Labour Party in July 1985.

FLP won the 1987 elections in coalition with the NFP, and its leader, Timoci Bavadra, was appointed the first Labour Prime Minister. Lt-Col Sitiveni Rabuka struck exactly a month into the government’s term in office, executing Fiji’s first army led coup d’etat. The rest as they say is history…

The Coups

Fiji has suffered four coups within a span of 19 years. The coups against the Labour  governments of Bavadra in 1987 and Chaudhry in 2000 were, ostensibly, carried out under the guise of protecting indigenous rights and interests.   However, it is now well acknowledged that these rights were never under threat – not in 1987, not in 2000.

Behind the coups were vested interest  groups – failed politicians, unscrupulous elements in the business community, opportunists, and misguided ethno nationalists- motivated basically by bigotedness and greed for power.  The dissident elements formed liaisons with sections of the Army to overthrow legitimately elected governments.

The 2006 coup resulted from a falling out between RFMF Commander Voreqe Bainimarama and Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase who had initially been brought into the political arena by Bainimarama himself. Relations between them were further embittered by the Qarase government’s attempts not to renew his contract as Army Commander, and later to have him arrested on charges of sedition.  Commander Bainimarama said the coup was basically a “clean up campaign”, claiming endemic corruption in the Qarase government.

Lessons from the coups

These coups shattered the aspirations and expectations of our people. They arrested the growth pattern set in the ’70s and ’80s, and have put us back decades in terms of economic growth and national development. They resulted in a massive brain drain which deprived the nation of much needed professionals, bureaucrats and skilled work force.

The indigenous community in whose name three of the coups were executed is worse off today than ever before. The post-coup governments of Rabuka, Qarase and Bainimarama have not done much to improve their quality of life or their economic status. Following the 2006 Army takeover, they have lost their traditional indigenous institutions and political clout and the affirmative action policies set up by previous governments to provide special assistance. They are discriminated against in appointments to boards and top government positions; their resources are ill-managed and recklessly exploited by unscrupulous elements.

Each of the coups culminated in repressive policies leading to assaults on the rights and freedoms of our people – rights won through hard struggles in the past. The repression has been particularly vicious following the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution in 2009. Draconian decrees imposed then restricting media, trade union and workers’ rights continue largely in force despite the Bill of Rights provisions in the imposed 2013 Constitution.

Lack of respect for constitutional guarantees and the rule of law have only spawned more lawlessness and high levels of official corruption.

The Way Forward

Fiji today has serious governance issues which will have to be fixed to provide long term stability and security, and to rebuild the trust and confidence of the people in the government.

The imposed 2013 Constitution is seriously flawed – it is patently undemocratic and was specifically crafted to serve the interests and the political agenda of those in power, and not of the people.

A progressive and enlightened nation cannot be built on a faulty foundation. The repugnant provisions of this constitution must be addressed to provide for an open, accountable and transparent government, predicated on the rule of law and the principles of good governance.

Priority Areas

The welfare of the workers, the farmers and the economically disadvantaged must be put on priority. Their socio-economic rights and aspirations must be respected through appropriate policy initiatives and allocation of State resources to uplift their living standards.

Development policies should be even handed, directed at all segments of our society. The long neglected rural sector must be invigorated – it has huge potential to provide jobs and decent incomes for our people.

Equally important is the building of a strong and vibrant economy to support a just social agenda. Instilling investor and business confidence must rank high in our priority listing.

Youth unemployment, affordable housing, high cost of living, rising poverty , gender violence, high crime, and the proliferation of narcotic drugs pose huge challenges for the nation.

The legitimate concerns of our indigenous community must be addressed through a genuine consultation process. Their call for the development of their resources must be met for it will ultimately benefit everyone through improved access to land for agricultural and economic development.

Urgency needs to be given to programmes that will propel the assimilation of the  iTaukei into the mainstream of the Fijian economy and there is no better way of doing this then to assist with the development of their resources to the mutual benefit of all.