Saturday, February 11, 2006



Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i



By Dr. Tupeni Baba

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Nov. 13) – The restoration of the qoliqoli [traditional fishing grounds] to indigenous owners represents the outcome of a long struggle by the indigenous Fijians led by their chiefs, especially those who were signatories of the Deed of Cession and their descendants, to ensure the return of their resources in land, forests, rivers and qoliqoli, in accordance with Fijian chiefly custom.

What stood in the way for the achievement of the goal of this struggle or quiet revolution were the settlers as represented by the planters, traders, industrialists and others whose understanding of the meaning of the annexation of Fiji was at odds with those of the chiefs and the Fijian people.

The idea of creating a competent body to allow aggrieved chiefs and their people to present their historical grievances for consideration is an important part of this process. Since the 1880s, Fijians have used the Native Lands Commission to deal with many issues specifically relating to land, so the process of dealing with competent bodies to discuss and settle issues and grievances has been part of their history and consciousness. It is not unrelated to their traditional way of dealing with Fijian disputes except that the partners to their historical grievances are often non-Fijians and usually, they are the settlers or people with settler mentality. This is why the Indigenous Claims Tribunal which will deal with all types of historical grievances relating to their resources is so central to the so called chiefly and indigenous Fijian struggle.

It is often difficult for non- Fijians to understand why the chiefs who were signatories to Cession decided to sign away or hand over unconditionally all their people’s resources to Queen Victoria in return for being governed by her, her heirs and successors.

The chiefs had raised and sought clarifications on the implications of this move with and from Sir Hercules Robinson, before the act of Cession was finalised. One of them said: "We would like His Excellency to make clear to us what our position will be in the event of Cession taking place with regards to our fishing and forest rights. We are confident that His Excellency will give us the kindest consideration"

Soon after Cession in 1875 and again in 1879 and 1880 at the Council of Chiefs meeting in Waikava, Cakaudrove; on Bau, Tailevu and, Mualevu in Lau respectively, the chiefs actively sought the return of their resources especially their land and qoliqoli. The process with regards to the return of their land quickly got off the ground with the work of the Native Lands Commission headed by Wilkinson in the 1880s, and later by Maxwell in the early 1900.

With regards to their qoliqoli, the chiefs maintained that it was owned in a similar way as their land and should be treated similarly. At the end of the Council of Chiefs meeting at Mualevu in November 1880, the Roko Tui Lau, Ma'afu, as the host of the meeting said in concluding the meeting: "There is, however, one other matter which gives us concern, namely our reefs.All reefs have ownership from the past down to the present time; that is clear to us and it is a matter which has often given rise to quarrelling and disputes. We beg of your Majesty (the Governor Sir Arthur Gordon) that they may be registered with our lands or that some regulation be made that the rights of the owners may be fixed on a clear basis as with our lands."

The above concluding statement by Ma'afu at the Council of Chiefs meeting in Mualevu was part of a detailed Memorandum of Sir Arthur Gordon that he sent to the Colonial Secretary as background to his dispatch of November 15 which contained the Native Lands Ordinance xxi of 1880. He referred to this Ordinance in the dispatch as follows: "This is one of the most important ordinances which was been passed by the Legislature in Fiji. It is the result of five years of careful thought and inquiry."

So the qoliqoli issues were always treated in a similar way as native lands and the chiefs wanted it. As mentioned by the Roko Tui Lau, Ma'afu that some regulation be made that the rights of owners may be fixed on a clear basis as that of native lands.

The chiefs had a sympathetic Governor in Sir Arthur Gordon and he was able to move promptly on the return of Fijian land in spite of the strong pressures by the settlers and planters who were keen to purchase land in Fiji. Sir Arthur Gordon was the architect of the colonial land policy and accepted the Fijian notion of ownership that all lands, forests, foreshores and qoliqoli were owned irrespective of whether they were being occupied or not, at a particular time. The settlers on the other hand widely shared the opposite notion of terra nullius', that unoccupied land or empty spaces' were not owned and this has been questioned in the well known Mabo Case in Australia, not long ago.

The chiefs and Sir Arthur Gordon himself, had to struggle against the strong views of the settlers and this was more evident when Sir Arthur finished his term as Governor at the end of 1880. His dispatch, he wrote at Mualevu, was one of the last he wrote as Governor and as he wrote, his emotions came to the fore as he realised he had not completed the work on the return of qoliqoli in his six years as Governor. This was why he saw the need to include the closing statement of the Roko Tui Lau, Ma'afu, in his detailed Memorandum that followed his dispatch of November 15, 1880.

The result of the chiefs requests on the qoliqoli came in the following year, 1881, and was read to the Council of Chiefs meeting on April 14 in Nailaga Ba, by the new Governor, William Desvouex. He said to the chiefs at the Opening:

"I have to tell you with regard to your representation on the subject of the reefs, that the matter will be carefully investigated and that it is her Majesty's desire that neither you nor your people should be deprived of any rights in those reefs, which you have enjoyed under your own laws and customs; and I may tell you, on my own part, that measures will be taken for securing to each Mataqali the reefs, which properly belong to it, exactly in the same way as the rest of their land will be secured to them."

Many of the successive governors including William Desvouex, were unable to carry through successfully this task until well into Fiji's independence as the settlers and planters increased their pressures to open up more land for alienation and commercial use. Even one governor, Governor Im Thurn in the early 1900, supported the settlers and planters case openly.

