Shocked to the core by his near defeat in the November 2018 election, the Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, summoned the people he trusts most – his military colleagues who helped him seize power in 2006 and who are still the ultimate authority in Fiji. They are the members of the Military Council – senior military officers still in uniform plus those who’ve officially retired and entered the government as ministers in the Bainimarama cabinet, become permanent secretaries or taken over as the heads of such institutions as the police.
Collectively, they are not to be messed with and, indeed, the mere mention of the Military Council is enough to induce a degree of awe and apprehension in many quarters in Fiji. A rare public glimpse into what the Council does was once provided by Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga, the military officer turned diplomat who, for a time, succeeded Frank Bainimarama as RFMF commander when the PM formally left to contest the 2014 election. Tikoitoga said it existed to provide advice on “anything and everything” in relation to the running of the country.
Despite the return to parliamentary rule in 2014, the military remains all powerful in Fiji. As the 2013 Constitution puts it: “It shall be the overall responsibility of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians”. Which certainly gives force in Fiji’s supreme law to the practical effect of the RFMF continuing to hold ultimate power to keep the peace and hold the country together through the barrel of the gun. The current leadership of the RFMF – in my experience – are men and women of honour who take that responsibility very seriously.
The Military Council had been dormant for several years when it was suddenly reconvened by the Prime Minister in the election aftermath. His old comrades were given a specific invitation to advise him about how to respond to his near defeat at the hands of his bitter opponent – Sitiveni Rabuka, the former Prime Minister, RFMF commander and instigator of the 1987 coups who led the SODELPA opposition into the 2018 election and came within a small margin of winning.
The Military Council produced a 26-point blueprint for the direction it believed Frank Bainimarama should take his government and the nation. The contents of that advice have never been revealed – until now – and the Prime Minister is yet to act on its recommendations. But elements of the military and some of his cabinet colleagues want him to do so as a matter of urgency as the clock ticks inexorably towards the next election in 2022.
It is, by any measure, an astonishing document that even 20 months on, will send shock waves through the Fijian establishment and body politic. Not least because it shows the Military Council laying the blame for the government’s poor election showing squarely at the feet of Bainimarama’s Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who it accuses of arrogance and of putting the Prime Minister’s legacy at risk.
The document is bound to cause a collective tightening of sphincters in the AG’s immediate circle. Because pressure is building on the PM to end his 20 months of prevarication and at least implement the most pressing of the Military Council’s recommendations. It is also clear that the only thing between Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and political oblivion is the support of one man – Frank Bainimarama. And if he withdraws his patronage or leaves the stage for any reason, the AG and those who rely on him for their positions and influence are extremely vulnerable, such is the intensity of the sentiment against him and the extraordinary number of scores to settle. This includes the AG’s humiliation of the Secretary of the Military Council, Brigadier General (ret’d) Ioane Naivalurua, in refusing to even interview him for a place on the FijiFirst ticket.
REMOVAL OF AIYAZ SAYED-KHAIYUM FROM THE POSITION OF AG:
First and foremost, the Military Council document calls for the removal of Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum as Attorney General. It refers to a “separation of the role of attorney general and minister for economy’. Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum would lose the position of AG in the government but keep the post of Economy Minister. Yet this was before it became clear in recent months that the AG had incurred a substantial budget shortfall through his overspending in the election lead-up. It was the perception of his skills in managing the economy that protected him from even harsher criticism in the election aftermath. If anything, the attitude towards him since is said to have hardened. And a significant number of senior officers are convinced – along with members of the Bainimarama cabinet – that he should go altogether to give the government a clean slate to regroup with a fresh team before the next election in 2022.
THE AG TO BE STRIPPED OF HIS OTHER PORTFOLIOS:
The Military Council also calls for the AG to be stripped of his other portfolios, which at the time included Minister of Civil Service, Minister of Public Enterprises, Local Government and Housing. “Too many portfolios under one minister has created a perception that AG has full control of Government”, the document states.
It specifically says Civil Service should be “assigned to another minister or put under the PM’s portfolio”. Soon after this, the Prime Minister telephoned a number of people in government to inform them that he was taking over the Civil Service. Yet inexplicably, that was the last they heard of the proposed changes. He back-peddled without calling them back to say that he’d changed his mind.
