Never has the old saying “a week is a long time in politics” resonated more strongly than in Fiji over the past seven days. This time a week ago, Bill Gavoka was SODELPA leader and outlining his priorities to the regional media. Now the AG’s father-in-law and “lame duck” leader has been sautéd in the political wok, and a lot sooner than I predicted in my last article. And the man Gavoka replaced only the week before but remained as opposition leader, Sitiveni Rabuka, has resigned from the Parliament and resigned from SODELPA to form a new political grouping. Well may we say: “Wow. What a week!”
Rabuka confirmed on his Facebook page that at the “next match” – the 2022 election – he would head a “new team” – which he will be able to handpick instead of having its members foisted on him, as was the case with SODELPA. While the details of this new political force are still emerging, Grubsheet understands that it will be well funded and broadly based with a view to being a viable alternative to FijiFirst, which I have long predicted cannot win in 2022 without the significant reform that has been requested of the Prime Minister by much of the Bainimarama cabinet and the Military Council.
Already, Grubsheet has be able to establish that:
- Sitiveni Rabuka is intending to go to the country with a line-up of prospective candidates designed to appeal to the entire nation and not just the iTaukei majority. We can expect further defections from SODELPA, including Lynda Tabuya, who pointedly pledged her “full support” for Rabuka after his resignation speech. Rabuka has given an interview in which he said that two former military officers, Colonel Sakiusa Raivoce and Colonel Mataiasi Lomaloma, are currently assisting him to establish the new party.
- There is speculation that the bulk of the funding to finance the party will come from Indo-Fijians in the business community. For Rabuka to have abruptly left the parliament and foregone his $120,000 a year salary certainly indicates that someone is already bankrolling him personally.
- Rabuka has already embarked on a charm offensive, contacting traditional critics and potential supporters assuring them that he is serious about having repudiated his past as a champion purely of the iTaukei and will govern for all Fijians. If this charm offensive works, whatever party Rabuka forms will inevitably be seen as the alternative government and let me explain why.
The “moderate” forces in SODELPA led by the Bau High Chief, Ratu Epenisa Cakobau, have been comprehensively defeated. When the crunch came in the parliament, 14 of the sitting MPs defied Ratu Epenisa’s instructions to vote for Bill Gavoka as Opposition leader to replace the departing Rabuka and instead chose a rival high chief to succeed him – the Tui Cakau, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu. Almost as soon as Ratu Naiqama assumed the mantle of Leader of the Opposition, he issued a call for the release of those still serving jail terms for coup-related offences, including George Speight – the front-man of the 2000 rebellion. Never mind the global Covid pandemic and the resultant pain or the existential threat to Fiji posed by climate change, the Tui Cakau has put freeing convicted criminals at the top of his list of priorities. You could almost hear the collective intake of breath across Fiji and the scurrying of feet in the opposite direction.
All this is being played out against a background of chiefly rivalry and provincial politics that reads like a movie script. The high chief of Bau and direct descendent of the Tui Viti, Ratu Seru Cakobau – who unified the islands and ceded them to Britain in 1874 – tries to install his man, Bill Gavoka, as Opposition Leader on behalf of his own faction in SODELPA. But he is thwarted by a rival chief in the form of the Tui Cakau from Vanua Levu, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, who is Sitveni Rabuka’s own chief and who Lalabalavu supported as leader until the time Rabuka resigned.
In a tale seemingly right out of the pages of Viti Makawa, old Fiji, the rival chief, Ratu Naiqama, organises a rebellion of sitting MPs against Ratu Epenisa to block Gavoka and install himself as Opposition leader. And in the meantime, Rabuka sets off into the distance to set up his own political party in competition with his chief and former patron. It is that party that is destined to be eventually regarded as the alternative government as SODELPA under the hardliner Lalabalavu drifts back to its purely indigenous roots. And once again, it is Rabuka who will eventually be regarded as the alternative prime minister, though this time at the head of a “one nation” political grouping. What a script. As I say, a week is a long time in politics.
