This is a story that will be read with intense interest in Fiji, not only by the Fijian people but foreign diplomats and development partners, who will finally get an answer to one of the most frequently-asked questions about the country’s future direction – who will replace Frank Bainimarama as Prime Minister when he eventually chooses to stand aside. It is a question largely unspoken in the country – confined to private conversations and certainly not part of the public debate. Yet having been in power for 14 years and reached the age of 66, the pressure is inevitably mounting on Bainimarama, like other leaders in his position, to announce a succession plan. Because nations that don’t have such a plan invariably suffer from a great deal of confidence-sapping speculation, investor nervousness and individual jockeying for power that is rarely ever in the national interest.
As we’ll see, even Bainimarama’s de-facto number two, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, doesn’t appear to be aware of the Prime Minister’s intentions and neither, presumably, do other civilian cabinet ministers. But the Prime Minister has certainly made his choice clear to those he trusts most – his military colleagues. That revelation coming up. But first some background to this extraordinary saga that demonstrates that the jockeying for power is already underway in earnest and has been for some time.
A year ago – in September 2019 – I was part of a substantial Fijian delegation in New York accompanying the Prime Minister to the World Climate Summit convened by the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, as well as the annual session of the UN General Assembly immediately afterwards. By then, I had left Qorvis the year before and was engaged by the Pollination team of climate consultants to write the Prime Minister’s multiple speeches and interventions for the various sessions he was attending not only as Fijian leader but as the former President of COP23 – the global climate negotiations. Because it had a significant climate component, I was also delegated to write Fiji’s customary national statement to the UN General Assembly.
On the eve of the PM’s speech, I was asleep in the town house rented by Pollination on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when I was woken by the mobile phone ringing at my bedside. The screen identified the caller as Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Climate Change (among his multiple portfolios), who was also in New York for the Climate Summit and was at a hotel elsewhere in Manhattan. It was just after 2.00am.
It had not been unusual over the years for the AG to call me at such an hour and at first, I thought nothing of it. But it seemed strange when he said he was in his hotel room with the current Qorvis staffer in Suva, Christian Theuer, and could they alter one seemingly innocuous phrase in the PM’s General Assembly speech. For a fleeting moment, I thought: “Why are you ringing me at 2.00am to ask me something that you and Christian can easily change?” But then came the real purpose of the call.
Out of the blue, the AG said there was a plan by the iTaukei ministers in the FijiFirst government – plus one of the Indo-Fijian ministers, Mahendra Reddy – to try to install Mereseini Vuniwaqa – the current Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation – as Frank Bainimarama’s successor and Fiji’s first woman prime minister. It was a statement that certainly brought me to my senses with a jolt.
Here was confirmation of what I had been hearing from deep insiders all year in the wake of the November 2018 election debacle– that the FijiFirst cabinet was split, largely along ethnic lines, between those Indo-Fijian ministers who owe their loyalty to the AG and the iTaukei ministers who had lost confidence in him and who along with the Military Council, wanted changes in the government.
The AG’s reference to Mahendra Reddy being part of this group indicated that this disaffection extended, in one instance at least, beyond ethnic lines to include the current Minister for Agriculture, Waterways and Environment. Reddy has never been part of the AG’s inner circle of hand-picked Indo-Fijian MPs and the AG has always regarded him with suspicion and distrust.
It all gives the lie, of course, to the government’s public denial in the media last week of Grubsheet’s recent account of the cabinet being divided. On one side, there are those Indo-Fijian ministers who owe their positions to the AG and still support him. And on the other, the iTaukei ministers and, evidently, Mahendra Reddy, who – as I understand it – are unanimous in wanting changes to the government’s direction and certainly don’t want Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum to ever be in a position to succeed Frank Bainimarama as prime minister. So I don’t know about you, Dear Reader, but that sounds a lot like division to me.
I was intrigued by the AG’s bizarre disclosure to me in the early hours of that New York September morning that this group allegedly wanted Mere Vuniwaqa to succeed Bainimarama. Vuniwaqa is an outstanding individual – a former acting permanent secretary for justice and state solicitor who happens to cover all the political bases. She is iTaukei and it is clear from the last election result that the future political battleground for control of government in Fiji is the vanua. She is a woman and whatever male prejudice might get in her way, would clearly capture the public imagination and be an inspiration to every woman in Fiji. She is articulate and highly educated, with degrees from the Australian National University and University of Tasmania – a lawyer who has already held high office. And above all, Vuniwaqa is not a divisive figure in any sense. She is universally popular for her open and friendly manner, her professionalism, her natural humility and dignified bearing and her ability to mix easily with all sections of the community.
