Issues in Nation Building – Speech at Oceania Psychology Workshop

Postdate: 08-12-2007

Oceania Psychology Workshop, 8/12/2007
Speech by Rev. Akuila Yabaki, CCF

Session Topic: Positives & Negatives in Conducting Ethnographic Research with Indigenous Fijian Youth’
Speech Title: Issues in Nation Building


Fiji will be at the crossroads again, when it will have its fourth election in 2009, in a span of ten years, since the first election under the 1997 Constitution was contested in 1999. The 1997 Constitution, through the Alternative Vote, Open and Communal Seats, and the multi-party cabinet concept, had been envisaged to encourage moderation and accommodation, resulting in a more representative and hence multi-ethnic cabinet. This sadly, has not happened. To the contrary, the racial groups have become more polarised and political parties have played the race card to the maximum. The fact that we have had two coups in the past ten years – despite having the 1997 Constitution and multi-party provisions, clearly shows that things have not worked out in the manner of the spirit of the 1997 Constitution.

In this presentation, I will briefly go over issues to do with nation-building in Fiji, where positive and negative thoughts count. The Citizens’ Constitutional Forum has worked in the areas of race relations, voting and elections, multiculturalism, unity and religious tolerance, perceptions of people including minorities who are faced with greater insecurities, the ALTA and NLTA land legislations as land is a divisive issue in Fiji, and the growing number of squatter settlements (economic justice). Problems related to all these issues have a direct bearing on nation building in Fiji.

Race Relations

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary (1995) describes a nation as “a large community of people, usually sharing a common history, culture and language, and living in a particular territory under one government”. It goes on to describe a nation-state as “a nation of people forming an independent state”.

And herein lies the problem for Fiji: If these definitions are correct, then Fiji achieved independence as a nation-state because it comprised of a nation of people forming an independent state. However, the independent Fiji was still not a nation because although its population had one government, they did not share a common history, culture or language.

On the eve of independence, the lack of a common roll and common name for citizens contributed to feelings of differences between the various ethnic groups.

The 2001 and 2006 elections saw political parties exploit to the full, the different customs and traditions of the races and cultures in Fiji. The winners were the political parties that most successfully exploited and manipulated these traditional, ethnic, cultural and religious influences. In the main, these influences actually compartmentalised the voters and made the voters less free to express their will.

A leading political party presented tabua to the chiefs from the 14 provinces, to seek their support and that of their people. This was described as an exploitation and manipulation of Fijian tradition to the full. Another manipulation was the use of Provincial councils to select candidates for political parties or even to select independents.

The announcement this year by the interim Prime Minister that they wanted to eradicate racism and racial discrimination from the electoral and government system in Fiji was a breath of fresh year for those who have suffered from racial discrimination or have been fighting for equality. However, racial prejudices take years to develop and take even more years to discard. If Fiji is committed to eradicate racism, then indeed the electoral system and government may offer a starting point for such reform.

Voting and Elections

Both the 1999 and the 2001 elections were historic in their own ways. The 1999 election was the first under Fiji’s new constitution. The 2001 election was the first following one of the most traumatic periods in recent history. Both then were profound transition points: the 1999 one from a long period of racial exclusion and dominance to a more open and democratic order; and the 2001 election taking the country from a period of governance by an unelected administration to that of an elected one.

In hindsight, perhaps since independence in 1970, we have taken too many things for granted about the electoral system and its ability to contribute to the goals of multiculturalism, national unity and based on that, sustainable development. The 1977, 1982 and 1987 elections had come down to communal competitions between the two major communal blocks and the general elections had come down to a competition for the five or six marginal cross-voting seats at the time. Some type of façade of electoral democracy seemed to be taking place but in reality a communal competition was taking place.

Between 1968 and 1971, our leaders negotiated the framework within which elections were to be carried out in independent Fiji. …We preached the virtues of multiculturalism in Fiji based on appearances of cross-ethnic political exchanges via the cross-voting seats. We could speculate that, had we taken a step back to reflect after two or three elections and accepted that the cross-voting seats were largely behaving like their communal counterparts, we might have redrawn the electoral architecture earlier.

Elections need to be evaluated against a set of standards, as well as for their aspirations. For a multiracial, multiethnic country like Fiji, where the issue of race can be made to assume an overriding significance, the question of electoral legitimacy is even more pressing. Elections must produce legitimate governments. But more than that, they must be seen to produce legitimate governments.