In 1907 he sent a petition from the Planters Association signed by six prominent planters to the Colonial Secretary seeking the opening up of unoccupied land for their commercial development. He stated that the planters' case was a reasonable one and the tone of his comments showed he shared their views somewhat.

The case was discussed in the British Parliament and Sir Arthur Gordon at that time, as Lord Stanmore was greatly disturbed by the move. His work he felt had not been carried out in accordance with the express wish of the Queen Victoria. As he stood up in the House of Lords and spoke he said he was on that occasion, speaking as Turaga i Taukei' (land owning chief) in view of the two islands in Fiji the Fijian chiefs had given him, through a Crown Grant in appreciation of his services to the Fijian people.

"On two separate occasions her late Majesty did me the honour to convey to me her commands from her own lips that I was to tell the Fijian people that their lands were theirs and should never be taken from them," Stanmore said. "I told them on the authority of our Sovereign and I do trust the pledge then given, will be maintained."

The move by the planters and settlers were defeated and in the colony, Lord Stamore was criticised and publicly vilified in The Fiji Times (Fiji Times in November, 1908), which was controlled, by the settlers and planters in Fiji. This reflected the pressures that were exerted on future governors following Sir Arthur Gordon that it took more meetings of the great Council of Chiefs like the meeting in Bau in 1982, the insistence of the Alliance Government, the support of the SVT Government and now the SDL and the multi-party Government to bring this important issue to Parliament.

The emergence of the current Qoliqoli Bill is an outcome of a long struggle by the chiefs beginning with the signatories of the Deed of Cession to return to Fijian people what they owned according to their understanding of what they were expected as chiefs when they agreed to give Fiji unconditionally to Queen Victoria in 1874. It appears that the holders of opposing perspectives to the current debate have much to learn from our local history.

Dr Tupeni Baba is an academic and politician, who founded the New Labour Unity Party. He is also the co-author of "Speight of Violence." He is a senator in the Qarase Government.

Fiji Times Online:
Copyright © 2006 Fiji Times Online. All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 3, 2006

Fijian Chiefly System

The University of the South Pacific, Department of Management and Public Administration,

Suva, Fiji

MPA Working Paper # 00-0012


Mr. Subhash Appana

27 SEPTEMBER, 2005

*Mr. Subhash Appana is a faculty member in the Department of Management and Public administration,University of the South Pacific, P.O. Box 1168,Suva Fiji. Tel: + 679 323- 2245, e-mail:, Fax +679 - 323 – 1506,

    USP Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

Appana, Subhash

Traditional leadership at the crossroads : the Fijian chiefly system / Subhash

Appana. – Suva, Fiji : Dept. of Management and Public Administration, University of

the South Pacific, 2005.

22 p. ; cm. – (MPA working paper ; #00-0012)

ISBN 982-01-0680-X

  1. Fijians—Politics and government 2. Fiji—Politics and government 3. Fiji—Ethnic relations—Political aspects I. The University of the South Pacific. Dept. of Management and Public Administration II. Title IV. Series: Working paper (The University of the South Pacific. Dept. of Management and Public Administration) ; #00-0012

JQ6301.A662 2005 320.99611




The Fijian chiefly system is a colonial construct that has had gradually intensifying internal contradictions and external tensions that came to a head with the coups of 1987 and 2000. Ironically, the coups also served to underline the importance of chiefs in times of crisis or at times when political agendas needed the sanction of what has been accepted as the stamp of approval of the Fijian people. These agendas and disagreements have steadily increased in complexity, intensity and intrigue since 2000. They have also entered the public arena with a steady breakdown in normal cultural protocols and inhibitions that helped maintain chiefly mana in the face of similar onslaughts in the past. This article undertakes a historical examination of the chiefly system and the challenges that it has encountered. It concludes that the Fijian chiefly system is indeed at the cross-roads and this has grave implications for Fiji.


Fijian1 society dominates the political landscape in Fiji for historical reasons even though there are other subcultures that have evolved around and in conjunction with this. Pre-contact Fijian society was very different from colonial Fijian society, and this in turn, is very different from contemporary Fijian society. At the centre of both the Fijian society as well as the collective that is Fiji has evolved the institution of chief. The colonial administration, its policy of “indirect rule” through the chiefs via the Fijian administration, and the advent of education as well as the inevitable influences of modernization that could not be prevented from affecting Fijian society, led to subtle redefinitions of the institution of chief in Fiji. These redefinitions have continued into contemporary times in the face of new pressures and tensions.

The significance of the chief in connecting the Fijian to the national administration as well as rallying mass Fijian political support was well appreciated by colonial administrators as well as politicians.2 This not only expanded the role of, but placed non-traditional burdens on the chief. Thus the Fijian chief, who did come under scrutiny intermittently during the colonial era, began to be questioned more openly two years after independence. By 1987, Fijian discontent with the chiefly-sanctioned and led Alliance government of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, had reached a stage where Mara, an eminently anointed and groomed high chief, was rejected at the polls. The ensuing leadership void planted the seeds and nurtured the emergence of legitimised commoner rule as well as a new mode of interaction between commoner leader and traditional leader. This was a critical juncture in the evolution of Fijian society as well as the institution of chief that had played such a pivotal role in its development. The ensuing tension, between the commoner as a democratically elected leader and the chief as a traditionally installed leader, has remained largely unresolved in Fiji.

