For those with long memories, the declaration in Wellington yesterday by the Prime Minister of Fiji that economic development in Pacific Island states depended on democracy might have seemed, at best, ironic.
The PM is, after all, Major General the Honourable Sitiveni Rabuka CF, OBE, MSD and leader of two successful military coups in 1987.
Though he was elected in what was regarded by observers as fair elections in December last year, he is now Prime Minister in a Parliament from which the Opposition is currently suspended.
That wasn’t his work; the party of former Prime Minister (and also a coup leader) Frank Bainimarama was suspended by the Speaker because it had failed to file any audited accounts.
Nevertheless, Rabuka, on a formal state visit to Wellington, yesterday conceded that he has his critics in Fiji when asked what he could do to make Fiji more cohesive.
“I can only do as much as I am able to do, and I do my best,” he said.
“It is up to those domestic or local critics we have who are also naysayers in local politics who still do not trust me.“
That Rabuka was accorded full military honours on the forecourt of Parliament yesterday, along with a 19-gun salute, said a lot about how New Zealand’s relationship with him has changed since 1987.
Then New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange proposed having the SAS make an armed intervention into the country to assist in the evacuation of New Zealanders there caught in the aftermath of Rabuka’s coups.
Ultimately Lange settled for imposing sanctions on Fiji. Relations between the two countries remained chilly for the next two decades.
The most recent coup in 2006 was led by Rear Admiral Frank Bainimarama and eventually led to the expulsion of the New Zealand High Commissioner in 2008.
In 2014 National’s Foreign Minister Murray McCully signalled a thaw in the relationship with a grant of $1.5 million to help restore Parliamentary elections.
Sicne then New Zealand has been careful to prioritise demcoracy strengthening activities in its aid including close to NZ$4 million allocated to support Fiji’s elections process and strengthening of Parliamentary institutions.
“The programme priorities are jointly agreed. In addition to support under the bilateral programme which includes support for Fiji’s elections and strengthening parliament, we have a number of regional support programmes also targeted towards strengthening democratic institutions from which Fiji benefits,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told POLITIK yesterday..
Bainimarama held elections in 2014 and 2018 (which he won) and again in 2022, which he lost to Rabuka.
So now Rabuka is portraying himself as Fiji’s leading democrat.
“Countries in the global economy like ours depend on a stable democracy. If we are to achieve economic growth, we have to maintain that,” he said.
“We thank the New Zealand Government for its support in our general elections.
“Our Coalition government is steadfast in our commitment to protect our democracy.”
Rabuka cited recent IMF and World Bank figures showing that the Fiji economy was growing again after Covid and seemed confident that it would continue.
“It’s up to us to keep our noses clean and keep our boat steady,” he said.
Asked what he meant by keeping “our noses clean”, he said: “Keeping our government steady, our democracy stable and our systems of governance respectable, our respect for law and order as a nation good and continue to be good citizens of the world.”
That trust has been restored between Fiji and New Zealand is evidenced by plans for a Military Assistance Agreement between the two countries to be set out by Defence Minister Andrew Little in Suva next week.
In the background is China, with which Fiji has had a Police Cooperation Agreement but which it is now ending. And on top of that is the ongoing geostrategic confrontation between China and the US in the Indo-Pacific.
Rabuka said the Military Assistance Agreement would allow Fiji forces the opportunity to engage with their New Zealand counterparts in different areas, including capacity building and upskilling, exposure to new technology, interoperability and technical support.
“I am a good example — or a bad example — of the military assistance program we had in the 60, 70s, and 80s, and I’m glad it is still in place,” he said in a wry reference to 1987.
But memories of coups have been overshadowed by the new strategic competition in the region.
“Our region has attracted a lot of attention lately,” he said.
Rabuka said the two high-level meetings he had in Papua New Guinea with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at the end of May were an indication of the importance those countries placed on the Pacific.
He said there was a focus on militarisation in the region when diplomacy and common neighbourly discussions failed.
“I’m sure we can continue our neighbourly cooperation and keep away discussions on other military interests in the region,” he said.
His biggest security concern was much closer to home; the large number of unemployed in Fiji.
But he had a concern about neighbourly cooperation when it came to a large number of Fijians being attracted to migrate to New Zealand to work.
Official figures show Fiji’s unemployment rate at around 5.2 per cent, but the former Reserve Bank Governor Savenca Narube claimed late last year that Fiji’s unemployment figures were sitting at 30 per cent at present and could double in four years.
“The numbers of unemployed people, we believe, are quite high, up to 30 per cent unemployed,” he said.
“And if you look at young people alone, this unemployment rate could climb up to 60 per cent in four years.
Despite this, there are concerns about the number of Fijians migrating to New Zealand because they are the skilled workers who could help grow the economy.
“We recognise that is increasing anxiety amongst some of our Pacific partners around the loss of talent and the loss of skilled workers that they need domestically,” said Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who joined Rabuka for the press conference.
“Unfortunately, the reason that we’re losing some that were already working in the hotel industry and in the health professions comes down to how much we can afford to pay,” Rabuka said.
Many of those who have left Fiji are Indo-Fjians, descendants of the “Girmitiyas” (indentured labourers) who the British imported in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Rabuka’s coups targeted them because of widespread fears among the Taukei (indigenous Fijians) that the Labour Government elected in 1987 would enable them to acquire Taukei land.
There was violence directed against them, and many were detained and beaten up by the Fiji military.
Last month Rabuka made a formal apology to the Indo-Fijian population in Fiji at a reconciliation service involving the heavily Fijian Methodist Church and the Indian community at an arena in Suva.
I admit our wrongdoings; you have every right to blame us for the difficulties you went through; we do not blame you for being angry with us or even hate us; you are justified in your anger and your hate,” he said.
“I stand here to confess and to ask for your forgiveness.”
Some journalists noted that he apologised shortly before meeting with Indian PM Modi in Papua New Guinea.
But yesterday, he insisted he would continue apologising if that was what was needed.
“A lot of my friends said you have apologised too many times; how long are you going to be apologising for?” he said.
“But the people either accept my apology or they don’t.”
What his apology really says is that the scars from 1987 are still visible in Fiji. What yesterday’s visit showed is that as far as New Zealand is concerned, they have begun to heal.