We have accepted that for as long as the race card is used divisively in our communities, Fiji will need to have other enabling mechanisms to ensure that government is representative of a large cross section of all communities. This might not be possible if we rely upon elections alone.

Therefore, even the introduction of the 1997 Constitution and Multi-party system has failed to produce accommodation and moderation in Fiji’s politics. There is generally a feeling that although better than before, women continue to be excluded from decision-making and electoral representation processes.

In the 1999 elections, the Reeves Commission’s expectation of political moderation and sharing of issues did not happen in the way it was intended. Generally, there was some feelings of optimism that the spirit of the 1997 Constitution and particularly the multi-party concept was working. However, a year later, a civilian coup was staged on May 19 2000, by George Speight and his supporters claiming that Indigenous Fijians land and resources were under threat by an Indo-Fijian dominated government. The insurgency was brought under control by the military, however, the deposed Indo-Fijian Prime Minister and his cabinet were not restored to power. Instead, the country went to elections in August-September 2001.

The coup had dampened the spirits of many and could be the most probable cause of voter apathy resulting in lower turnouts. The then Supervisor of Elections, Walter Rigamoto revealed that the voter turnout at the polls was only 78.93 percent compared to 90.18 percent in 1999. Concerns were also raised that the country had gone too soon to elections, after the traumatic experience of the 2000 coup. How on earth can we prepare our people for a general election after a crisis as big as the coup? There was no meaningful getting together for dialogue or coming closer together of leaders at the very top and at the higher levels of Fiji from May 2000 last year to the general elections in 2001. So is a crisis time a good time to turn to the people in an election?

Other factors that impinged on the voting environment included security forces and the role of the security forces in this, the question of the intimidation of voters, and threats about possible bloodshed if certain political parties were to win. This is an important point to keep in mind because Fiji will be going to elections again in 2009, more than two years after the December 2006 coup. A military government has been speaking strongly against the former Fijian leading party. That true democracy and equality is being espoused in good. However, in reality, true democracy and equality can only truly work if all the people in the nation support it.

Multiculturalism, Unity and Religious Tolerance

Religion has insidiously been manipulated to promote political parties, especially since the 1987 coup. Methodist ministers and stewards have particularly been involved in campaigns for and promoting particular political parties. The President of the Methodist church was given a seat in the Senate in 2001, giving greater visibility to this well-known activity.

The race-based attacks on non-Christian places of worship has continued unabated despite claims by the State in previous years that such attacks were for monies and jewellery kept inside the temples and mosques. This fails to adequately explain the graffiti and desecration of holy books and statues in these non-Christian places of worship.

The CCF has been engaged in promoting religious tolerance and respect for diversity and human rights in Fiji. This year, a pamphlet on ‘Guidelines for Religious Tolerance’ was produced through financial assistance from the European Union and the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC). Over the past three years, CCF has organised several seminars on religion and human rights in conjunction with the Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy (ECREA) and Interfaith Search Fiji.

The task for religious tolerance in Fiji is not easy. The recent acts of desecration in Fiji are one demonstration of how religious and human rights are being abused. The challenge is for our people to find different ways to respect the rights of others, the rights to hold their beliefs, carry out their religious practices and worship according to their own traditions.

The Constitution recognizes that the descendents of all those who chose to make Fiji their homes form a multicultural society. It affirms the well being of that society, and the rich variety of their faiths, traditions, languages and cultures. For one hundred and twenty-five years the three major religions in Fiji namely Christianity, Hinduism and Islam have co-existed. The continuing struggle against racism and all forms of discrimination requires that the churches and other religious organizations recognize and attempt to overcome racism in whatever form it exists in their midst.

All world religions appeal to the unity of the human race and consider racist attitudes as incompatible with true religious belief. Religious leaders have a weighty responsibility to work for inter-religious understanding and cooperation and spread a clearer message of the human person and the oneness of the human family. Religious leaders of all faiths need to promote respect and reverence for other faiths among their followers.

Religion in Fiji largely coincides with ethnicity. Accordingly, one of the forms in which racism manifests itself is through intolerance and disrespect for religions practised by members of other ethnic groups. Religious intolerance is a manifestation of racism in Fiji. Racism in Fiji has been further exacerbated by the failure of successive governments in Fiji to promote a national identity that unites indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians, and all other ethnic minority groups.