The Military Council also says the position of acting prime minister when Frank Bainimarama is absent from the country “needs to be rotated amongst capable senior ministers”. This appears to be one recommendation that Bainimarama heeded in the election aftermath, when Inia Seruiratu became acting prime minister in his absence, in a clear break with existing practice over the years, in which Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum was left in charge.
ADDRESS THE PERCEPTION OF “MUSLIM RULE”:
In its unprecedented assault on the AG’s reputation and position, the Military Council calls for the emasculation of his influence across a broad front. It said the “PM’s legacy is at risk, with widespread rumour of Fiji being governed by Muslim rule”. This is evidently not a criticism of Muslims generally nor a sentiment that is exclusive to the Military Council. The military hierarchy includes a Muslim – Brigadier-General Aziz Mohammed – who has risen to the top as Deputy Commander and is a respected and highly educated officer. The RFMF has also never shared the anti-Islamic sentiment of indigenous nationalists in the opposition and Hindu nationalists in the wider community. Yet the comment undoubtedly reflects unease in the Military Council – as it does elsewhere – at the disproportionately high number of co-religionists who the AG has installed in government, the institutions of state and on the boards of state-owned enterprises. Muslims comprise around six per cent of the Fijian population yet have a disproportionate presence in the FijiFirst government and its instrumentalities. It is a question of balance and many feel that balance has not been struck.
The Military Council document specifically calls for a “review of some of the executive appointments” that the AG has made. And in relation to board appointments, it says “respective ministers should appoint board members with the approval of the Prime Minister”. It adds that “appointments of commissioners on the Public Service Commission and chairmen of all government-owned institutions must be made in consultation with the PM”.
STRENGTHEN ITAUKEI INSTITUTIONS:
In a clear sign of the military’s sensitivity about attitudes in the vanua, the document makes further reference to an “Indo-Fijian dominated government” and says “the perception is that Indigenous resources are at risk”. It said the government needed to “strengthen iTaukei institutions” and “involve Indigenous institutions in decision making”. This “negative perception needs to be corrected”, it adds. In addition, the “AG must not respond on Indigenous matters” in parliament, the document states.
CHANGE THE GOVERNMENT’S “CONFRONTATIONAL AND ARROGANT” STYLE:
Readers will have seen the criticism I have cited previously of the veibeci (looking down at people) and viavialevu (arrogant) attitude of the government, which is shared by the Military Council. Referring to the “professional conduct of ministers”, the Council document makes specific reference to the “confrontational and arrogant” style of the FijiFirst government that it says needs to change to one of “consultation, inclusiveness and engagement”.
STOP THE AG INTERFERING IN OTHER MINISTRIES:
The Military Council also struck out at Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum’s control over the rest of the government. It said the “AG must not interfere unnecessarily in other minister’s portfolios. Discussions should be held directly with PM. Ministers can freely comment or critique any Ministry or Minister only in cabinet meetings” – a clear reference to the power the AG wields over other ministers, detailed in previous Grubsheet postings. “Ministers need to be equally empowered and must only report to PM and not the AG”, the Council says. It also calls for the strengthening of the Cabinet Office and says the Cabinet Office “must not be taken out of the PM’s Office. It must not report to any other Minister. No other country has this system”, it says, and the “Cabinet Office must report directly to the PM”.
ESTABLISH A “REVIEW MECHANISM” OF GOVERNMENT DECISIONS:
The Military Council recommends the introduction of what it calls a “review mechanism” of government decisions, in a clear signal of dissatisfaction with the perception of the “two man rule” of the PM and AG to the exclusion of other ministers. “Major decisions of the government need consultation amongst senior ministers through subcommittees of Cabinet”, it says.
INSTITUTE CHANGES TO FICAC AND THE JUDICIARY:
The Military Council calls for the removal of Rashmi Aslam, the current Deputy Commissioner of the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption. It says “FICAC Office needs to be independent. And states that “lots of negativity has arisen out of him for the government”. In relation to the judiciary, the document calls for limiting the number of appointments of judges from Sri Lanka.
