Saturday, September 2, 2006

Rabuka says "There's no other way"


Sunday, September 03, 2006

EVER since the new government came into being, it has been plagued by the internal Fiji Labour Party conflict between Mahendra Chaudhry and his Cabinet nominees (except for Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi).

It is very important for us to understand what this internal party matter means to the nation. Any disruption to the multi-party Cabinet that is in place now means that this great opportunity of the two races working in concert to address some of the vital issues for national growth will come to naught.

Let us look at how we got to be where we are now. Politics in Fiji is racially bi-polar but not because of race or religion.

The bi-polarity of our national politics is the product of social factors that have emanated from the inward migration of non-indigenous people, the colonisation of these islands, western influence in the colonial era, and the nature of our economy which is heavily dependent on overseas sources and markets. Let me highlight a few of these factors:

Land ownership and tenure

At Cession, 17 per cent of all land in Fiji had been alienated by sale to non-indigenous freeholders.

q 83 per cent of the land was registered as native land;

q With registered and recognised tribal ownership;

q Acknowledged as having belonged to tribes that were extinct by the time of registration, or

q Not specifically claimed by native landowners.

Land under the last two categories was placed under the Crown as ultumus haeres.

These were commonly known as Crown Schedule A and Crown Schedule B land.

Fiji politics is affected by the ownership and availability of land. The landowners are mostly the indigenous Fijians who believe they are not getting an equitable return for the use of their land by tenant farmers and other users.

Their view of "inequitable" return may not be totally factual, as other unrelated factors create this perception.

The land user may, by good husbandry and prudent investment, build a very good life for his family on his leased land and his income and general standard of living perceived by the landowner much better than his share of the 6 per cent of Unimproved Capital Value that the tenant pays as rent to NLTB.

The land rent paid by tenants is reduced by 15 per cent taken by NLTB as poundage to help pay for their administering the native land, while the remaining 85 per cent goes to the land-owning unit to be divided according to the formula, not only to the landowners but also to their chiefs.

Population distribution

Of the 69 per cent of the population still living in the rural areas, a very large majority is indigenous Fijian who have remained in their tribal villages and subsistence agriculture areas of the pre-immigrant races era.

The immigrant races initially settled around trade areas for group security and convenience and these areas have grown to be the main commercial centres of modern Fiji.

Because of the commercial nature and the revenue generating capabilities of these centres, the development of infrastructure was speedy and returns assuring. Population concentration also ensured better social development of schools, medical facilities and government administration.

When the indentured labourers arrived, it was a case of objectivised immigration.

All the immigrants were settled in the sugar industry areas they were indentured to work for. They immediately set up their Indian socio-cultural infrastructure like temples, crematoriums and rudimentary schools for education and culture preservation.

These became permanent features once the indenture period ended and the immigrants stayed of their own free will on renewed contracts.

By that time, free settlers had also come to set up businesses and take advantage of the specific needs of the growing Indian population.

The socio-cultural infrastructure became more enhanced when they were subsequently developed in co-operative ventures with religious and government organisations.

Meanwhile, the indigenous Fijians continued to live in their villages under the codified native administrative system of districts, and provinces as government administered indigenous societies.

These were placed under the central administration's administrative districts under District Officers, and administrative divisions under Divisional Commissioners.

While these administrative arrangements were made to decentralise administrative functions and localise decision making to suit the locality, district or division, it resulted in the wide but very thin spread of the national budget to the rural areas compared to focussed and economically allocated portions given for the urban and demographically concentrated areas inhabited mostly by immigrant races.

One of the results of the rural/urban polarity in population and the main racial composition of the two major races has been the apparent imbalance in the development and provision of good facilities in schools.

The urban schools get more in the per-capita allocation because of their bigger rolls.

All the money they get goes to school buildings, the development of library and laboratory facilities and none on boarding or staff accommodation because all students and teachers travel from home.

On a per-capita grant basis, the rural schools would get less because of their smaller rolls and the amount they get would be further dissipated because it will also be used to fund student and staff accommodation leaving a negligible amount for the libraries and laboratories, vital to ensure quality passes in external examinations.

Because of the better facilities available in urban schools, their results tend to be better ensuring better scholarship opportunities for their students enhancing their chances of better academic results, and thus the professions tend to be heavily populated by urbanites/non-indigenes.

This has produced the misconception of a disparity in academic abilities between the Fijians and the other races favouring the latter.

Control of industry

As a feature of developing countries, the public service and public enterprises are the main providers of employment. Fortunately for Fiji, this employment opportunity has absorbed many indigenous workers, who may not have the same fortunes in the private sector where most employers are the immigrant races and multi or trans-national enterprises.

Although many senior executives are indigenous Fijians, most of them are the products of affirmative action in the civil service and private sector scholarship awards.

Some have also benefitted from the mass migration of non-indigenous skilled and professional workers because of the uncertainties created by indigenous-driven nationalism in our national politics.

Fijian administration institutions such as the Native Land Trust Board and the Ministry of Fijian Affairs are almost totally staffed by Fijians and Rotumans. While the police provide employment on a 50/50 basis to indigenous and non-indigenous members, indigenous service personnel staff the military to more than 90 per cent of their establishment.

While neutralising the effect of the distribution of the population into rural and urban will soften the perceived disparity in employment opportunities, an increase in the indigenous investments will afford more employment opportunities for indigenous Fijians in Fijian controlled enterprise.