Fiji ’s 1997 Constitution guarantees equality before the law and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, colour or place of origin. However, these impressive legal statements do not always reflect the realities of daily life. More education is needed to create racial and religious tolerance. Parents, community leaders, religious leaders, political leaders and schools need to continually promote respect and consideration for different races. They need to promote interaction between different racial groups and work to break socio-cultural barriers. The people of Fiji must move beyond racialised politics and military coups.

Racism in Fiji has its roots in colonial times. Segregation, suspicion and disparate goals have continued to keep the races apart in Fiji, over the past century. Decolonisation had increased racialised and inflammatory politics. The 1987 and 2000 coups saw an exodus of Indo-Fijians leaving Fiji, because of perceived notions that they will not progress in this country because of their race.

ALTA and NLTA Land legislations

Land has always been a divisive issue in Fiji. The fact the indigenous Fijians own over 87 per cent of land in Fiji and that the Constitutions have ensured that native land is inalienable, has not stopped politicians and demagogues from inflaming feelings of indigenous people regarding land.

The Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act – ALTA legislation – aimed to strike a balance between the interests of landowners and tenants in the terms and conditions of agricultural leases. Clearly, the only way to get the balance right is for landowners and tenants to negotiate and try to agree on key issues such as the minimum term of agricultural leases and formula for calculating rent.

The facts underlying the ALTA/NLTA debate are complex and is often hindered by inadequate information and misperceptions. For example, many indigenous landowners feel that Indo-Fijian tenant farmers have grown rich off their land, while they themselves have stayed poor. However, the truth is that very few farmers in Fiji are rich. Most of them have to struggle to get by. The most recent statistics in 2006 showed that among the rural population, 41.5 per cent of Indo-Fijians were living in poverty, along with 30.8 per cent of indigenous Fijians.

Over the past few years, CCF has held four workshops for landowners and tenants and future of the sugar industry. At the time of CCF’s research, about 200,000 people in Fiji – which is nearly one quarter of the total population – depended directly on the sugar industry for their livelihoods. Many of the participants revealed to CCF that never before had they attended a forum where landowners and tenants could talk to each other and share their experiences.

Participants at the workshop recommended:

  • that the ownership of native land should remain with indigenous Fijians;
  • that landowners and tenants need to work together to ensure the survival of the sugar industry;
  • that expert research and analysis is needed to identify the best strategies for saving the sugar industry;
  • that everyone suffers when tenants are forced off the land and it reverts to bush;
  • that new indigenous Fijian farmers are generally inexperienced and most have not done as well as the Indo-Fijians whose farms they took over;
  • that the formula for fixing rent for agricultural leases on native land should be determined on the basis of expert research and analysis, not emotions and politics;
  • that politicians should stop using the ALTA/NLTA debate for their own ends.

Economic Injustice – the plight of Squatter populations

The CCF this year, launched the documentary Struggling for a Better Living: Squatters in Fiji. The documentary was filmed in squatter settlements in and around Suva, Ba and Labasa from June to August 2006. According to the latest estimates, 12.5% of Fiji’s population today is living in over 182 informal or ‘squatter’ settlements around the country. This amounts to over 100,000 people. Besides having no proper legal title to their homes, the vast majority of these people lack basic amenities such as piped water, sewerage and electricity.

The documentary seeks to demystify why there are so many squatters in Fiji today and analyses government’s efforts to reduce their numbers. It explores the problems squatters face in their daily lives and the issues of human rights that their situations present.

Most of all, this documentary seeks to deepen public understanding of the phenomenon of squatter settlements in Fiji in the hope that more can be done in the future – by a wider range of actors and with greater creativity – to improve squatters’ standards of living. The issue of poverty and under-development have a significant bearing on human rights.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that: .

(1)   Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The CCF also commissioned two Housing and Social Exclusion Policy Dialogue papers which were published this year. The plight of the squatter settlers is a grim reminder to us, that society and the government have failed to cater for the needs of a significant portion of our population. Majority of the squatters are evicted farmers, people from rural villages, or simply those who do not earn enough to be able to afford to rent or provide a decent living for their family. Fiji will only be able to resolve the situation of squatters if it went through a period of sustained development, that could move the populations out of a vicious cycle of poverty.

Group and Minority Rights – Perceptions and Insecurity

CCF recently held a consultation on Group and Minority Rights. At the workshop, it was revealed that minority ethnic groups, such as Banabans, Melanesians, Tuvaluans, and others, feel very insecure in Fiji. The present political situation in Fiji can further exacerbate the conflict associated with group and minority rights if not clearly defined and understood by all citizens. In Fiji’s racially polarised society, the minority groups sometimes feel that their needs are not visible and their voices not heard.