Events between 1987 and 1992, when Rabuka emerged as the democratically elected Prime Minister of Fiji, placed a number of unprecedented demands and strains on the Great Council of Chiefs which operates as the formal constitutional embodiment of the chief. These tensions became multi-faceted during the 2000 hostage crisis when traditional rivalries, that had been contained by the colonial administration through its imposition of an artificially grounded Fijian socio-political structure, emerged with unprecedented vehemence. Ironically, these two political upheavals also served to underline the importance of chiefs in times of crisis or at times when political agendas needed the sanction of what has been accepted as the stamp of approval of the Fijian people via the GCC. These same agendas and disagreements have steadily increased in complexity, intensity and intrigue especially after the 2000 coup. They have also entered the public arena with a steady breakdown in normal cultural protocols and inhibitions that helped maintain the sanctity of the institution of chief in the face of similar onslaughts in the past. This article is organised into two parts; part one follows briefly historical pressures, and part two, in greater detail latest pressures and strains that have besieged the institution of chief in Fiji. It concludes that the institution of chief is indeed at the cross-roads in Fiji and this has important implications for the direction that the country takes in its socio-political as well as economic development.

Fijian Social Structure

The Fijian derives his identity from his links with the qele and the vanua to which he belongs and which belongs to him.3 The Fijian social structure is, in turn, predicated on this link. Fijian society is organised around the turaga (chief).4 Every Fijian belongs to a yavusa whose head (turaga) claims a direct line of descent from some legendary founding ancestor. Each yavusa comprises several mataqali (extended family groups) whose hierarchical positions are determined by lineal proximity to this founding ancestor. Each mataqali, in turn, is made up of several closely linked i tokatoka (family sub-groups). Historically, the yavusa were forced by circumstances to combine into larger units called vanua (state). In his landmark study on power in pre-colonial Fiji, Routledge (1985, p.5) writes, “the traditional socio-political order consisted of small, kinship-structured and locality-oriented entities fighting and intriguing for advantage over one another.” Political power play, intrigue and internecine rivalry had no small part to play in these socio-political adjustments. Toward the end of the 18th century circumstances pushed these vanua further into combining to form still larger units called matanitu (confederacy).5 Thus these social units emerged “within the context of political processes”, and therefore, were “power constructs articulated by the continual exercise of force” (Routledge, 1985, p.29). This has continued to have particular significance for contemporary politics in Fiji. In the 19th century, as contact with beachcombers6, missionaries7, traders8, planters9, and labourers began to impact further on internal social and economic relationships, strategic alliances and kinship bonds began to take on a new significance. It was this social and political organization of Fijian society that the colonial administration encountered and subsequently entrenched through its administrative strategy of “indirect rule”.

The unit of the matanitu holds significance when seen from the perspective of contemporary national politics. This is because “Fijians speak of Fiji in terms of Kubuna, Burebasaga, and Tovata” (Tuwere, 2002, p. 30). Each of these confederacies (or matanitu) comes under the benign rule of a paramount chief who receives loyalty, respect and obedience. More significantly, these confederacies are seen as separate “governments” (or matanitu) that combine to form Fiji. The intricate web of kinship relationships that bind them were a part of the traditional social order before colonization in 1874. Routledge (1985, p.5) says that despite continuous warring and intrigue between “kinship-linked and locality-oriented entities”, the consolidation of extended power was “difficult”. A number of unique relationships assisted in consolidating this power and ensuring reciprocal security for members. These kinship relationships held the various Fijian traditional entities together, and formed the fabric of wider alliances that created the three matanitu. Tuwere (2002, p. 31) somewhat idealistically, says that the bonds that bind the three matanitu together to form the sovereign state come from the cultural institutions of veirogorogoci (willingness and commitment to listen to the other), veivakaliuci (according the other a higher rank than oneself), and veivakarokorokotaki (reciprocal respect). These kinship-linked socio-political groupings of matanitu have been used in structuring the administration of Fijian society by successive governments in Fiji. Integral to the effective functioning of these administrative structures has been the institution of chief.

Who is a Chief?

There is a chief at every level of the Fijian social hierarchy, and at the apex stands the paramount chief of the matanitu. “The scheme … is of a hierarchy of chiefs, graded in relation to one another according to the relative position of the units under their command” (Nayacakalou, 1975, p. 37). The institution of chief has traditionally been surrounded by a degree of mysticism. Tuwere (2001, p. 54) says that “in old Fiji, the chief represented the god”. The installation ceremonies are predicated on the gunu where the god is believed to enter the new chief through the traditional drink of yaqona.10 Sahlins (1985, p. 75) puts it more bluntly when he says that the Fijian chief is perceived to be the embodiment of god. In fact the chief has generally been accepted as being the embodiment of the kalou-vu or progenitor. The office of the chief was traditionally an achieved position (Nayacakalou, 1975, p. 39). Conquests and warfare were a common means of acquiring chiefly office. Certain outstanding traits, characteristics, and/or circumstances could also lead to the assumption of chiefly positions.11 In contemporary Fijian society, seniority of descent and political dominance have become key factors in the selection of chiefs. Chiefly authority, on the other hand, rests on the consent of his people. A chief who loses the support of his people is referred to as Turaga vakasenitoa (literally like a hibiscus which does not have a scent). This support is now dependent on generosity with personal wealth, knowledgeability, political clout, traditional as well as modern power networks, and official positions in the formal administration. Thus it is in the chiefs’ personal interests to aspire to positions within the bureaucracy and politics. The mana of the chief however, has lost its lustre at an increasing rate over the years largely because of its weakening traditional basis within a modernising political-economic environment.


