The Fijian Government’s Look North policy in global affairs is well known – the change of axis forced on it by the uncompromising stance of its neighbours, Australia and New Zealand, in the wake of Voreqe Bainimarama’s 2006 takeover. What’s not widely appreciated is that the Government is also pursuing a Look North policy of a different kind – a domestic one. It’s engaged in a concerted effort to develop the Northern Division of the country in a broad arc from the western tip of Vanua Levu across the second biggest island to the third, Taveuni, and some of the islands in between. It’s one of the Government’s most ambitious projects but one that largely passes under the radar amid the day-to-day obsession with political events – the difficult birth of the new constitution and who will or won’t be allowed to contest next year’s election. This Look North policy could have far reaching consequences, demographic and economic. It certainly has the potential to alter the traditional dynamic of Fiji’s population flow, to arrest the urban drift to Suva and keep many Northerners happy where they are, with jobs and sustainable futures. It may even encourage more Fijians to move to the North, a prospect that undoubtedly pleases the burghers of Labasa – Vanua Levu’s biggest town.
Scores of millions are being spent on new infrastructure projects to end the traditional isolation of the North and its provinces of Bua, Macuata and Cakaudrove. Roads, schools, jetties, health centres, nursing stations, housing projects, Government Service Centres– all manner of initiatives are either completed, underway or planned. There’s not exactly a boom taking place or a mass migration to the North, more that a region that has always been chronically neglected is now getting some of the infrastructure it so badly needs. Suddenly, the sleepy North – where change can often be imperceptible over generations – isn’t quite so sleepy anymore.
Grubsheet grew up in Savusavu – the island’s other main town – in the 1950s and still finds it pretty much a facsimile of our childhood memory. In those days, there was no road to Labasa – the sugar town across the mountains – nor any way to get to Bua except on horseback or by boat. The Hibiscus Highway to Buca Bay had only just been built and was regarded at the time as a wondrous feat. Now an excellent road links Savusavu with Labasa and turn left on that over the mountains and the road is sealed all the way to Dreketi. But after that comes one of the worst stretches Grubsheet has ever had the misfortune to traverse – the muddy, stone-strewn track from Dreketi to Nabouwalu and the ferry terminus that links Vanua Levu to its big brother island, Viti Levu, to the south.
This week, Grubsheet met the Prime Minister off the ferry at Nabouwalu and accompanied his party for a portion of his tour of the North. He sets a cracking pace on these visits, three or four major events a day punctuated by travelling time and a total of ten formal speeches this particular week. It might leave his entourage exhausted but the PM seems to relish what used to be called treks in colonial times and especially his contact with ordinary people. Politics is all about authenticity and these exchanges can’t be faked. Of course, the PM keeps saying he isn’t a politician. But when that day comes – as most believe it will – he needs no training in how to engage with the public. The encounters are overwhelmingly spontaneous and warm, the jokes flow freely, the rapport instantaneous.
Those around him know that the PM can sometimes be testy, even fearsome, when he rebels against the sense of being trapped in the hothouse of government in Suva. But out here, he exhibits an air of genial informality. He thrives on his contact with ordinary people, who he says matter more to him than anything else. He seems to genuinely like them and they bring out the best in him, including a propensity for spontaneous acts of kindness.
Heading out of Nabouwalu towards Dreketi, our twelve-vehicle convoy bounced over canyons rather than potholes and sloshy mud rather than stony gravel. At one stage, the Prime Minister insisted on a detour to a side road that someone had told him was even worse. Sure enough, it was, and even one of the military vehicles became bogged. Suddenly the PM noticed some of the local children returning from school along the side of the road. They were all immaculately dressed in spotless white shirts and blouses but the rain-soaked mud was up to their ankles as they gingerly picked their way through it, cheerfully waving as the PM’s motorcade passed. Something seems to be triggered in Bainimarama in situations like this – his training as a soldier to act decisively merging with a decidedly sentimental aspect to his personality.
As they made their way home, little did these kids know that the Prime Minister wasn’t just feeling sorry for them – as the rest of us were – but was already on the phone organising assistance. 120 pairs of gum boots are now on their way to the local school for 120 pairs of feet. “I don’t want those kids coming to class and having to sit there with dirty wet feet”, he explains with the tone of a concerned parent. Those around him say there are dozens of such instances in Bainimarama’s working life. Some are publicised, some are not. But they all speak to a person far removed from the caricature of the brutal dictator peddled by the PM’s critics and the anti-government blogs.
By now, of course, those critics are gagging as they read these words. “Grubby” is an apologist for the dictator, an enemy of democracy, an agent for the destruction of the Fijian people. No. We’re calling it as we see it and what we see isn’t what the anti-government blogs claim. Nor, for that matter, what we’ve seen from Fijian leaders before. There’s a clear preference on the Prime Minister’s part to deliver better outcomes for ordinary people rather than get tangled up in the political intrigues that arguably prevented former leaders from doing the same. On this trip, as on others, the overwhelming refrain from the grass roots is warm appreciation that after years of feeling neglected, ordinary people are finally being listened to and receiving the basic services to which they’re entitled. And from the Prime Minister comes the constant refrain that it’s not enough to make promises. His Government is determined to deliver.
