Fiji election 2014: “Whose nation is it, anyway?”

This month, the people of Fiji go to the polls for the first time in eight years. The conditions and context in which the Fiji Islanders will elect their government are unlike any in the country’s modern history: the military is at the helm of power, the voting is based on a principle of one-person one-vote, and the constitution stipulates “Fijian” as a shared national name for all citizens irrespective of ethnicity. There is no clear mandate for any of the political parties contesting the upcoming election. This in turn means that we cannot easily predict the outcome of the election – for which polling begins in some parts of the country on 3rd September – nor of the ensuing days, weeks, months and years.
Will the country descend into yet another crisis of coups and violence? Will democracy have its day? Will government continue to be synonymous with military rule? Will all the people presently designated as Fijian remain so after the votes are counted and policies are shaped? The implicit question underlying all of these is perhaps most appropriately summed up as: “Whose nation is it, anyway?” The answer remains as elusive now as in the past. This, I argue, is because political discourse in the beautiful yet conflicted South Pacific archipelago remains oriented towards the ethnic conflict paradigm.
Ethnicity has been a framing device of social, economic, historical and political discourse in Fiji since the settlement of Indo-Fijian labourers in the early 1900s. Brought in to develop the country’s economy through sugar-cane farming, while the British sought to maintain the cultural integrity and practices of the indigenous Fijians, the Indo-Fijians have long clamoured for equal status and combined with their Fijian colleagues in workers’ struggles against the state. It is the democratic and socialist underpinnings of the Indo-Fijian community that has led to their being identified as enemies of the Fijians, as aspirational colonisers.
What has ensued is a blanket acceptance that ethnic conflict between Fijians and their Indo-Fijian brethren is a fact of life in Fiji, despite growing visibility of intra-Fijian struggles for power. When election results have reflected the fracturing of the Fijian ethnic bloc – through the formation of Fiji Labour Party-led government coalitions – coups have sufficed to swing the pendulum of political power back to indigenous rule. As in 1987 and 2000, in 2006 the country faced the dilemma of yet another coup, but this latest event shifted the parameters of what coups do in Fiji.
In 2006, the military assumed political power that was already in indigenous hands. On a personal level, there was an element of RFMF Commander Bainimarama’s appetite for power, whetted during the 2000 crisis; and his refusal to countenance legislation that might free people involved in personally attacking him during the 2000 crisis. With respect to the ethnic principle underlying the previous two coups, 2006 displaced it rather than embracing it; and in terms of the ever-growing visibility of intra-Fijian power plays, it announced– albeit perhaps temporarily – the arrival of a new force in Fijian cultural-political terms: that of the military as opposed to the chiefs.
The 2006 coup initially brokered an image of itself as reorienting the country towards a future of multi-ethnic peace – a coup-less future. Constitutionally, every citizen of Fiji is now a Fijian; the voting system has discarded ethnic voting seats which is unprecedented in Fiji’s electoral history, which means there is now one constituency and one person, one vote. The Great Council of Chiefs, the base of Fijian power institutionalised during colonialism but no less dynamic in its internal dynamic power plays, was disbanded, and effort was made to shift indigenous Fijians’ conception of the vanua towards a horizontal democracy depending on individual consciousness.
But, withdrawing ethnicity as a frame of political discourse and reference of identity has backfired. After eight years of military-enshrined rule, of paradoxes and uncertainties, of fragile narratives and clear abuses, of decrees and dictatorship, of equality irrespective of ethnicity, of equal voting rights, Fiji’s present political discourse is closely wedded to the discourse of its past. So, as 17th September – the main election day – approaches, we are led to ponder what hope is there for real sustainable change in Fiji?
I was asked by one leading think tank to write on the power of the youth, on the basis that between 30-40% of Fiji’s electorate are first-time voters. My response: albeit that the global landscape is dominated by a clamour for democracy whose figurehead remains (wrong-headedly, in my view) the Arab Spring, people can only vote within the scope of the politics parlayed before them. Fiji is not a country whose people will risk getting fired upon by those who wield power from the barrel of a gun, and especially not when erstwhile leaders and agitators for such protest have been prominent by their absence these past eight years.
The youth of Fiji today is much like the youth of Fiji’s yesteryear. Each generation must choose how it wishes to navigate the tensions between culture and tradition on one hand, and democracy and equality on the other: for many, the navigation is that between dialectical realities, not between stark dichotomies. Within hierarchy, there exists competitive equality, a possibility for new hierarchies to be made and possibly re-made. Indeed, if there is one lesson to learn from Fiji, it is that things are always transforming, always in a process of becoming, without ever quite arriving.
Daniel Urai, a former Fiji Trades Union Congress leader, once told me that his dream was for every child in Fiji to go to sleep at night knowing he or she might one day lead their country. This may not be written into Fiji’s future, but for now, for this month, on 17th September, the youth of the country have the power to decide however temporarily whose nation it is, anyway.

