Three weeks ago, I wrote on Facebook that the resumption of Grubsheet for 2021 was being postponed out of consideration for the national effort to assist the victims of Cyclone Yasa and Cyclone Ana. I made the observation that it was not the time for politics but for supporting the authorities to get help to those who needed it most. The inspiring sight of the estimable Inia Seruiratu leading the cyclone relief effort in the north with the help of the equally inspiring Australian servicemen and women from HMAS Adelaide was regrettably short lived. Because it didn’t take long in the public consciousness for politics as usual to rear its ugly head. So much so that I no longer feel bound by my decision of three weeks ago. I apologise that this article is so political and – at more than 6000 words – is so long, indeed the longest I have ever written in these columns. But it is my last one for some time and I have a lot to say. I also apologise that it is so personal, some might say self-indulgently so. But I have a lot to get off my chest.
We have just had a parliamentary session dominated by almost everything other than the needs of cyclone victims or the hundreds of thousands of people suffering because of the Covid-induced economic crisis. It was a spectacle that has triggered widespread community dismay and resentment at the apparent lack of empathy of fat-cat MPs and especially those on the FijiFirst government benches. Much of the nation that isn’t on the public teat is in deep distress. Yet as they struggle to find shelter, put food on the table, worry about disease outbreaks, cope with chronic interruptions to their power and water and make their way through Mumbai-style traffic jams over canyon-sized potholes, they find the public discourse dominated not by their concerns and challenges but the same old political valavala (fighting) and point scoring.
Despite the unprecedented national crisis, it was business as usual in the Parliament, led by the ever-preening Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. Fresh from his “Gestapo-like” deportation of the USP Vice Chancellor, the AG was more than usually testy and belligerent. Perhaps he has given up even trying to manage the economic crash that has engulfed the nation. He is routinely seen signing fresh documents committing Fiji to further borrowing and portraying them as “strategic partnerships” rather than the loans and indebtedness that they are. One might reasonably have imagined the AG to be focussed exclusively on managing the economic firestorm and the challenges raging on every front. Yet there he was at a USP Council meeting helping his “Uncle Mahmood” resolve a crisis that he alone created and has done unprecedented damage to Fiji’s relations with the region.
How does it all “put food on the table?”, as the Prime Minister used to ask about every diversion before he too lost the plot. It doesn’t. But for the AG, winning at all costs is what matters. The articulate guy in the turban demanding accountability at USP got in his way and had to go, whatever the political fallout. As I’ve noted before, crash through or crash is the customary approach. Except that it’s much more likely to be crash on Wonder Boy’s horizon when the voting public finally get their say.
What did a weary nation make of the sight of impeccably-dressed MPs trading barbs and insults, the Speaker boasting about his unique ability to do his job and their elected representatives leaving the chamber laughing and joking with each other in the face of their collective suffering? No-one ever asks them, of course. Yet one thing is certain. A reckoning looms at the ballot box come election time. There’s an ever-yawning gulf between the haves and have-nots in Fiji – those living on government borrowings and those with no means of support. The government policy of “assisting” Fijians by allowing them to draw on their retirement savings – one of the most cynical exercises in spin I have ever witnessed – means that some 60,000 Fijians and counting now have zero balances in their FNPF accounts. Another crisis is already in the making – vast numbers of retirees with no means of support.
Yet there’s something just as disheartening that poses an equally serious threat to social cohesion and national unity. In my many years observing Fijian politics, I have never witnessed such a disconnect between the political elite and their struggling constituents. There has been no concession at all to appearances, let alone the substance of relative privilege. The political elite continue to speed around in their blacked-out Prados, trailed by their attendants and security guards, attending all manner of functions at which the food and drink is plentiful and fawning is invariably the currency of maintaining favour and influence. While outside on the streets, the burgeoning ranks of prostitutes and beggars – including children pleading for food – bears testament to the other face of Fiji. Unadulterated, pitiful despair. Away from the capital, increasing destitution, hunger and homelessness reflect a society that no longer seems to care or certainly doesn’t care enough. The only genuine Bula Bubble in Fiji is the one inhabited by the political and social elite. For much of the rest of the population, the bubble burst a long time ago.