Communalism vs individualism.

The colonial hangover of protecting the indigenous society by codifying its communal life and culture has been a double-edged factor of this nation's development.

While it has successfully protected the villages and other traditional communities from the ravages of immigrant intrusion, it has also prevented successful individual enterprise in a village or tribal setting.

In the mid-1990s the government, understanding the pressures of traditional, religious and family obligations on the indigenous people, decided that the cost of administration in the provinces that used to be funded by provincial levies, was to be borne by the Government. Any levy charged by the provinces onto the members was then to be used purely for provincial commercial development.

Much of the village development has been shouldered by the members of the villages through village fund raising using both the village and urban communities from these villages.

Such schemes as piped water, electrification, water-borne toilets, seawalls, community halls and churches tax the villagers a lot every year. The circulation of the "opening" of the Methodist Church fundraising bazaars, like we witnessed recently in Nausori, has also become an added annual burden for the "volunteering" province.

For the urban dwellers, much of the infrastructure development is government funded and the users only pay rates and their usage bill. This is perceived as very unfair on the village dwellers who have to fund the installation of their infrastructure, and then maintain it through their own efforts or, at best, on a one third-two third cost sharing basis of initial costs with government.

In which case most have to stand in long queues because of the limited rural development (now Provincial Development) budget from whence the government's two-third contribution would come.

In view of the foregoing, I reiterate that racial and religious undertones in Fiji's political problems are results of some of the social factors, and not a colour and creed problem.

Any attempts to bridge the resultant gaps that remain like festering wounds in our nation must include attempts to address the factors I have discussed as follows:

1. Land

The solution to the land-based jealousies must be based on a satisfactory solution to the perceived disparities in the wealth equity accruing out of land and its ownership and tenure system, and a tenure that is secure not only in terms of law but long enough to allow for generational planning for both the tenant and landowning unit.

2. Rural/Urban Distribution

In trying to address the disparities that result from the urban/rural distribution of the population, government must address the accessibility of socio-economic infrastructure.

Such measures to ensure equal accessibility to equal standard of education, health facilities and commercial opportunities are essential in alleviating the disparities real or perceived.

3. Control of Industry

Government must strive to neutralise the adverse effect of having industry control in one community, by enhancing the participation of the non-participating segment, who are the indigenous people.

4. Communalism verses Individualism

Government must devise policies that will, while enhancing village development, be beneficial to village development financiers.

Such programs as tax incentives for village development, similar to those offered to South Pacific Games sponsors and major sports sponsors will have all-round benefit to all the participants.

I have chosen to highlight our national situation to illustrate our difficulties which are not peculiar to Fiji but common in pluralistic societies. Fiji is a rich pluralistic society because of the diverse ethnicity and cultures now co-existing here.

We have been enriched by the various entities, with the diverse cultural, religious and business acumen each has brought into the nation, and the distinct and rich group cultures of the two major groups now living together, but not totally comfortably as one nation.

Fiji is a much better nation because of pluralism.

Some of our Pacific neighbours apart from Australia and New Zealand are mostly homogeneous with their own indigenous people.

They feel that the volatile situation we have is the result of having two major races that are almost equal in numbers.

The Fijian and Indian races are two noble races that have very strong and positive culture characters.

Each has a very distinct history of achievements that have developed and evolved into contemporary values of today.

Our difference in religious beliefs has caused a lot of misunderstandings that have given rise to some unfortunate incidents of religious intolerance leading to sacrilege.

Our economy is much more vibrant than our neighbours' despite the political stability they claim to enjoy more of than us. And, because our economy is stronger, our infrastructure, facilities and amenities are better, thanks to our pluralistic composition.

While we may be seen to have a race-related instability, our casualties in the political upheavals of 1987 and 2000 combined is nowhere near the casualties recorded in the intra-ethnic struggles of our Melanesian neighbours of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and the Vanuatu Independence struggle.

The military coups of 1987 and the civilian coup attempt of 2000 are testimonies to our failure as a nation to take advantage of the strong characters of our ethnicity and mould them together to create a strong nation of one people the product of many peoples' strengths giving rise to a unified people benefitting from divergent backgrounds accepting a common position and vision for the future.

There are a lot of obstacles still hindering our progress as a nation. With these obstacles in place, we cannot realise our full potential.

We deserve better than what we now have, and the only way to aspire to better things for us as a nation is to work together towards that goal.

Because both races see each other with tinted glasses, it is imperative that we first establish a united front on which to tackle these obstacles.

Every single obstacle land, qoliqoli, poverty, crime, unemployment, HIV/AIDS, national morale reflected in below par performance in sports everything, needs to be addressed by our leaders standing on a united platform. That platform is the multi-party Cabinet, and multi-party government.

It has not been easy to divest ourselves of centuries-old views, pride and prejudices.

It has not been easy to erase negative falsehoods that produce inter-racial and inter-religious bigotry. It has not been easy to do right when right is perceived to be wrong. It has not been easy to do the right thing when your own can disown you as a traitor to the cause. It is not easy to do the right thing when you know that people have already prejudged you because of your past.

But if we are prepared to accept these challenges because of our conviction that we are doing what we believe is in the best interest of the people or the cause we promote, then, I say we go for it, or as is more familiar to Mr Chaudhry, "Press on regardless".

All must ensure the multi-party Cabinet survives the internal FLP struggle.

There is no other way.

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