THE “UNPOPULAR” FIJI SUN:
The Military Council document states that “the Fiji Sun is fast becoming an unpopular paper. The perception is that it is fully government controlled”. It specifically references the Fiji Sun concentrating on “pictures of the AG and one or two ministers” and reflecting the “government’s webpage and printed material”.
ESTABLISH A PRIME MINISTER’S THINK TANK:
To break the perceived stronghold that the AG has over the Prime Minister’s decision-making, the Military Council proposes “a Prime Minister’s think tank of no more than ten persons from various sectors”.
ESTABLISH MORE ENGAGEMENT WITH THE BUSINESS SECTOR:
The Military Council refers to the need for better engagement with the business sector. And it criticises the conduct of FRCS, the Fiji Revenue and Customs Service. “The gap is increasing between the government and the business sector because of the conduct of FRCS”, the document states.
…PLUS MORE ENGAGEMENT WITH NGOs:
The Military Council calls for more “engagement and recognition of NGOs”. “There is almost no support from them to government”, the document says.
So those are the main points of the Military Council’s blueprint, which presumably reflects the views of the majority of its members. So the burning question is why hasn’t Frank Bainimarama implemented its agenda? After all, it was he who convened the Council in the first place and he gave every indication in the election aftermath that he was going to make changes to the government, including reducing the influence of the AG.
When I spoke to the Prime Minister about the government’s position after the election at the end of 2018, he was also clearly intent on reform. In fact, he agreed that the government’s arrogant style needed to change and also agreed on the need to bring his iTaukei ministers more to the fore to address the government’s poor showing in the vanua, which is where SODELPA clearly made its inroads.
The AG was absent from Fiji over the Christmas-New Year period but returned soon afterwards and held a meeting with the PM. It’s a mystery to those who’d been led to believe by the Prime Minister that change was coming why he suddenly changed his mind. Did Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum come with a resignation letter or threaten to resign? Did he call on the PM’s loyalty or prey on the PM’s sentimentality about his 12 years of service to that point? Does the PM regard him as simply indispensable in a government in which the two of them have been the driving force? Does the AG “have something on the PM”, as more uncharitable Fijians have begun to speculate? It is anyone’s guess in the absence of accounts from the two men.
Whatever the answer, the government continues its “two man” rule and, if anything in the intervening period, the AG’s confidence and influence has strengthened. Yet he and the PM have a rendezvous with destiny at the ballot box in 2022 and it is clear to significant elements in the military and the cabinet that in its present form, the government simply cannot win. Even before Covid-19 triggered economic disintegration, it was in trouble and as the months progress, its electoral position can only deteriorate.
I personally know very few people outside the government’s immediate circle who still support FijiFirst and if they do, it is only on the basis that the alternative would be worse. The sense of grievance and anger towards the government is palpable, as anyone who gets into a taxi or spends any time around a grog bowl can tell you. And no amount of spin to the contrary will make any difference in the privacy of the ballot box come election day without a fundamental change of direction.
Last week, the Prime Minister very publicly denied that the cabinet is divided along ethnic lines. Yet unbeknown to Indo-Fijian ministers and with the Prime Minister’s apparent imprimatur, the iTaukei ministers are said to have formed a separate grouping in the wake of the election to discuss the government’s position. Grubsheet also understands that within recent months, a deputation of iTaukei ministers again went to see the Prime Minister asking him to remove the AG as a means of improving the government’s standing and were rebuffed. But time is running out and cracks are emerging in the PM’s own position. Hitherto, it has invariably been “the Commander/Prime Minister knows best”. Yet as the months tick by, questions are starting to be asked about Bainimarama’s own judgment and why he insists on not making the changes a significant number of his cabinet colleagues believe are essential for their own survival and that of the Bainimarama Revolution itself.
