The Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, shows every sign of being rattled by Sitiveni Rabuka, judging from his extraordinary attack on him on Monday at the 20th anniversary commemoration of the mutiny at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in November 2000. His description of Rabuka as a “snake” in a speech to the assembled members of the military after the official commemoration has sent eyebrows soaring. It wasn’t so much what he said because Bainimarama’s antipathy towards the opposition leader is well known, as is the Prime Minister’s conviction that Rabuka was the hand in the glove of the 2000 mutineers. It was where he said it – the scene of the mutiny two decades ago– and to whom he said it – the military hierarchy who would be expected under the Constitution to loyally serve Rabuka were he to win the next election in 2022.
Frank Bainimarama said he was making the comments about Rabuka not as Prime Minister but as former commander of the RFMF. And this is where Bainimarama entered sensitive territory, in the view of some, and crossed the line, in the view of others. Because the implicit message was that “I am still one of you” and “we must stop the snake from ever regaining power”.
Bainmarama left the military to contest the 2014 election. And by entering Parliament as an elected MP, he is meant to have embraced the notion of Parliament as the ultimate authority in the country. While the 2013 Constitution establishes the military as having “overall responsibility to ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians”, it is the elected politicians who are the ultimate authority in any democracy. And Sitiveni Rabuka is a duly elected politician who recorded the second highest vote count after Frank Bainimarama in the 2018 election.
My support for the Prime Minister is well known and I am among those who can understand that Monday’s commemoration will have been a highly emotional one for him. The objective of the mutineers was to kill him and he barely escaped with his life when under intense fire, loyalist troops shepherded him down a cassava-planted embankment to safety. He was also surrounded on Monday by the families of the three loyalist troops who were killed by the mutineers, four of whom were subsequently beaten to death in military custody. However regrettable those extra-judicial killings may have been, summary justice is a familiar feature of mutinies the world over. The emphasis on Monday was on remembering the loyal soldiers who died. And having already noted the importance Bainimarama places on loyalty and his inherent sentimentality, I know he will have been very deeply affected to have been in the company of the bereaved relatives and his former comrades-in-arms.
Yet the Prime Minister needs to understand that words are also bullets. And in allowing the media to be present to record his bitter attack on Sitiveni Rabuka, he has not only drawn public attention once again to their long-standing personal feud but raised the stakes even higher by suggesting to a military audience that he must be stopped. While it was a long way from being an incitement to the RFMF to prevent a Rabuka-led government from ever taking office, it nonetheless raised some traumatic memories that most Fijians would prefer to forget. And rather than enhancing Bainimarama’s mana – as Monday’s event should have done – it reminded everyone of how much Rabuka haunts him. It is one thing to attack him in the Parliament and on the hustings but quite another to have done so up at the Camp before a large group of men and women Bainimarama once commanded and some of whom still refer to him as “the Commander” in a clear sign of the influence he continues to wield.
For his own political benefit, the PM needs to keep his counsel or say whatever he wants to say privately. Two decades on, there are Fijian voters who weren’t even born in 2000 and many more for whom the events occurred well outside their own life experience or are lost to memory. The military has also moved on, committed to fulfilling its constitutional duty of being responsible for the security, defence and wellbeing of the Fijian people but also, by definition, committed to upholding the other provisions of the 2013 Constitution relating to the supremacy of the Parliament, the independence of the institutions of state and the rule of law.
And there’s another undeniable fact that the PM seemed to have overlooked in his strident denunciation of the Opposition leader. That Sitiveni Rabuka was tried and acquitted of instigating the mutiny in the High Court in 2006 and that acquittal was upheld when prosecutors took it to the Court of Appeal in 2007. So whatever Frank Bainimarama believed in 2000 and believes now, there was insufficient evidence to convict Sitiveni Rabuka in a court of law. That makes him innocent of the charge. Which is why he has had every right this week to object to someone of the Prime Minister’s stature continuing to cast him as guilty all these years on.
Whatever Frank Bainimarama says, the “snake” also happens to be the alternative prime minister. Rabuka was not only formally cleared of involvement in the 2000 mutiny but survived a FICAC prosecution in 2018 that enabled him to take Bainimarama to the brink of defeat at the last election. And on present indications, is on course to beat him at the next election in 2022 – assuming Rabuka survives the SODELPA leadership contest in just over three week’s time on November 28.