It could and should have been a time when the government forged a national program of collective resilience – a back-to-basics grassroots movement led by the state in which shelter, food production and public health became the sole priorities. Instead, the government can’t even keep the power and water on, is consumed by hubris, obsesses about the unimportant and those charged with enforcing the law engage in all manner of criminal activity. The list of police offences detailed recently – everything from theft and assault to perverting the course of justice – is a sure sign of a nation in big trouble. The AG admitted as the cyclone crisis unfolded that he had only $3.5 million dollars on hand for the relief effort until the foreign cavalry arrived. Astonishingly, while $38 million a month is being allocated for aircraft leases and loans, there’s barely enough in the government’s contingent emergency funds to buy a couple of prestige houses in Suva.
With its obsession with seemingly everything but the immediate needs of ordinary Fijians, the FijiFirst government appears to have almost totally lost the plot. It isn’t just the chronic spin, media manipulation and continual protestations of “no crisis! Nothing to see here!” We now see normally straight-shooting ministers like Jone Usamate obliged to give misleading answers in the parliament. Usamate said Fiji had withdrawn Ratu Inoke Kubuabola as its candidate to lead the PIF out of deference to its Pacific neighbours when the truth is that it was to save the Prime Minister’s face when his handpicked candidate got little or no support.
Once again last week, Frank Bainimarama read out a speech written for him by Qorvis and the AG praising the AG and expressing his full support for him. Yes, Prime Minister, we know. You will both go down together, maybe not at the same election but sometime. And it has already happened in the estimation of those who once had high expectations of you but whose confidence you have since lost.
For its part, a cowering media – aside, of course, from the oleaginous flatterers at the CJ Patel Fiji Sun and the AG’s brother’s FBC – is starting to get creative. Creatively subversive. Did you notice that almost every photograph of the Prime Minister in the Fiji Times during the parliamentary sitting had him laughing uproariously with ministers like Faiyaz Koya and others around him? Yes, it’s the image of the local Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Laughing in the face of a nation’s suffering. A big joke. All up, I can’t recall a more depressing parliamentary week. And if it is to be business as usual in the bear pit of Fijian politics, I certainly no longer feel constrained by sensitivity to resume some serious mauling of my own. So here goes.
More than eight years ago, in September 2012, I wrote a Grubsheet article entitled “Methodist Church of Intolerance” in which I strongly criticised the church that my late father, the Reverend Peter Davis, once led in Fiji. One of his successors as president of the Methodist Church, the Reverend Tuikilakila Waqairatu, had stridently opposed the notion of Fiji being a secular state – an eventual provision of the 2013 Constitution – and had called for the declaration of a Christian state and for Christianity to have preference over other religions.
It gave me no pleasure to cast the otherwise distinguished churchman as a bigot. Indeed I wrote that confronting him head-on was “undoubtedly the toughest article I had ever written, and the saddest”. Until today. For however much it pained me to bite the official hand of the church in which I was reared, doing what I am about to do is much more painful. Because I am formally withdrawing my support for Frank Bainimarama and the FijiFirst government. And ending a 15-year relationship with the Prime Minister in which I am widely acknowledged to have played a significant role in assisting him, including in the role of principal communications advisor, speechwriter and advocate, not only in these columns but in the Fijian and international media.
In response to my recent articles echoing calls by the Military Council and members of his own cabinet for the reform of the FijiFirst government and in particular, the removal of Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, the PM responded – in statements written for him by Qorvis and the AG – by casting me as a disgruntled and relatively unimportant former employee. I am not in the business of big-noting myself personally in the way that has become customary at senior levels of government and the state. I leave it to others to judge whether I was important or not – though I appear to have been important enough to warrant a formal Prime Ministerial statement, in written and video form, attacking me for my Grubsheet posts that became the lead item in every news outlet in Fiji.
