Time To Talk About A Break From Conflict

Postdate: 30/ 10/ 2006

The Citizens’ Constitutional Forum, like many citizens of this country, is concerned about the continuing conflict between the government and the Republic of Fiji Military Forces because it is causing feelings of insecurity and fear of another military coup. The CCF believes it is not the role of the RFMF to publicly criticize and oppose the Government on its proposed legislation and policies. The Military should allow the current Bills to proceed through Parliament and leave it to interested parties to challenge issues of constitutionality in the Courts. There is another avenue that the RFMF can pursue. It can begin dialogue with the Government about its concerns behind closed doors.

The public is tired of hearing its calls on the Government to resign. The CCF agrees with some of the concerns of the RFMF but its threats are not going to persuade the Government to back down. Gentle persuasion might be better. Like, for example asking the Government to exercise Cabinet powers under Section 123 of the Constitution and refer all the contentious Bills to the Supreme Court for declaratory opinions on their constitutionality, before the President is asked to sign them. In South Africa, all Bills that have constitutional implications are automatically referred to the Constitutional Court for an opinion before the President signs them into law. If the Government has persuaded the President to refer the issue of the role of the RFMF under the Constitution to the Supreme Court, why can’t it do likewise with respect to these controversial Bills that the RFMF is concerned about? A fundamental question of the right of an elected Government to legislate is the issue here. The Prime Minister is right (FT27/10/06) in asking the RFMF to respect his Government’s mandate, if it wants security of the nation. Security will be worsened, not improved, by a military takeover. We must all support the Fiji Constitution and use its provisions for peaceful resolution of conflicts and to strengthen our democracy under the rule of law. The Government, for its part, also needs to seriously reflect on the cause of the rift with RFMF.

This lies in the Government’s approach in the last six years. First of all, it continues to consult on political and policy issues the SDL Patron in Jail, Ratu Inoke Takiveikata, who is there because he plotted the mutiny that aimed to murder Commodore Bainimarama. Mr. Qarase needs to place himself in the position of the Commander to understand this personal dimension of this conflict. Furthermore, the Government’s promotion of narrow ethno-nationalist policies and legislation – based on the belief that the 2000 coup compelled it to take a dictatorial and uncompromising approach on what it regards as Fijian interests – has been ethnically and religiously divisive, and contradictory. While on the one hand the Government wants national unity, tolerance and reconciliation, its approach on these issues has alienated and excluded non indigenous communities. There has been no genuine dialogue between communities based on mutual respect and the spirit of compromise. That was not even reflected in the dialogue leading to the formation of the multiparty Cabinet. The multiparty Cabinet has also been slow in developing working ground rules based on consensus. It seems the SDL still does not regard the Fiji Labour Party as an equal partner and merely wants to use the multiparty Cabinet to push through its ethno nationalist agenda. Mr. Qarase believes he can achieve both through his current approach: Fijian unity and multiethnic unity. The evidence is that he is failing in both, even though he has the Constitutional framework to help him achieve much better results.

If he changes his approach and aims for national unity first, then substantial indigenous Fijian unity will also be achieved. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon (Fiji Times 26/10/06) was spot-on in his commendation of Fiji’s power sharing multiparty system of government as relevant to a “Pacific wide commitment to a culture of multiethnic democracy.” McKinnon said the new Cabinet model, based on diversity: “ – – – can help it take[Fiji] massive strides in squaring up to the issues like reconciliation, tolerance, land ownership and the reform of the sugar industry. If its inclusive government provides a regional example, the current tension between the Fiji government and its military sounds a cautionary warning” The cautionary warning from the RFMF is not, as we know, about opposition to the multiparty Cabinet but the lack of follow though by the Prime Minister. After five years of dismissing it as unworkable, Mr. Qarase has been pleasantly surprised in 2006 by the support among indigenous Fijians for this system of government. But he has not effectively used it to build strong national consensus in addressing our national problems, in the sprit of those who decided on this system in 1997.

The Government has just launched its strategic development plan aimed to boost investment levels to 25% of national income and economic growth to be above 5% every year. Yet it still does not realize that its promotion of narrow ethno-nationalist policies at the same time constantly undermines these objectives. For example, the non-renewal of many farm leases (because of the belief that Indo-Fijians farmers were earning high incomes and exploiting Fijian landowners) has not only swelled urban squatter settlements and increased Indo-Fijian poverty; it has spread the feeling of insecurity to other sectors of the economy. This has reinforced the low level of confidence, lack of long term investment and continuing emigration of Indo-Fijian technical and professional expertise. For example, nine out of ten graduate accountants from USP emigrate after two years at work. The aspiration of indigenous Fijians for more opportunities to improve their standards of living (and particularly through the affirmative action initiatives of the Government) cannot succeed without consistently high economic growth for a long period of time. This is the lesson to be learnt from the Malaysian experience. If there is no confidence in long term investment and no expansion in the economy, the promises of the SDL Government to its Fijian supporters cannot be delivered.

The military is agitated because Mr. Qarase is not building the confidence and unity of all our communities behind the multiparty Cabinet. We are diverted by historical grievances of a minority of Fijians, to whom the government is offering “solutions” that will create more problems than they solve. The Qoliqoli Bill, the PRTU and the Indigenous Claims Tribunal Bill are diversions from the real problems facing the people of this country. The real problems are increasing crime, poverty, poor roads, lack of piped water, poor housing, squatter settlements, rising prices, corruption, bad health services, bad governance, low investment, declining industries and unemployment. These are problems that are faced by all communities in Fiji. And they require an inclusive, multicultural and fair system of government that can bring leaders together for the long term in solving them. The problems are not being effectively addressed today because the current Government has drastically increased public debt in the last six years in trying to maintain the status quo and mollify the demands of the Public Sector Unions and a minority of ethno nationalist supporters of the 2000 coup. These indigenous interest Bills only raise false expectations among Fijian supporters of the Government. They are not going to bring big income and development to the Fijian people, who are misled to believe these are the answers to their prayers for better standards of living from the use of their natural resources. One despairs listening to Fijian Radio Talk Back programmes. So much expectation being aroused by NLTB officials for nothing. We have a Government promoting cargo cult beliefs.

It is like those Solomon Islands “big men” after World War II, who, when American soldiers left, mobilized their people to build “airports” in the forest hoping the US planes would return and then bring back the cargo. Bills are being introduced in Fiji but the leaders are not telling the followers there will be no cargo. The same vocal minority who brought to our news media the mirage of a six-billion dollar bank for indigenous Fijians was consulted by the Government, and this minority includes the leading advocates of these Bills. The Government should tell Fijians just how little they can hope to get from Qoliqoli licenses and the Indigenous Claims Tribunal. I bet it will be no more than the pocket money that majority of Fijian landowners receive from land lease income. The Government’s obsession with pandering to the unrealistic expectation of this minority is making the majority lose belief in the Government’s sense of reality. Instead of addressing real problems of real people, the Government is diverted to pie in the sky schemes! That is why the RFMF has got to this desperate stage of calling on the Government to resign, and for the country to be lead by people who are really concerned to solve our real problems of insecurity. At this juncture, it will be wise if both the Government and the RFMF give us spectators a half-time break so the heated bodies can rest and cool down and the shouting stop. It is time to start talking about a better, more constructive and interesting game in the next half of this political football match.

*Jone Dakuvula is the Director of Programmes of the Citizens’ Constitutional Forum.

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