Chiefly participation in the colonial administration was established through the setting up of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) in 1876 by Governor Sir Arthur Gordon who saw it as a vehicle to implement his Nigeria-learnt doctrine of indirect rule. Howard (1991, p. 27) writes that, “The council was used by Gordon to help legitimate his efforts to create a stable and uniform colonial state, and his power over the council was considerable”. It is significant that Gordon established the GCC after violence erupted between the colonial forces and local hill tribes in Viti Levu. The Chiefs were thus deliberately co-opted into the colonial administration as minor functionaries where, in addition to being hired as officials and bureaucrats, some matters of importance to the Fijian were referred to the GCC for consultation and deliberation.12 This helped keep the Fijian chiefs within the ambit of national administration whilst retaining effective indirect control over the commoners. The traditional relationship of mutual dependence between the commoner and the chief was thus reinforced through the colonial administrative apparatus. Over time, this relationship of dependency underwent a subtle but significant change as the dependence of the commoner on the chief increased, and the dependence of the chief on the commoner began to be replaced by his dependence on the colonial administration because the chief was now a bureaucrat in the Fijian Administration. This marked the beginning of a major distortion on the position and role of chiefs within the Fijian socio-political structure.

Chiefs as Bureaucrats

The Fijian Administration followed closely the boundaries of traditional socio-political units, which were themselves artificially demarcated by Gordon.13 This structure operated as a separate department of government with Roko and Buli operating as administrative heads at provincial and district (tikina) levels. However, adept in the art of forging alliances, “the chiefs quickly learnt to adapt to colonial rule and exploit colonial class divisions to their own advantage” (Robertson & Tamanisau, 1988, p.10). The chiefs had recognised early the importance of forging close links with European capitalists and the colonial administration. This was to persist in later years with the evolution of a comprador class of chiefs, businessmen and politicians.

By 1905, their presence in the colonial administration had begun to cost enough for Governor im Thurn to restructure the hierarchy and centralise authority in the hands of white officials. The expected demise of the Fijian Administration was thwarted when in 1917 Ratu Sukuna managed to impress on the colonial administration the indispensability of the chiefs when he met the Secretary of Native Affairs and told him that:

“fear and respect for constituted authority, being the only things

that matter under such circumstances, are indelibly stamped on their

minds…. as centuries pass, the masses become more and more

dependent on the will and guidance of the (chiefs).”14

This acceptance, of the centrality of chiefs, by the colonial administration was in no small measure due to pressure and support from “hard-pressed European mercantile capitalists.”15 The establishment of the Fijian Administration in 1944 firmly entrenched the chief as a permanent part of the national bureaucracy. Subsequent setting up of exclusive schools16 further facilitated the access of chiefs to bureaucratic and leadership positions. This centrality of the chief in the colonial administration made it inevitable that they would play an increasingly active role in Fiji’s politics.

Chiefs in Politics

As stated earlier, chiefly involvement in politics was obviated through Governors Gordon and Thurston’s recognition of their indispensability within the doctrine of “indirect rule” that directed early colonial policy. Fijian representation in the Legislative Council between 1904 and 1965 was through government selected nominees of the GCC. From the 1920s through the 1950s, as the Indo-Fijian voice for political representation became increasingly more assertive, Fijian opposition to this was mainly articulated by and through the chiefs.17 On the other hand, European commercial interests were largely behind attempts at influencing Fijian opinion against the Indo-Fijian.18 A January 1920 strike by Indo-Fijian workers of the Public Works Department that spread into a bigger confrontation was suppressed by force using 200 Fijians from Lau and a number of others co-opted from Rewa and Navua.19 One year later, the 1921 cane strike was suppressed by 250 Fijian constables from Bau commissioned through their chiefs. A second cane strike in 1943 saw Ratu Sukuna negotiating unsuccessfully with the cane farmer leaders on behalf of government. Soldiers were posted around the cane areas of the west during the strike, and there were outraged utterances against the “unpatriotic” strikers from both Ratu Sukuna and Ratu Edward Cakobau. Later the multi-racial December 1959 Oil and Allied Workers strike led by Apisai Tora and James Anthony invoked Ratu Mara, Ratu George Cakobau and a handful of other chiefs to address a counter rally at Albert Park on 10 Dece. 1959.20 The chiefly voice had steadily gained a direct place in Fiji’s political landscape, and it would strive to entrench itself further as the full import of the dilemmas contained in juxtaposing traditional authority with modern democratic rule began to emerge.

Negotiations for Independence

Indeed given the integral role played by chiefs in the colonial administration, especially since the establishment of the GCC in 1876 and the Fijian Administration in 1944, it was inevitable that the chiefs would be at the forefront of negotiations for Fiji’s independence as well as its aftermath. The GCC was very much a part, albeit indirectly, of the constitutional conferences that finally led to the granting of independence to Fiji in 1970. This has tended to create a mistaken and misplaced belief that the Fijian chiefly system is synonymous with government. Public criticisms against chief/politicians have been treated with hostility especially whenever they have come from non-Fijians. Loyalists have felt that the institution of chief was being demeaned by “outsiders”.21 The 1970 Constitution did attempt to establish a legitimate place for the chiefs in national government when it not only gave them numerical dominance in the Senate, but also accorded them veto powers over any matters that affected Fijian land, customs or customary rights.22 Unfortunately, the full import of this was neither fully understood nor appreciated by the majority of Fijians as seen in the build-up to and the aftermath of the 1987 coups.23 The role and conduct of the chief outside of these constitutional provisos has been unclear. There are no institutional mechanisms that allow the GCC to have a direct say on matters of national interest. Their contribution has merely been advisory. On matters of particular significance to Fijian traditional interests, the GCC adopts a position outside the ambit of the parliamentary process.