I fully expected the attempt by the PM to belittle me as a means of trying to blunt my attacks on the AG. It is common knowledge that every word uttered by the PM is written for him by Qorvis and the AG. So that when he speaks – whether it is in the parliament or to a village gathering – it is not Bainimarama speaking but Bainimarama reading out the AG’s script. He is, of course, a good reader and has mastered the TV autocue well enough for many people to believe that it is really him. But it is not. In reality, the PM is like a ventriloquist dummy on the AG’s knee who, unlike other dummies, happens to live and breathe but doesn’t have to think before he speaks. His thinking is done for him. His attack on me was the AG’s creation. And I know that because for six years – with the AG’s approval – I put the words into the PM’s mouth myself. As everyone at senior level knows, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum is the hand in the glove of the Bainimarama government. Which is why so many people loathe him and want him gone. Not only because of the power he wields and the fear he engenders but because he is the lightning rod in the community for growing disenchantment with the government and its increasingly disconnected leader.
Why this article is so hard and sad for me to write isn’t just the spectacle of the once admired Frank Bainimarama as the AG’s puppet and, increasingly, a figure of derision. It is what has gone before in my own relationship with the PM. Because the record shows that I have publicly sided with Bainimarama since his coup of 2006, continually played advocate for him, went to work as an advisor to his government in 2012 and played a role in all the major events leading to the restoration of parliamentary rule in 2014 – including the tortured passage of the 2013 Constitution. Indeed, I was instrumental in persuading the PM to proceed with the 2014 election when he told me he “was thinking of having a referendum about whether to have an election”, instead of holding the election itself. And I stayed with him well into his second term, writing hundreds of speeches and articles for him, shepherding him through multiple challenges – including in his relationship with the AG – and crafting Fiji’s overall messaging in multiple global forums, including its presidency of the COP23 climate negotiations. I even wrote the State Prayer that opens every parliamentary session on the instruction of the AG one night to “give me a prayer in 15 minutes”. So invoking the blessing of the secular Almighty was also among my duties. I certainly have ample material for a book on the Bainimarama era, though, as we know, it is so far a story without an ending.
Even as I was publicly attacked by the PM for my recent calls for reform of his government to protect his revolution, I kept faith with the man himself. Respect and friendship are not so easily jettisoned, especially when my late father had asked me before he died to do what I could to assist the Prime Minister. He and the PM’s father had been close friends in Lautoka in the 1960s and my father had described Frank to me as “a good boy” who deserved support in his effort to level the playing field in Fiji. While I was engaged for most of my time in government by Qorvis, I was not the usual hired PR gun, creating a narrative only because I was paid to do so. I was unapologetically a true believer in the Bainimarama revolution to eradicate ethnicity and religion as the defining factors in national life. That commitment predated my engagement in Fiji. Indeed, it was my advocacy for that revolution in these columns before 2012 that drew me to the attention of Qorvis and produced the invitation to join the company on its Fijian account.
When I did, I dedicated myself with the passion of a true believer to give Frank Bainimarama a voice with speeches that are widely credited with not only his election win in 2014 but establishing him as a regional and global statesman. In the deep divide of Fijian politics, it was not without personal cost to my own reputation. A year ago, the opposition MP, Lenora Qereqeretabua, wondered aloud to me whether I realised how hated I was in Fiji. I knew it but didn’t give it a moment’s thought. It was the cause that mattered, not me.
Yet regrettably I cannot support Frank Bainimarama and his government any longer. And the trigger is last week’s events in the Parliament, the unbridled assault by the AG – with the PM’s blessing – on Fiji’s institutions of state and the removal, without any consultation whatsoever let alone an election mandate, of a mechanism for public participation in the judicial system that has been in place for almost 130 years. The abolition without notice of the assessor system in Fiji’s courts and the setting up a special court for corruption offences separate from the mainstream judiciary – primarily a court to try the government’s opponents – is a gross betrayal of the people who put the FijiFirst government in power in the first place.
Even if the AG disputes my characterisation of the changes, none of it was put to the Fijian people in the FijiFirst election manifesto for the 2018 election to enable them to reflect on the merits of the policy. None of it was done in consultation with Fiji’s legal profession, other institutions of state or anyone else. It is without doubt, the biggest assault on Fijian democracy since the coup of 2006. And the difference is that while the 2006 coup was to level the playing field and protect the rights of Fiji’s minorities, this was an unashamed exercise in entrenching and protecting the government’s political position. Unforgivable, inexcusable and deserving of absolute censure, including the government’s removal at the first opportunity. Which is what I intend to campaign for from now on. Lest my last statement feed into the PM’s narrative about me being an overwrought, ageing drama queen, let’s examine in detail what happened in the parliament last week.