Security is a critical issue that needs some serious deliberations. It is a feeling that is experienced across the board amongst all the ethnic groups in Fiji. While the Fiji Constitution explicitly outlines the safeguarding of indigenous Fijians and Rotumans interests and rights to ownership of Fijian land, the right to governance through their respective administrative systems and the paramountcy of their interests when the interests of different communities are seen to conflict, there is still a lot of fears associated with these rights. Conversely, the Indo-Fijian farming population especially experience continuous threats on their security on land as many land leases expire and cannot be renewed. A good percentage of these populations are forced into squatter settlements on the mainland.

The government of Fiji has a huge responsibility in ensuring that all people are treated equally regardless of race, religion, or political conviction. Policies, structures and programs such as Affirmative Action must be built on the founding principle of equality and fairness amongst all citizens of Fiji.


  1. The Need for a National Identity
    Fiji is the only country in the world that does not have a name for all citizens of this country.   All communities and individuals need to feel secure in this country and for this to happen; we need to have a sense of national identity.The constitution should use all residents and citizens of Fiji as ‘ Fiji islanders’ and not have different names for different ethnic groups. Having different names for different ethnic groups creates a sense of insecurity amongst the races. Promoting national Identity should be part of the education system as well. Education about national identity should start at a very young age and it should be part of early childhood learning. Without a national identity, the minorities will always be discriminated against.  

  2. Education and Religious Systems
    Racially segregated schools have existed in Fiji since the colonial days. Racially segregated institutions need to done away with and more inclusive institutions need to be created. More dialogue should be held on this issue to find a way forward. The leaders of different religious groups need to dialogue and promote religious tolerance and harmony. More inter-religious activities will ensure that there is less room for prejudice and religious and racial insecurities.
  3. Security for minorities
    Security should be defined according to the lived realities of people’s context and what it means to them. For instance, when talking about land security, how secure is a person on the land and what does landownership mean. How can a person of a minority ethnic group be made to feel secure in Fiji? Government policies must place heavy emphasis on meeting the needs and the rights of minority groups in Fiji.
  4. Land issues in Fiji
    Indigenous Fijians express a lot of frustration over land ownership in Fiji.   The current practices and policies are not meeting the needs of modern Fiji. As a market economy, Fiji needs to be clear about what productive land is and what other uses of land are. The distribution of income through land has become hierarchical and unfair. Current issues of land security for the minority groups also need some critical attention – for instance, the historical analysis and legal aspects now of the repossession of Rabi island.
  5. Socio-Economic Issues
    Programs and policies such as poverty alleviation, affirmative action, etc. should be designed to effectively address socio-economic issues of disadvantaged groups. Economic development is needed to lift people out of the vicious cycle of poverty that is afflicting more than one-third of the population in Fiji. The growing squatter population in Fiji is proof that the country is not moving forward and urgent solutions are needed.
  6. Political parties need reform
    If the true spirit of democracy is to be respected, then political parties manifestos and policies should be geared for the development of the whole nation. In Fiji’s case, the fact that political parties only cater for particular ethnic groups means that when they come into power, they do not have a national focus and thus propagate racial divisiveness and prejudice. A possible way to deal with this would be if racial elements were removed from the electoral system. All parties would then be obliged to cater for the needs, aspirations and well-beings of all members of the country.
  7. Electoral reform
    After the Elections Watch workshop in 2006, CCF made a recommendation that Fiji should adopt an electoral system that is geared towards Proportional representation. This could be the only way forward for Fiji, if it wants to break out of a cycle of non-representation for certain ethnic groups in cabinet, which has been a problem since independence. 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. Therefore, the only way this problem may be able to be rectified is if there is a proportional representation system, especially in light of the diminishing number of population of other ethnic groups, since the 1987, 2000 and 2006 coups.
  8. Fiji needs a middle way
    Fiji needs to find a middle way to resolve the problems that has resulted in the four coups. Clearly, a review of the constitution or a review of the electoral process has not made this possible. 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 the Charter 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. Northern Ireland took the middle way by dialogue between the two extremes sides, the protestants and catholics who had formed two opposing blocks in the population. A Community Relations Commission was formed by civil society representatives who presented a model on 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 …. Fiji needs to go the middle way. This middle way can be derived through the Charter process.


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