Rob Griffith/AP
Fiji's President Ratu Josefa Iloilo

Fiji Government Changeover Is Latest of Many

April 10, 2009 12:29 PM
by Anne Szustek
As of Friday, Pacific Island nation Fiji has a new leader, but no constitution or courts, after President Iloilo deposed a military government installed by the country’s fourth coup in 20 years.

Fiji’s Governmental Stability Again Hangs in the Balance

A day after a court ruled the military government installed by a 2006 coup was “illegal,” Fijian President Ratu Josefa Iloilo seized all governmental power of the island nation from Commodore Frank Bainimarama, annulled the national constitution and fired the nation’s judiciary, according to the BBC.

Bainimarama took over the country on Dec. 5, 2006, after clashing with Fiji’s newly elected government. In early 2007, Bainimarama installed a new military government without elections, naming himself prime minister.

The Voice of America, noting that critics of the military leader have dubbed him a “power-hungry dictator,” speculates that Bainimarama is unlikely to merely step aside, given his history and intransigence in instituting a timetable for an elected government. Iloilo announced that he will soon name a new interim government, including a new prime minister, and that he would remain in power until elections scheduled for September 2014. According to the now-annulled constitution, elections should have been held this year.

International observers are skeptical of the president’s motives. Iloilo is a known supporter of Bainimarama. BBC correspondent Phil Mercer says that the president’s move could be to root out corruption from the national government or to cement Bainimarama’s power under a new constitution. Rod Alley, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand, was quoted by the BBC as telling the AP that Iloilo’s statement “looks like a prepared statement by Bainimarama, delivered by Iloilo.”

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Background: Fiji’s recent history of political upheaval

Iloilo’s coup is but the latest of nearly four decades of internal turmoil in Fiji.

After achieving independence from the British in 1970, the country formed a democratic government. In 1987, it experienced two coups at the hands of Lieut. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka, who was dissatisfied by the Indian majority in the previous legislature. The second coup led to a new constitution in 1990 that was “designed to concentrate power in the hands of Fijians.” Rabuka became prime minister in 1992. After two years, he established the Constitutional Review Commission to recommend “changes to lessen the ethnic bias built into the constitution.” This shift was not welcomed by Fijian nationalists.

In 2000, a group of nationalists, led by George Speight, attempted another coup, with the intention of deposing Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first prime minister of Indian descent. The military put down the coup and took over the country’s government and then created an interim government, under which Bainimarama served as prime minister. Speight is serving a life term in prison for his role in the coup. Six years later, the military, led by Bainimarama, took over the country on Dec. 5, 2006.

The Pacific Islands Forum, a group of leaders of several Pacific Island nations, has been in talks for some time about how to handle Fiji’s political situation. At the group’s January summit, Australia and New Zealand were pushing to get the country kicked out of the Pacific Islands Forum. Bainimarama did not participate in the meeting.

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