The speed with which the AG railroaded through two bills that fundamentally alter the criminal justice system in Fiji sent shock waves through the legal profession, the judiciary, the office of the DPP and anyone in Fiji who believes in the rule of law. His unilateral establishment of a specialised division of the High Court to hear corruption cases has raised grave fears that these will be “kangaroo courts” that give the impression of fairness but are weighted against those who appear before them and will be used against the government’s opponents. And his unilateral abolition of the assessor system in criminal trials ends nearly 130 years of public participation in the verdicts of those trials, leaving them solely in the hands of judges. I repeat: In neither case was there proper debate, no reference to any parliamentary committee and no consultations with the legal profession or the nation’s judges or prosecutors, let alone the public.
Astonishingly, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum – a “here today, gone tomorrow” politician – simply took it upon himself by bypass the institutions of state that comprise the criminal justice system and use the FijiFirst government’s numbers in the Parliament to pursue a personal preference and his own political agenda. He did so by using the expedited procedure under Order 51 of the Parliamentary Standing Orders to fast track his changes rather than Chapter 7 of the Standing Orders, which would have allowed for a proper process of public consultation. It is one of the most egregious abuses of power by an individual politician in Fijian history. These are fundamental assaults on democracy – in the case of the abolition of assessors – and on human rights and civil liberties – in the case of the corruption courts. Yet when the country’s lawyers had the temerity to question what had happened, the AG rounded on them, accusing them of being politically motivated and in league with the opposition.
BILL NO 1. OF 2021 (ANTI-CORRUPTION DIVISION)
When the Fiji Law Society said last week that “the proposal to create a “specialised” division of the High Court to consider corruption cases needs careful review”, it reflected widespread apprehension in the profession about how these courts will operate. I have already documented in these columns the sentiment of fear that exists about the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC) – the shadowy corruption watchdog that has become a parallel prosecution arm to that of the Director of Public Prosecutions and gives every appearance of being only as independent as the AG tells it to be. This is what I wrote about FICAC last October in my posting “A Tangled Web of Secrecy and Control Part 2”:
“There is evidence that FICAC has, in fact, become something of a personal tonton macoutes for the AG – a Fijian version of the feared special operations unit set up by the Haitian dictator, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, to control his own country in the 1960s. Whereas the DPP only prosecutes after a formal police investigation and solely on the basis of the public interest and whether there is a reasonable chance of securing a conviction, FICAC is both investigator and prosecutor and has none of the same constraints.
There is no judicial or other independent oversight of its operations, nor even the most basic internal oversight for that matter. Since it was established in April 2007 soon after Frank Bainimarama seized power, it has never had a commissioner as the equivalent of chair to oversee its operations and act as a buffer between the FICAC deputy commissioner as CEO and the government. So the deputy commissioner has a great deal of power but little in the way of supervision and accountability.
The current FICAC Deputy Commissioner is Rashmi Aslam, a Sri Lankan who is obliged by a little-known clause in the 2013 Constitution to report directly to the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, in a way that doesn’t apply under the Constitution to the DPP. It’s worth citing the relevant section – Section 115, Clause 9 – to understand its importance and how the AG is in a position, with the force of law behind him, to influence the operations of FICAC to the extent of it being genuinely “independent” only in name. “The Commission shall provide regular updates and advice to the Attorney-General on any matter relating to its functions and responsibilities”, reads Clause 9.
So Rashmi Aslam and the AG have regular meetings that are prescribed under Fiji’s supreme law. Yet this constitutional provision is what is known among lawyers as the classic “reverse clause”. Because at these meetings, it is also reasonable to assume that as well as being provided with updates and advice, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum is also able to give advice and direction to Rashmi Aslam as FICAC Deputy Commissioner.
All this means that there is no judicial or other independent oversight to prevent the corruption watchdog from being sooled onto the government’s opponents for political purposes.”
