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“Fiji@50: How did we grow Fiji’s cake?” (ed. in FT Supplement, 5Oct. 2020)


Fiji @ 50

This year, Fiji marks the 50 anniversary of political independence from colonial power Britain, which ruled Fiji from 1874 to 1970.

Cynics might think that Fiji is in a mess; optimists might think that Fiji is venturing into a Brave New World of greater freedom and equality under Bainimarama’s “we are all Fijians” slogan, but whatever one’s overall judgment, Fiji is a “work in progress”, like most multi-ethnic nation states around the world.

The real question is:  could ordinary people’s living standards have been better than where we are now, after fifty years of so-called political independence? 

The facts (and the graphs) in this article speak for themselves.

But in governance, I suggest that the last fifty years of political independence have been marked by the slow and gradual creation of a grand illusion of freedom and equality, with the real power not with ordinary people.

At the request of Fiji Times, I give my personal view of the most important changes that have occurred over the last five decades that might give part of the answer, though not all, and may help committed Fiji citizens and residents, locals and expatriates alike, to move this wonderful country of ours forward, for the greater good.

While some academics will focus their analysis on their own specialties which may be history, economics, politics, sociology, constitutional law, etc., I believe that to describe the evolution of a “society”, needs all the disciplines.

The changes (and lack of) in the modern period can be understood better if grounded in the pre-colonial (before 1874) and colonial (1874 to 1970) periods

Of course, this broad brush simplified account cannot do justice to all the major changes being described, but they can also explain how segments of our society are sadly “stuck in time”.

Before 1874

Before colonization in 1874, Fiji was populated by competing and conflicting tribes with the western tribes somewhat different in social structure from the Eastern tribes, which had increasingly been influenced by Tongans.

The Fijian “economies” were basically subsistence with root crops, vegetables and fish, with some trade occurring between coastal and inland hill tribes, involving food, timber, canoes, mats and other handicrafts. There was little concept of “private property”.

The obvious leaders were “chiefs” or “ratus” whose source of power was demonstrated through physical prowess in the tribal wars via the use of clubs and spears, and not inheritance as it became under the British.

In traditional Fijian society the bete, the spiritual leader of the tribe, was a useful check on the power of chiefs (an early “Upper House”?).

1874 to 1970: the colonial period

When Britain acquired Fiji, the costs of administration had to be paid for by some “industry” and, as in other British colonies like the West Indies and Mauritius, they fostered a  sugar industry based on an already existing giant in the Australian sugar industry, Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR).

To protect indigenous Fijians from exploitation by CSR, indentured laborers began to be imported from India starting in 1879,  to initially work on CSR owned farms as laborers, later evolving into farmers on tiny ten acre farms, which limited their economic power and provided cheap labor for the mills.

[Read my 1979 JPS article, “Monopoly Capital, White Racism and Super-profits in Fiji: a case study of CSR”].

Most major companies, retail, wholesale, banking, insurance, gold mining, copra milling etc. were Australian or NZ owned.

[Read Fiji a Developing Australian Colony which was published by a small group of activists (a few still alive today), documenting this total expatriate control of Fiji via interlocking “octopus” companies]

Some historians referred to Fiji then as a “three legged stool” whereby Europeans allegedly provided the capital and the brains, Indo-Fijians provided the labor, and indigenous Fijians provided the land!

In this society, whites (called Europeans) were at the top, then Part-Europeans, Rotumans, indigenous Fijians, and Indo-Fijians at the bottom (controlled by the Fijian military and police, like the Sikhs in India).

Small retailing companies throughout Fiji were owned by Indo-Fijians, mostly Gujarati and Chinese who had come to Fiji as “free migrants”.

But eventually, the cane farming peasants organized against their exploitation, fighting for better share of the sugar revenues, and helped by lawyers, eventually formed farmers’ associations which the British cleverly tried to divide and rule.

But they could not prevent the rise of the National Federation Party which became the major Opposition Party to the British fostered Alliance Party, led by the prominent Chiefs and European business classes.

Following debaes and dialogue among the leaders of the different ethnic groups, the 1970 Constitution was agreed upon at Independence.

The electoral system provided a “balance” of powers between indigenous Fijians, Indo-Fijians and Europeans, with the last minority group basically siding with the indigenous Fijians to maintain majority in Parliament.

But the political stability was  not to last, driven by decades of population changes.

The population time bomb

Graph 1 is probably the most powerful single explanatory picture which explains the root cause of political instability: the ethnic shares of Fiji’s population as at the various censuses, with my projection for 2027- a delightful hourglass figure on its side.

Fiji must be one of the few countries in the world where in less than a hundred year, an immigrant population became the majority, and within thirty years, again became a diminishing minority.

From virtually 0 percent in 1881, the proportion of Indo-Fijians rose rapidly until they exceeded the indigenous Fijian population (now called I-Taukei by military decree) by around 1946, around which time all historical records of the debates and tirades in colonial Legislative Council proceedings, went up in temperature.