In the way of politics everywhere, this impatience threatens to give way to a sentiment that if the PM won’t act, it may also be time for him to go. For the first time, in fact, these rumblings are starting to surface among the PM’s closest supporters. Incidents like his angry outburst against the former military officer, Pio Tikoduadua, in the parliament again last week after “assaulting” him outside the building last August bring the PM’s judgment into question and are regarded as totally counterproductive when the country is facing the gravest of challenges. Whatever the personal history of these two men that has caused the rift between them, Tikoduadua is a substantial figure in the country with strong roots in the vanua and the wider community, the government, the RFMF and the Roman Catholic Church that reared him. No-one is willing the PM on when he attacks him. And there are definitely no votes in it, which ought to be front and centre of any strategy but which the FijiFirst government too often forgets.
The Covid-19 crisis and its economic fallout is, quite naturally, putting an immense strain on the leadership and the Prime Minister is clearly on edge. But to many watching, this kind of indiscipline is unedifying, even sad, when Frank Bainimarama has cut such a distinguished and dignified figure on the world stage in recent years and deserves an honoured place in history for his singular achievement in having unified the country and levelled the playing field for all Fijians.
As I have said before, Bainimarama is – I believe – still the best person to keep Fiji united. And it is even more critical now to put party politics aside and engage as widely as possible on the best way forward – a “we’re all in this together” approach that would give ordinary Fijians a lot more confidence that their leaders can get them through the Covid crisis. This is not the time for the kind of division and point scoring we saw in the parliament last week. The government’s confrontational style – and especially that of the AG – simply doesn’t suit the times. It was especially insulting for the government to say that if the opposition wanted input, they should have turned up for the AG’s public budget consultations. These pantomimes at which the AG struts – microphone in hand – posturing and prescribing, test the patience of even his most diehard supporters, especially when he tells them he’s assisting them by letting them spend their own money. So only he would expect opposition MPs to have to sit through the same ordeal.
Aside from the country’s ability to weather the Covid-19 crisis, many eyes are already turning to the 2022 election, which makes the Military Council document that much more relevant and important. Of course, much depends on whether SODELPA again chooses Sitiveni Rabuka to go head-to-head against the Prime Minister who, for the moment at least, is indicating that he will lead FijiFirst into the election for another term. We will know in a couple of months whether there’ll be a rerun of the “Clash of the Titans” when SODELPA chooses who will carry its banner into the election. And a great deal is at stake for everyone in Fiji.
Frank Bainimarama has particular reason to detest Rabuka. He has always blamed him privately not only for triggering Fiji’s coup culture but for allegedly having a hand in the mutiny at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva in November 2000 in which three loyalist troops were killed and Bainimarama barely escaped with his life. He has said that Rabuka was lucky not to have been summarily executed on the spot when he arrived at the camp that day with his old military uniform on a hanger in the back of his vehicle. Bainimarama has always taken it as a sign that Rabuka was intending to take command, assuming the mutiny succeeded. Rabuka himself has said that he was merely trying to negotiate an end to the confrontation but Bainimarama has never believed him. So that to this day, the relationship between Prime Minister and Opposition leader is poisoned by the events of two decades ago, which go well beyond the usual political rivalry.
Frank Bainimarama dodged a bullet in 2018 when he narrowly defeated Rabuka. And so perhaps did the country. For some of Bainimarama’s hardcore loyalists in the RFMF make little secret of the fact they will never accept Rabuka as Prime Minister. Others hold the position just as firmly that the time for military intervention in politics in Fiji is over and the RFMF has a constitutional duty to side with whichever party wins the election. Yet serious concerns remain. In the absence of reform – and sticking with the AG in defiance of a significant number of his colleagues – is Frank Bainimarama destined to be vanquished by his nemesis, Sitiveni Rabuka, in 2022? And can there be a smooth transition of power if Rabuka wins and Bainimarama loses? Or for that matter, Aseri Radrodro or any of the other SODELPA leadership aspirants?
For anyone with a strategic view and an eye to history, these are the most burning questions of all. Because nothing will be more important than stability and confidence once the Covid-19 crisis passes and Fiji eventually gets to rebuild its shattered economy. If a week is a long time in politics – as the old saying goes – two years is an eternity and things can obviously change. Yet in the absence thus far of a cohesive opposition capable of bringing the entire country together, many people – me included – think that it is infinitely preferable to make the current government more competitive by reinventing it than to take a giant leap into the unknown. And that task must begin now.
Next time: Frank Bainimarama names his successor.