Saturday, February 23, 2008

GCC Membership Change Makes No Sense


To Be or Not To Be - 23-Feb-2008

THE past week has been a political revelation and an awakening call for the general public, particularly the indigenous Fijian community.

Likewise, a major portion of the Indian community as well as the minority groupings are wary of the revelations because they are aware that their future prosperity in this country is pegged along with that of the indigenous Fijian basket. You may ask what the hell is this idiot talking about? Or who is this novice or neophyte to come and express an opinion on political issues affecting Fiji at the moment?

Yes, of course, you are quite right to question my qualification or my integrity to express a political opinion. I don’t mind being called names, being sworn at, vilified, or even castigated, but I reserve my rights under the Constitution to express an opinion freely without fear of being arrested or intimidated.

Anyway you don’t have to be Einstein to notice that all is not rosy in Fiji at the moment. All that glitters, no matter how shiny some of us polish it, is not gold. You would have to be blind Freddie not to see that what is on display in some quarters is, in fact, a shiny papyrus commonly known to some as ‘fools gold’.

Anyway, as pointed out earlier on, political manifestations this week have indeed been a revelation.

First, there was the infamous proposal by an Indian national expert on Sugar, Dr Krishnamurthi, recommending that all reserved native lands should be de-reserved, to rehabilitate the ailing sugar industry.

The idea is for these de-reserved parcels of 40 to 400 hectares of land to be leased to individual farmers or companies for commercial farming.

The Dr Krishnamurthi report was commissioned by the Minister of Finance Mahendra Chaudhry. The report is now with the Native Land Trust Board, as custodian of native lands, for consideration.

The outcry against the proposal, understandably, from landowners, has been overwhelming. The cry is: why should native landowners sacrifice their resources to enhance the economic sustainability of tenant farmers and the political convenience of their political masters?

In fact, judging by the wholesale condemnation of Dr Krishnamurthi and his report, I believe the good doctor should be thankful that we are now living in the new millennium and that indigenous landowners have embraced Christianity. Otherwise he could be lovo meat by now.

A few days after the Murti mayhem, another revelation came to light.

This time, interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama issued via government gazette dated February 13, the Fijian Affairs (Great Council of Chiefs) Regulations 2008.

First and foremost, through these newly published Regulations, Bainimarama revoked the Fijian Affairs (Great Council of Chiefs) Regulations 1993.

This move is unprecedented. Bainimarama’s action has been viewed with awe and trepidation. Why? Because there is a case challenging the legality of the original dissolution of the GCC which was undertaken in 2007 by the former interim Fijian Affairs Minister, Ratu Epeli Ganilau. That case is still pending in court.

I refer more specifically here to the challenge by sacked chairman of the GCC, Ratu Ovini Bokini, and former GCC members, the Ka Levu of Nadroga, Ratu Sakiusa Makutu, and Kubuna Chief, Ratu Epenisa Cakobau.

The case has been called several times in the High Court. It is now set for hearing in March.

One would have thought that it would be prudent on the part of the Interim Government to shelve their proposed restructure of the GCC until the High Court had made a ruling on the legality of the dissolution challenge.

It would certainly make sense, indicating mature and responsible leadership.

But lo and behold, the Interim Government has thought otherwise and gone ahead with the restructure process.

What can be deduced from such bold and deliberate action?

Well, what can we say except that the action seems to be but a true reflection of the mediocre legal, political and traditional advice emanating from his chief legal officers. Or perhaps from one officer in particular, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum? There appears to be no regard whatsoever with due process of the law.

From the point of view of a layman like me, it appears that Sayed-Kaiyum is advising Bainimarama according to what Bainimarama wants to hear and not what he should be told. Circumventing the law appears to be a daily exercise as long as it adheres to the whims of the coup makers. Is this action a case of contempt of court, I wonder?

Such is the desperation by the Interim Government to stamp its authority, that it is forced to deliberately turn a blind eye to the law in the mistaken belief that the unsuspecting Joe Blow down the road will not notice what it is up to. There is a Fijian expression which described this eloquently; me dina ga a dai- literally translated “let the lies be truths”.

What has happened to the universally accepted and recognised norm that aggrieved persons have a right to be heard in a court of law? I suppose if we are in a dictatorship there is no such accepted norm. Yet we are presumably still living in a constitutional and legally based democracy.

Anyway, the Fijian Affairs (Great Council of Chiefs) Regulations 2008 is a document whose provisions are shot through with confusion and muddled thinking of the kind that could lead to mayhem and chaos if adopted. Certain provisions overlap with each other while some even seem to contradict each other.

The GCC 2008 Regulations spell out in detail what class of chiefs are eligible for membership, how members can be disqualified, its functions and duties, how often the GCC should meet and its Secretariat.

Reading through its provisions, I cannot help but believe that the Interim Government is “obsessed” with dismantling the age-old Fijian system of government, which, for over a century, has been the pillar of the indigenous Fijian society. The whole interim Cabinet appears to be infatuated and preoccupied with this obsession.

They are passionate and in many ways fanatical about “clipping the wings” of Fijian leadership. If they are allowed to carry on unchecked, the Fijian bird of paradise will soon fall to the ground in a splatter, unable to soar high into the sky as all its feathers will have been systematically and unceremoniously plucked off by these fixated political explorers.