So that despite the ungodly hour, a light bulb came on in my head when the AG told me the iTaukei ministers and Mahendra Reddy had decided that she should succeed Frank Bainimarama. What a good idea! With the right team around her, Mere Vuniwaqa would be political gold. Someone capable of almost immediately addressing the FijiFirst government’s main problem – its hubris, lack of humility and disconnection with political reality and popular sentiment.
Yet clearly, the AG and those cabinet ministers supposedly putting Mere Vuniwaqa forward were unaware that nine months before – after the 2018 election – the Prime Minister had already designated a successor. And here’s the monumental twist. Because it isn’t Mere Vuniwaqa at all. For all her personal attributes and undoubted vote-pulling power, she is not Frank Bainimarama’s first choice to succeed him, any more than Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum is his first choice either.
This week – on the back of Grubsheet’s revelation of the Military Council’s call for changes to the government to reduce the influence of the AG – we reveal the name of the person the Prime Minister has designated to succeed him. The answer to the question on many lips in Fiji and capitals around the world came at the Military Council meeting 21 months ago in the wake of the disastrous 2018 election result that I reported on last week. Someone in the room asked: “Prime Minister, who is going to be your successor?” Frank Bainimarama uttered one word – “Inia”.
So for the first time, the rest of Fiji is learning that Inia Seruiratu – the PM’s old comrade in arms in the military and one of the government’s heaviest hitters – is his designated successor. Not Sayed-Khaiyum or Vuniwaqa but Seruiratu – the current Minister for Rural, Maritime Development and Disaster Management and Minister for Defence, National Security and Policing. Perhaps best known to most Fijians for coordinating the response – wearing his disaster management hat – to Cyclone Evan in 2012 and then the big one, Cyclone Winston in 2016, that killed 44 people and caused damage equal to one third of the nation’s GDP.
The revelation that Seruiratu is leader-in-waiting will be another blow to the AG coming after Grubsheet’s Military Council story last week – the effective end of his dream of becoming prime minister. And it will also shake to the core, those MPs who owe their positions to the AG and the legions of others who owe their positions to his direct patronage in the civil service, state institutions and on the boards of public enterprises. Because one thing is certain. The two men couldn’t be more different in style and substance. And the winds of change are certain to blow through the Fijian establishment when Inia Seruiratu eventually takes over.
For Mere Vuniwaqa, it isn’t reason for disappointment but encouragement. Because she is bound to benefit from a Seruiratu prime ministership and will be free of the yoke of the AG’s rivalry. Indeed, she would make a great deputy prime minister and attorney general to Seruiratu and because of her relative youth, would be in a prime position to achieve any ambition she might harbour to eventually become Fiji’s first female prime minister. It will also be a relief for much of the government generally, aside, of course, from those MPs who owe their positions to the AG. And it will be a relief for much of the country, a large proportion of which would have been gripped by dismay and apprehension had they learnt that the PM’s choice was Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. Yes, he is that divisive.
But why was the AG ringing me at 2.00am a year ago to tell me it was Mere Vuniwaqa when the PM had named Inia Seruiratu nine months before? He clearly didn’t know what had transpired at the Military Council meeting or he wouldn’t have been peddling the Vuniwaqa option. Did he suspect that I had knowledge of this “plot” to thwart his own ambition to succeed as prime minister and was testing me at my most vulnerable in the middle of the night? As it happens, it was the first I’d heard of it and I told him so. But I had long sensed the AG’s suspicion because he certainly knew that I’d been agitating for change behind the scenes in the aftermath of the 2018 election 10 months before. Not about the leadership but about in the manner in which the FijiFirst government was conducting itself and the anger and resentment towards it in the community.
It wasn’t a matter of personal preference but political imperative. As I’ve said before, I have nothing personal against the AG. On the contrary, I have a great deal of respect for his ability and especially his work ethic. It was the Fijian people, not me, who had made their pronouncement on the government’s performance at the election by taking it to the brink of defeat. I was certainly keen for the leadership to respond appropriately to the message the country had sent it – to change its prescriptive and arrogant behaviour or face almost certain defeat at the next election in 2022. And with the attendant risk that many of the Bainimarama government’s reforms – the revolution that we had all worked so hard to implement – would be rolled back.
In my own mind, the AG had failed to respond to that message in the immediate election aftermath by blaming the result on the “lies of the opposition and the Fiji Times”. And one incident in particular indicated to me – and a great many other people – an astonishing lack of judgment and disdain for the mood of the electorate and many of his cabinet colleagues. Already shocked by his poor choice of the election date, his conduct of the campaign and how this had so obviously cost the government votes, the Suvavou House siege was – in their minds – a genuine act of madness.
