My family has lived in Fiji since 1996. During the 2000 ‘Speight Coup’ the military took over my Dad’s house as its base of operations, which led to him unexpectedly showing up at my place in New Zealand. It was also one of a few encounters my family and the Bainimaramas would have over the years.
When the 2006 coup took place, I was living in London, feeling helpless while the grounds around Dad’s house and my siblings’ school were surrounded by soldiers. A couple of years later, my brother took Bainimarama’s daughter to her ball, which led to a ridiculously angry phone call from London and a hilarious conversation between us:
“Look, keep your head and don’t get beaten up by soldiers.”
“Bro, he’s cool — he gave us a keg of beer.”
“You can’t take free beer from a military madman!!”
“But it was free!!”
Since the Fijian coup d’état in 1987, there is now a generation that has grown up with more coups than elections. The military has been in control of the country for most of that generation’s life.
The short of it is that Frank Bainimarama took full control of Fiji in November 2006, declaring himself a benevolent dictator with a vision for a brighter future. His goals were, amongst other things, the eradication of race-based politics. His methods were authoritarian and, in some cases, disturbingly brutal. The question is, after eight years, can he give up that power? And what is New Zealand prepared to do if he doesn’t?
But that’s all a bit serious for one of my columns. So go and look for yourself and, in the meantime, here are some quirky Fijian facts:
- Fiji’s slogan is “Where happiness finds you”, which, given the country’s strong armed military government, is more sinister than they intended.
- Fijian elections are known as ‘coups’, and generally occur either three to six months after a democratic voting count or when the head of the military runs out of things to do.
- Fiji’s current prime minister, Josaia Voreqe (Frank ‘The Tank’) Bainimarama, resigned when his coup was deemed illegal. The president he had appointed then sacked the Supreme Court, threw out the constitution and causally reinstated Bainimarama. Totally legit.
- The current president, Epeli Nailatikau, was appointed when Frank Bainimarama spat out of a window and hit Nailatikau’s head while he was walking by. This is known as a Bainimarama divine blessing.
- Bainimarama’s favourite political move is the side-step.
- Fiji used to be known as the ‘Cannibal Islands’. In modern times, however, it is now known as the ‘Commodore’s Islands’.
Why does all this matter to New Zealand? Because, as China invests in developing Pacific countries and the US feels it has to ramp up its presence, New Zealand, as one of the world’s largest Pacific hubs, finds itself caught in the middle. But perhaps even more importantly — in the strange Kiwi way that makes everyone a ‘bro’ — Fijians are our ‘cuzzies’ — and your family, no matter how frustrating it may be, counts.