Sitiveni Rabuka is telling people that it is a question of when, not if, he wins the SODELPA leadership vote and when, not if, he becomes Prime Minister in 2022. If the latest Fiji Sun-Western Force opinion polls are to be believed, it is no idle boast. While Frank Bainimarama regained the title of “most preferred prime minister” in the latest opinion poll last week, Rabuka beat him in the previous one the month before. But the combined vote of the opposition eclipses that of FijiFirst and it is looking increasingly possible, maybe even likely, that Sitiveni Rabuka can stage a historic comeback in 2022 and resume his place as prime minister 23 years after he lost it to Mahendra Chaudhry in 1999.
That is what is undoubtedly troubling Frank Bainimarama – the fear of defeat at the ballot box at the hands of his nemesis. And is undoubtedly what prompted his incendiary remarks up at the Camp on Monday, delivered in the iTaukei language, which in itself suggests that even though the media was present, he may not have thought those remarks would reach a wider audience. Strangely – given their startling nature – the remarks were ignored by the Fiji Times and the two media outlets the government controls – FBC and the Fiji Sun. In the case of the latter two, it may have been on the subsequent instructions of the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who would have immediately understood their potentially adverse impact on public confidence. Yet in any event, the story was headlined by the radio stations of Communications Fiji Limited and its global Fiji Village website after they translated the remarks and a full video of the speech remains on Fiji Village. (you can see it below)
How the Prime Minister’s outburst was viewed in the room isn’t clear, though the RFMF commander, Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto, evidently had the look of someone who would have preferred it hadn’t been made, judging from the stony expression on his face. The RFMF is meant to be resolutely non-political under the 2013 Constitution. That doesn’t mean that individual officers and troops don’t have their own political preferences. It would be fair to say that most support the FijiFirst government, regarding it as partly their creation, and are loyal to the Prime Minister as their former commander. But there would also be others who support the opposition and have close personal ties with Sitiveni Rabuka as another former commander.
The men and women in uniform are as entitled to their own personal political preferences as anyone else. But their allegiance – sworn on oath – is to the State and since the return to parliamentary rule in 2014, their task is ultimately to leave their own preferences aside and back whoever the Fijian people choose to lead them at an election. If that is to be Sitiveni Rabuka when the time comes, then so be it. That’s their constitutional duty. Which is why Frank Bainimarama’s remarks on Monday attacking the Opposition Leader in front of them were so inappropriate.
He was also in a roomful of people whose leaders – in the form of the Military Council – have already asked him for fundamental reform of the government to make it more responsive and competitive. No media outlet in Fiji is yet to report my disclosure of the Military Council document from last year calling for this reform, including the removal of the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum. (Sept 10: “The Military’s Secret Blueprint for Change”) This is despite the fact that not once in their public criticism of me have the Prime Minister or Attorney General denied the existence of this document and its contents. The PM accused me of “spreading gossip” but cannot deny that the document exists. I received it from an impeccable source and it is genuine. I understand the Military Council still wants its provisions implemented but that the Prime Minister continues to resist making the changes it requested. It means that some of those listening on Monday may have been actually irritated by his lack of resolve. Never mind Rabuka. For them right now, the immediate problem is Bainimarama dragging his feet on reform.
The same applies to a significant number of ministers in the FijiFirst cabinet, who have approached the Prime Minister asking him to remove the AG but have been rebuffed. They know that the government needs fundamental reform to stave off defeat in 2022 and are naturally beginning to worry about their own positions. That anxiety risks spreading into the wider community if those reforms aren’t made. And the last thing Fiji needs is political uncertainty on top of the crippling economic blow inflicted by Covid-19.
The evidence is also there of the urgent need for change in the opinion polls published in the CJ Patel Fiji Sun – the government’s principal cheerleader. Not only does the combined support for the opposition now eclipse FijiFirst but the latest poll showed that most Fijians think none of its ministers are performing adequately. The evidence that the government is on the nose is undeniable. Which makes the need for reform not just desirable but a matter of basic political survival.