29 days after the election on December 12, 2018, the opposition parties – SODELPA and the NFP – tried to serve legal papers on the government as part of their protest over alleged irregularities in the conduct of the election. The AG immediately ordered those cabinet ministers who were in the country to gather at his office on the ninth floor of Suvavou House on Victoria Parade – and the tenth floor above – to avoid those papers being served. Suvavou House quickly became known as Hideaway House. The lifts were disabled and the bailiffs were turned away. And so began an astonishing standoff – with the bailiffs and opposition MPs down on the street outside – that lasted for two days and sorely damaged the government’s already battered reputation.
As the siege dragged into the evening of the first day, followed by the next day and the next night, the cameras recorded bedding being brought into the building so the imprisoned ministers could get some sleep. The AG’s extraordinary explanation to the media was that the 48 hour gathering was “an urgent strategy meeting”. It was a lie of Trumpian proportions. And the sight of cabinet ministers detained on the AG’s orders and being forced to cancel their existing schedules turned FijiFirst into a laughing stock. One memorable Facebook meme read: “It’s after 10pm – do you know where your government is?”
It wasn’t just the government. Eyebrows were raised when the supposedly independent Supervisor of Elections, Mohammed Saneem, was photographed leaving the building. What was he doing there? Yet the tactic of avoiding the bailiffs ended in farce anyway when a judge allowed the opposition to legally serve the papers by publishing them in the media. The architect of that farce had been the AG. The Prime Minister was absent from the country at COP24 in Katowice, Poland. And it had all been for nothing – a monumental miscalculation on the AG’s part that fuelled the already strong public perception that FijiFirst had lost the plot.
Cabinet ministers emerged from the building sheepishly facing some very tough questions about why they had allowed themselves to be humiliated by the AG. And privately they were deeply angry about his conduct. More than anything else, the AG’s notorious Suvavou House “Pyjama Party” triggered the resentment against him by a significant number of his cabinet colleagues that lingers to this day.
At the time, I was watching all of this with mounting concern from abroad, having accompanied the Prime Minister to Poland. He and I had already spoken at length about the election outcome and what needed to be done. Yet as the days mounted and the fallout from the Suvavou House debacle spread, there was still no sign of a change in the AG’s overly strident and cocky public demeanour, let alone any sign of contrition. On the contrary, he seemed determined to maintain the arrogance, to crash through with a burst of publicity centred on him – not the Prime Minister – that was clearly designed to deflect public attention away from the debacle but was actually having the opposite effect of drawing attention to his lack of judgment.
So on December 20, 2018, I sent the Prime Minister the following Viber message. Certain personal references to third parties have been redacted, along with the PM’s response. But it was blunt and to the point.
“Bula Vinaka PM. Further to our conversation the other day, I think the personality cult that has been built up around the AG in the Fiji Sun and the government Facebook page has become a big liability for us. Here we are on the ropes politically and the AG is dominating coverage on Facebook. You are the leader and easily the most popular vote getter in FijiFirst and that should be reflected in the government’s social media coverage. In any event, it is abundantly clear that the AG has become a lightning rod for voter dissatisfaction and the smart thing to do is to reduce his public exposure, especially at the present time. I spoke the other day of the need for humility in the face of our near defeat but there is no evidence of this in the AG’s public demeanour. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case. Concerned to hear even rusted on FijiFirst supporters tell me the government will lose another poll after the Suvavou House debacle. They say we treated the people like idiots with the AG’s explanation for what happened and they don’t like being lied to. I am saying all this to you in confidence and in the expectation that you will not tell the AG of my concerns. I have a great deal of respect for him but it has reached the stage where he will not hear any criticism and I have already been marginalised for being “too negative”. My number one concern is that everything must be done to protect your political position and the revolution you led. And I have reluctantly formed the opinion that the AG is eroding our position at the very time when it urgently needs to be reasserted. We need to bring our best iTaukei ministers more to the fore. And we must show the people that they sent a message on Nov 14 and that we are listening, not act as if nothing happened and merrily maintain the arrogance”.
Regrettably from my standpoint, the Prime Minister chose to circulate this message widely, including to members of the cabinet. And he did so with my initials still at the bottom of it – GD. It didn’t take long for the saqamoli to drop. Senior people began approaching me saying “Graham, thank you for telling the PM what needs to be done”. Er, um, ah, yeah, great. Because it also didn’t take long for the message to reach the eyes of the AG and our relationship was never the same again.
