Why Bainimarama needs to buy time

editor's insight

Nevil Gibson

Variously compared with Burma’s ruling junta and Zimbabwe’s fading dictator, Robert Mugabe, Fiji’s Commodore Frank Bainimarama has few supporters justifying his actions.

A better comparison might be made with the Palestinians, who since Israel’s declaration of independence 1948 have never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity.

Others might point to Chile's Augusto Pinochet, who despite his brutality eventually pulled that country through radical economic reforms to create South America's best performer.

Commodore Bainimarama’s original decision to overthrow Fiji's constitutional government in December 2006 was not without its supporters, particularly as the racial basis of the electoral system (conceived by New Zealanders in accordance with modern indigenous people’s ideology) was providing inept government. (It’s also a warning of what some Maori want, though that's another story.)

When I holidayed in Fiji shortly after that coup, I noticed the then interim government was keen to make advances in modernising the economy and setting the scene for a rise in prosperity.

These measures have been outlined in a detailed review by the World Trade Organisation, published at the end of last month, that confirms Fiji was heading in the right direction, albeit slowly.

This is the second such trade review (the first was in 1997) and is accompanied by an equally comprehensive response from the Fijian authorities.

It might seem inappropriate to focus on economic issues rather than the constitutional and human rights ones that are at the forefront of today’s debate resulting from last week’s Court of Appeal decision ruling that the 2006 coup was illegal.

But Fiji’s economic slide, and the remedies being proposed, are just as urgent and possibly or more importance in the bigger scheme of things (for example, the Russia-based Kiwi businessman Stephen Jennings has drawn attention to the high-growth successes in economies that do not follow “missionary” solutions) .

The WTO Trade Policy Review describes Fiji as a country with substantial resources and potential but in much need of getting on with the job.

The record so far is not impressive. After contracting 6.6% in the year immediately after the coup – mainly due to a drop in tourism and investment – the economy recovered in 2008 and at the latest estimate was expected to show annual growth of 1.2%.

Against this, Fiji has sunk badly on the Human Development Index, from 81st in 2003 to 92nd in 2008 (behind Tonga and Samoa). Fiji is also 50th on the UN Human Poverty Index and more than a third of the people live in poverty.

These are appalling statistics in a country that has rich agricultural and forestry assets, a modern tourism infrastructure as well as competitive services in telecommunications and banking.

The trade review focuses on the rapid decline of two formerly protected exports – clothing and sugar – and the failure to embrace the benefits of greater trade liberalisation.

But there are bright spots – Fiji has a big market in the US for bottled water, the prospects for fishing and forestry are good, and its trade partners are expanding (Singapore has become the largest source of imports, displacing Australia and New Zealand).

The WTO touches on the constitutional issues ¬– little of it favourable – describing legislative process as “slow” and its economic reforms as “piecemeal and handicapped by political uncertainty and technical capacity constraints [WTO jargon for lack of qualified people].”

While modest changes have been made to attract more foreign investment, Fiji has also restricted more business activities to favour indigenous Fijians.

The WTO urges other countries to ease their non-tariff barriers against Fijian exports (the treatment of horticultural produce is one area that suffers).

The government’s response demonstrates the country is far from being a basket case or a “failed state,” as some reports would have it.

The Court of Appeal, despite upholding noble constitutional intentions, did the country no favours by declaring Commodore Bainimarama’s regime illegal.

By ignoring the political realities, the court effectively forced Commodore Bainimarama’s hand to impose emergency powers that, for outsiders, will focus on the handling of the media and diplomatic niceties rather than economic realties.

In his Radio New Zealand interview this morning, Commodore Bainimarama spoke about how the court had frustrated the interim government’s intentions and that taking the emergency powers route was his only course of carrying out the necessary reforms.

The WTO report confirms that task is huge and the argument for it taking precedence is strong.

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13 Comments & Questions

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Isn't this whole affair about native Fijians regaining control of their Island back from the imported Indian population??.
Bainimarama has (again) grabbed back the controls to re-assert his (and native Fijians) authority.
So whats changed from a few months ago??
Bugger-all ...the loudest noises seem to be coming from the media types he biffed off the island during the last few days who earn a living from reporting bad news...
McCully and co can rattle their sabres as long and loud as they like but I suspect it will have little affect on Frank...
The tourists will still come and lie on the beach - ask Mark Bryers - apparently he's there for a break right now...


