Nov 23, 2020 Last Updated 12:34 AM, Nov 23, 2020

Fiame's new chapter

"It’s very liberating. I haven’t felt this excited about politics for a long time,” says Samoa’s former Deputy Prime Minister, and now independent member, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa.

In September, Fiame resigned from government and ended her affiliation with the ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) over three controversial bills that would set up an autonomous Samoan Land and Titles Court. It means she will contest the April 2021 election with another party for the first time in her political career.

The bills at the heart of her decision have fomented political turmoil in Samoa all year. The Judicature Bill 2020, Lands and Titles Bill 2020 and the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2020  would together create an autonomous Land and Titles Court (LTC) which would operate in parallel to the existing criminal and civil courts, and have equal standing to those courts.

The bills would give official recognition to village councils says Samoa’s government. Under the changes, the Land and Titles Court system would have its own court of appeal (rather than appeals being directed to the Supreme Court as is currently the case), and would have “supreme authority over the subject of Samoan customs and usages”, including title succession. The government-appointed Samoa Judiciary Service Commission would also have the power to dismiss judges under the changes, creating concern that this leaves room for political interference.

The Lands and Titles Court was first recommended during a 2016 inquiry into the functioning of Samoa’s courts, and in particular the backlog of cases relating to lands and titles. A November 2016 Asian Development Bank Report and Recommendation of the President to the Board of Directors stated that “poorly defined property rights” was amongst the barriers to private sector development. More than 80% of Samoa’s land is customarily owned.

The President of the Land and Titles Court, Fepulea'i Atila Ropati supports the bills, however the forces arrayed against them are diverse, and include the Ombudsman Maiava Iulai Toma, who says it will have "injurious consequences" on fundamental freedoms, judges and Supreme Court Justices, lawyers, a former Attorney General, and several senior matai (chiefs). Former head of state Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi says he is concerned the bill will enable the sale of land to fill government coffers and fund government debt and infrastructure projects.

The Samoa First and Samoa National Democratic parties have called for the bills to be delayed and the Samoa Law Society has been vocal in its criticism of the Bill. There has also been international criticism from the New Zealand Law Society and the International Bar Association.

But it is within the ranks of the ruling HRPP that the bills have caused the most disruption. Former parliamentary speaker and cabinet minister, La’auli Leuatea Polataivao Schmidt quit the party in dissent. Another MP, Faumuina Wayne Fong, was sacked for his opposition.

Fiame’s concerns over the bills are by now well documented. She is concerned that it will establish two court systems and two authorities, creating “so much possibility for conflict, for grey areas and so forth. I don’t think it has been well thought out.” She is also worried that there is no Samoan jurisprudence to base a new court and system on.

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From the zenith of Pacific regionalism (the Forum) from the early 1970s, Fiji’s standing in the group and amongst its regional neighbours stooped to unprecedented ignominy in 2009. Fiji was the first member country ever to be suspended from the Forum. It remained in the doldrums until 2014 when its membership was reinstated after the country’s 2014 general elections. After tentative steps to regain its rightful status, Fiji appears to be firmly on the way to recapturing its lost good name. Its task is a foregone conclusion. It has to be the mainspring of transformative changes under the proposed 2050 Strategy. Fiji’s first step is to ensure that the strategy is expertly and adequately framed to effectively deliver on all the changes that will transform the economies of the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to sustainability, secure inter-dependencies and heightened levels of self-sufficiency.

Fiji’s good name in the Forum had a pre-Forum lead-up. In 1965, independent Western Samoa was a member of the then South Pacific Commission (SPC). Fiji and other non-independent PICs attended SPC meetings only on invitation. But they were unhappy about their treatment by the metropolitan countries. At the meeting in Lae that year, Fiji’s Ratu Kamisese Mara masterminded what was to be later referred to as the Lae Rebellion.

Ratu Mara articulated the PICs’ concern: “The powers seemed incapable of realising that the winds of change had at last reached the South Pacific and that we peoples of the territories were no longer going to tolerate the domination of the Commission by the metropolitan powers. We were sick of having little to say and no authority. Regardless of what we said or did the final decision was always in the hands of the metropolitan powers.”

The Lae Rebellion resulted in the breakaway of five PICs—the Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Tonga and Western Samoa—with the idea to establish their own forum between 1970 - 1971. Ratu Mara, Fiji’s first Prime Minster, was the principal interlocutor for the group and he negotiated the terms of the inclusion in the group of New Zealand first and Australia later. The South Pacific Forum was thus formalised in Wellington in 1971. Ratu Mara later justified the inclusion of the two developed countries: “We were happy to be joined by Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) in the Forum…..Indeed, we wanted them for a special reason for part of the ambitious plan of the Forum..…was no less than to alter the whole balance of the terms of trade.”

