Breaking the Cycle of Coups

Breaking the Cycle of Coups
University of Queensland
Special Lecture
Monday 20th July 2009

By Reverend Akuila Yabaki


I am deeply honoured to be here first to speak and then to listen in an open dialogue with you on the current Fiji situation.

The events of recent months in Fiji are worrying to those of you who have been friends of our country. The abrogation of the Constitution on 10th April 2009 removed the Bill of Rights and the constitutional protections of these rights. The dismissal of the judges compromised the already weakened judiciary. And current media censorship regulations and permit requirements have made it difficult for civil society organisations to continue their good work.

But not all hope is lost. We are in a transitional phase where civil society must learn to adapt and face the new challenges presented by these difficult circumstances. Now, more than ever there is a need for engagement and dialogue. We must continue to strive for free and fair elections, but the immediate concerns are:-

  • Convincing government to come to the negotiating table for an open, inclusive and independently facilitated dialogue process; and
  • Ensuring that the return to democratic and constitutional rule occurs as soon as possible.

Without an ongoing commitment from all aspects of society to engage in dialogue, including from government and the military, the coup culture will prevail. With the right attitude, dialogue can bring people together and help reconcile Fiji with its past history of political instability.


Let me begin by briefly summarising the events that led to the current crisis:-

Fiji has had 5 coups since achieving independence in 1970. Fiji is a multi-ethnic society, and striking the right balance between competing community interests has always presented a problem for the country.

Fiji has lived under effective military rule since 5th December 2006, when Commodore Frank Bainimarama, commander of the Royal Fiji Military Forces, deposed the elected Qarase government. At the time of the takeover, the interim government promised to uphold the Constitution and to rid the country of corruption and racist government policies.

In January 2008, the interim government established after the 2006 coup, in a bid to move the country forward, created the National Council for Building a Better Fiji (NCBBF), a council tasked with the drafting a roadmap forward called the “People’s Charter for Change, Peace and Progress”. This Charter’s objective was to address for the first time the roots causes of Fiji’s problems, particularly eradicating the coup culture. It was not designed to replace the Constitution, but rather to complement it. The Interim Government called upon all sectors and actors of society in Fiji (civil society, churches, institutions, etc) to participate in the debates and in the drafting of this Charter.

The issue of engaging or not engaging brought about a clear divide amongst civil society organisations in Fiji. Many of them refused to participate in this process, not because they disagreed with the idea of drafting a Charter for Fiji, but because the Charter had been initiated by the interim government, they saw any participation in the Charter process as implicit support for this illegal government.

Some NGOs, including CCF, decided to take a risk, and agreed to participate in the drafting of this charter.

CCF strongly condemned the 2006 coup. However, we felt that accepting to be part of the Charter process, which included sitting at one table with people from the military, was the only way to influence the process from inside, to move the country forward and also to provide input in terms of the values for which CCF has always stood. We were supporting the interim government’s idea of a Charter, not the government itself. Many of the concepts proposed under the Charter, including electoral reform to remove the race-based voting system, were things that CCF and other NGO’s had previously been lobbying for.

We made the decision to engage knowing that we would be criticized for it and that if our intention was misunderstood, we might run the risk of compromising CCF’s reputation.

We put the following conditions to our participation:

  1. The 1997 Constitution would not be abrogated;
  2. The process would not interfere with the roadmap for a return to democracy;
  3. We would be as inclusive of possible, including also the parties and members of government who had been deposed;
  4. There would be freedom of expression during the deliberation, and there would be no reprisals against people expressing opinions contrary to the those of the Interim Government
  5. The future role of the military forces would be added to the agenda for consultation.

All these conditions were accepted at the time.

Legal Challenges to the 2006 Coup

Whilst this process was continuing, large parts of the Constitution were being ignored or violated by government, and despite promises of electoral reform and elections by March 2009, not enough progress has been made in returning Fiji to a parliamentary responsible system of government.

The ousted PM Qarase challenged his removal by Commodore Bainimarama in Court proceedings.

  • At the first instance, the High Court (on 9 October 2008) declared the Interim regime valid. It held that the President had broad and unreviewable powers to rule indefinitely. This decision was appealed.
  • CCF decided to get involved in the Appeal case as a friend of the court (amicus curiae) in order to assist with the complex constitutional issues of this case. Our concern was that the Constitution was not intact and that the decision offended the rule of law.
  • On 9 April 2009, the Court of Appeal overturned the original decision and declared that the interim government was unconstitutional and unlawful.
  • Bainimarama seemingly accepted the decision and stepped down as interim PM that evening.
  • The following day, on Good Friday, 10 April 2009, President Iloilo abrogated the 1997 Constitution and dismissed all judges, promising a new legal order.
  • On 11 April, the President then re-appointed the same PM and cabinet and implemented public emergency regulations.
    • The regulations give broad powers to the police and military to search people and places, seize property, detain and interrogate people; and
    • Substantially restricts freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and freedom of speech.
    • These regulations are now likely to remain in place until the end of the year.
  • All mainstream media outlets have at least one police officer and Ministry of Information officer to screen and censor all news items before publication or broadcasting. No negative remarks about the interim government are allowed.
    This led for example to:-
    • Fiji One news on Sunday 12 April to cancel the broadcasting of the 6:00 o’clock news.
    • On Sunday 12 and Monday 13, the Fiji Times was issued with large blank spaces where news items had been censored (see pictures).
  • Tuesday 14 April, 3 foreign correspondents were deported from the country and one local journalist who worked with them was taken into custody.
  • Since then, a number of journalists, activists and lawyers have been detained or questioned under the Public Emergency Regulations.
  • A number of constitutional office holders (including the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Commissioner for Human Rights, Ombudsman and Governor of the Reserve Bank) have been removed from office without notice.
  • On 15 April, the Fijian dollar was devaluated by 20% and the Australian Broadcasting Company’s radio transmitter was shut down.
  • On 1 July, Bainimarama announced his “Strategic Framework for Change”, outlining his agenda for the next 5 years. On the same day, PER was extended officially for another month, following comments in an interview with Bainimarama that they would remain in place until at least December 2009.