New Responsibilities

A number of prominent chiefs entered politics as natural successors to the colonial administration.24 Others recognised the need to enter public office and jockeyed for positions over the years. It has paid handsome dividends for chiefs to augment their traditional sources of power with modern ones emanating from holding public offices and engaging in business ventures. Even though traditional bonds weakened, chiefs continued to hold sway over their people, 60% of whom are rural dwellers. This is because “chiefs are recognised by many as the guardians of those values that are essential to the life of a particular group or society”.25 Chiefly influence is still dependent on political and economic clout but the nature of this has changed markedly. Political parties actively court chiefs for blessings as this assures them of votes. Rewards are then expected through appointments to public offices or partnerships in businesses enterprises.

In addition to this, chiefs (through the GCC) have been called upon to find “solutions” whenever Fiji has faced political uprisings. In 1987, when Fiji was plunged into its worst political crisis, the chiefs deliberated long and hard before supporting Rabuka’s coup. Their focus was not only on assuaging Fijian fears of “Indian domination”, but also on ensuring that Fiji came out of the disaster with as little damage as possible. Then again in 2000, after the initial trauma of the Speight upheavals, it was the GCC (with active military support) that played a key role in getting the hostages released safely from Parliament. There is little denying that tradition, which is manifested in the Fijian chiefs and the GCC (as opposed to individual chiefs), has had a stabilizing and healing effect on the general populace of Fiji. This fact was recognised even before the coup phenomenon became a part of the political process in Fiji when Routledge (1985, p. 221) wrote that the “importance (of the traditional) as a cohesive force will continue, giving life and strength to Fijian society in the multi-cultural complexities of the contemporary state”.

In fact, it can be argued that the GCC has actually operated beyond this and continued to give hope to all of Fiji’s people.26 The landmark 1997 constitution was only promulgated after the unanimous blessings of the GCC. Indo-Fijian leader, Jai Ram Reddy’s address to the GCC on PM Sitiveni Rabuka’s visionary initiative on that occasion was a historic development of monumental proportions. Reddy humbled himself before the august body and reminded the chiefs that they were not only chiefs of the Fijians, but also chiefs of the Indo-Fijian community. Unfortunately, this aspiration has not become a realisation yet largely because of Fijian insecurities and parochial interests. History shows that Fijian fears and insecurities have been invoked to serve vested interests whenever the need has risen and chiefs have played a central role in this mobilisation. Opposition against the Bavadra government of 1987 began with roadblocks into Tavua ordered by the Tui Tavua, Ratu Ovini Bokini27. Subsequent meetings had a strong presence of chiefs who were agitating for personal as well as what was made out to be “Fijian interests”.28 Then again in 2000, it was both the overt and covert support of some of the chiefs29 that lent credence to and fuelled the anti-Chaudhry marches. Chaudhry had alienated the bulk of the chiefs and the GCC in his haste to show economic progress.

This participation of chiefs in public offices, and more particularly in national politics, within a framework that has not adequately demarcated or reconciled the traditional structure of Fijian society with the modern structure of Fiji society renders the institution of chief vulnerable in the face of unrelenting and inexorable change. Nayacakalou saw this problem way back in 1975 when he wrote:

There are already changes toward a more democratic type of

leadership. But the process is difficult owing partly to the resistance

of groups which have a vested interest in the preservation of the

old order, and partly to actual conflict of authority between

traditional and modern leaders.30

The institution of chief has therefore, been under increasing pressure that has taken on the proportions of a siege of late.


As early as 1912, traditional Fijian leadership was challenged by westerner Apolosi Ranawai who formed the Viti Kabani and accused the chiefs of collaborating with white oppressors in suffocating Fijian economic enterprise.31 Ranawai also proposed the setting up of a separate administrative system for the Fijians, but this lost impetus with the outbreak of war. Subsequently, with his exile to Rotuma in 1917, the chiefs under the able guidance of Ratu Sukuna were able to reassert their influence on the colonial administration. In 1928, after noticing a wane in chiefly influence, Sukuna told a gathering of Bauan chiefs:

You cannot be saved by the strength and reknown of your fathers….

think of the splendid heritage bequeathed to you by Cakobau. Is

there not a danger that this heritage may be lost in your hands.32

Sukuna recognised that service to the people was what propped up the institution of chiefs. Thus the Fijian Administration that he helped craft in 1944 attempted to ensure that the needs of the Fijian people were met. This administrative apparatus institutionalised and facilitated the chief-commoner relationship of mutual dependence even though it was skewed in favour of the chiefs in the face of alien changes brought about by colonial interests. It also ensconced the Fijian in a web of regulations that not only suffocated economic enterprise, but also prevented them from developing important cross-cultural bonds with other communities until 1960 when these regulations were relaxed.33