Sitiveni Rabuka’s departure from the Chamber was equally dramatic – the bombshell announcement that he was resigning as Opposition Leader and leaving the parliament. His speech was astonishing in its overt declaration of putting national interest and the party before self and in its generosity towards the PM and AG, whose hatred of Rabuka “the snake” has been a dominant political narrative of recent years.
Then came the moment that elicited a collective “isa” throughout the country from people of all political persuasions – the sight of Frank Bainimarama crossing the floor to shake Rabuka’s hand and then falling into a mutual embrace. I have noted before that the Prime Minister is a sentimental man at heart but this time sentiment overrode common sense in a manner that the PM will come to regret when Rabuka uses the photo to his political advantage. It appears that it was Rabuka who embraced Bainimarama first, a split second after the PM proffered his hand. Yet it is an enduring image and undoubtedly among the most memorable in recent years. Whether it was wise is another matter altogether.
The Fijian people as a whole are sentimental and the sight of these two old warriors and bitter enemies in each other’s clutches fed into all we are ever taught at church and school about the power of reconciliation and forgiveness. Isa, indeed. Yet as a long-time observer of politics around the world, the scene reminded me of Act 3, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when Caesar is knifed in the Roman Senate by a group that includes his friend Brutus and Caesar exclaims the memorable line, “Et tu Brute!”( Even You Brutus). Because we now know that in the Fijian parliament more than 2000 years later, there was another embrace before a political knifing – the conciliatory farewell speech which Frank Bainimarama must have construed as the end of an era when it was merely the beginning of another – Rabuka emerging within days to declare that he is forming a new political grouping with the aim of consigning Bainimarama to the history books and making the greatest political comeback in Fijian history.
Rest assured that if Rabuka can relieve himself of the baggage of 1987 and the National Bank scandal and build a broad-based political party, Frank Bainimarama’s worst political nightmare will be upon him. The curse of the d’Hondt political system forced on Fiji by the AG at a time when he knew Bainimarama would sweep all others before him is that only those who command the biggest votes can sweep their fellow candidates into the parliament and onto the government benches. D’Hondt has sentenced Fiji to the worst features of Melanesian “big man” politics in which the biggest names take the smallest of fry into government. The irony is that even Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum – who embraced the d’Hondt system as the best way of getting his man into government in 2014 – can never lead a party into government. His own vote barely changed between 2014 and 2018 – 14,000 to 15,000 votes. According to a recent Western Force/ Fiji Sun opinion poll, only 9 per cent of Fijians see him as a potential prime minister and only 22 per cent even think that he is doing a good job. So the AG can never be prime minister.
But Frank Bainimarama and Sitiveni Rabuka can. Because they are Fiji’s “big men” who may not trade in pigs and Kina like their PNG counterparts but whose patronage can sweep a great many others into government to give them the numbers to rule. At the 2018 election, both men received by far the highest number of votes, enabling their fellow candidates to ride into parliament on their coat-tails. But the PM was still taken to the brink of defeat, winning just 50.02 per cent of the votes and without the burden of longevity and economic collapse that will haunt him in 2022.
I am very disappointed as a long-time supporter of Frank Bainimarama to report that at year’s end, the Prime Minister evidently intends to contest the 2022 election with the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, by his side. Which means that their collective baggage by the time the poll comes around may well make Sitiveni Rabuka’s baggage look very light indeed by comparison. For several weeks, the police and military have been investigating allegations that the AG made and planted bombs during the coups of 1987 that killed people. Those enquiries are continuing at the time this article is published.
The initial police docket of its investigation was returned by the DPP, Christopher Pryde, for further investigation. A statement was evidently obtained from Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and in that statement, the AG is said to have denied any knowledge of the bombings. But while the AG’s statement was evidently provided to the police more than three weeks ago, there has so far been no announcement that the police docket has been returned to the DPP. Intriguingly, there are now reports emerging of a separate investigation into the alleged bombings by the military. As part of this investigation – which is shrouded in secrecy – other individuals with knowledge of the 1987 bombings have apparently been questioned. Yet already, reports are emerging that it has not found enough evidence that would support a prosecution of the AG largely because of the uncertainty of testimony relating to events 33 years ago. While the final decision on the police investigation will rest with the DPP on the evidence before him in the normal manner, the Prime Minister, for his part, appears to have already given the AG the benefit of the doubt. He is said to be indicating to those around him that the AG will continue to be his effective deputy and they will go into the next election together. It is a political death pact, in my own view, but the PM evidently will not be deterred.