A Strategic Framework for Change

On the face of it, this speech contains many promising commitments:-

  • A focus on pro-growth and pro-poor policies;
  • Re-engagement with Fiji’s neighbours and development partners;
  • Modernising of infrastructure and government systems and organisation, including:-
    • Divestment of government shares;
    • Closure of non-performing entities; and
    • Outsourcing to the private sector.
  • Encouragement of the private sector to engage with government.

However, I do want to make the following observations:

  1. The framework speech fails to address the critical issue that the abrogation of the Constitution, the failure to adhere to the rule of law, the lack of an independent judiciary and media censorship – which are all likely to deter foreign investment and international support.
  2. The strategic framework is disappointing in that it provides no explanation for why discussion on a new Constitution cannot commence immediately. It gives us some indication of the areas in which government will seek to implement reforms, but leaves us in the dark as to how some of these reforms will take place.
  3. The government reaffirms its commitment to improving accountability and transparency by improving institutions and laws, including the checks and balances under the Constitution, but has overlooked its own failings in this area. Without a Parliament, laws are passed in secret and public submissions are rarely called for. Annual reports on government spending are released to Cabinet and are no longer publicly available. This environment cannot facilitate government accountability and highlights the very need for constitutional protections on the powers of government.
  4. Further, there is a real risk of entrenching permanent government control of media if censorship regulations continue for much longer. Already many organisations and individuals are afraid to speak openly against the interim government. The censorship has now extended beyond mainstream media, with the interim government controlling the speakers at events such as the Accountants Annual Conference, the Pacific Youth Festival, and the Methodist Church Conference.

Without any connection between government and the people, there is a risk of government policies becoming increasingly detached from the needs of the community. Now, more than ever there is a need for all sectors of the community to engage with government to ensure that this does not happen.

We may not like the timeframes imposed by the government, but we need to continue to work to ensure the ultimate objective of returning Fiji to democracy is achieved. In order for there to be a long term, sustainable return to democratic and constitutional rule, the people of Fiji need to be a part of that process. For this reason, an open, inclusive and independently facilitated national dialogue process can offer a way out of this political crisis in a manner which addresses the underlying issues which led to the 2006 coup.

What can be done to address the deficiencies that resulted in the coups?

The first few coups have generally occurred because the coup-makers manipulated the fears of the indigenous community – the first component of this fear, the fear of domination by another race, is no longer an issue as the Indo-Fijian population has decreased to 38 per cent. It is anticipated that by 2010, the Indo-Fijian population would have decreased to less that 35 per cent of the population – that is, almost half of the indigenous Fijian population.

The second fear – of economic domination, can only be addressed through economic development. Instead of relying on the civil service, diplomatic corps and the political arena to provide jobs, there is a need for the indigenous community to develop their land for economic income generation and venture into other areas of economic development. This fear also cannot be addressed by the private sector where also much of the population is employed. It can only be addressed by the indigenous community by taking and initiating development activities themselves.

The 2006 coup is different because the coup makers cited corruption, disrespect for law, and racist and controversial bills and policies by the deposed government, as reasons for the coup. While there can be no justification for the overthrow of any democratically-elected government, we still need to address the issues used to justify this coup, because it could be a problem for further generations.

Finding a solution to the Coup Culture

No one of us can claim to have a perfect solution to end the political crisis, inter-ethnic tensions or the coup culture in Fiji. Many of us have been proposing ways and means of doing this. The truth is that we will all need to work together to find a solution and commit as a nation to carry out that solution.

