On Tuesday the 21st of January 2014 Josiah Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama announced that on February the 28th he would resign as leader of the Fijian Armed forces so that he could contest the 2014 election as a candidate for Prime Minister. On Friday the 19th of January I had returned from a two week holiday in Fiji, and weirdly I knew most of the details of Commodore Bainimarama’s announcement before I left Nadi Airport. In fact I already knew such a surprising degree of detail that I was initially confused that it was new news.
I knew because the people of Fiji seemed to know, en-mass, well before it was announced. They were also excited; not because a dictatorship was coming to an end, but because they were very happy that they would finally get to show their confidence in the man that had for so long ruled Fiji without a proper election.
At this point I probably need to make a few things clear; I am not a regime apologist, I am a politically aware centrist New Zealander, before this trip I knew about as much about Fijian politics as any other New Zealander does from the news, I have a couple of Fijian Friends, we have never talked about their home, and I had never been to Fiji before my family trip at the beginning of January this year. In fact the last I had seen about Fiji was the horrific video David Farrar posted last year showing a prisoner being tortured by “police” officers of the incumbent government. On political topics I often agree with David, I certainly agree that a solid democracy with a good electoral process is the corner stone of developed society. I thought the coup was wrong, and the ends never justify the means. That is why I am surprised, so much so that I felt the need to write this, and on top I am going to try and tell you why I have changed my mind and that Fiji may actually be one of those rare examples of an exception proving a rule.
While I was in Fiji I met and had deep honest conversations with people from all walks of life, the stories started with me overhearing and people volunteering information, eventually I became so drawn in that I was actively looking for opinions. I’d like to think that I am a disarmingly genial chap, someone who people enjoy talking to and someone who attracts no ulterior reason’s to be disingenuous with. So with that in mind I don’t believe I got a safe and couched view, I also work in high end sales, so I know when people are being dishonest and “selling” to me, this never happened. Well almost never, I don’t count porters in Denerau, they nod and smile to anything you say as long as you’re out of the pool by 7pm and buying enough souvenirs and cocktails.
Throughout my travels I met a senior manager from a large Fijian owned company and his wife who is a teacher, they both live in Suva. A kiwi property developer who had lived and owned properties in outlying Fijian provinces for 20 years (currently in the far north). Village elders (got to love those kava ceremonies), from Navua to Korovou and lots of taxi drivers both Fijian and Fijian Indian. A Canadian man and his wife who had been in Fiji since 1997 who own a successful tourism business employing many locals. A just arrived American couple managing a small dive resort, and many more including villagers from both rich and poor villages, expats, and tourists like me spending their own money in a country they felt very comfortable in.
A village elder tells me about traditional weaving
The message was the same, consistent, and delivered with vigour; the current government has done a great job, everyone expected the Commodore to step down and run for Prime Minister, and everyone intended to vote for him. It was hard to argue looking around, education has been reformed and well-funded… from a system hardly anyone could afford to one that looks much like New Zealand’s, complete with a new law compelling parents to send children to school. Roads look great, and the bustle of road development is everywhere, bridges are being built and other infrastructure is being improved, the police are out in force slowing down the traffic and checking seatbelts. Health and hospitals are performing 10 times better than ever before, and new hospitals and clinics are being built everywhere. Tourism is rising again, confidence in travel to the region is returning.
A very courteous sign warns that your speed will be checked soon. Road-spikes impress that they are serious.
A man walks his horses on the very nice Kings Road over the top of Viti Levu through sugar cane country.
The really surprising thing was the anti-corruption and equality messaging, it was everywhere, from bus stops to bill boards; several people said to me that they simply did not realise how bad the racism and corruption was until attention was being called to it. In fact the surprising thing was how welcome it really was. One Fijian Indian taxi driver actually said to me, “Voreqe showed me I was a racist, and he also showed me a way to be different”. Another, a villager said to me “I used to think it was right that my Chief got gifts to make decisions for people, even though my family never saw anything from it”.
A roadside bus stop encourages locals to call a toll free number to report corruption
Bainimarama is always painted by his opponents as a man who wanted control, a man who would do anything for power, and a man that has constantly meddled in Fijian politics (since he was able from 1999). The funny thing is I sort of agree with them, and he probably would too. I remember a line that Commodore Bainimarama used a while ago; it went something like “We cannot hold elections because the country will elect the old prime minister”. At the time I thought how arrogant and dictatorial. Retrospectively, and after seeing the bustling economic proof of his actions, I have come to see him slightly differently; yes he wanted and took control, but he has the air of a disappointed man with a heavy heart, I think he hoped that Fiji could find another way, yes he put Laisenia Qarase in power, and yes Qarase turned out to be quite a native Fijian nationalist, perhaps to begin with maybe Bainimarama thought the New Zealand apologise, respect, and repay (the indigenous) model could work for the Fijian Indian’s. But at some point it seems he decided it wouldn’t, Fiji simply has too many other dominant points on its political compass, namely the Council of Chiefs and the Methodist Church, on top of this the Fijian Indian’s were not the dominant all controlling invading force that had something to apologise for. Most of them were in Fiji because of external forces, brought as slaves to work fields, those forces have largely been dealt with by Fiji’s move to a republic.
I don’t know this for certain; I did not go before the coup, but I suspect that Fiji was effectively Feudal before the recent changes, and yet we are judging the change by modern standards applied to the creation of a 21st century country. Realistically though the changes that the last coup brought could be viewed as little different to the American Revolution, or so many others that took place before and after. No, this is not how you create a country these days, but viewed through a different lens perhaps it could be seen quite differently, perhaps even justifiably.
Bad things do happen occasionally, we saw that with the video I spoke of earlier, but bad things happen in New Zealand too, ask any European camper traveling Aotearoa with a touch more trepidation for those quite country nights than we would want them to have. The kiwi’s, American’s, and Canadians I spoke to who have invested in Fiji are certainly staying, they are excited by the opportunity presented by an economy clearly poised for growth, every foreign ex-pat I spoke to said that without the current government they would have left years ago, some were considering it prior to 2006. I bet the racially motivated nationalists in Fiji hate me saying that.
Either way, I have seen with my own eyes and more than 1000km of travel that Fiji is improving, and I cannot deny that the people at all ends approve of the changes. I would put money that Voreqe Bainimarama will be elected with a good margin, and I will also bet that if he wants a second term he will get it. Not because he will control the military, rig the election, and oppress his opponents. But because he will literally do the exact opposite at the same time as running the best government he can muster with the people elected by the country he loves more than anything else. Don’t forget he is a Fijian Native Methodist, for him to push equality ahead of his personal upbringing and risk the hatred of all he cares about he must have been completely determined that this was the only way.
As for me, I am already planning my next trip to Fiji at the end of this year, it will be twice as long as the last one, and my wife, my two children and I will see twice as much of the country that welcomed us in and told a fascinating story of positive change through revolutionary glasses. Perhaps then, post-election I will get to see if sometimes the end can indeed justify the means.