The new-look GCC will have 45 members comprising 3 chiefs from each of the 14 provinces and 3 chiefs from Rotuma. And there shall be 6 co-opted members. The 45 chiefs and the 6 co-opted members will all be appointed by the Minister for Indigenous and Multi-Ethnic Affairs. In this case, the interim Prime Minister, Bainimarama.

The interesting question here is, who among the chiefs is chiefly enough to be regarded as a chief and qualifies to be a member of the GCC representing their province? In other words, who is a chief and who is not? We can take it a step further to determine who the real chief is and who is the ‘thief’ (those claiming the title for traditional and political expediency and convenience)?

If that is not enough, the Regulations stipulate qualifications that would automatically deprive real chiefs from representing their people in the GCC.

A good example is the case of the Turaga Tui Cakau, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu. It is public knowledge that Ratu Naiqama is the paramount chief (Turaga-I-Taukei) of the Vanua of Cakaudrove. He has a number of traditional sub-chiefs (if I am allowed to describe them as such for the sake of clarity), who owe allegiance to Ratu Naiqama as Tui Cakau.

Ratu Naiqama has already been installed as the Turaga Tui Cakau by the people of Cakaudrove as their paramount chief.

But under the new regulations, Ratu Naiqama would not qualify as a member of the GCC because the high chief was a minister in the deposed Qarase government - thus has not fulfilled the seven-year stand down period subscribed under the 2008 GCC Regulations.

And not only that, Ratu Naiqama would be disqualified on the grounds that he served time as a prisoner after he was convicted for the role he played in the takeover of the military camp at Labasa during the 2000 coup.

A closer look at Ratu Naiqama’s case reveals a clear case of outright discrimination. I mean Ratu Naiqama had served his time and paid the price for using his chiefly status (rightly or wrongly) in his pursuit to maintain calm and peace during the mutiny in Labasa then.

His stint in parliament as a politician and as a government minister, like his installation as Tui Cakau was through the will of his people. To deprive him of representing his people in the GCC is to rob his people of their right to determine who is to be their chief and who is to represent them in the GCC. Why should he be discriminated against because his subjects want him to represent them?

The interim regime should not let itself be put in a position where it could be accused of taking out a personal vendetta against people like Ratu Naiqama – and others who seem to be viewed as enemies because such people do not subscribe to the government’s line.

Under the new 2008 GCC Regulations, three chiefs would be appointed by interim PM Bainimarama, after, I suppose, consulting the Cakaudrove Provincial Council.

Indigenous Fijian protocol demands that one of the three chiefs representing Cakaudrove would automatically be Ratu Naiqama in his capacity as Tui Cakau. The other two will have to be by choice provided (according to the new regulations) they have been traditionally installed and recorded as such in the Registrar of Native Lands.

What a disaster. I can now visualise the tension, struggle, emotion, division and even hatred erupting as those endowed with “blue blood” try to out-manoeuvre each other so they could win favour to be installed. Chiefly brothers will quarrel among themselves with the expectant rush among chiefs (even minor ones) to be installed hoping they would be appointed as members of the GCC.

This is what I meant when I said we will now witness who is the real chief and who is the ‘thief’ among our own blood lines. Chaos within the chiefly system and the vanua will be the order of the day. And what better recipe to divide the Fijian society than to encourage a battle royal among the ‘blue bloods’ of Fijian society under the membership clause of the GCC 2008 regulations.

I am reminded here of my late friend Taniela Veitata (God rest his soul), insisting that we refer to him as Ratu Taniela Ratu Veitata - epitomising that he is among the highest chiefs in Fiji. How and why? Well, simply because, he claims to be the only man in Fiji with a double Ratu.

He theorised that by self-imposing a double “ratu” in his name, he has qualified him to be among the ‘blue bloods’ of Fiji. We had a good laugh about it at that time. In fact, it became a household joke among our group. But wait a minute, it now appears that Ratu Taniela Ratu Veitata has had the last laugh after all – thanks to the drafting skills of the Regulations 2008 legal team.

So I ask, in all sincerity, is this what the Interim Government wants - the total weakening of the traditional Fijian system of life in order to impose another brand of authority?

Anyway, the GCC 2008 Regulations is a flawed document because it is totally inconsistent with the undertaking the Interim Government made in 2007 with the European Union (EU) on the roadmap to democracy that was to start with the March 2009 General Election.

But, among other things, how can the total independence of the GCC be maintained? With Bainimarama as new chairman of the GCC, the appointing authority and the decisions reached by the GCC are to be scrutinised by Cabinet which will be chaired by Bainimarama as interim PM, the independence of the GCC will be but a myth. It will be highly politicised.

Then there is the provision where members of the GCC are required to swear an oath of allegiance to the President after their appointment. This is again flawed and muddled thinking. The President, under the Constitution, is appointed by the GCC. How then can GCC members swear an oath of allegiance to the President if they are also empowered to remove him from office?

Well, as for me, I’d rather remain a ‘thief’ than have ‘blue blood’ and be called a chief. However, I can always be a self-imposed chief with three “ratus”- one better than my friend Ratu Taniela Ratu Veitata.

Until next week, happy reading.


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