At the time I wrote this, I was unaware that formal contact between the AG and FICAC isn’t only provided for under the 2013 Constitution but under the FICAC Act – the law setting up the corruption watchdog. As the Labour Party leader and former Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, pointed out in an article in last Saturday’s Fiji Times, section 5 (5) permits the Commissioner to “seek the assistance and input of the Attorney General”, which takes the constitutional provision much further. Mr Chaudhry called for the amendment of the FICAC Act to remove this provision, which he rightly said compromises the independence of the Commission.
FICAC has a history of failed prosecutions in the mainstream courts, most notably that against Sitiveni Rabuka, who survived a FICAC prosecution on election funding offences that was widely perceived as an attempt to prevent him from contesting the 2018 election. The case against Rabuka failed in the High Court and failed again on appeal in a dramatic “final hour” ruling by the former Chief Justice, Anthony Gates, that enabled Rabuka to take Frank Bainimarama to the brink of defeat. Would the same thing happen if such a case were referred to a specialist corruption judge? How much influence would the AG have on the selection of such judges? And is what happened in the Rabuka case the underlying motive for him to have railroaded through the changes he has made? These are all legitimate questions that deserve an answer and might have been canvassed in a proper consultation process. Alas, that is not going to happen. The AG has made sure of it.
BILL NO.2 OF 2021 (ABOLITION OF ASSESSORS)
The abolition of assessors also provoked a strong response from the Fiji Law Society. In its open letter to the AG and members of parliament, the Society described it as “a profound change in, and the dismantling of, a key part of the administration of criminal justice in Fiji”. Assessors, it said “are a fundamental protection of an accused person’s right to a fair trial”. “Removing public participation from criminal justice will reduce transparency and erode public confidence. Leaving the question of guilt or innocence in serious cases to a single judge, without an accused having a choice in the matter, is neither fair nor just”, it said.
While for any member of the community, the aforementioned statement is deeply concerning, it sent the AG into a rage. And on the margins of the parliament, he attacked the Law Society as a group of individual lawyers working in league with the opposition, even though the new President of the Law Society, Wylie Clark, has no overt political affiliation – so far as I know – and no record of partisan political statements. Unsurprisingly, a counter argument in relation to the issue of corruption courts came in the form of a public statement from FICAC. There is no way of knowing whether FICAC was instructed to issue that statement or took it upon itself to enter the political fray. But the mere fact that it said anything at all has reinforced concerns about its independence because this is a debate in which the Acting Chief Justice, Kamal Kumar, and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Christopher Pryde, have been noticeably absent.
25 years ago, in 1994, a Commission of Enquiry on the Fiji Courts was set up by the government of the then prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka. It was headed by a distinguished Australian-born New Zealand judge, Sir David Beattie, who had been Governor-General of New Zealand. After extensive consultations with the legal profession and other interested parties, the Beattie Report recommended that the assessor system should be retained. Yet in a matter of hours last week, something that had been a key part of the administration of justice in Fiji since the 19th century – was abolished unilaterally by Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.
Fast forward 25 years later and we know what the current DPP, Christopher Pryde, thinks from a speech he gave to the annual AG’s Conference in December 2017. A link to the address is still on the DPP’s website. In front of both the AG and the Prime Minister, Mr Pryde concluded that “Fiji’s assessor system has operated well for 125 years and should continue to do so. It is cost effective, it guards against elitism, it keeps the community engaged and it promotes democracy”. As unambiguous as it gets. So was the DPP consulted before the unilateral abolition of the assessor system? Was the Acting Chief Justice consulted? These are questions the public is entitled to know. Because an independent prosecution arm and an independent judiciary are cornerstones of our democracy. And while the Attorney General may have the numbers in the parliament to mess with our institutions, he has no right to impose his will unilaterally with the support of the Prime Minister. For me, it is the final straw, the final break with the Bainimarama government in which I have now lost all confidence.
So what happens next? I am going away to examine my options and wait to see what emerges in terms of a potential alternative government. As things stand, I am not committed to any particular course of action. Except that I will support any political party that like FijiFirst, embraces the multiracial, multi-faith agenda but unlike FijiFirst is more than a two-man dictatorship, isn’t repressive or prescriptive and genuinely respects pluralism – the notion of different groups, principles and beliefs co-existing in politics and the community. In short, which doesn’t continually treat the opposition as the enemy but recognises its legitimate role to keep the government accountable and honest and works with it for the common good. Above all, I will support a political party that puts the genuine needs of the people first and respects and defends the independence of the institutions of state, not subverts them as the FijiFirst government has so wilfully and demonstrably done.