Confusions with Representative Government

After independence in 1970, a development that was seen to have been attained by the chiefs (Ratu Mara in particular) as a victory against Indo-Fijian political designs because the 1970 constitution guaranteed Fijian control of Fijian interests, the chiefs entered the sphere of party politics within the Westminster system of democracy. This pitted commoners and public political criticism against chiefs in a manner unprecedented. There was confusion and anger at times because the Fijian masses failed to understand the workings of a modern system of parliamentary government.34 This confusion has persisted with intermittent threats being made against non-Fijian critics while Fijian political adversaries have embraced the political opportunity on offer and exhibited tremendous zeal in launching scathing attacks against chiefs who are politicians. A number of very public incidents that took place during the 1987 and 2000 coups shook the institution of the chief in ways that would leave it changed forever. As opposition to the Bavadra government gathered momentum after his swearing in as PM on 13 April 1987, the Governor General (on 22/4/87) and the Vunivalu of Bau (on 23/4/87) cautioned patience and a multiracial national focus for the good of the nation. These exhortations by two paramount chiefs of Fiji were ignored in no uncertain terms on 24 April when some 5000 protesters marched through Suva and told the GG that they would “burn down Suva and kill Indians”.35 The main organisers of the protests were commoners36 and this march would have amounted to a show of defiance against two of Fiji’s highest chiefs no matter what other rationalisations37 were forwarded later. The elevated sanctity of the institution of chief was thus being openly challenged in a threatening manner by commoners and lesser chiefs for the first time38 in post-colonial Fiji.

The 1987 Coup

Then on 14 May 1987 shortly after the first Rabuka coup was executed, prominent nationalist Sakeasi Butadroka ranted in front of the Opposition Office:

Where is Kamisese Mara? Don’t blame Bavadra, don’t blame anybody,

blame Kamisese Mara who sold Fiji. Where is he? Where is he now?

Mara, the bloody Judas Iscariot.

A crowd of onlookers had gathered in front of Parliament House by then, and Butadroka displayed no qualms about not only questioning, but ridiculing Fiji’s most prominent chief of the time. Video footage showed that the crowd merely watched with mixed expressions of perplexity, amusement and anticipation as a commoner sullied the persona of a paramount chief in public. To his credit, someone appearing to be in control was heard to exhort Butadroka into calming down.39 This voice was too insignificant to be given any credit. In fact, Butadroka’s appearance as a cabinet minister in Rabuka’s interim Council of Ministers after the second coup40 of 1987 appeared to show a total lack of concern about or an endorsement of his blasphemous behaviour earlier. This second Rabuka coup was also against two of Fiji’s three paramount chiefs at the time. There would be no reactions against Rabuka, a commoner, for his continued insolence against chiefs.41

Later, judges of the Supreme Court of Fiji rejected the coup and Chief Justice Timoci Tuivaga advised the GG to assume executive authority in defiance of Rabuka and his nationalist supporters. The GG refused to endorse Rabuka’s coup and a tug of war ensued until the GCC found a first breakthrough.42 When he arrived to address that crucial GCC meeting on 21st May 1987, the GG and paramount chief Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau was booed by coup supporters who saw his vacillation as a sign of opposition to Rabuka and his coup.43 This public show of disrespect and effrontery towards Ratu Penaia was a second act of sacrilege against another paramount chief by commoners in full view of the excited public. It appeared that the institution of the chief could no longer be relied on to uphold the rule of law in the face of nationalistic, sectoral and interest group demands. It also appeared that the mana of the chiefs could be questioned by commoners. More importantly, it appeared that vested interests could blatantly use and abuse the chiefs for personal advancement.44

The 2000 Coup

During the 2000 siege of Fiji’s parliament by George Speight and his supporters45, the Great Council of Chiefs was openly defied on a number of occasions by the military, other chiefs and Speight’s group.46 Decisional dithering and bickering amongst the chiefs prompted the Chief Justice to remark at one stage that the chiefs “were supposed to be the voice of reason, the voice of wisdom …But they are at war among themselves” (Australian, 6/6/00, p.9). Interim deputy PM, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau was scathing in his condemnation when he acknowledged the “unadulterated greed and the unbelievable arrogance (that) was shamelessly displayed by chiefs and people alike on May 19” (scoop, 20/12/00). It is an open secret that chiefs were aggressively jockeying for positions of power and influence within the vacuum created by the coup. One incident that broke out of the halloed halls of silence of the GCC at the time involved one coup-intoxicated Naitasiri chief who broke protocol and berated yanuyanu or island chiefs saying that they were overstepping their marks as “visitors” to Viti Levu. Sources say that chiefly diplomacy from Cakaudrove averted a potentially violent confrontation on that occasion. After the signing of the Muanikau Accord between the military and Speight on 9 July 2000, civil defiance and violence was escalated throughout the country in an attempt to intimidate and influence the forthcoming GCC meeting. Rebel Jo Nata boasted that this was like “holding a gun to the chief’s heads” (Australian, 13/7/00, p.7). The frontiers of public acceptance of effrontery against chiefs had indeed been removed. In characteristic fashion, the Speight Coup was being rationalised and explained in terms of the “Indian threat”. Race was again being used as a powerful weapon to mobilise Fijian support for nebulous causes that had actually been spawned by parochial interests.

