FIJI NATIONALISM -
IS THERE SUCH A THING?
Protesters march towards Parliament on 19 May 2000.
Photo: Latu Matoto (Tonga)
TERESIA TEAIWA analyzes the crucial deeper issues
behind Fijis political conflict and concludes the big question still
remains. And when the present crisis at Fijis House of Parliament
in Nasese passes, as it inevitably will, the question will remain: what
is Fijian nationalism when there is no nation?
THE PROBLEM with Fijian nationalism is that there is no Fijian nation.
There are Fijian provinces, and traditional Fijian confederacies, but
the two military coups of 1987 and the lasty months hostage crisis
illustrate with disturbing insistence the erosion of indigenous Fijian
social order and the fragmentation of indigenous Fijian leadership.
The problem with prevailing analyses of the political situation in Fiji
is the notion that the conflict is between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians.
The race card is misleading and mischievous, and unfortunately,
Mahendra Chaudhry, Fijis first Indo-Fijian prime minister played
right into it with his abrasive leadership style. But in the end, Chaudhry
is not the problem and neither are the Indo-Fijian communities.
Fijis problem is Fijian.
Following the fortunes and misfortunes of the countrys three indigenous
Prime Ministers - Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Dr Timoci Bavadra, and Sitiveni
Rabuka - we see the increasingly problematic configuration of indigenous
leadership in the country.
Ratu Maras leadership draws on the mana of his own chiefly title,
Tui Nayau; his wifes mana, (the Roko Tui Dreketi, from the confederacy
of Burebasaga, is the highest chiefly title in the islands); and his close
links with a tight elite cohort of European, part-European and Indo-Fijian
Ratu Maras leadership, however, has alienated rival chiefs, proletarian
and nationalist groups within his domain of Eastern Fiji, and has generated
resentment in the Western provinces.
The late Dr Timoci Bavadra, Prime Minister in the predominantly Indo-Fijian
Labour/National Federation Party coalition government, was consistently
described in the media and literature as a commoner even though
he came from a noble Fijian background in the chiefly village of Viseisei.
The problem with Dr Bavadras political genealogy in 1987 was not
so much his Labour ideology, nor his commoner status, but
the fact that significant and powerful sectors of indigenous Fijian society
- in the East - were not ready for a Fijian Prime Minister from a Western
Being both a commoner and national leader clearly was not
a problem for Sitiveni Rabuka. In fact, a large part of Rabukas
popularity with indigenous Fijians is his commoner status.
For indigenous Fijians Rabukas mana comes from the interweaving
of his traditional bati or warrior genealogy (in the Eastern
province of Cakaudrove), his career in modern armed forces, his identification
with and deployment of Christian/Methodist discourse, his staging of the
two coups detat in 1987, and the support he has consistently received
from the Great Council of Chiefs.
Rabuka has even gained political mileage out of his human frailties-
sexual and financial indiscretions, as well as flip-flopping policy decisions
have increased rather than diminished his appeal. Many indigenous Fijians
identify with Rabuka much more easily than they can with the aristocratic
Counterposed in this way against the elder statesman of Fiji, Rabuka
developed his own ethos of popularism and can-do capitalism
- exemplified by the National Bank of Fiji debacle.
During his Prime Ministership, a brash nouveau riche elite of indigenous
Fijians developed and thrived. George Speight is a good representative
of this group, but an even better example is his mentor and benefactor
Jim Ah Koy: both illustrate a new opportunism in regards to identity politics
A general elector MP in the 1970s, Chinese/Fijian Ah Koy
was sent into political coventry by Ratu Mara for insubordination. Concentrating
his energies in business during the 1980s, Ah Koys phenomenal success
became worthy of a Horatio Alger story.
In the first post-coup election of 1992, however, Ah Koy re-emerged as
a political candidate, this time on the indigenous Fijian electoral roll.
Although his eligibility to stand as a Fijian was challenged by other
indigenous Fijians, Ah Koy won his case in court, and has represented
his maternal constituency of Kadavu in parliament ever since.