So where are we in terms of a viable alternative to FijiFirst? The short answer is “not there yet”. But a great deal is happening behind the scenes, and especially in relation to Sitiveni Rabuka – the man the Prime Minister refers to as “the Snake”. Having parted ways with SODELPA in December after he lost the leadership to Bill Gavoka – the AG’s father-in-law – Rabuka is said to be working hard behind the scenes to establish his People’s Alliance. It is a potent name for a political party, the “People” part signalling inclusion and “Alliance” not only suggesting bringing together different elements but harking back in the minds of older Fijians to the golden days of the Alliance Party in which Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara presided over a long period of stability and prosperity that in a striking political irony, Rabuka brought to an end with his coup of 1987.
Grubsheet understands that Rabuka is engaged in discussions with Savenaca Narube – the former Reserve Bank Governor and leader of the Unity Party – to be part of the People’s Alliance and give him the economic credibility he needs in government. Despite the confidence of Bill Gavoka that the SODELPA brand name will carry it and him over the line, there are persistent rumours that up to 15 current SODELPA MPs are ready to jump ship to join the Alliance, including Lynda Tabuya, one of its brightest stars. And Biman Prasad – the leader of the National Federation Party – is evidently telling people that he can happily work with Rabuka if he makes the commitment to abandon the notion of iTaukei supremacy and genuinely embraces a multiracial, multi-faith agenda.
That is my own condition as well. I am prepared to take Rabuka at his word that he has had a Damascene conversion since 1987 and has come to accept the principle of one nation, with equal rights and opportunity for all. Not everyone will be prepared to accept the sincerity of that conversion. Far from it. The baggage Rabuka carries – his coups and the collapse of the National Bank – would make it nigh on impossible to stage a comeback anywhere else. Yet the notion of forgiveness and redemption is deeply ingrained in the Fijian psyche. And there is one compelling reason why I am personally willing to take Rabuka at his word. That leaving aside the events of 1987 – the rape of democracy and horrific victimisation of non iTaukei – his record subsequently as elected Prime Minister was that he respected the independence of the institutions of state, something that no longer can be said about Frank Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.
Rabuka continues to enjoy a great deal of support in the country and “snake” or not, I am certainly willing to consider the notion that he be given another chance to lead. Or be the principal vote-getter in a party led by someone younger who represents a transition to a new generation. And be available to impart his undoubted knowledge and experience to a People’s Alliance team. Part of me is willing him on to close the circle of his extraordinary political life. But that is largely down to him. He clearly needs to demonstrate more than he has – with inclusive policies and the credibility of the team he builds around him – that he has a competitive vision to take Fiji forward.
I would never have imagined until last week expressing the view that I have just written in the preceding paragraph. For a long time, many of the Prime Minister’s strongest supporters have hoped – indeed counted on him – to reform FijiFirst to bring some of his more talented ministers to the fore and end the AG’s stranglehold on the party and government policy. It long ago ceased to be Fiji first, as the name was meant to imply. It is the Prime Minister and the AG first. Their way or the highway. And I am far from being the only former supporter who has become convinced that they have not only lost their way but are a clear and present danger to the electoral prospects of their parliamentary colleagues and to genuine democracy in Fiji.
Internal dissent is invariably conducted in whispers at the present time because of the all- pervasive climate of fear. But it is capable of becoming more voluble whenever, if ever, the election approaches. Because the dominant political instinct is self-preservation and most FijiFirst ministers with their fingers genuinely on the nation’s pulse are already acutely aware that the opposition benches beckon. Will it lead to defections? In the words of the old cliché, only time will tell. There’s already a story doing the rounds that Parveen Bala – the FijiFirst minister who commands a Tamany Hall-style bloc of votes in the West – has approached the National Federation Party seeking a safer refuge. But that may be more to do with his lack of confidence in being endorsed again by FijiFirst because of his own baggage than his lack of confidence in another Party win.
