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The re-Mara-isation of Fiji

By Mark Hayes - posted Wednesday, 7 February 2007

While most media attention on Fiji in January focused on former Labour Party Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, being appointed interim Finance Minister, a post he held in the Bavadra Government ousted by Rabuka's first coup in 1987, and then ousted as Prime Minister by Speight's gang in May, 2000, for those who can read the signs, the recent appointment of Ratu Epeli Nailatikau as interim Foreign Minister and Ratu Epeli Ganilau as interim Fijian Affairs Minister in the Bainimarama-led interim government was a clear signal that a major part of Commodore Frank's agenda is something of a return to the ideals propounded by the “founding father” of post-independence Fiji, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

In essence, Ratu Mara sought a united, multi-racial, multi-religious Fiji in which indigenous Fijian interests and aspirations would always be protected and respected, but not at the significant expense of other ethnic interests and aspirations.

The Rule of Law, as set out in the 1997 Constitution, which Ratu Mara supported, and which was a significant improvement on the earlier, racist, 1990 Constitution, would ensure this occurred. To be sure, Ratu Mara also fully recognised that politics is the art of compromise, and his vision of “the Pacific Way”, informed by Island practices such as Talanoa, idealised an Islander process whereby decisions would be arrived at through, sometimes protracted, consensus.


Of course, Ratu Mara was also a patrician autocrat. The High Chief of the indigenous Fijian confederacy of Lau, based on the islands to the east of Fiji's main islands, a Tongan prince thanks to traditional and familial ties between the Tongan nobility and Fijian royalty, and a product of British colonial grooming of local elites, about the only unusual facet to Ratu Mara and his family was that they were Catholics rather than Methodists. In his dual traditional and modern roles, and given his enormous contributions to Fiji, and indeed the Pacific Region and beyond, during the decolonisation process, Ratu Mara was accustomed to obedience and deference such was his towering mana (status).

In many respects, the humiliating removal of Ratu Mara, then Fiji's President, by Commodore Frank at the end of May, 2000, amounted to a more significant coup than the Speight-fronted putsch earlier that month. After heated meetings, the details of which have only partly been made public, Ratu Mara and his immediate family were bundled on to a Fiji Navy vessel in the dead of night and ignominiously shipped home to Lakeba in the Lau islands, his long career in ruins.

On the face of it, removing Ratu Mara was Commodore Frank's attempt at unblocking the catastrophic failure of Fijian governance caused by the Great Council of Chiefs' apparent refusal to decisively condemn the Speight putsch, not the least because several high chiefs, actively supported, if not Speight's gang, then the espoused agenda for Fijian paramountancy Speight was supposedly promoting.

The Mara coup was also the result of continuing rivalries between competing Fijian confederacies which pre-date British colonisation of the islands in the 1870s. Ratu Mara, an easterner Lauan, was opposed by Buan and Cakaudrove forces centred on Vanua Levu with significant influence in parts of Viti Levu.

Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, a son in law of Ratu Mara, was Fiji military commander when Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka pulled the country's first coup in May, 1987, and was subsequently removed from his post in the military. He was later Fiji's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, then a roving ambassador for Fiji, Speaker of Fiji's Parliament between 2001 and 2006, and the UNAIDS Special Ambassador for the Pacific.

After the ousted Vice-President, the universally respected Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, Ratu Epeli is probably the other most generally respected Fijian High Chief.


New Australian High Commissioner to Fiji, James Batley, recently Special Commissioner to the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), will have a formidable local minister with whom to deal. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer will not win any Regional plaudits either should he denigrate or refuse to deal with Ratu Epeli Nailatikau.

For as long as I have had a serious grip on Fijian issues, and as a Queensland journalist who helped report on the demise of the Bjelke-Petersen regime and the Fitzgerald Inquiry, I have argued that Fiji needs a Fitzgerald-style inquiry to deal with endemic corruption and decisively institute far better governance.

Post-Fitzgerald Queensland had an Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC) which unravelled the state's notorious gerrymander, and has a permanent corruption investigative commission, now called the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC), similar to ICAC in New South Wales.

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The is the original version of an article first published in New Matilda on January 17, 2007, and reproduced, among other places, in the PNG National.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Hayes is a lecturer in the journalism program at the University of Queensland where he specialises in Pacific media and journalism contexts and practices. He still wishes he was back in Suva teaching journalism at the University of the South Pacific.

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