Ethno-nationalists came to fore calling for the repatriation of Indo-Fijians even though the British with their usual imperial aplomb, had promised them equal citizenry.

It all came to a head with the first military coup in 1987 against the Indo-Fijian NFP-FLP Coalition, following which began a massive emigration of the more educated Indo-Fijians and other non-indigenous races. 

Their share of total population went into decline, also assisted by their lower fertility rates and smaller family sizes, with the trends strengthened by the military coups of 2000 and 2006.

Today, the Indo-Fijian share of total population is only 32% which will decline to 26% by 2027, according to my projections.

Indo-Fijians are now only about 25% of primary school enrolments and a mere 17% at Class1.  All formerly Indo-Fijian dominated primary and secondary schools are now completely multi-racial, often with Indo-Fijian children in the minority.

The same patterns are followed by the Indo-Fijian share of voters, currently 33% but projected to be 30% in 2027, destined not to form government on its own (a recipe for coups) but help form government.

The economy 1970 to 2000

Rather than compare Fiji to Singapore, a super state and economy which has overtaken most western developed countries like Australia and NZ, I compare Fiji with two former British colonies, Malaysia and Mauritius, which is very similar to Fiji (sugar, tourism, multi-ethnic).

Graph 2 (based on WB data), shows the changes in GDP per capita which is a reasonable proxy for average incomes and standard of living, over the last fifty years.

Fiji’s has just doubled over the five decades, while that for Malaysia and Mauritius is a massive six times that in 1970.  What explains Fiji’s poor performance?

Graph 3 (Fiji by itself) is the solid line stumbling along with periodic setbacks.

Beginning with the break-down of the Tripartite Forum after the wage freeze of 1984, every coup- of 1987, 2000 and 2006 led to a collapse of investor confidence, followed by an economic recovery but at a much lower growth path.

The dotted ling is our alternative trajectory of a mere 3% growth per year which would still be below that of Mauritius and Malaysia.

But the benefits of the “lost years” (the gap between the solid line and the dotted line) are never recovered, however much every Minister of Economy boasts of the “unprecedented” five or seven or nine years of continuous economic growth.

Had we not had the military coups of 1987, 2000 and 2006, Fiji’s GDP per capita and people’s standards of living would be four to six times that of 1970, and much closer to that of Mauritius and Malaysia.

Fiji’s common people, doped by Bollywood, Hollywood and grog, don’t know what they are missing because they never had it in the first place- until they emigrate to Australia, NZ or Canada.

The Structure of the Economy

All know that the colonial economy was built on the back of the sugar industry which once upon a time used to produce 500 thousand tonnes of sugar now produces just over 150 thousand tonnes (see the grey line in Graph 4).

That industry has virtually collapsed with growing inefficiencies in both cane farming and milling, despite many former military officers’ commands to the industry to perform.

Fiji’s domestic economy has been saved by the steady rise of tourism which has grown to around 900 thousand visitors currently (middle black line in Graph 4).

But that graph also shows clearly how with every military coup, the arrivals crashed (big blobs on the graph) compared to what would have been the case if there had been steady growth of arrivals according to the pre-1987 coup trend (the dotted line). 

That dotted line shows that without coups, tourist arrivals would have hit a million around 2015 and be around 1,300,000 currently, with corresponding levels of employment and incomes.

There has also been occasional bursts of energy in other industries such as copra, gold mine, fisheries, timber, and most surprising of all, the export of massive quantities of Fiji water, extremely valuable, but with minimal local value added retention.

A most remarkable financial development was the initiation of the Fiji National Provident Fund with compulsory contributions, from all employees and voluntary members, in no time at all exceeding all the deposits of the commercial banks together. 

These savings became available for borrowing by government and the private sector and a limited investment abroad.

While the FNPF Board was originally appointed on a tripartite basis by government, employers and unions, it has become totally controlled by government, with no accountability to the FNPF Members who own the savings, but do not manage it.

The FNPF has basically become a “cash cow” for the government which is not only the largest borrower, but is able to pressure it to acquire shares in public enterprises in order to raise revenue for  a cash-strapped government.

With only 25% of retiring members taking the pension option before the 2006 coup, that percentage has now dropped to a mere 6% following the Bainimarama Government’s forced reduction of pension rates from at least 15% to 9%.

But the most remarkable and real saviour of Fiji livelihoods has been the rise of remittances from abroad, based on the initiative and hard labor of Fiji citizens working abroad as nurses, care givers, security personnel, and lately fruit pickers in Australia and NZ. 

Remittances, at no cost to government, are now running at more than $500 million net per year or more than three times that of the sugar industry gross revenues.

Ownership and Control of Corporate Economy

One of the most remarkable changes in the Fiji economy in the last three decades has been the replacement of large foreign manufacturing and retail outlets by local businesses, mostly Gujarati.

The names such as Tappoos and Patels are far more common and pervasive now then they were in the colonial era and in the first decade of independence, and astonishingly prominent as contributors to the Fiji First Party.

They are also extremely prominent on all the boards of public enterprises that are at the heart of Fiji’s economy.

