March 11 2022: In the midst of an unprecedented economic downturn, the FijiFirst government has committed itself to funding the construction of a dedicated building in Suva to house the 18 United Nations agencies operating in Fiji.
One UN House – on the corner of Augustus and High Streets in Toorak – will be constructed by the FNPF on land owned currently by the Harikisun family, who own the Nahari Electrical company. And as it has been doing since 2019 at multiple locations around Suva, the Fijian government will then pay the rent of the UN agencies.
It is an astonishing saga that comes on top of the public furore over the government’s plans to proceed with the construction of new offices for the Prime Minister in Suva and is certain to be a major election issue.
On its own website, the UN says “a third of the population in Fiji live below the basic needs poverty line, and hardship and inequality are rising”. Yet it has long lobbied the Fijian government to provide it with a dedicated home and the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, has finally obliged.
This lobbying effort began under the previous UN representative in Fiji, Osnat Lubrani, who threated to move all UN staff from Fiji and relocate them to the UN’s other regional hub in Samoa. Lubrani was deeply unpopular with Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum because of her strong stance on human rights in Fiji and she was rebuffed. In any event, the AG knew that the more than 400 UN non-resident staff in Fiji didn’t want to move to Apia because of its relative lack of facilities and connectivity.
Enter Lubrani’s successor, the Sri Lankan Sanaka Samarasinha, who arrived in Suva in 2018 with a brief to continue Lubrani’s campaign. In stark contrast to his predecessor, Samarasinha has worked hard to cultivate the AG, so much so that they have since become close friends, entertaining each other at their respective homes and presenting a solid front on a range of issues.
Indeed, a senior diplomat in Suva told Grubsheet there is dismay in diplomatic circles that Samarasinha has abandoned all notion of being impartial in the role of UN Resident Coordinator and has become an advocate for the AG and FijiFirst. Among other things, he publicly praised Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum’s 20-21 budget, triggering the astonishing spectacle of both the AG and the Prime Minister quoting that praise in speeches to the Parliament.
A leaked UN document shows that using his friendship and influence, Samarasinha has secured an astonishing undertaking from Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum that raises serious questions about the propriety of the actions of both men – the UN Representative for seeking Fijian funding at a time of acute national hardship and the AG for agreeing to it with no parliamentary scrutiny or public consultation. It is, in fact, an astonishing slap in the face for the Fijian people – an expectation that they will dedicate their retirement savings and their taxes to benefit the world body that is meant to be in Fiji assisting them and also has a global reputation – rightly or wrongly – as a bloated bureaucracy and for pampered excess.
Already, very few Fijians know that they have been paying the rent for UN offices in Fiji for the past three years, when $1.3-million was allocated in the budget to cover “rent for all UN offices”. At the time, the AG said Fiji had “offered” to pick up the tab because of Fiji’s leadership positions with the UN on climate and oceans and its longstanding commitment to UN peacekeeping. But why did he refuse to do this for so long before that? Why did he rebuff Osnat Lubrani’s entreaties at time when Fiji was better placed to afford such a commitment yet say “yes” to his friend, Sanaka Samarasinha? The Fijian people deserve an explanation. Because it all smacks of the kind of cronyism, mutual back-scratching and favours for mates that has come to characterise Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum’s conduct of government and use of the public purse.
What possible justification can there be at any time, let alone the present, for a developing country wracked by Covid and economic collapse to pick up the rent for one of its biggest donors? It is akin to a poor relation having to support a wealthy family member. And it is a scandal that deserves to be front and centre of the election campaign because it symbolises all that is wrong with the FijiFirst government – the AG, on a whim, acceding to requests from those he likes and withholding them from those who fail to meet his approval and using the hard-earned dollars of the nation’s taxpayers in the process.
The Toorak site for One UN House on the corner of Augustus and High is currently a car park and storage facility for the Nahari company. The AG flagged in a Facebook posting that talks were underway for the FNPF to develop the site. Is the FNFP purchasing the site and constructing the building? Or is it constructing the building and leaving the ownership of the land with the Harikisun family? How much of the proposed building will the 18 UN agencies occupy and will there be other tenants to generate a degree of income? Or are the retirement savings of the Fijian people going to be used to construct One UN House and then the rental bill for the UN to occupy it picked up by Fijian taxpayers in perpetuity?
And what is the relationship between the Harikisun family and the AG? Are the family FijiFirst donors? The family already has another property – Modyl Plaza in Karsanji Street – that is occupied by government tenants including the Office of the Auditor General. How did its Augustus/High Street property come to be chosen as the site for One UN House? Was there a proper evaluation process? And what role did the AG play in the selection of the site?
This is a story that has a long way to run. But for Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum – with 13 days to his mini budget and already in campaign mode for the election – it is a political disaster. A shocking indictment of his habit of spending public money on a whim and failing to consult parliament that has now reached scandalous proportions.
It is also a shocking indictment of the United Nations, which shows so little consideration for a developing country it is meant to be assisting that it behaves instead like a shameless freeloader.
COMING UP: The leaked UN document that lays out the plan.