Speight however, was also leading not only “a middle class revolution against the Fijian establishment symbolised by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara” as asserted by Lal (00), but a revolution of the traditionally marginalised power structure. This was seen in the openly disrespectful, critical and dismissive tones in which Ratu Mara’s name was being evoked. There were calls for his resignation, loud whispers of his “demonic” links with the Masons, allegations of dynastic ambitions with one son-in-law having designs on the title of Tui Cakau and another on the title of Vunivalu. There were also animated grumblings about the long reign of the eastern hierarchies over the rest of Fiji. This is understood better when seen in light of the fact that Fijian society comprises three matanitu (confederacies)47, therefore, there are three paramount chiefs in Fiji.48The relative strengths of these chiefs have varied over time even though kubuna and the vunivalu were dominant until the emergence of Ratu Sukuna49 in the early 1900s. It also needs to be noted that what the colonial administration “froze” as the traditional Fijian chiefly structure in 1874 was a state at that point in time on an ever-changing power-political stage.50 The three dominant matanitu thus became firmly established even though other matanitu had emerged at different times in history. In fact, demands for a fourth matanitu called yasayasa vaka ra have surfaced with increasing stridency during times of political instability in recent years. This coup had pitted matanitu against matanitu. There were too many unclear interests and demands that prompted the army to adopt an unexpectedly firm stance. This is what saved the situation from deteriorating into complete anarchy. The chiefs were obviously unable to deliver under the circumstances.

Mutiny at the Barracks

On 2 November 2000 however, a bloody mutiny broke out at the Fiji Military Forces HQ in Nabua. The aim of this latest uprising was to liquidate Commander Voreqe Bainimaramara and replace him with a military man more amenable to interests who had been supporting the Speight factions during the coup standoff. Chiefly involvement was established, and on 24th November 2004 the Qaranivalu, a high chief of Naitasiri, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for this rebellion51. This was followed by the gaoling of the Tui Cakau, the paramount chief of Tovata in June 2005 for inciting rebellion at the Sukanaivalu Barracks in Labasa during the November 2000 mutiny. Three other lesser chiefs, the Tui Nadogo, Tui Wailevu, and Ratu Josefa Dimuri of Macuata were also gaoled with him by the Labasa Magistrates Court for the same offence. Commander Bainimarama, who emerged in a strengthened position after the mutiny, was reported to have earlier lamented that “the only thing that united indigenous Fijians [is] their dislike for Indians,” that the instability “would not have happened if the chiefs had been united,” and that the chiefs should be “more honest and open to each other.”52 The growing frustration of the masses with their chiefs was becoming a matter for military concern. In recognition of the enormity of commoner disillusionment and demands (as seen during the 2000 crisis) and the very real threat that this posed to the institution of chief in Fiji, the GCC meeting of April 2001 heard calls for greater chiefly representation in Fiji’s parliament (fijilive, 27/4/01). Government’s response was to allocate $20m to the GCC to make it financially independent so that it could strengthen the chiefly system over time. A major administration complex is already under construction to give the GCC a more visible presence in Fiji.

The 2001 Elections

The general elections of 2001 brought into power a Fijian commoner who had the backing of a divided and dithering Fijian establishment. In what was a first for Fiji, PM Laisenia Qarase had neither a military career53 nor the open backing of the majority of Fiji’s more powerful chiefs54. Qarase, a banker by profession, was in many ways a man of very common background. His SDL political party emerged as a replacement for the tarnished SVT of Rabuka which had lost the 1999 elections to Chaudhry’s FLP. The SDL however, does not have the widespread Fijian backing previously enjoyed by the SVT government. The fact that a commoner has assumed the reins of government amidst a divided Fijian establishment has brought to question the need for widespread chiefly support for Fijian political parties to succeed in national politics.

Coup Supporters and the SDL Government

Moreover, the SDL government has within its ranks a number of Ministers and senior members who were part of the illegal and treasonous Speight regime.55 This association of PM Qarase with coup elements has created an unprecedented public divide within the ranks of the GCC. The ascension of Ratu Epeli Ganilau, an FLP government nominated member of the GCC, to the prominent position of GCC Chairman, had helped paper over the ominous rifts that were threatening a number of political groupings within the Fijian establishment. The GCC Chairman’s strong public pronouncements on the need for tolerance, multiracialism and reconciliation tended to grate against government rhetoric on special Fijian rights and privileges. Ratu Epeli was also consistently calling for the paramountcy of the rule of law in dealing with coup elements. This came to a head when Ratu Epeli asked the Vice-President to resign because of his involvement in the 2000 coup.56 Government’s initial response was to attempt to discredit him through the media.

In a scathing public attack Information Minister Simione Kaitani, a commoner, accused him of showing disrespect for the rule of law and lacking integrity and transparency. He also called for his resignation accusing him of causing divisions57 among his own people and being disrespectful to his high chief, the Tui Cakau (fijilive 22/6/04). Similar attacks followed from Ratu Josefa Dimuri of the CAMV party58 which is presently in coalition with the SDL government. Ratu Josefa called for Ratu Epeli to step down as chairman of the GGC for his alleged involvement in the removal of former president Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. He also accused him of being power-hungry and wanting to usurp the post of vice-President. Furthermore, he reintroduced the Kubuna-Tovata tug-of-war that was a major part of the hidden power struggle in the 2000 upheavals by saying that Ratu Epeli, a high chief of Tovata had insulted the Kubuna people by calling for the resignation of their own high chief, the vice-President (fijilive, 22/6/04). Ironically, by saying this publicly Ratu Josefa was himself insulting a high chief linked to his own vanua of Macuata. These outbursts exposed publicly for the very first time open undignified and unchiefly acrimony among ranking chiefs in Fiji. It also eroded further the already frayed mana of the chief. Ratu Epeli’s subsequent dismissal from the GCC by PM Qarase through some disputed interpretations of his contract term, and a refusal to renew his membership, helped remove him from the Chairmanship. A prominent nominated chief had thus been removed by an elected commoner from membership in the only constitutional body that gave Fiji’s chiefs a role in government. Referring to this as a “wakeup call for chiefs”, Filipe Bole59 warned that this was the beginning of a marginalization process of chiefly authority ( 23/7/04).

