Fiji’s Colonial Legacy[21]

British colonial rule was established in Fiji in 1874 following a period of internal strife occasioned partly by the activities of European settlers and traders in the eastern regions of the island group. It was in this region, too, that the most powerful of the Fijian confederacies were located and rivalries between leading chiefs there exacerbated the general deterioration in domestic politics that followed European contact. The British government was to some extent a reluctant coloniser at this time. The further extension of empire in the remote Pacific promised little in the way of economic rewards and only the potential for strategic advantage offered any return on their ‘investment’. The general policy towards the new colony of Fiji, then, was that its administration should pose as small a financial burden to Whitehall as possible and, ideally, that it should be economically self-sufficient. Fiji’s first substantive governor, Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, therefore set about implementing a set of policies which were directed not only towards establishing a solid financial base for the new colony, but which reflected also a relatively new approach to the ‘management’ of colonial subjects. The strategies adopted by Gordon to secure these objectives were decisive for the later development of politics in Fiji.

The first of these strategies concerned ‘native policy’ and this was aimed partly at making the colonial experience for Fijians an exception to the dismal history of colonised people in other parts of the empire. One of the measures introduced was the reservation of those Fijian lands not already ‘legally’ alienated to white settlers, and the prohibition of any further land alienation. Although this measure was sound in principle, the method by which land tenure was assigned on the basis of certain kinship groups, and which remains in place to this day, imposed a uniformity and inflexibility that bore little resemblance to pre-colonial Fijian practices. The land tenure system has since served as a serious impediment to the efficient and equitable utilisation of land resources amongst Fijians. In addition, the bureaucratic structures relating to the administration of land, including the leasing of agricultural land to both Fijian and Fiji Indian tenants, have creamed off much of the income from leases. A substantial proportion of the remaining funds is distributed to chiefs. Fijian ‘commoners’ receive few direct benefits from the leasing of their lands, and this was one of the issues that the Labour/NFP coalition government had placed on the political agenda. Concern for the security of indigenous land rights was made a focal issue by the Alliance Party during the 1987 elections and figured prominently in the rhetoric surrounding justification of the coup. It is therefore important to note that the 1970 constitution of independent Fiji provided triple entrenchment of Fijian rights with respect to land and other customary entitlements.

A second strategy for securing the principles of the new enlightened native policy was the establishment of a system of indirect rule. This was achieved by taking the relatively authoritarian chiefly structures of control which characterised socio-political organisation in the eastern regions as the basis for the system, and imposing these uniformly over the entire island group. In addition, selective recruitment to the colonial bureaucracy from amongst easterners served to marginalise Fijians from other regions. One consequence of this was that eastern chiefs achieved much greater prominence within the colonial regime. As political institutions evolved from an initially rigid crown colony system to something resembling responsible government in the pre-independence period, eastern chiefs retained their political prominence and reinforced their prospects for future control through the formation of the Alliance Party. This underscored exclusive claims to political legitimacy by eastern chiefs vis-à-vis any other political group in Fiji.

The third strategy employed by the colonial administration involved balancing the policy of ‘native protection’ with the requirement of financial self-sufficiency. The use of Fijian labour in the emerging plantation economy was viewed as detrimental to the traditional Fijian way of life and Governor Gordon looked immediately to the Indian sub-continent from which other British colonies had successfully recruited their ‘helots of empire’. The first Indian indentured laborers arrived in Fiji in 1879 and by the time the system was abolished in 1916, Fiji had acquired a substantial, and permanent, population of Fiji Indians whose descendants now comprise around 46 per cent of the total population. This created what is commonly described as Fiji’s ‘plural society’ in which the two major ethnic groups are perceived as constituting monolithic entities in a two-sided contest for political power. This perception is largely responsible for popular conceptions concerning the essentially ‘racial’ cause of the May 1987 coup. And although most academic commentators – with the notable exception of Scarr (1988) – have evinced a complex array of causes which point to the salience of other decisive factors (see, for example, Lawson 1991; Ewins 1993), the general perception of contemporary developments in Fiji remains fixed firmly within a racially-oriented paradigm.

Another aspect of Fiji’s colonial legacy which is closely related to the developments outlined above, and with the issue of eastern chiefly legitimacy, concerns the doctrine of Fijian ‘paramountcy of interests’. This doctrine upholds the supremacy of Fijian interests over and above the interests of any other racial or ethnic group in Fiji. It developed as a colonial version of an indigenous rights charter which, although never formally codified, developed into a powerful orthodoxy. The doctrine’s initial purpose was to underscore the early policies instituted by Gordon. As we have seen, these had been designed largely to protect Fijians from European settler exploitation. But as the Fiji Indian community grew, the doctrine was employed by European and Fijian leaders alike as a counter to the Fiji Indians’ quest for social, political, and economic rights. It became, in effect, a forceful rhetorical weapon in a war of subjugation which was at first prosecuted most vigorously by the small but influential European commercial elite concerned to retain their own privileged position in the colony. This enabled Europeans, inter alia, to represent themselves as champions of the Fijian people and guardians of their interests. For their part, Fijian political leaders, who were drawn almost exclusively from chiefly ranks (with easterners predominating), took up the same rhetorical stance and denounced Fiji Indian claims for equal political rights as anathema to the interests of the Fijians as a whole.