Fiji’s good record persisted over the years when the Forum needed to negotiate and resolve intractable global issues like The Law of the Sea and nuclear testing. Fast forward to 2000, under the Biketawa Declaration, specifically under RAMSI, where Fiji’s contribution of security personnel, along with those from Australia, New Zealand and other PICs assisted Solomon Islands in its hour of need, is to be commended.

But the period starting in December 2006 marked Fiji’s decline in favour in terms of Pacific regionalism. The same Biketawa Declaration was invoked to suspend Fiji in 2009 following the coup of 2006 and failure to conduct general elections as first indicated.  Fiji’s suspension was lifted in October 2014 after the general elections. But the controversies surrounding Fiji persisted. This was due to Prime Minister Bainimarama’s intention to find ways to exclude Australia and New Zealand from the Forum’s membership.

This intention, however, waned somewhat with the execution of the provisions of Australia’s ‘Step-Up’ and New Zealand’s ‘Pacific Re-set’ that strengthened regional aid packages for the PICs. PM Bainimarama’s mood was upbeat on the way to the Tuvalu Forum Leaders’ meeting last year. When asked about his relationship with Australia and New Zealand, he said that the Forum was reaching a new stage in its development with both. His mood, however, reverted to being critical of the two developed country members after the divisive shenanigans of Funafuti instigated by Australia as perceived by the PICs Leaders.

However, all that seems to be water under the bridge. PM Bainimarama opened Fiji’s national consultation on the 2050 Strategy last August. He was upbeat. He was inspirational. He spoke of Forum Leaders as the captains - the ones who must make the day-to-day decisions that lead us to our destination. Our destination “is to achieve the future we know is right and know is possible.”

The future of course, and the path to get there, will be encapsulated in the 2050 Strategy. In Fiji’s eyes, “the Strategy will be at the heart of our ambition.” Referring to Australia’s effort to ensure equitable access to a vaccine to the coronavirus in the Pacific, PM Bainimarama said: “If we harness that spirit of regional collective action, we have good reason to hold faith in our progress for the next 30 years.”

As host to next year’s Forum Leaders’ meeting, Fiji now plays a critical role in determining and advancing Pacific regionalism to the unprecedented heights to which we all aspire. At the officials’ level, Fiji provides managerial and critical inputs in the formulation of the 2050 Strategy. At the Leaders’ level, Fiji starts a three-year stint as a member of the Troika. During one third of that period, Fiji will assume the chair.

The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, to guide Fiji forward, is likely to be innovative and far-reaching, judging from the evocative elements of the Tuvalu Communique, and from the assessment and outcomes of planning to date. The Communique speaks of course of the new 2050 vision, the particularisation rendered to the ‘vision of PICs only that recognized the Blue Pacific Continent’, the link to the SAMOA Pathway and the Boe Declaration.

In the context of the experiences, fortunes and the unfolding of events of Pacific regionalism since 1971, there are likely to be critical lessons that could be incorporated into the strategy. A number of lessons stand out prominently and they, in my book, will need to be formulated with hindsight to enable curative measures to be transformative. But transformative in a positive and realistic sense. PICs need to make a quantum leap to make a difference. Pacific regionalism needs to be more meaningful through the effective delivery of the expectations of its members, especially those of the PICs.

For 49 years, PICs have remained vulnerable. Their inter-dependencies remain weak. Their economies’ dependence on aid still remains as one of the highest in the world, on a per capita basis. This needs to be turned around.

On top of that, their trade is weak. Industrialisation in regional hubs or in clusters remains a dream. Transformative ideas like value adding products for specific high-value niche markets have yet to take the world markets by storm.  In short, regional economic integration, after 49 years, is still rudimentary. Essentially, re-doing the basics of regionalism properly is a lesson that can be drawn from our 49 years of collective efforts.

Climate change is an added threat. Post-COVID-19 measures will complicate matters and will require greater resilience, commitment and grit.

The above tasks await Fiji. Fiji has the wherewithal to excel. Regional solidarity is the key.

The author is a former Fijian Ambassador and Foreign Minister and runs his own consultancy company in Suva, Fiji.

Apisai Tora, a scion of the old guard of Fiji’s politicians, who dominated Fiji’s political stage for almost five decades, passed away on August 6.