As I have said before, any new team needs time to establish itself when the PM finally realises he can’t win with Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum still in place. Keeping him is not an option. The AG has succeeded until now in preventing the release of any opinion polling on his own political standing. But for the first time in the last Fiji Sun-Western Force poll, we finally received evidence of what Fijian voters think of him and it was a nail in his political coffin. Only 22 per cent of voters, just over one in five, think he is doing a good job at the present time and only nine per cent see him as a future leader. And no matter how much he manipulates his influence with the CJ Patel Fiji Sun to portray him as government rooster in the multiple photo calls in its pages, he is already a political feather duster. Not only will he never lead but he is a dead weight in Frank Bainimarama’s saddlebags. And only the PM’s misguided sense of loyalty and dependence on the AG to be “Minister for Everything” and absolve him of the onerous day- to-day duties of government is keeping him in place.
Suddenly, an additional complication has emerged that will damage Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum’s political fortunes and his value to the government even further. It was emblazoned on the front page of yesterday’s Fiji Times and headlined on CFL radio stations – a call from the former Prime Minister and Labour Party leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, for the AG to stand down as police investigate him for his alleged bomb-making activities in the aftermath of the 1987 coups. The AG himself has confirmed that an investigation is taking place and it has all sorts of potential consequences for his place in the government and FijiFirst’s fortunes moving forward.
It involves allegations that Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum was part of a group of people who banded together in 1987 to engage in an armed struggle against Sitiveni Rabuka and his post-coup government. It was evidently not only the construction and use of bombs – the specific allegation against the AG – but the procurement of weapons from abroad to engage in guerrilla skirmishes. Those involved are said to have been driven by a desire to avenge the attacks on ordinary Indo-Fijians by ethno-nationalists emboldened by Rabuka and were determined to assert Indo-Fijian rights by force of arms. Unfortunately, at least one person was killed. And while the precise details of the conspiracy are sketchy, it allegedly involved not only Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum but other people who are now prominent in public life, including one of Fiji’s most senior diplomats and a former diplomat now prominent in academic circles.
Why is this plot only now coming to light, more than three decades later? Part of the explanation is the passage of time and that some of the participants have evidently been assured that they will not face prosecution themselves. But another factor is that some of the conspirators are said to harbour a grudge against Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum for allegedly fleeing Fiji for Australia when the net was closing in on them, thereby escaping the interrogations and prolonged detention that some of them endured. One of the purported members of this group has told Grubsheet that “Aiyaz was the chief bomb-maker in 1987”. Due process needs to establish the veracity of such an allegation. But it is not the traditional path to power in Pacific countries. Victor Lal at fijileaks.com has more detail on these allegations, including the significant disclosure that Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum is not on the list of those who were granted immunity for their actions in 1987 in a decree signed by the then president, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, evidently because he had already left for Australia.
Whatever the truth of what happened 33 years ago, these allegations against Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum are a “smoking gun” that has gone off at the worst possible time for the AG, as he desperately fights for his political life and tries to stave off the demands for his removal from the military and his own cabinet colleagues. If he looks like a haunted man in his recent photos, he is. And for reasons not just related to the astonishing pressure he must be under anyway as the economy disintegrates and he desperately seeks more avenues of funding to keep the country afloat. The AG as an “alleged bomb-maker”? That’s the genuine Kaboom echoing around the corridors of power that is far worse than the opposition’s taunts about the Bainimarama Boom. The sound of a once promising political career being blown to pieces.
The sooner the AG goes and the sooner the Prime Minister makes the changes to his cabinet that are needed to make the government competitive again, the better Frank Bainimarama’s own chances of survival will be. He needs to win the next election fair and square with a fresh team that gives him the best possible chance to beat the odds of a massive economic downturn and 16 years in office by the time that election comes around. Because if he is not careful, the “snake” will rear his head at the polling booths in 2022 and strike. And it is no exaggeration to say that the entire Bainimarama Revolution, as well as the PM’s own fortunes, could be dealt a lethal blow.
VIDEO LINK: For those of you who speak iTaukei, here’s what the Prime Minister told the assembled troops at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks last Monday, November 2.