Fiji’s defence and security review | A pivotal step towards stability

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Minister for Home Affairs Pio Tikoduadua during an interview by the media at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva. Picture: ELIKI NUKUTABU/FT FILE

Home Affairs Minister Pio Tikoduadua’s national defence and security review initiative announced earlier this month marks a bold and pivotal step in shaping a clear path for our nation’s stability.

Especially when the nation has faced and continues to face internal security risks.

Under this prevailing situation, any initiative to mitigate the challenges in a planned and inclusive manner is to be welcomed, given that it is crucial for our future wellbeing as a country.

The review begins with public consultations in February next year, and is expected to end around six months later, in August. The announcement of this review barely one year into the new government’s term underscores the high priority that Mr Tikoduadua, a former military officer, has placed on this undertaking.

Within the Government, Mr Tikoduadua oversees a crucial portfolio, with national security a fundamental responsibility, in that it is an essential requirement for sustainable development.

Without national security, there can be no sustainable development, let alone progress or prosperity, as Fiji’s fractured history starkly demonstrates.

The minister’s choice for the chair of the review committee is Jim Sanday, an eminently qualified candidate, who served as the former Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) chief of staff and is a retired public servant with the Australian Department of Defence.

Mr Tikoduadua describes Mr Sanday as a “distinguished figure” in the defence and security sector, who brings a “wealth of expertise” and “uncompromising integrity to this pivotal role”.

The review has the full blessing of Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who played a key role in Mr Sanday’s appointment. Mr Rabuka’s endorsement is a curious twist of fate, considering that the 1987 coup he executed led to Mr Sanday’s removal from his chief of staff position.

Because this is a national defence and security review, the role of the military and the defining of its future directions are integral to the process. The military’s role is to defend and safeguard the national interest.

The military serves as the last line of defence between societal order and anarchy in any country. Especially a country like Fiji.

Therefore, the RFMF Commander, Ro Jone Kalouniwai’s support for the review is a welcome sign.

Kalouniwai was present at the press briefing with Tikodudua. This show of solidarity and common purpose is important for public confidence given persistent reports of the military’s differences with the elected government over the future directions of the country.

Ro Kalouniwai told media that the review will provide a framework to help the military define its responsibilities and how it wants to modernise.

He said the military had a strategic plan in place but it was not guided by a national security strategy. In this regard, the review addresses a major gap by enabling the military to review its strategic plan and align it to the national security framework.

In an ABC Pacific interview shortly after his appointment was made public, Mr Sanday clarified that the review will not “interfere with the military’s command responsibilities”, which are already legislated.

Fiji’s achilles heel

While the specific details of the review are being finalised, Mr Tikoduadua’s announcement provides some indications about its broader aims and objectives: “To craft a national security strategy that not only outlines Fiji’s national interests and goals, but also integrates core values and principles, ensuring that the roles of government agencies resonate with the national ethos”.

This raises the question of what the ‘national ethos’ of Fiji is.

Another goal is to “identify and implement” legislative and regulatory reforms in defence and security, aligned to national values that reflect the heart and soul of Fiji.”

Again, this may require revisiting and reexamining the values that constitute the ‘heart and soul’ of Fiji.

The review culminates with the ministry designing a “Security Sector Reform and Governance program to align security agencies with government policies to ensure that these agencies operate in a manner that upholds and promotes cherished national values”.

These briefings indicate that a core priority of the review is addressing the lack of social cohesion in Fiji, which I have previously described as the country’s “achilles heel”.

Social cohesion is Fiji’s biggest challenge in that more than 50 years after independence, we are still struggling with it. It is Fiji’s most damaging and complex problem with no overnight solution. Its resolution requires commitment from every sector in our nation.

Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, left, with RFMF Commander Major General Ro Jone Kalouniwai the PM’s visit to the Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva earlier this month. Picture: ELIKI NUKUTABU

In this context, the review can be seen as a systemic attempt to understand and collectively address what might be termed as Fiji’s vicious cycle — ethnic conflict and political instability resulting in military interventions.

These factors, in turn, are interconnected with serious economic setbacks and decline that prevent Fiji from achieving its full potential.

Mr Sanday alluded to this challenge in his ABC Pacific interview when he stated that he understood the relevance of Fiji’s socio-economic/cultural issues in relation to the review.

These issues lie at the heart of the country’s long-term ethno-political tensions, resulting in four socially and economically damaging coups between 1987-2006. While Fiji has escaped wide-scale societal violence so far, this cannot be taken for granted

. In this regard, the review is a much needed, long-overdue preemptive step to safeguard the nation.

Colonial’s lingering process

Depending on how far back we need to go, a root cause of Fiji’s conflict can be traced to colonialism, whereby the British rulers brought labourers from India to develop the sugar industry under the exploitative indenture system.

This system was largely designed for the economic benefit of the colonialists, with scant regard for the feelings of the native population, or the welfare of the immigrant labourers.

Indigenous Fijians were not fully consulted about the scheme, while many migrant workers were tricked into it.

After toiling in slave-like conditions for five-plus years, the migrant workers were given the right to remain in the country, with the vast majority taking up the offer.

This would eventually result in generational conflicts over ethnicity, demography, political power, and economic resources.

Generally, the two major communities feel equally aggrieved and threatened: indigenous Fijians harbour concerns about their culture and land rights, and complain about economic marginalisation in a modernising world, while Indo-Fijians feel unappreciated, scapegoated, vilified and politically excluded.