Variously described as a political maverick, a chameleon and a nationalist, Apisai Vuniyayawa Tora first entered the public domain in 1959 as a 25-year-old veteran of the Malayan campaign.

Together with fellow unionists, they organised the oil strikes of 1959 which led to widespread rioting under British rule. To some observers, this period in Fiji’s history symbolised a kind of Fijian Spring and the nascent stirrings of Fijian political consciousness.

Around the world, other political movements and voices were also rising to assert their rights and challenge European colonial and corporate domination.

In Algeria, the war for independence continued to rage. In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser triggered a crisis when he announced plans to nationalise the Suez Canal. And in racially segregated America, Martin Luther King was about to take up the leadership mantle for the Civil Rights movement.

Traditionally from Sabeto in Fiji’s west, Tora admired the way Egypt’s Nasser wrested the Suez Canal from British/French corporate hands, prompting him to pen a letter to Time Magazine. In it, he described Fiji as “a white man’s paradise and a black man’s hell”.

Not expecting it to get published, he was delightfully surprised when it was.

The letter, however, underscored the anger brewing within, over the inherent injustices in the class and racial divide. It was a divide that rewarded those born into privilege and emasculated those with the misfortune to be born poor, black or both.

In the early years of Tora’s public life, it was this anger that fuelled and drove him into fearless action, often triggering incidents that landed him in trouble. He didn’t think too kindly of a number of prominent chiefs, believing they lacked intellectual leadership and questioned what he perceived to be their lack of accountability to the iTaukei.

Similar views were held of some of the white colonial masters.

There is a well-known story of a time in the 1950s, when he was working for the District Officer [DO] in Ba in Fiji’s West, and serving behind a counter. In front, was a long queue of people patiently waiting to have their documents processed. In the middle of this scene, a senior white official from the Colonial Sugar Refining Company walked into the room, bypassed the queue, pushed his way through to the front counter and demanded to be served.

Tora looked him directly in the eye and told him to take his place in the queue –just like everybody else.

The official was astonished that a mere native had just ordered him to wait in the queue. When he refused to budge, Tora stood firm.

The official complained to the DO – Ratu Kamisese Mara, (Fiji’s first post-colonial Prime Minister). What happened after that is unclear.

But as one academic recently shared with this scribe, Mara himself was known to have harboured his own resentments against colonialism and might have even been smiling quietly at the viavialevu attitude of the underling in his command.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Tora looked up to figures like Nasser, Fidel Castro and the great Martin Luther King for inspiration. He could relate to their struggles for equality and justice. I remember him being quite upset the day King was assassinated.

A spark of the wilful spirit within was evident from early on.

At Fiji’s elite Queen Victoria School [QVS], there was a story about Tora that had evolved into legend by the time Savenaca Siwatibau (former Reserve Bank Governor of Fiji) arrived at QVS in the sixties.

During a family visit to my home in Melbourne, Siwatibau regaled me on the following tale. Tora was rostered on dining room/kitchen duties one day. His supervisor was the formidable martinet, Semesa Sikivou – later Fiji’s Ambassador to the UN. Master Sikivou issued strict instructions – the tables and chairs had to be cleaned and put in place by the end of the day.

Instead of attending to his duties, Tora picked up a bucket and fishing rod and headed for a nearby river.

He did not return until long after dark – bucket brimming with fish. Sikivou, who had been waiting for him, pounced on the boy, with a furious reprimand: “Did I not tell you, you were to finish your job by the end of the day?”

To which the boy replied firmly: “Sir, you said the end of the day and it’s not the end of the day. The day ends at midnight and I still have a few hours left.”

Not surprisingly, Sikivou wasn’t exactly enamoured with the boy’s logic and roundly sent him off to detention.

In the general election of 1963, Tora ran as the youngest candidate against one of Fiji’s Paramount Chiefs, Ratu Penaia Ganilau, later to become Governor-General and Fiji’s first post-coup President. Ganilau ended up defeating him by six thousand-plus votes.

Tora had laboured long and hard during the campaign period. He would walk on foot from village to village in the western part of Fiji where, in a number of villages, he was violently ejected. As he recalled in a conversation I had with him, some villagers literally stoned him, infuriated over his audacity in challenging a Paramount Chief.

The average iTaukei at that time believed and, I would suggest, even now to a degree, still subscribe to the notion of the divine right, or Mana, of the Chiefs to rule.

In her book, Caste – the Lies that Divide Us, Isabel Wilkerson writes that caste “embeds into our bones an unconscious ranking” of human beings and lays down the “rules, expectations” of where one fits in society’s ladder.