No More “Big” Chiefs

Indeed with the passing away in May 2004 of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and later in July of Adi Lady Lala Mara, the Fijian establishment has been left with a yawning leadership void. Fiji does not have any unanimously installed paramount chiefs of larger-than-life stature anymore.60 With the passing away of the last Tui Cakau, Ratu Glenville Lalabalavu, Tovata endured a power struggle between two cousins. Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu was finally installed as Tui Cakau, but the people of Cakaudrove have been divided on this. Ratu Naiqama’s involvement with the 2000 coup, and his subsequent gaoling, has also tarnished his image to a considerable extent.61 His rival Ratu Epeli Ganilau’s removal from the chairmanship of the GCC by a government in which Ratu Naiqama is DPM, has tended to widen the rift between these two chiefly cousins of Tovata. The confederacy of Kubuna has been without a head called Vunivalu, since the passing away of Ratu Sir George Cakobau in 1989, because of intense internal disagreement among the cousins of the House of Mataiwelagi in Bau. The third confederacy of Burebasaga lost its paramount chief with the passing away of the Roko Tui Dreketi, Adi Lady Lala Mara in 2004. The new Roko Tui Dreketi appears to lack the larger-than-life profile of her late sister. And the one chief who still has the status and mana to command widespread respect is the ailing octogenarian President Ratu Josefa Iloilo. With his impending death, Fijian society will be left with an unprecedented leadership void. This would present an extremely enticing opportunity for lesser chiefs as well as commoners to fill.

The RTU Bill62 and the Leadership Void?

The Qarase government has already acted by proposing amendments to the 1997 Constitution that would allow commoner public office holders to become members of the GCC. This could allow government to gain control of the GCC, and through it, the provincial and tikina councils. This was very much evident in the manner the RTU Bill was moved through the various provincial councils before it was discussed by the GCC. In fact, amid growing opposition from all sections of the community, the PM had defiantly declared that he did not need to consult anyone (even the GCC) on the Bill. When the GCC finally met to deliberate on the Bill on 27-28th July 2005, all 14 of the provincial councils had already been guided by sympathetic bureaucrats, professionals and politicians to endorse it. Open deliberations by the GCC were therefore, pre-empted and the GCC decision was a foregone conclusion.

An important check on government conduct is therefore being removed subtly while the institution of chief continues to be minimised within the Fijian establishment. On the other hand, government’s control of the public coffers has the potential to reduce the remaining chiefly members of the GCC to being mere supporters of government proposals and policies on matters pertaining to Fijian land, customs and traditional rights. Bole sees this as “a slow manipulation by common people to get into the authority of chiefs and it is more destabilising than the coup" ( 23/7/04). He fears that this could lead to the extinction of chiefs in Fiji. Indeed the convening of the GCC at the whim of some elected government could lead to a dangerous and irrevocable detraction of its mana, and in the process, its very legitimacy within the traditional Fijian system.


Fiji’s chiefs have uncompromisingly guarded their position in Fijian as well as Fiji society. This has not been an easy task because there is an unresolved contradiction between the position and role of the chief in the traditional structure within which Fijians are supposed to live and the modern democratic structure which has been superimposed on this. This stems largely from the fact that the chief has historically played a key role in society as well as in government. The fear of Indian domination, both real and imaginary, has been used repeatedly to rally Fijians behind their chiefs in order to preserve the traditional structure that virtually guarantees chiefly status. This structure however, does not guarantee power and influence within the modern capitalist framework. Thus chiefs have been compelled to forge socio-political and economic alliances, aspire to public and political positions, and engage in economic enterprise. These endeavours have acquired strategic significance at a time when the institution of chief has been facing increasing threats of gradual dissolution from external influences as well as internal contradictions. Chiefly demands for special privileges and concessions have heightened in tandem with this. Whether the ensuing tensions and dilemmas will be resolved with a view to giving the institution of chief a new lease of life and enshrining it for another period of time, or whether parochial political-economic interests will subvert this noble motivation will finally determine the position of the 21st Century chief in Fijian society. This will, of necessity, have important implications for the shape that Fijian society, as well as Fiji society as a whole, takes as the country forges into a rapidly globalising and increasingly inter-dependent modern world environment.


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Fiji Sun

Fiji Times



I wish to acknowledge the following persons for reviewing this paper:

Professor Tupeni Baba, Visiting Professor, Pacific Studies Department, The University of Auckland, Private Mailbag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand.


Mr. Shiva Sankaran, Advisor, Tertiary Education Commission, Auckland, NZ.

Short Biography of Author

I attained my BA (Economics/Administration) from USP in 1986; Diploma in Japanese Studies from Osaka University of Foreign Studies in 1987; MA from Sophia University (Tokyo) in 1990. I was appointed Lecturer in Management at the University of the South Pacific (Fiji) in 1991.

Between 1991-2001 I taught a range of courses in Management. I also wrote extension packages for courses Introduction to Management and Operations Management. Between 1994-1995, I revisited Japan for a year as a Japan Foundation Fellow researching “Japanese-style Operations Management”.

In 2001 I joined the University of Auckland as a PhD candidate as well as tutor in management. My thesis is titled: Public Enterprise Restructuring in Fiji.