Dismissing or shouting down each community’s concerns and fears as irrational, or irrelevant, as was the case in the past, has not been helpful.

In this regard, the review’s consultative approach to take in the views and experiences of the people at large is both crucial and appropriate.

While the differences between Fiji’s two major communities soak up most of the attention, it is not just about them.

The review conceivably encompasses the concerns of Fiji’s other ethnic minorities, who have deep, historical roots in Fiji, and who contribute to the country.

These minorities are caught in the maelstrom, and while their welfare is equally affected, they find their concerns drowned out due to their smaller numbers.

Mr Sanday has urged people to come forward to share ideas on how to make Fiji a happier and more prosperous place for everyone.

So, in essence, the review is a nation talking to itself and trying to come to terms with its conflicted history, to build a better future. It involves revisiting the past and learning from it, to avoid the same mistakes, and to escape the vicious cycle of political instability, military coups, and underdevelopment.

A country in decline

Fiji, mired in ethnic tensions and political differences culminating in four coups, fits the description of “fragile” or “vulnerable” society.

News media ingeniously describe Fiji’s coups as “blood-less”, “short-lived”, “cleanup-campaign” or “coup-to-end all coups”.

The terminology is regrettable because it grossly underestimates the lingering, sustained and long-term damage of our coup culture.

Part of my PhD thesis, Rethinking journalism for supporting social cohesion and democracy: Case study of media performance in Fiji (2014), looked at the economic impact of conflict.

The coups, whether carried out in the name of indigenous rights, upholding multiracialism, or supporting a secular state, can be linked to a pervasive trend of serious and sustained decline that permeates virtually all levels of society, irrespective of ethnicity, with the poor bearing the brunt of it.

This included investment falling from 25 per cent of the GDP in the 1970s to around 12 per cent in the post-coup periods, and for a time, meagre annual average growth of 1.6 per cent since 1996.

Research by professors Biman Prasad and Paresh Narayan published in 2008 showed a 20-year infrastructure deficit of some $3.4 billion, partly because of persistent instability.

Likewise, in his article published in 2013, Professor Wadan Narsey estimated that by 2011, Fiji had lost $1,700 million because of the 2006 coup.

This included $400 million in government revenue, which could have gone towards education, health, infrastructure, public debt repayments and so forth.

Cumulatively, these indicators reveal how Fiji’s precarious position has progressively worsened in recent decades, as reflected in unemployment figures, increased social problems and declining services and infrastructure.

So, the coups may be ‘bloodless’ in terms of minimal body count, but they caused an economic bloodbath. The expression “death by a thousand cuts” comes to mind.

We do not feel the pain immediately because after the initial shock, there are smaller hits that we absorb over the course of years and decades.

In time, these repeated blows add up to inflict deeper wounds that are more difficult to heal, but we adjust to the pain and learn to live with it.

In Fiji these wounds are manifest in the lack of services, dilapidated infrastructure, low life expectancy, lack of opportunities, economic stagnation, low employment, high crime, brain drain, lifestyle diseases and so forth.

Fiji’s situation gives true meaning to best-selling author Paul Collier’s words in his book: Guns, Wars and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places. Collier states that “wars and coups are not tea parties; they are development in reverse”.

A consultative process

Given Fiji’s fragility, it is fitting that both Mr Sanday and Mr Tikoduadua are canvassing a wide spectrum of views to address the situation.

Mr Tikoduadua stated that the review is a “civilian led process, not just a uniform process, that will look at Fiji in totality”, including the role of the military.

On his part, Mr Sanday has stated that the review entails a consultation with the people of Fiji about the way forward. He described it as a “confidencebuilding” measure to create an acceptable framework for Fiji’s future stability.

This is quite appropriate in that “confidence” and “stability” go together — you simply cannot have one without the other.

The immediate and urgent need for confidence-building measures in Fiji is reflected in the mass outmigration of citizens, with reports of up to 50,000 Fijians leaving our shores in the 19 months to November, to work and live abroad.

This in a population of less than one million. While there is a pull factor due to better working conditions in countries like Australia and New Zealand, the accelerated rate of migration raises the question of whether there are any push factors.

In this regard, the review could perhaps shed some light on the situation, and its pros and cons, in relation to economic security.

Giving up not an option

Because of the diverse and complex fractures in Fijian society, achieving political stability has proven as elusive, as it is necessary for the health of the nation.

At this juncture, decisive steps are needed to assess the situation, identify any risks and fault lines, and respond accordingly. As an independent country since 1970, Fiji cannot go on blaming colonialism forever.

As a nation, it is time to take responsibility for our own problems, and in this regard, the defence and security review is a step in the right direction.

As Mr Tikoduadua has stated, the review “heralds a new chapter in Fiji’s journey towards a more secure and a vibrant future”. Finding the right solutions won’t be easy, but giving up is not an option, considering what is at stake for the country and its people, including brighter prospects for future generations if we can get things right.

As Deputy Prime Minister and professor in economics Biman Prasad highlighted at the Australasian AID Conference in Canberra recently, “Development is the surest path to stability”, and “stability is the pathway to our prosperity”.

  • Dr SHAILENDRA BAHADUR SINGH is an associate professor and head of the journalism program at The University of the South Pacific in Fiji. He has written widely on Pacific media, politics and development. The views in this article are his own and do not reflect the position of The University of the South Pacific or The Fiji Times.
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