Of course, none of this will spare the AG from eventually having to give a public account of his actions in 1987, with the risk that if he repeats his denial of any knowledge about the bombing campaign, other witnesses could come forward and prompt a fresh investigation. So the bombing allegations will continue to be a ticking time bomb for the FijiFirst government right up until the next election. This will be on top of the burdens, or baggage, that I have already cited in my constant calls for the PM to drop the AG and make FijiFirst more electorally competitive by bringing his most talented ministers who don’t have baggage to the fore.
By the time 2022 comes around, the government will have been in power for 16 years, eight as a dictatorship and eight as a democratically elected government under the 2013 Constitution. Also by the next election, Fiji will have endured the worst economic crisis in its entire history, most of it beyond the government’s control because of the Covid pandemic but some of it self-inflicted by the AG’s profligacy with the nation’s finances before the 2018 election. The entire country is surviving on borrowed money and the retirement savings of ordinary Fijians, which the government continues to depict as “assistance” when it is not and that ordinary Fijian will soon discover to their horror when their retirement nest-eggs are severely reduced or depleted.
It is the perfect storm less than two years out from an election and any other government anywhere in the world would be taking stock of its situation and making radical changes in its direction. This includes altering its ministerial line-up and even if only by inference, blaming those who have departed for the country’s straitened circumstances. But Frank Bainimarama evidently thinks the normal rules of politics don’t apply to him. He is immune to the reason being presented to him by the iTaukei members of his cabinet who aren’t controlled by the AG. He is immune to the reason of the Military Council – those who brought him to power in the first place. He continues to deliver a script written for him by the AG and Qorvis that long ago ceased to have any grounding in reality. And he continues to lend his ear, Roman-like, to Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, a man who long ago ceased to have any mana with the broad mass of the electorate, is guided by self-interest and uses his well-known powers of persuasion to manipulate the Prime Minister to protect his own position and is taking them both on an ill-fated rendezvous with electoral destiny.
The disgruntled other members of the cabinet know they are like lemmings being led towards a political cliff. But while the Prime Minister continues to be under the AG’s spell, there is little they can do except perhaps leave the government themselves and join Sitiveni Rabuka’s new party. I am not joking. The principal principle of politics everywhere is lack of principle when it comes to political survival and there is almost certain to be a host of names joining Rabuka’s new political force in the coming months that will come as a surprise to a great many Fijians. If it fulfils its promise to be a “one nation” party governing for all Fijians, then the temptation to join it will be even greater.
What an extraordinary year it has been. For the world, 2020 has been a nightmare perhaps unrivalled since the Second World War. But for the Fijian people, it has been especially tough, buffeted by the economic impact of Covid over which we have no control in the same way that we have no control over the extreme weather events, rising sea levels and changes to agriculture that threaten our very existence. And if that isn’t enough, we now end the year with more political uncertainty and the emergence of a nascent political force on top of the existing economic uncertainty that clouds the nation’s future.
I am going to take my cue from Sitiveni Rabuka and depart the scene gracefully for a time to dedicate myself to family matters and to let the dust settle. My best wishes for a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year go to all my readers and especially those of you for whom the impact of the Covid downturn has been especially cruel – those without jobs and those burdened by the crushing feeling of helplessness that inevitably comes at a time like this.
We have rarely lived through more challenging times. Stripped to the bare essentials, the Prime Minister is right when he says that Fijians are overwhelmingly a caring people so you are not alone. He is also right to say the present crisis will pass and the economic sun will shine again. Until that happens, may God bless us all and continue to bless our beloved nation this festive season and always.
MY HEARTFELT THANKS TO ALL MY READERS. SOTA TALE IN 2021!