By this stage, one imagines, the critics are gagging even more. It’s the usual Davis apologia for the regime. These people, they claim, are forced to make these speeches because they know what will happen if they don’t. Well, the difference is that Grubsheet was there and they were not. The point is that authenticity and spontaneity are virtually impossible to fake. No one forces these people to do or say anything. They’re making speeches of support for the Bainimarama Government because it is demonstrably delivering better services for ordinary people, and especially in remoter parts of Fiji. The new schools and health centres aren’t cardboard cutouts wheeled in by the dictator – the kind of facades you see on movie sets – and then wheeled out when the media caravanserai moves on. They’re permanent reminders in the everyday lives of many that their interests matter for once. Government is listening, and delivering better access to electricity, clean water, roads, telecommunications, education, affordable housing, legal aid, skills training and government services.
Beyond mere distance, this is the real chasm between some of the attitudes of the educated middle class in Fiji’s town and cities and the rural poor. They simply don’t have the luxury to sit around debating whether our parliament should be bicameral or unicameral. Daily life is a constant struggle, sometimes heartbreakingly so. They would hardly be impressed if the PM merely came and sat with them in a makeshift vakatunaloa – as he did repeatedly on this trip – made promises and then left. What they’re seeing for the first time is a well-oiled government machine – Bainimarama and a clutch of ministers and permanent secretaries – swinging in behind their pleas for assistance and delivering tangible results. Those results underpin Bainimarama’s popularity and will be the springboard of his political career, presuming he takes up the challenge.
There’s another crucial element that is also overlooked – the distinct sense of unity and purpose that has taken hold in the country and replaced the racial and political divisions of the past. His critics allege that Bainimarama only embraced the multiracial ideal to give a veneer of respectability to a craven lunge for power. Yet he delights in the outward expressions of racial unity his rule has produced, clearly proud of having bestowed the title of Fijian on every citizen. In Labasa, he reveled in the sight of schoolchildren singing the national anthem in the three languages, so much so that when they asked him for a new building, the deal was virtually sealed on the spot. A case of sentimentality getting in the way of due process? Who cares. Genuine needs are being addressed.
The wonderful thing about the North is the seamless nature of race relations, the number of Kai Idia who speak perfect Fijian, the number of i’Taukei who speak Fiji Hindi. It’s not unusual to see Indo-Fijians sitting crossed legged among their i’Taukei neighbours at formal indigenous welcoming ceremonies, something Grubsheet has rarely seen elsewhere in Fiji. At the opening of the new Bua Nursing Station, there was an extra element, a generous gift from a local Indo-Fijian family – the Singhs – of an acre of freehold land on which to build the facility plus a $5000 cash donation. As the Prime Minister thanked the family, there was an audible chorus of vinakas. But what struck Grubsheet most was the sight of Mrs Singh giving media interviews afterwards in perfect Fijian, saying that her family wanted to put something back into the community as a gesture of thanks to their i’Taukei neighbours. How strange that such a supposedly backward part of the country be setting a national standard for racial integration. It certainly bodes well for the long-term future of the North – truly the way Fiji should be.
On his journey this week, the Prime Minister opened or launched all manner of facilities on Vanua Levu, Taveuni and Rabi – jetties, ice works, coconut processing plants, revamped health centres, rebuilt housing for hurricane victims and more. Yet easily the most significant event occurred on Friday at the ground-breaking ceremony outside Dreketi for the $228-million project to upgrade the road to Nabouwalu. It will take four years for the China Railways One company to rebuild and seal the remaining 70 kilometres of highway and finally provide a smooth, seamless route between Nabouwalu and Labasa. It’s easily the Government’s single biggest infrastructure project – 700 local jobs – and the cornerstone of its plan to accelerate development in the North. As the Prime Minister said in front of an audience that included the Chinese ambassador, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of this project. It will transform the economic prospects of the North and the lives of its people.
As things stand, Bua is the least developed of the country’s fourteen provinces. Yet it already hosts some major industrial ventures – a Chinese bauxite mine and Tropik Wood’s pine chip installation. Upgrading the road will not only be a major boost for them and the sugar and tourism industries but seems certain to attract more investment from companies that have baulked at setting up in the North because of a lack of infrastructure. But above all, it will be ordinary people who benefit – less stress, less dust, shorter travelling times, easier access for children to school, easier access to markets for small business people, easier access to health services for the sick. And for the first time, the prospect of further development and the prosperity that invariably accompanies it. As the Prime Minister put it, truly the road ahead is paved with opportunity. For the North and Fiji as a whole.
This article has subsequently appeared on Pacific Scoop NZ