The recent fascinating research findings by FWRM of the gender and ethnic composition of government boards, could well do with another study of the historical changes to board composition, which would show undoubtedly, the slow but steady erosion of the once European and Part-European dominance, by new power elites.

But all these changes are connected to the control of the state.

Governance: the illusion of freedom and equality

While one typically associates political independence with greater freedoms, constitutional equality, popular participation in governance by the ordinary people, the sad reality of 50 years of “evolution” is the opposite, with power being slowly concentrated in the military.

The first seventeen years saw the popularly elected Alliance government of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, supported by the indigenous Fijians, their chiefs, and the military in the background.

The first political government elected by the Indo-Fijians (and led by Jai Ram Reddy and Chaudhry, with Bavadra as Prime Minister) was overthrown by the military 3rd in command, Rabuka, supported by indigenous Fijians, the GCC and the Methodist Church.

His 1990 Constitution imposed on Fiji, Rabuka elected as Prime Minister, with the former RFMF Commander (and other military officers) accepting various positions in the government hierarchy.

Then through dialogue with Opposition Parties, Rabuka came around to fostering the 1997 Constitution based on the Reeves, Vakatora and Brij Lal consultations with the population and Report, with a slightly flawed disproportionate electoral system.

But when the 1999 Elections saw the election of another government (Chaudhry’s FLP Coalition), the 2000 coup occurred with George Speight carrying the can for other silent and not so silent backers, including many from the Methodist Church and losing SVT politicians. 

After the CRW-led coup was put down, the military commander (Bainimarama) refused to restore Chaudhry’s Government, but the Interim Administration of Qarase, who went on to become the elected Prime Minister in 2001 and again in 2006, but this time in coalition with the FLP (minus their Leader).

But by then, Bainimarama had become disaffected with Qarase over his alleged lenience to the 2000 coup or rather more, the 2000 mutiny supporters.

Having expelled all dissenting senior RFMF officers, Bainimarama implemented the 2006 coup as a “clean-up” campaign but began a solid military dictatorship.

Assisted by many “good people” (including the Catholic Church, the Hindu organizations, stalwarts from the FLP, former Fiji citizens abroad) Bainimarama went through the charade of a People’s Charter (John Samy etc.), the talanoa process (Robin Nair and Sitiveni Halapua) the Yash Ghai Constitution Commission (Professor Yash Ghai, but also including Professor Satendra Nandan and Taufa Vakatale), and several prominent local judges (Pathik, Byrne and Gates) claiming the 2006 coup and the subsequent “Presdent’ decrees were perfectly legal.

They all came to nothing.

Following the final 2009 Appeal Court judgement that his coup was illegal, Bainimarama purportedly abrogated the 1997 Constitution and continued his military government until 2014.

The judiciary was stacked (with a chosen few locals but mostly imported Sri Lankans). Former Military Commanders and other senior RFMF officers were placed in key positions.  Media freedom was squashed but two media outlets were fed at the table. The GCC was dismantled and its home was accidentally burnt down to the ground.

Eventually, a 2013 Constitution, from unknown sources, was imposed on Fiji and signed into law by their own President, a High Chief, who just happened to be a former Military Commander.

A massive propaganda campaign, assisted by so-called experts including an expatriate Catholic priest, trumpeted the slogan “1 person = 1 vote = 1 value” as a harbinger of a modern egalitarian Fiji in which “we are all Fijians”.

But the carefully crafted electoral system with only 1 national constituency, a carefully controlled elections apparatus with a pliant Supervisor of Election and a largely controlled or intimidated media, saw the 2014 election of Voreqe Bainimarama and his FFP Government.

As intended by his strategists, Bainimarama personally received the vast majority of the votes, with the rest of his Government, receiving smatterings of votes, way less than received by most MPs from the Opposition Parties.

Bainimarama is the first Prime Minister in the history of Fiji who has presided over the largest increases in the personal emoluments and perks of his own personal position.

Former military officers continue to be appointed to ley well-paid positions in Bainimarama’s Government and never really left it.

Even the Leader of the Opposition is a former Military Commander, as is the Speaker of the House who controls the people’s representatives in Parliament.

The non-government organizatios such as the Fiji Law Society, Fiji Institute of Accountants and USP, which used to be progressive public dialogue forums, are now a shadow of their former selves.

Fiji is constantly reminded that the 2013 Constitution has a clause which stipulates that the RFMF will be the ultimate guardian of Fiji’s welfare, in all and sundry matters, voters can vote all they like.

There are some, led by a cheerleader formerly making a living from the Government’s propaganda needs, now calling on social media for the Military Council to intervene in Fiji’s governance and “sort Fiji out” i.e. yet another military “coup”.

But perhaps far more damaging in the long term than these visible symptoms of militarization, is the cancerous internalization of social values among the young.

In a global world which seeks and more than adequately rewards doctors, engineers, architects and scientists, our Fijian youth, with military leaders as their idols, seek careers in the military.

The military government from 2006 to 2014 is dead.

Long live the military government.

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