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  • Fiji
  • Jon Fraenkel (bio)

Fiji in 2007 was marked by cycles of conciliation and repression that echoed like seismic aftershocks from the December 2006 coup. Steps were taken by the new military-backed government to reconfigure the established order, by purges at the top of the public service and throughout the boards of the state-owned corporations; by reconstruction of the Great Council of Chiefs; and by reform of the Fijian Affairs Board, the Native Land Trust Board, and the Fiji Development Bank. Although there was diplomatic disapproval for the overthrow of Fiji’s elected government, the new regime’s reformist credentials, as well as its anticorruption and antiracist platform, won it a fair number of overseas admirers and some domestic supporters. But the authoritarian aspect of the coup—that it flew in the face of majority ethnic Fijian opinion—prevented any lasting consolidation. Efforts to build legitimacy thus tended to generate mounting controversy, while phases when criticisms grew brought a furious but realpolitik-driven response.

On 4 January 2007, Republic of Fiji Military Forces (rfmf) Commander Frank Bainimarama relinquished his temporary position as president, and reappointed Ratu Josefa Iloilo as head of state. A month earlier, Ratu Josefa had been removed from that office because he had disassociated himself from the coup, on the advice of Roko Tui Bau and Vice President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi. Bainimarama had, at that time, said he was only temporarily “stepping into the shoes of the President” (Bainimarama 2006). Now restored to office, the eighty-six-year-old president lamented that cultural reasons had prevented him from “fully performing [his] duties” on 5 December 2006, referring to the anti-coup pressure from his sacked high-ranking deputy. But he said that he “would have done exactly what the Commander of the rfmf, Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama did since it was necessary to do so at the time” (Iloilo 2007). Read from a script prepared by military officers who had, over the previous month, kept him virtually secluded from public contact, the speech was carefully contrived to fit the anticipated “doctrine of necessity” defense of the coup before the courts. Yet it constituted a gross abdication of the president’s constitutional responsibilities. The normally obsequious Methodist Church, doubting that the president was in full possession of his faculties, suggested that he be “medically boarded, and if necessary, retired with dignity and respect” (Methodist Church 2007; see also Fraenkel 2007).

The next day, Bainimarama was formally appointed prime minister, [End Page 450] ending the month-long tenure of that post by the army camp medical practitioner, Dr Jona Senilagakali. “Extra-constitutional steps,” Bainimarama insisted, had been “necessary to preserve the Constitution,” claiming that legal precedents existed for such usage of “reserve powers” (Bainimarama 2007a). These arguments strongly resembled those put forward by Fiji Human Rights Commission Director Shaista Shameem (2007a, 2007b), but they found little support among Fiji’s senior lawyers (Ali 2007a, 2008). Ostensibly to facilitate an inquiry into the activities of the judiciary at the time of the 2000 coup, Chief Justice Daniel Fatiaki and Chief Magistrate Naomi Matanitobua were sent on leave a day before the presidential handover. At the instigation of the attorney general, a hastily convened meeting of the Judicial Services Commission, chaired by Judge Nazhat Shameem (Shaista Shameem’s sister), appointed Justice Anthony Gates as acting chief justice. That appointment was defended by the attorney general, but it was deemed unconstitutional by most legal scholars (Crawford 2007; Cox 2007; Leung 2007). It signaled the start of a wholesale restructuring of the judiciary, resulting in the August resignation of most of Fiji’s Court of Appeal judges.

On 6 January, Bainimarama, now figuring as prime minister, outlined the “President’s mandate” that was intended to guide his interim administration. The new government would provide amnesty for the soldiers who had carried out the coup; it would validate the decrees, suspensions, dismissals, and appointments of the past month; and it would set out to eradicate corruption. The sixteen-member interim lineup included two former rfmf commanders, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau as foreign minister, and Ratu Epeli Ganilau as minister of Fijian affairs. Both men have close links to the family of deceased former...