Like Ah Koy, George Speights father, a part-European
and former general elector named Sam Speight, became a born again
Fijian in the post-coup era. Sam Speight legally changed his name
to Savenaca Tokainavo, winning an indigenous Fijian electoral seat in
parliament in the 1992 and subsequent elections.
In Fijis disconcertingly racialised electoral system (comprising
three electoral rolls - Fijian, Indian, and General) general voters have
historically aligned themselves with indigenous Fijian chiefly interests.
The category of general voters covers Fijis multitude of ethnic
minority communities: Banabans, Chinese, Europeans, Gilbertese, part-Europeans,
Samoans, Solomon Islanders, Tongans, and Tuvaluans.
Part-Europeans form the largest and most influential group
of general voters and in the post-coup era have shifted away from their
historical identification with colonial European privilege towards a reclamation
of their part-Fijian or vasu-i-taukei roots. This shift in
part-European identification reflects a recognition of the
contemporary realities of political power in Fiji: indigenous Fijians
George Speight claims to represent indigenous Fijian interests. Sporting
his European name, speaking exclusively in English, drawing on his Australian
and American degrees in business for mana, and wearing his designer clothes,
Speight does indeed represent indigenous Fijian interests.
But Speights indigenous Fijian interests are clearly neither the
indigenous Fijian interests of Ratu Mara nor those of the late Dr Bavadra.
Speights version of indigenous Fijian interests probably coincides
in many areas with Rabukas version of indigenous Fijian interests.
But the men Speight has surrounded himself with also represent a changing
of the guard from Rabukas Queen Victoria School Old Boys network
to an unlikely coalition of relatively young old boys from
Marist Brothers High School (Ratu Maras alma mater) and Suva Grammar
And what of Speight et als relationship with the marching/looting
masses who were so inspired by the illegal actions in Parliament on Friday,
19 May 2000?
It is a relationship of convenience: Speight has about as much respect
for the 1997 constitution he once congratulated Professor Brij Lal on,
as he does for the indigenous marama in sulu and jaba helping herself
to bales of cloth through the shattered window of a Waimanu Rd store.
The march was organised by church and Taukei Movement leaders, and though
the looting may not have been planned they certainly enabled it.
Looting has become an ominous feature of recent indigenous Fijian responses
to crisis: during the floods of 1998, at the tragic crash site of flight
PC121 in 1999, and now in the streets of Suva Ñ the millenium
The image of a humble, God-fearing, dignified and hospitable people marketed
by the Fiji Visitors Bureau is chillingly contraverted. The chiefs and
church ministers stir their people but the simple truth is they do not
control them: a group of alert and ambitious businessmen has used this
feature of Fijian leadership to its advantage.
Indigenous Fijians rule, but indigenous Fijians are not united. This
puts the past 12 months of the Mahendra Chaudhry Labour Coalition government1s
rule in perspective. The government has survived this long because of
the backing of Ratu Mara.
The government is in crisis right now because other indigenous Fijian
groups are challenging Ratu Maras authority. Rabuka has recently
acknowledged this: the real struggle is among indigenous Fijians, and
it is continually masked by the rhetoric of a racial conflict between
indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians.
The impoverishment and disaffection of indigenous Fijians is not a result
of 12 months of leadership by an Indo-Fijian. It is the result of thirty
fraught years of modern indigenous Fijian leadership that have sacrificed
the economic and cultural well-being of a people for the advancement of
George Speights ignominious entry into the national and international
limelight is but a symptom of the complex contradictions and competing
interests facing indigenous Fijian society today.
Speight has not only kidnapped a democratically elected Prime Minister
and his cabinet; he has taken hostage much of the hope and potential Fiji
had at the turn of the century to become a nation united.
And when the present crisis at Fijis Parliament in Nasese passes,
as it inevitably will, the question will remain: what is Fijian nationalism
when there is no nation?
Teresia Teaiwa, Lecturer in Pacific Studies, Victoria University of
Wellington. She was previously with History/Politics, USP.