I believe the coup culture can be addressed through:

i) examining the role of the military – this has been done in the Charter process and I will later elaborate some of the recommendations from discussions. One of the conditions for CCF to become a member of the National Council for Building a Better Fiji was that the role of the military should be examined in the Charter process to find a way of ending the advent of military coups.

ii) electoral reforms to get rid of the race-based communal seats and adopting a proportional representation system which would better reflect the population at large. The elected leaders of Fiji have shown a general unwillingness to give appropriate number of seats in cabinet, to reflect the different ethnic communities here. This problem could be rectified through a proportional representation system, especially in light of the diminishing number of population of other ethnic groups, since the 1987, 2000 and 2006 coups. Ridding the country of the Alternative Vote system could end the trend of the past two elections where the elections resulted in polarised ethnic voting. The fact that race elements in the elections process is a problem has been acknowledged by mainstream political parties. At a recent meeting the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party made reforms to its constitution to remove racist elements. A copy of the revised SDL Constitution, with no racist elements has been sent to CCF. This is a positive move which shows the acknowledgement of this political party that racist policies are wrong and Fiji needs to get rid of it to move forward in a democratic way.

iii) electoral reforms which would give a fair representation to the diversity of political views that exist within the indigenous Fijians themselves. In the 2006 elections, there were a diverse range of Fijian political parties which appeared to have a small, but significant amount of support. However, the election results showed that none of them managed to win a single seat. This could be due to the use of fear in election campaigns to provoke people to engage in block voting along ethnic lines. If Fijians do not get to exercise their democratic right to choose political parties representing a diverse range of ideologies, then there is a greater danger of coups happening in future. A proportional representation system could address this issue through fairer representation of political parties, and also by getting rid of racial politics and politics of fear.

iv) introducing enabling legislation in Fiji to deal with racist activities, policies, political parties and organisations as per the recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination or CERD. Only through legislation and prosecution of racist crimes can the message be sent out to everyone of the seriousness of such events, and prevent the use of the race card for political upheavals in future.

v) a political forum where the leaders of the political parties can come together and engage in sincere and serious dialogue and commit to resolutions of taking Fiji forward in a Constitutional manner that would also prevent further coups. The charter will not provide all the answers but nor will the election of 2009. We have deep seated ills which need to be resolved collectively now through political dialogue.

Action Needed to End a Coup Based Culture

Below are seven key principles from NCBBF to end the coup cycle:-

a) Removing the political, economic and social conditions for coups and strengthening the sanctions against coups.
b) Setting up processes to build national reconciliation and healing.
c) Redefining the role of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces.
d) Transforming the role of public leadership.
e) Taking action to improve ethnic relations.
f) Reforming the electoral system.
g) Re-looking at the overall national security system.

Below are some specific recommendations that fall under the above principles:-

1) remove the economic and social conditions that lead to coups.
2) Require all holders of public offices, including the military, to take an oath agreeing not to participate in coups.
3) Strengthen penalties and operation of criminal law in relation to offences related to coups.
4) Amending the Constitution to say that no coup can abrogate the Constitution.
5) Prohibiting participants in coups from holding public office in future.
6) Greater effort should be geared towards addressing the situation of the rural and urban poor in order to avoid social alienation and political manipulation.
7) Encouraging Indo-Fijian and Indigenous Fijian mutual partnerships in development, commerce and investments.
8) Any conviction of treason is to be subject to automatic life sentence.
9) Every politician who enters parliament must, as part of their oath of loyalty to the state, make a commitment not to participate in any future coups.
10) Participation in a coup to lead to immediate vacation of a public or chiefly office and forfeiture of all property owned by the individual.
11) UNDP should be approached to conduct a parliamentary oversight program for the military to ensure accountability of the military to parliament instead of just the government in power. This program has worked admirably in many countries.Fiji needs to find a middle way to resolve the problems that has resulted in the four coups. Clearly, there have been no reforms in institutions or legislations to try and end the coup culture. In the aftermath of the 2000 and now the 2006 coup, dialogue has not been held to find a middle ground to take the country forward. CCF believes that an enduring dialogue process will enable us to find this middle ground. South Africa was able to avoid bloodshed and is moving towards better times after adopting the middle way through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Northern Ireland took the middle way by dialogue between the two extremes sides, the Protestants and Catholics who formed two opposing blocks in the population. A Community Relations Commission was formed by civil society representatives which presented a framework outlining what Northern Ireland could look like. They explored their differences from a strength-based position and realised that segregation was paralysing every single sector of the country. The Commission created the first integrated school and started inter-community projects. Closer to home, Bougainville, after losses of thousands of lives, has now a peace settlement, involving cooperation between participants. Fiji needs to go the middle way. This middle way can be found in an inclusive dialogue process.

Developments with a Dialogue Process

To answer this need for a national dialogue, a number of civil society organisations have collectively created a national dialogue process known as ‘Dialogue Fiji’. This initiative is designed to bring the interim government, political parties and civil society together for dialogue at one level, while providing a space for the general public to voice their opinions at another level. The initiative has been gradually built over the last 10 months. It now consists of an 11 member committee including representatives of the private sector, women’s NGOs and faith based organisations. This committee was selected by an assembly of over 30 civil society organisations. This committee in turn directs a full-time secretariat to organise and coordinate the initiative.

This initiative is still in its early stages, so I will not talk much further on its details. CCF, as members and co- founders of the initiative, have hope that the initiative at the very least will open avenues for solutions. But let’s not think that this is some magic pill, it can only provide the space not the solution. The solution comes from mutual respect, understanding and an ability to compromise.

As I have said I am extremely grateful to be given this opportunity to speak with you and I look forward to the open dialogue to follow I hope.

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