In a country where the Coconut Radio has always been abuzz, more potent rumours abound that the Prime Minister may be about to assume the presidency that is being vacated later in the year by the current President, Major General (Ret’d) Jioji Konrote, and that he plans to install Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum as his successor. I have no inside knowledge of whether this is indeed the case. All I can say is that the second part of this rumour would be regarded with genuine alarm in government ranks, the military and in much of the country. It isn’t just that the AG is deeply unpopular and has no hope under the d’Hondt electoral system of acquiring the large number of votes needed to take other FijiFirst candidates over the line. The question is invariably whether he is sufficiently part of the mainstream to be acclaimed by consensus as Bainimarama’s legitimate successor.
The USP academic, Professor Konai Thaman, sparked a furore this week by questioning whether the deported Professor Pal Ahluwalia, was “Pasefikan” enough to be USP Vice Chancellor. Some may raise the same question about the AG. Whether a devout Muslim who interrupts the business of government five times a day to pray towards Mecca, consults an Imam and whose family is teaching its children Arabic so they can read the Koran in its original form, can ever be generally accepted as Fijian prime minister. It is not a question of religious tolerance but political reality. If one accepts the dictum that politics is the art of the possible, is it possible for Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum to win an election at the head of a mainstream party in a Christian and Hindu dominant Fiji? If the rumours are true, Frank Bainimarama may be about to test that proposition. Truly a crash through or crash proposition of epic proportions.
I personally don’t have a problem with the AG as PM on religious grounds. In fact, I have already recounted the story of how I told his father, Sayed, in 2012 that I one day hoped that his son could be prime minister. But that was before I experienced the hubris, arrogance, nepotism, cronyism, tribalism, vindictiveness and ruthlessness on the AG’s part that I witnessed at first hand for the best part of six years and eventually convinced me of his unsuitability to lead. His assault on the integrity of Fiji’s institutions of state – that began long before last week and his been endorsed by his patron, Frank Bainimarama – is merely the final straw.
But will there be an election at all? Rumours have also surfaced that the government may use the pandemic as an excuse to defer next year’s poll, emphasising the need for continuing stability and confidence rather than the unpredictability of an on-time election that doesn’t go its way. Certain military officers close to the Prime Minister privately express the view that if the “Snake”, Rabuka, ever rears his head again, another coup is inevitable. But the Fiji of the 2020s is not the Fiji of 2006, let alone of 2000 or 1987. Young people especially are just not as acquiescent these days as their predecessors and integrated schools have made the new generation of Fijians much more homogenous. As president, Bainimarama may conceivably have the power to prorogue the parliament and reintroduce rule by decree to keep Khaiyum in office. But doing so would destroy his legacy and a great deal of community goodwill towards him.
My own view is that things have come too far for anyone to again behave so recklessly. Leaving aside the disaster of Fiji again becoming a pariah nation – succoured only by other dictatorships – the RFMF, let alone the country as a whole, would be torn apart. Another coup would inevitably be seen not as entrenching the rights of a particular community but entrenching the power and privilege of Frank Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. Fiji is not yet Zimbabwe even if we have begun to take the Zimbabwe road. And we are certainly not China, with a population prepared to trade democracy for prosperity and kowtow to perpetual dictatorship. Some Fijians worry that the Australian and New Zealand governments might be tempted to turn a blind eye to another coup to keep Bainimarama out of the clutches of the Chinese. But given our dependence on the goodwill of ordinary Aussies and Kiwis to resume coming when the Covid nightmare ends, it’s a fair bet that whatever their governments do, it is they – if democracy dies in Fiji – who would drive the final nail into the coffin of the economy and the future prospects of a great many young Fijians.
Sadly, the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely could have been invented for the duo of Frank Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. They did some good things once. A lot of good things, in fact. But I have never forgotten what Pio Tikoduadua – someone I have always admired and who was once also close to them – said in frustration before he defected to the opposition: “For these guys, enough is never enough”. Sa dina sara ga. How true. The increasing petulance of both men as the public mood turns against them and their tin ear to the concerns of the people means that as far as I am concerned at least, their time is up. After 15 years in power, there’s a famous phrase used in the British Parliament in 1939 that applies as much to Bainimarama and Khaiyum as it did to the besieged Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, after his policy of appeasing Hitler failed: ”You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go!”