The Military in Fiji

The origins and development of Fiji’s military forces reflect clearly the socio-political dimensions of Fiji’s pre-colonial and colonial history. When Governor Gordon took over the administration of the colony, there was already a small military force known as the Royal Army, which had been used by Fiji’s leading eastern chief, Cakobau, and his British supporters in an attempt to control the central and western regions. Gordon continued to employ this unit for its original purpose of subjugation, thereby reinforcing eastern chiefly authority and interests. Following the relative success of these early pacification operations, the unit (which had meanwhile been renamed the Armed Native Constabulary) was amalgamated with the police of the Fiji Constabulary. In the early 1920s, further ‘pacification’ operations were conducted against striking Indian workers (Sanday 1989:3).

From the beginning, then, the armed forces in Fiji were utilised largely for coercing troublesome groups in the interests of internal political stability. This early emphasis, and the identification of ‘troublesome’ with dissident western Fijians and Fiji Indians, saw the already dominant position of ‘loyal’ easterners further reinforced through selective recruitment to the constabulary – and later to the regular armed forces. This is a very clear manifestation of Enloe’s (1980: 16) conception of ‘security mapping’ where the ethnically-determined basis of recruitment involves convenient geographical concentrations. Further, it is evident that the early orientation of state security in Fiji was strongly biased towards ‘the maintenance of congenial domestic class and ethnic patterns of order’ (Enloe 1980:14).

The later development of Fiji’s military as an entity distinct from the police, and as a standing army in its own right, was given its major impetus by the call of empire. Two world wars and the Malayan Emergency saw troops from Fiji serve monarch and empire in defence, presumably, of ‘democracy’. Back home, however, little progress had been made with respect to democratic rights for Fiji Indians, and this had a direct effect on military recruitment for World War II. Many Fiji Indian grievances had been centred on the issue of parity of political rights and status with Europeans (not Fijians). When the war broke out, the sense of inequitable political treatment was further exacerbated by differential pay rates for Fiji Indians and Europeans in the army and most Fiji Indians declined to volunteer for service for this reason. The only Indian platoon in the army, which had been formed in 1934 despite some resistance on the part of the colonial administration and the chiefs, was disbanded (Sharma 1990:63). This not only strengthened the apparent political divide between Fiji Indians and the other communities, but served also to consolidate the army as an essentially Fijian institution.

At the time of the coup in 1987 the composition of the Royal Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) was 98 per cent Fijian. They were led by Brigadier Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, a high chief from the east and also son-in-law of Prime Minister Mara. Although many able commoners had been admitted to high-ranking positions, including the then third-ranking officer Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, those from eastern chiefly families were disproportionately represented in the officer corps. Commoners like Rabuka, who had achieved high rank, were also drawn in disproportionate numbers from the east. Saffu (1990:162) suggests that the extent of eastern dominance in the RFMF, together with the historical factors outlined earlier, was responsible for the development of a ‘traditional-aristocratic’ pattern of civil-military relations which operated alongside the liberal-democratic pattern throughout the independence period until May 1987. Saffu (1990:159) argues also that both patterns were compatible with civilian political supremacy until the electoral victory of the coalition when the liberal-democratic pattern was abrogated abruptly ‘because it did not guarantee control of the state by chiefs and other traditionalists’. This is consistent with the arguments put forward earlier concerning the lack of legitimacy accorded both to the coalition and to the regime under which the new government was formed.

Another aspect of the analysis, and one which is vital to future developments in civil-military relations in Fiji, concerns the prospects for the traditional-aristocratic model. Saffu (1990:159) draws on Nordlinger’s (1977) work in identifying the core features of the model. The most basic indicator supporting civilian supremacy is a strong identification of social and political values between civilian and military leaders in an essentially ‘pre-democratic’ system. Civilian leaders are regarded as legitimate insofar as they are part of the same social network of aristocratic families that provides military leaders. Sanday (1991:253) says that this pattern was reflected in a pervasive belief amongst indigenous Fijians that political power was the exclusive preserve of the chiefs. The role of the military in post-coup Fiji seemed to point to a continuation of the traditional-aristocratic pattern.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup, Rabuka established a sixteen-member Council of Ministers comprising eleven Alliance parliamentarians (including Mara) and four members of the nationalist Taukei movement. Rabuka himself, as head of this body, was the only military member. This was replaced shortly afterwards with an eighteen-member Council of Advisors which, as a necessary façade for at least qualified domestic and international acceptance, included three Fiji Indians as well as Bavadra. Rabuka, however, remained a leading member. The new arrangements, and of course the coup itself, were endorsed wholeheartedly by the Council of Chiefs who had resolved that the military should be asked to review the 1970 constitution to ensure that Fijians were guaranteed control of government at all times (Lal 1988:87). And Rabuka’s ambitions for the military were expressed unambiguously in numerous statements on its future role, including an assertion that the military would remain an integral part of any kind of political system, irrespective of what form it might take (Lal 1988:113).

In the meantime, some rapprochement had been reached between the civilian actors in the play of negotiations. A degree of moderation had started to prevail as Taukeist leaders, and Rabuka himself, became increasingly marginalised in the process of negotiations which led eventually to the ‘Deuba Accord’ – an agreement under which both the Alliance and the deposed coalition were to participate on equal terms in a caretaker government under the governor-general, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:138). Although Rabuka had apparently agreed to support the new accord, it is evident that his intentions were otherwise. Two hours before the governor-general was scheduled to inform the nation of the new caretaker government, Rabuka led a second coup to enforce his original ‘objectives’. Within days Rabuka announced the complete abroga-tion of the 1970 constitution and declared himself head of a republican government (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:142). But Rabuka’s position as head of the republic, although supported by military force, was untenable politically. Leaving international opinion aside, Rabuka could not, as a commoner, hope to legitimate himself as leader at that time. In his own rationale for both coups, Rabuka had consistently promoted the paramount importance of Fijian ‘tradition’ and the virtually sacrosanct political position of chiefs in this context. So powerful had the rhetoric about chiefly authority become that it left Rabuka in the position of being unable to command personally the symbolic resources associated with political legitimacy in Fiji. In his own words, Rabuka had claimed that the military was ‘trying to protect the chiefs and their people’ and, further, that it was the ‘duty of the warrior tribe to protect the chief’ (quoted in Norton 1990:139).

In the wake of the second coup, then, the eastern chiefly elite returned once more to the helm of government, replacing the Taukeist council which Rabuka had installed as an interim measure. Rabuka continued for a time as a member of the ministry but was later forced to ‘return to barracks’ at the behest of Mara who had given him the choice of resigning either from the military, or from the government. In August 1991, however, Rabuka decided to quit the military in order to pursue a political career, and returned to the post of co-deputy prime minister and minister for Home Affairs in the interim government. Ganilau continued to occupy the position of president while Mara remained prime minister until the 1992 elections. Rabuka’s political ambitions, however, were well known and his decision to enter civilian politics as a leading member of the Fijian Political Party (which was formed with the backing of the leading chiefs) was a clear enough indication that he would be a contender for the prime ministership in the elections. Given the lack of suitable chiefly successors to Mara in the FPP, as well as the emergence of several rival Fijian parties, the longer-term outlook for stable government under the chiefly establishment was beginning to look more uncertain. This brings us back to the question, posed at the beginning, concerning the prospects for continuing civilian supremacy and whether the new regime is itself vulnerable to some kind of intervention.