When that status quo is challenged, it can be deeply disturbing – even for the subordinate class at the bottom rung of the ladder. Wilkerson writes, it is not uncommon for this class to defend the same hierarchy that oppresses them.

Apisai Tora was a man who elicited only two kinds of emotional responses from people. They either reviled him with a murderous passion or they admired him with nauseating sycophancy. There was no middle ground.

This effect on fellow human beings was, by equal measure, a reflection of an unyielding application to everything in life and a brutally forthright approach which did not endear him to Fijian sensitivities.

It would be too simplistic to throw labels such as ‘racist’ at him for here was a creature of contradictions – an intriguing paradox that defied a templated stereotype.

An iTaukei activist, custodian of a traditional status within his Vanua (traditional area) and, for good measure, a Muslim convert, he numbered among his closest friends and associates a diverse and varied group. 

Former Leader of the Indo-Fijian-dominated National Federation Party and Lawyer, Siddiq Koya, was a trusted mentor and lifelong family friend.

Following Koya’s passing in 1993, the bonds of friendship continued with Koya’s children — Shainaz, Faizal and Faiyaz – and widow, Amina, who he would take the time to visit with bundles of dalo and render what assistance was needed.

The coup

In his eulogy at Tora’s funeral on August 14, Faizal Koya took Tora’s critics to task, rebuking their familiar refrain that Tora was a racist.

The Indo-Fijian communities, he said, particularly in the Fiji’s West where Tora hailed from, embraced him as a generous individual – possibly a fellow traveller in the struggle for equality.

To his detractors however, Tora’s principal role in the iTaukei Movement and the coup of 1987, puts paid to any such redemptive notion.

But as retired ANU [Australian National University] academic Professor Brij Lal, reminds us, to put things in perspective, the coup was not the work of any one individual.

There is little doubt the grassroots base behind the coup was bolstered by the silent blessing, and even the active participation, of the autocrats at the very top of their hierarchy. 

The above notwithstanding, Tora's role in the '87 coup and his subsequent volte-face in embracing multiracialism, continues to overshadow any discourse on his legacy. 

In a similar vein, any narrative on Fijian politics is forever sullied by a coup culture that robbed a nation of its potential at independence, relegating it to a tinpot republic status.

Engaging with the iTaukei

When it came to Tora’s engaging with the iTaukei, it was primarily through the prism of the Vanua at which time, the traditional hat was donned along with its customary expectations and responsibilities.

Tora was never under any illusion about what he viewed as the communities' challenges.

As a landowner in the Sabeto sugarcane belt, he employed sugarcane workers to harvest and cut the cane for him. This was backbreaking work that began before dawn and continued through the blazing heat of the day to sundown.

He once told me that when he hired Indo-Fijian workers and instructed them to meet  him at his home at 5 o’clock in the morning, they arrived several minutes before the appointed hour. And for as long as they were employed, they would continue to do so on a consistent basis.

To his mind, it spoke volumes about their reliability, their discipline and their commitment to the task at hand.

As for the iTaukei workers, he said, some would turn up late and some wouldn’t turn up at all.

iTaukei he felt, needed to cultivate the patience of the Indo-Fijians, who had the capacity to save their hard-earned cash, and persevere through long periods of time towards an uncertain future.

As a general rule, the iTaukei live in the present, and when you are preoccupied with the present, there will be little incentive to invest in a future that you can neither see nor imagine.

Indo-Fijians, by contrast, live for the future. They can defer immediate gratification and sacrifice the present for an imagined future brimming with opportunities and the promise of a more prosperous life. It is this imagining and goal setting which motivates their work ethic and drives their commitment to bettering their lot in life.

Historically, it is made even more urgent by their perceived status as outsiders and the festering sense of insecurity that stems from it.   

This has been one of the essential differences sitting at the core of the iTaukei -Indo-Fijian cultural divide – and one which Tora would have been acutely conscious of.

That said, he was painfully aware of the cultural obligations – or kerekere to which Fijians seem perpetually yoked. The Vanua’s expectations for its constituents to contribute cash in the never-ending cycle of human events – from births, deaths and weddings – is the enduring narrative of the iTaukei.

Tora believed this cultural obligation effectively precluded the iTaukei from full economic participation.

Later Life

Throughout the 1990s, Tora ran unsuccessfully in a number of elections, signalling what political commentator Bimal Chaudhry, so fittingly describes as “the beginning of his fate as a star outside the galaxy – out of Parliament yet pulling the strings”.

