Why Bainimarama needs to buy time
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.