Assassination plot?: Frank Bainimarama (Photo:Fiji Govt)

“New Zealand Acts To Protect Fijian PM”. Excuse me, but are my eyes deceiving me? Well, no, they’re not and haven’t times changed. It wasn’t so long ago when such a headline would have been inconceivable. Yet protecting Frank Bainimarama was precisely the motive when agents of the NZ Security and Intelligence Service (SIS) raided addresses in Auckland this week linked to opponents of the regime. Was the former Fijian MP, Rajesh Singh, conspiring with the renegade military officer, Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara, and a former Fiji business figure, Anthony Fullman, to assassinate the Prime Minister and his Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum? That’s the extraordinary allegation and as spy thrillers go, it doesn’t get much juicier.

When news of the alleged plot filtered through to Suva on Wednesday afternoon, there was a sense of disbelief in the upper reaches of government. Fiji’s own National Security and Assessment Unit appears to have had no prior warning and the Police Commissioner, Brigadier General Ioane Naivalurua, said he knew nothing about it. There was even a suspicion in some quarters that the whole thing was a stunt – that the agents weren’t agents at all but members of an opposing faction of the anti-regime lobby trying to embarrass the main target of the raids – former SDL cabinet minister Rajesh Singh.

Rajesh Singh (Photo: Fairfax Media)

There’s evidently a schism among these elements in Auckland, with some resenting the activities of Singh and his Movement for Democracy in Fiji. Yes, an opposition within an opposition. Which doubtless explains why the overall opposition to the regime in NZ appears to be much weaker than in Australia, which is so weak anyway that any “Freedom and Democracy Movement” rally invariably attracts barely enough people to fill a bus.

Even on Thursday, there was still a degree of scepticism in government.  But then came a statement from NZ Prime Minister John Key that changed everything. This was evidently real and very serious.  NZ intelligence officers, Key said, would not have searched Rajesh Singh’s home and seized his computer if there wasn’t a genuine concern over a possible assassination plot. “You can be quite sure that the SIS act within the law – they are thoughtful and careful and they only act if they believe it is in the best interests of New Zealanders. As the Minister of the SIS, there is nothing I have seen them undertake in my time as the minister where I’ve either been uncomfortable or I think they’ve acted unlawfully – or whether they haven’t acted in a considered and appropriate manner and I fully support their actions whatever they might be”, the PM said.

Ratu Mara aka Roko Ului (photo: Indian Weekender)

John Key knows precisely what information prompted the raids but, of course, he isn’t telling. Was it telephone or email intercepts? Do they have Rajesh Singh’s premises bugged? Or was it HUMINT – the official term for human intelligence and still the principal form of spying – when an informant blows the whistle? Or perhaps the information came from a secret agent who has penetrated the opposition movement in Auckland? All this is possible but, as is customary with intelligence matters, everyone’s lips are sealed.

As Rajesh Singh tells it, four officers from the SIS turned up at his shop on Tuesday morning and served him with a search warrant. They seized a computer and phone – both, he said, belonging to his daughter – and these were returned later in the day. Singh said the SIS asked him a series of questions about the alleged plot to assassinate Commodore Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. He quoted the agents as saying they had been told there was “credible evidence” that Ratu Mara – also known in Fiji as Roko Ului – and a New Zealand national, Anthony Fullman, had plotted the assassination while Mara was in New Zealand a fortnight ago. Fullman, the former head of the Fiji Water Authority, is a long time Mara associate. When the renegade officer fled Fiji last year, Fullman was rounded up and questioned about his disappearance. He subsequently left Fiji.

Anthony Fullman ( Photo: TVNZ)

Rajesh Singh acknowledged meeting Mara and Fullman during that visit but he denied they had discussed killing anybody and said he had no knowledge of any plot. Fullman has also acknowledged being present at a meeting with Singh and Mara but also denies any plot. Singh professes himself to be outraged about the raid and says he plans to lodge a formal complaint about the SIS to NZ’s Human Rights Commission and the Ombudsman. But his own response to Wednesday’s events raises some questions. He says he was told by the SIS agents not to speak to the media. Yet the raid immediately became public knowledge and Singh was extensively quoted. The former Fijian MP must know that the SIS is bound to investigate allegations of the gravity of this one. If he was concerned about his own reputation, why talk to the media in the first place? Had he not done so, the whole episode might well have stayed out of the public arena.

From his exile in Tonga, Ratu Tevita Mara – who escaped Fiji last year before being arrested on charges of conspiring to overthrow Bainimarama – also denied being part of any assassination plot. “It’s news to me, I don’t know anything about it, so I can’t really comment”, he told the NZ media. Whatever the truth, Mara will be aghast at the apparent sea change in the attitude towards him in official NZ circles. Once able to come and go almost at will between Tonga, NZ and Australia, Prime Minister Key indicated that the welcome mat had now been withdrawn. He said Ratu Mara was banned from visiting New Zealand and could visit only if granted a permit. If the NZ authorities suspect that he may have been plotting an assassination attempt, that permit is unlikely to be granted. And the SIS is also certain to pass on whatever it knows to its Australian intelligence counterparts -ASIS, the foreign intelligence service, and ASIO, which handles domestic cases. All of a sudden, Ratu Mara’s travel options may have been severely truncated. His future horizons don’t appear to extend much past Nuku’alofa and perhaps Apia, where he still has a friend in Fiji’s chief critic, the Samoan prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. That relationship may also now be in doubt because Tuilaepa needs his Kiwi patrons more than he needs a problematic Fijian exile who hasn’t delivered the uprising in his homeland that Samoa once hoped for.

NZ PM John Key (Photo: Fairfax Media)

For his part, Prime Minister Bainimarama said he wasn’t surprised to hear about an assassination plot against him and called on New Zealand to do something about “terrorists” lurking there.  Speaking from South Korea – where he is opening Fiji’s new embassy – Bainimarama described the plot as “the work of cowards.” It would fit Colonel Mara’s mode perfectly, he told Auckland’s Radio Tarana. “There is nothing new from that camp. Whether they can come to Fiji is a different matter, because they are cowards.” He challenged anybody to try and assassinate him once he got back to Fiji: “They will have to get through the security people at home.”

One thing is certain. New Zealand has sent a clear signal that it is not going to tolerate any conspiracy against the Fiji Government on NZ soil. And the wider reason for that is that the Key Government – and especially Foreign Minister Murray McCully – is now convinced that Commodore Bainimarama is serious about returning Fiji to democracy in 2014. As things stand, he may well be the country’s best hope, the only person on the national scene capable of  producing a democracy that takes into account the interests of all Fijians. New Zealand – and presumably Australia – want him alive to complete his reform agenda, not for Fiji to be plunged into the abyss of total mayhem and uncertainty that an assassination would trigger. The neighbours mightn’t be prepared yet to give Commodore Bainimarama a glowing public endorsement but they’re certainly watching his back.

This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun.