Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ratu Epeli's Tongan Connection

In the name of the President

Morgan Tuimaleali'ifano - Thursday, November 19, 2009

Stories about the new President (Fiji Times November 5 and 6 2009) make for interesting reading but your readers may have been a bit confused by the new President's Tongan connections. His distinguished Tongan connection is well known and given his recent elevation to Fiji's highest office, a reminder of the ancient relations between Fiji and Tonga might serve a useful purpose. It also serves as a reminder of how often our circumstances (now and future) are determined largely by forces outside our control.

Ratu Epeli Nailatikau's well known Tongan connection is perhaps too well known for the Mataqali na Tui Kaba. Like anyone else, he had nothing to do with the way his pedigree panned out. Some might explain it in the stars, others the waywardness of the heart.

His grandmother, Adi Litia Cakobau, was the daughter of Bauan Ratu Timoci Tavanavanua and Tupoutu'a of the Veikune family of Vava'u, Tonga. The story goes, in 1908, when the lovely Adi Litia was visiting Tongan relatives, she was seen and approached by the impetuous Tongan king, Tupou II.

The product of this brief romantic encounter was Ratu Edward. He was born in Bau in 1908 and was the second son of Tupou II, the oldest being Vilai, born in 1898.

Ratu Edward was given the Cakobau name from his maternal great-grandfather's side. When he visited Tonga for the first time in 1934, he was nicknamed Tungi Fisi in recognition of his high rank in Tonga. Queen Salote Tupou III and Princess Fusipala were therefore his half-sisters, and his son, Ratu Epeli, is therefore a cousin to the late king of Tonga, Tupou IV. The current king, George Tupou V, is the great-grandson of King George II. This material is available in Elizabeth Wood-Ellem's Queen Salote of Tonga, The Story of an Era 1900-1965, published in 1999.

On the other side, Ratu Epeli's great-grandfather, Ratu Timoci Tavanavanua, is of the Mataqali Tui Kaba of Bau, one that has been under siege from within since November 25, 1989.

The Tongan connection also runs deep in his wife's pedigree. Adi Koila's paternal grandmother, Lusiana Qolikoro, was one of eight striking daughters of a Tongan Wesleyan church minister and his kai loma or part-European wife of the Miller family. These and other intriguing details are told by Deryck Scarr in his Tuimacilai a Life of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara launched in October by Papua New Guinea's Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare and our region's elder statesman.

Ratu Epeli's elevation to the highest office is important in another way - for what it signals about transformative changes taking place in Fiji. His appointment by the Bainimarama government in some ways represents a revolution, a quiet one yet nevertheless a revolution.

Why "revolutionary" your readers might well ask? Because the constitutional author of such appointment, the colonially instituted Great Council of Chiefs has been disregarded. In a tit for tat, the GCC had rejected Ratu Epeli's nomination and in turn the GCC has been shown, if Bainimarama is correctly reported, the "Mango Tree".

But more than that, for the first time since independence, a Fijian Head of State has been appointed without a vanua title. Not that being without vanua title can prevent an appointment, and although Ratu Epeli's genealogy is impeccably aristocratic, his appointment marks a significant shift in Fiji's social arrangements.

Under the imprimatur of the GCC, the past four heads of state have maintained the principle of equity among the three 19th century Confederations. The first was Ratu Sir George Cakobau, installed as the Vunivalu na Tui Kaba title and titular head of Kubuna. The second was Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, the Tui Cakau titleholder and titular head of Tovata. The third was Ratu Sir Kamiese Mara, bearers of Tui Nayau and Sau ni Vanua ko Lau titles of Lau, again of Tovata but undoubtedly taking cognizance that his wife, Adi Lady Lalabalavu Litia, was Roko Tui Dreketi, the eminent chieftain title of the Rewa-based Burebasaga.

Right to his grave, the enigmatic Sakiasi Butadroka of Rewa, decried his chieftain's being cast in the shadow of her imperious, towering but lesser ranking husband. The principle of rotating the office of head of state among the titular heads of the three confederations appealed to the vanua sense of history and fairness.

The fourth and recently retired President was Ratu Josefa Uluivuda Iloilo, Tui Vuda, a major district chief from the chauvinistic Yasayasa Vakara in the West, the fourth confederacy, with close affiliation to Burebasaga. Through Ratu Josefa, Burebasaga got its full tenure of government house!

With the principle of rotation established in this way, would Ratu Epeli Nailatikau's appointment been confirmed in the next appointment by the GCC?

The appointment of Ratu Epeli as the current and fifth head of state, returns the position to Kubuna. However, the recycle marks a radical departure from the established practice. Not only is he the first without the blessing of the GCC but he is also the first without a vanua title. Could he be setting a pattern for future heads of state or is his appointment merely an anomaly that will be corrected in time? He has the Naisogolaca inheritance and vasu to the Qaranivalu of Naitasiri and his Tongan royal family connection. Will Fijians regard these connections as sufficient in themselves? This change may appeal to modern oriented Fijians. Unfettered by a vanua title, will this make the President more accessible to ordinary citizens from all walks of life? He seems so.

Since 1987 to 2006, the word 'normal' has acquired many meanings for Fiji, and current high political appointments reflects social stresses in the local establishment. Whether these appointments will endure beyond the military regime remains to be seen. Furthermore, whether the chiefs as a collective form will ever respond, as with the currently fragmented Methodist Church, also remains to be seen. For the moment, the shift within the local tectonic plates provides interesting movements for readers.

* The views expressed in this article are that of the author and not necessarily the Fiji Times or the University of the South Pacific where he lectures history.

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