During the 1980s, election victories of the FLP-NFP political party threatened the traditional political hierarchy of Fiji which has long been dominated by the Great Council of Chiefs. Ethnic tensions were fueled by a few voices predicting that indigenous Fijians would soon lose their land rights to the Indo-Fijians. Protests were staged, and they eventually grew violent.
On May 14, 1987, in a bloodless coup, Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka and ten others took over the government and formed their own interim government. This interim government was comprised mostly of members of the previous political powers and the Great Council of Chiefs. This action was internationally condemned, and in an effort to legitimize this government, Rabuka appointed Governor General Ratu Ganilau as Head Council of Ministers. However, Rabuka retained control of Security Forces and Home Affairs.
Although there were plans to hold elections in late 1987, on September 26, Rabuka staged a second coup that would forever change Fiji. He invalidated the 1970 constitution, he declared Fiji a republic, and he appointed himself Head of State. He also appointed a new Council of Ministers with Ratu Ganilau as President of the new republic and Ratu Mara as Prime Minister.
Fiji’s economy was devastated. In addition to internal economic problems, their primary source of income – tourism – plummeted.
Although slow to come, a new national constitution was proclaimed by President Ratu Ganilau on July 25, 1990, after having been approved by the Great Council of Chiefs. The new constitution increased the power of the Great Council and the military, and it decreased the position of Indo-Fijians in government. The new constitution mandated an indigenous Fijian majority of legislative power, and Indo-Fijians were prohibited from occupying certain high offices.
Elections were finally held in 1992. Surprisingly to many, Rabuka courted the vote of the Indo-Fijians and gained their support through unkept promises. He was, nonetheless, elected.
In 1993, the economy continued to fail, and President Ganilau died. The Great Council of Chiefs appointed Ratu Mara as President.
By 1995, the National Bank of Fiji was bankrupt. The economy was in ruins. Also in 1995, Rabuka, under pressure to review the 1990 constitution, appointed a review commission. This commission recommended that all citizens be allowed to vote and run for office other than President.
In 1997, another constitution was declared which still mandated an indigenous Fijian legislative majority. It also maintained the Great Council of Chiefs’ authority to appoint the President.
In 2000, Fijian voters elected their first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister – Mahendra Chaudry. Indigenous Fijians reacted negatively through protests and refusing to renew leases to Indo-Fijians.
Then on May 19, 2000, a third coup was staged. This coup was led by George Speight, a local businessman. Speight and 42 other armed men stormed the Parliamentary Compound in Suva. They took 45 hostages including Prime Minister Chaudry and President Mara’s daughter. Their demands included that Prime Minister Chaudry and President Mara both resign and that the 1997 multi-ethnic constitution be abandoned. After receiving death threats on his daughter, President Mara removed Chaudry from office then resigned himself.
The head of the military declared martial law. He made a deal with Speight wherein the 1997 constitution would be revoked and Speight would receive amnesty in exchange for release of the hostages which occurred eight weeks later. The head of the military and the Great Council of Chiefs appointed indigenous Fijians Ratu Iloilo as President and Laisenia Qarase as Prime Minister.
Speight, however, did not keep the terms of his amnesty agreement, and he and his gang were arrested and charged with treason. Speight was convicted and sentenced to death; however, his sentence was immediately reduced to life imprisonment. He is serving his sentence on the beautiful little Nukulau Island just off the southeast shore of Viti Levu.
In November, 2000, the High Court ruled that the coup had no legal standing. Therefore, Ratu Mara was still president and the 1987 constitution stands. Further, the Qarase government had no standing despite its support from the Great Council. Qarase was, however, subsequently elected to office in August, 2001, and he appointed no Indo-Fijians in his cabinet.
In 2002, a court decided that Indo-Fijians must be included in the government, and that ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2004. However, political infighting has delayed the implementation of the multiethnic cabinet. At present, there is no end in sight.
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