This of course raises questions as to the precise nature of the interests of each ‘group’, and especially whether the interests of Fijian chiefs are automatically consonant with those of commoners. One must question also the notion that any interests espoused by the eastern chiefly elite necessarily accord with the interests of Fijians in other regions. These issues will be considered later in the context of contemporary politics. For the moment it is important to note that the doctrine of Fijian paramountcy developed a political salience which went far beyond its original utility. We have seen already that Fijian rights relating to land and other resources were well established in the early colonial period and firmly secured through the 1970 constitution. But the general themes of the doctrine, combined with the spectre of an ‘Indian land-grab’, continued to be pursued by Alliance and other nationalist leaders at the level of political rhetoric (and invective) in post-independence electoral campaigns. With respect to the Alliance and the eastern chiefly elite, this served the instrumental purpose of uniting the bulk of the Fijian electorate behind their leadership in direct opposition to Fiji Indians. Furthermore, the Alliance presented its leadership as the embodiment of all that is distinctively, traditionally, and legitimately ‘Fijian’.

Both the formal political institutions and the party system that emerged in the late colonial period reflected these earlier developments, as did the 1970 constitution of independent Fiji. Apart from recognising and securing the special rights and interests of indigenous Fijians, the constitution provided for a complex system of communal representation through which equal numbers of Fiji Indians and Fijians were returned as members of the House of Representatives. In addition, eight ‘general’ members were to be returned as representatives of ‘other races’. Most of these were of European descent and were aligned politically with the Alliance Party. This meant that despite formal parity of representation for Fiji Indians, the racial allocation of seats gave an immediate electoral advantage to the Alliance and, indeed, seemed designed to ensure that the Alliance would continue indefinitely in office. Viewed in this light, the 1970 constitution cannot be seen as an instrument for securing the practice of democratic politics beyond the formal superficialities of parliamentary government. More specifically, the principle of alternation in government, which is an essential hallmark of modern representative democracy, was undermined to the extent that the legitimacy of the opposition party as a potential or actual government was not recognised by the Alliance leadership.

Continued Alliance dominance, however, depended on their maintaining a solid electoral base amongst Fijians. Any intra-Fijian disunity would necessarily erode this base and leave the Alliance vulnerable to electoral defeat, and this is precisely what happened in the elections of 1987. Although the Labour/NFP coalition was unable to attract more than around 10 per cent of the overall Fijian vote, it was able to muster sufficient Fijian and ‘other races’ support in several crucial urban and peri-urban constituencies. This, combined with a further slippage of Alliance support to minor parties and independents as well as a significant level of Fijian abstention from voting, gave the coalition a majority of seats. But the events which followed the formation of the new government indicated clearly the extent to which it lacked that widespread legitimacy essential to the principle of alternation in government. Despite Ratu Mara’s formal concession of defeat, Alliance members boycotted the opening of parliament and several became involved in the activities of the extremist Taukei movement – a nationalist Fijian group which emerged in the aftermath of the Alliance’s defeat and which resolved to bring down the new government. Mara maintained a public silence which was seen to implicitly endorse their activities. And when the army intervened less than six weeks after the elections, Mara was amongst the first to join the initial administration set up by coup-leader Rabuka.

The point of the foregoing discussion has been to highlight a number of important factors which, taken together, served to undermine the legitimacy of the political institutions established by the 1970 constitution, thereby rendering them ‘weak’ and vulnerable to attack. This vulnerability operated at two levels. First, it is evident that any government other than the Alliance could be portrayed rhetorically as a significant threat to Fijian rights – a logical corollary to the idea that only the Alliance could guarantee the rights and interests of all Fijians. These ideas were taken much further than the original doctrine of paramountcy of interests implied, for this was basically concerned with the protection of lands and customary matters which remained constitutionally entrenched no matter which government was in power. In turn, this doctrine was invoked to deny virtually any political legitimacy to Fiji Indians and, it must be added, to those dissident Fijians who formed the backbone of the Fiji Labour Party. Put simply, the legitimacy of the new government was weakly supported, and therefore vulnerable to challenge, since it was opposed by a dominant political discourse which had succeeded in elevating a particular group of Fijians to a position of almost exclusive authority.

The second aspect of vulnerability operated at the regime level. Although the constitution was, arguably, designed to entrench a one-party dominant system, it nonetheless supported formally all those democratic constitutionalist principles associated with the notion that no one political group is entitled to lay exclusive claims to legitimacy and, through this, control of the state apparatus. It is clearly evident that neither the Alliance Party nor the military accepted the legitimacy of a regime which allowed succession of government according to democratic constitutionalist norms and principles. In other words, those ‘publicly agreed procedures for the transfer of power’ provided by the constitution were, when put to the test, shown to lack universal acceptance. This view has been reinforced by the promulgation of the new republican constitution, the rules of which seek to prevent the possibility of any such succession occurring again.

The new constitutional order, however, is one which undoubtedly lacks the support of a majority of the population in Fiji. Although this has not been tested by way of a referendum, one can assert fairly confidently that most Fiji Indians would regard it as illegitimate. And since the new electoral provisions for Fijians are grossly biased in favour of the eastern provinces, it is not unreasonable to assume that Fijians on the main island of Viti Levu will resent and resist eastern dominance – especially those in the west whose history of dissidence suggests more than a little reluctance to endorse eastern legitimacy. In addition, the allocation of Fijian seats is weighted most heavily against the more ‘progressive’ urban Fijians who make up around one third of the Fijian population but who have been awarded only five of the thirty-seven Fijian seats. Taken together, these factors suggest weak support for the new regime and, as a consequence, for any government formed under its provisions. Whether this will promote susceptibility to further military intervention, or at least a praetorian role for the military, is another question, and one best addressed now by reference to the development of Fiji’s military forces and its role in contemporary politics.

[21] This section is based on a much more detailed account set out in Lawson (1991).