The Indians do not control the land in Fiji as Tricky Dicky suggested. They never have and if Frank and the Great Council of Chiefs have their way they never will. Just as well because if the native Fijians loose control of the 96% ownership they have then they will be a doomed race. Worth fighting to preserve, wouldn't you say?


Any country that throws out the journos can't be all bad. If there's mischief to be made, pot-stirring, unfair or premature analysis, these scandal-hunters will find it. They're not into the truth of issues, with sober, objective analysis. They're after making trouble. Trouble sells headlines - and then journalistic bloat sets in...

The Qarase government was corrupt and deserved to be tossed out. - very much partly our fault, as you point out. Funny I don't remember Guru Helen mentioning this.


Doomed race? Hardly. Check back your own ancestry, & I'd expect a few lines that historically didn't seem to do so well, but then again, here you are, wasn't so bad after all, eh? Humanity & just behaviour all round is more worth preserving, surely. I can't get too excited about race preservation, as if gene patterns bestow some mysterious powers & privileges that cancel out any need for good behaviour. Not that I think that Fiji has an easy path forward.


Neville's article is much too optimistic about Fiji and Frank's incompetent - not well informed. The Qarase Government was not corrupt and was a pretty good government by Pacific standards. The 2006 coup was not about corruption or improving the voting system, it was just another grab for power by the Fiji military forces who seem to believe they had some divine right, with support by some no military people who could not see any other way to power. Talking corruption - why have the army's accounts not been audited for years; why dont we get a proper accounting for the funds earned from offshore peace keeping etc, etc.


One needs to have lived in Fiji to have a clearer grasp of the issues. Admittedly it is a few years since I resided there but my understanding is that the Commodore has the support of many of the leading local Indians and is intent on abolishing the present racially-based electoral system (remember, previous coups sought to entrench indigenous power). While his aims might appear admirable I'm afraid that in trying to create the perfect pudding he's going to leave an almighty sticky mess in the kitchen.


yeah! gud one "rain girl" totally agree about the journos...


Funny thing, The main ethnic groups in Fiji besides the Fijians are, Indians, Rotumans, Chinese & Europeans are living happily ever after and the Fijians are fighting amongst themselves...hahaha way 2 go!! when the Fijians actually wake up, Fiji is a colony of India..hahaha


Whether or not the previous government was corrupt does not give an individual the right to seize control by force. Whether or not you have respect for journalists they are at the very least a necessary evil for democracy to exist. If you don't believe in democracy head over to Zimbabwe and stay there. If you can't spell 'good' we have some serious problems in this country.


blah blah concerned democrat..easy for you to blab away like every other non fijian citizens who blab about "why" "ifs" of fiji's political issues..i think you should just give it a rest and mind your own business like what Bainimarama has always said..


The Qarase government was not as corrupt as journos like to say since they merely parrrot what Bainimarama says. In fact he himself is demonstrably corrupt ( stealing funds from vote education to give himself and mates a $200k bonus) and soldiers were stealing from shops.
Irrespective of one's views it is clearly unacceptable to dismiss the judiciary for an unpopular but correct decision and the senile, Bainimarama appointed President acted on B's orders to abrogate the constitution etc.
Neville you need to gain mnore of an understanding of the situation and I can arrange this if you wish


The responses to Neville's article show that there is considerable confusion about what Frank is on about. Yes we understand that the Fijian constitution is written to safeguard the indigenous Fijians from losing their land and become subsumed by descendents of the Indian immigrants imported by the British to work the sugar cane plantations. And yes we understand that Rambuca's coup was about cementing the rights of the native Fijians. But what is Frank's platform? One assumes that because he is military, and because the military is predominantly Fijian, then Frank is representing the interests of the Council of Chiefs and the indigenous agenda. I suspect that this is not the case. Why can't we have some more in-depth reporting to better inform us of the fundamental issues? Come on Neville....You've gone some way towards shedding some light but we need more background to make any sort of sense of the current reports. Radio New Zealand's Mike Field pops up regularly - but he seems to assume that we've all been following events in Fiji for the past 20 years and can make sense of his comments.


"Why can't we have some more in-depth reporting to better inform us of the fundamental issues? Come on Nevil ... "

Yes! Please!


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