Fiji: whose nation is it anyway?

As I write this it is 9pm BST on 9th October. In the Pacific timezone, Fiji Day has dawned – the country is taking note of the 42nd anniversary of its independence from British colonial rule, and submissions to Fiji’s constitution commission draw to a close.

According to reports emerging from the region, the submissions to Fiji’s constitution commission have focused on poverty and governance, with a mixed bag of views presented on whether the identity term ‘Fijian’ should be ethnically or civically applied. The international reknown of ‘Fijian’ golfer Vijay Singh is a freely acknowledged source of pride within the country, but domestically there is a reluctance to disinter the identity-label ‘Fijian’ from its application to the pre-colonial inhabitants of Fiji.

In a world riven with consciousness of ethnicity – as a fulcrum of identity that secures its meaningfulness from whatever aspect of uniqueness vis-a-vis others can successfully gain traction either among in-group or out-group members – “Fijian for Fijians” might almost appear commonplace.

And yet we demand of ethnic identity a contrapuntal existence with other seemingly paradoxical realities: in the 1990s it was globalisation, which led neatly on to a theoretical structuration of the world along glocal lines, wherein we sought to profess as coterminous, if not exactly wedded to each other, the idea of global movement and local situatedness. In the early light of the 2000s, it is transnationalism: after the whirlwind romance of ideating ourselves as citizens of the world emerges our sense of entitlement to rights, privileges and identities spanning the countries of our existence.

But in the flux of globalism and transnationalism – of diasporic identity and discourse – remains the very specific case of ethnic identity at home. We may like a successful export from our country being identified as originating from that place – Vijay Singh as Fijian – because it puts us on the map, grants us legitimacy and credibility, gives us street cred as a member state of the world; but simultaneously we want, as the people who still live and breathe the air of our homeland, to be granted a status that reflects our embodiment of the continuity between a people and its land.

I’m not Fijian, by the way. That disclaimer, I grant, may be necessary given the preceding paragraph full of reference to “we”. I have, however, conducted doctoral ethnographic fieldwork in Fiji and I do steer a stridently heuristic line of enquiry and analysis made almost inevitable because as an Indian living in Fiji I was unreflexively incorporated into native Fiji categories of identification upon arrival – I fit the ethnic framework, to be blunt.

So, we have widespread articulation of ethnicity in the world, and its forced interlocution with globalisation and now transnationalism and the modes of belonging and identity these bring – hence, it’s difficult to know anymore (if ever it was in fact easy!) what the basic constituent of identity is or ought to be.

Are we evaluating identity and belonging on the basis of territorial orgin, this being one of the significant agreed markers of ethnic identity? And if so, how willing are we to acknowledge that the moment of territorial origin – the moment in which it cleaves to a group’s collective emotional memory and mainfests a sense of belonging – may apply to the same land mass but in different moments in history and to ethnies other than ourselves?

For it is in the moment of Cession that we locate the precept of Fijian paramounty, and in the moment linking post-indenture and anti-colonial articulation that Fiji’s Indians feel themselves to be sons of the soil. The common ground between the two is the Fijian soil as the territory of origin inscribing these ethnic identities; the question is whether being able to claim longer duration of linkage to the land, as the ethnic Fijians can correctly claim, proscribes any other group from manifesting belonging to the land.

The answer is yes. And no. The Indians of Fiji wish to be known as Fijians alongside their Fijian brothers. The Fijians of Fiji wish a demarcation of iTaukei identity from other Fiji Islanders in recognition of their longer attachment to the land. I almost hesitate to suggest the solution that beckons to me, therefore, so simple is its connectedness to what Fiji’s various peoples feel for and about her….

All citizens of Fiji ought to bear the title of Fijian, with reference to ethnicity (when appropriate or necessary) leading the “Fijian” to be appended with the relevant ethnicity in all cases (so we have Fijian Indian, for example) except in the case of ethnic Fijians who ought to be accorded their historic status as iTaukei when referred to in specifically ethnic rather than civic terms.