Tora did indeed morph into a star out of the galaxy but his status in the Vanua ensured he had a full schedule and a constant stream of human traffic that approached him for traditional advice, referrals, money to pay for school fees, transport costs, tabuas for a reguregu or mats for a wedding. Other times, the people he had helped would return their gratitude with gifts of food – the fruits of their labour – cooked yabbies packed in cardboard boxes, fish, taro and  sumptuous other delights.

In later life, Tora assumed a status as a kind of go-to guru as politicians and activists sought his advice.

I was always touched by the villagers who, over the years, trekked long distances from remote areas of Viti Levu to see Tora and unburden their troubles on him.

I remember distinctly one afternoon back in 1979, when a young Fijian boy had travelled a fair distance from his home to deliver a handwritten note to him in his home in Natalau Village.

It was a letter from his grandmother telling the old man that she had run out of food and money and had nothing left to feed her numerous grandchildren. Could he help her out?

None of us had ever met this woman.

Straight away, Momo instructed that we fill up the family car with bundles of dalo, an entire sack of rice, sugar, and sundry other grocery items.

And off we went in the car with the young boy navigating, to some unknown destination.

It seemed like the trek into a separate universe, the tarsealed road having long disappeared behind us as the car spluttered through rough terrain.

Finally we saw the house. A rundown shack that was barely standing.

When the grandmother saw us, she almost fell to her knees as she approached Momo, and thanked him over and over for this act of kindness. I lost count of the number of children who surrounded us that day but she was their sole caregiver.

This episode remains fresh in my mind as if it took place yesterday. It warms me to think that the old man spoke her language. He knew completely the troubles of her heart. He felt her pain and suffering – because he too had been there.

Tora is survived by 10 children, several grandchildren and great grandchildren.

May the old Lionheart rest in eternal love and peace.

This article was updated on 31/8 at the request of the author.

 

Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Bob Loughman prompted the congregation of Malasitapu Presbyterian Church in the suburbs of Port Vila to clap with joy recently when his new government’s cabinet was commissioned by the Vanuatu Christian Council (VCC).

The applause erupted when the PM advised the VCC Chairman, Pastor Alain Nafuki, to write to his Minister of Finance and Economic Management, Johnny Koanapo, to request that churches also be allowed to access the Government’s stimulus package,  offered to certain companies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Replying to the sermon delivered by the VCC Chairman—who emphasised unity, restoration and success—the Prime Minister reminded his audience of the inseparable relationship between Custom and Christianity, as stipulated by the Preamble of Vanuatu’s Constitution.

Prime Minister Loughman said the Government is looking at how to strengthen its partnership with the Chiefs and Churches to take Vanuatu to the next level.

The VCC Chairman said God has blessed the human race with the power of reason, which allowed the former Presbyterian Church of the then-New Hebrides (in the 1970s) to relieve five pastors from their pastoral duties to join founding Father Walter Lini, in standing up for what was right for the country in fighting for political freedom from colonial rule.

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Some 400 people have arrived on Vanuabalavu – a remote island on Fiji’s eastern sea borders – as they prepare to bury one of their favourite sons who became the country’s sixth prime minister.

They are the first of many people that Mavana village expects to host for Laisenia Qarase’s funeral, planned for tomorrow (Wed).

A delegation from the Fiji Government is expected to arrive later today aboard the government boat, the Veivueti.

Mourners underwent body temperature screening when they boarded last night, as Fiji’s medical officials continued their efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The body of Qarase will be flown in by chartered plane tomorrow, and driven to Mavana by road for a church service before burial. He will be accompanied by his widow, Leba Qarase and close family members.

Qarase was chief of Mavana, bestowed with the traditional Tui Kobuca title.

 

 

He rose to national prominence in 2000, when he was handpicked by then-military Commander Frank Bainimarama to head an interim government after the elected government of Mahendra Chaudhry was ousted in a coup in May of that year.

Qarase went on to contest and win the general elections of 2001 and  2006, before he was ousted by Bainimarama in a coup on 5 December, 2006. Prosecuted for a corruption- related offence when he was on the board of Fijian Holdings 16 years earlier, Qarase was jailed for a year in 2012.

Ironically, Qarase was instrumental in the creation of Fijian Holdings as the main investment vehicle for Fiji’s indigenous community.

Following his release, and barred from contesting the 2014 elections, the 79-year old banker plunged himself into the affairs of his home island, successfully uniting what used to be two divisive districts into forming one united investment company.

Vanuabalavu Vision Limited was registered in 2018, and now has a paid up capital of $3.5 million and an asset portfolio valued at $10m.

Qarase died Tuesday last at a private hospital in Suva after suffering from a mild stroke.

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