Sometime later, the AG said that my reference to advancing the position of iTaukei ministers “went against everything we’ve been trying to do as a government”. He also said that if I wanted to stay working in Fiji on its climate campaign, I needed to “stay out of politics”. I agreed but had known the AG for too long to pretend to myself that this wouldn’t soon be the end of the line. Sure enough, the funding needed to keep me on the climate team was withdrawn soon afterwards and my connection with the government ended altogether. I am in good company. The AG’s list of the fallen since 2006 is longer than most small wars.
Almost a year on, the rest of the country now knows what the PM told the Military Council and barring a miracle, the AG’s ambition to lead Fiji is over. It will doubtless come as a shock to him and those around him, as well as those reliant on his patronage. But many more Fijians will welcome it because of the capricious nature of the AG’s unfettered control of government and his blatant manipulation of the institutions of state. In my judgment and that of others, he cannot lead because Fiji needs a unifying presence at the top. And there are few people in the country who are more divisive.
Frank Bainimarama’s choice of successor, Inia Seruiratu, is eminently capable of following Bainimarama’s lead in drawing the nation together. He has none of the AG’s increasingly presidential air and while he may not be as obviously articulate and clever, he is generally regarded as an outstanding individual, with a particular reputation for team building and ability and grace under pressure. This has been tested not only in times of natural disaster in Fiji but during successive tours of duty on UN Peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and with RAMSI in Solomon Islands.
Hailing from the sea level-threatened village of Kumi in Verata, Tailevu, Inia Seruiratu was educated first at the Ratu Kadavulevu School and is a graduate of the New Zealand Command and Staff College and Massey University. He has always been one of Frank Bainimarama’s most trusted colleagues and has filled a variety of cabinet posts, including agriculture, rural and maritime development, the aforementioned national disaster portfolio, fisheries and forests and more lately, the senior positions of foreign affairs and now Defence, National Security and Policing – the big three when it comes to ensuring the security and safety of every Fijian.
On the world stage, Inia Seruiratu has also been Fiji’s High-Level Climate Champion, following his French and Moroccan predecessors when Fiji assumed the presidency of COP23 to advance the global climate action agenda. As such – and in his role at Foreign Affairs and Defence and National Security – he already has a global reputation as a straight talker, especially about the climate threat, and experience in international negotiations.
As if to prove the adage that behind every great man usually lurks an even more formidable woman – as in the case of Mary Bainimarama – Inia Seruiratu’s wife is Colonel Litea Seruiratu, who has reached the highest rank of any woman in the history of the RFMF. The Director of Force Development and Commandant of the Officer Training School, Colonel Seruiratu is also a respected military academic and strategist – a graduate of the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. The couple – who have three children – have a reputation for integrity and are respected across the political spectrum and wider community.
The only downside of a Seruiratu prime ministership may be the perception that yet another military man is emerging as Fijian leader when there’d doubtless be a widespread preference for a civilian this long after the 2006 takeover. But were Seruiratu to choose Mere Vuniwaqa as his designated deputy prime minister and attorney general, it would go a long way to addressing some of these concerns. And in many ways, Seruiratu and Vuniwaqa would be a dream team for the task that FijiFirst now faces of rebuilding its reputation in the country and especially in the vanua, where the next election will be decided.
As for the timing of any changeover, Frank Bainimarama has the authority in the government, the military and the wider community to choose the moment of his own departure. But in the meantime, many of his supporters believe that he needs to send a strong signal to the voters of Fiji that FijiFirst has learnt the lessons of the last election and has embraced a change of direction to make it less vei beci and less viavialevu in its conduct. There is nothing to stop him from enunciating a succession plan now. But if he sticks with the AG, it is almost certain that his place in history will be sullied by defeat in 2022 and the ignominy of having not known the right time to make the changes that were needed.
The tragedy of Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum is that when I first came to work for him in 2012, I had lunch with his father, Sayed Khaiyum, and told him that I hoped his son would one day become the first successful Indo-Fijian prime minister of Fiji. (Mahendra Chaudhry clearly wasn’t a success at survival). At the time – dazzled by the AG’s more attractive qualities – I meant it. But I eventually came to the opinion, observing him up close, that you cannot lead the nation unless you can take the people with you. And with his hubris, lack of judgment, obsession with control and vindictiveness, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has sowed the seeds for his own destruction. He must not be allowed to take Frank Bainimarama’s reputation and his revolution with him.
Next time: The glaring conflicts of interest on government boards in Fiji.