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Fiji: Another Constitution in the Making

Fiji, a nation in the Pacific has more experience in formulating, adopting and then destroying Constitutions than any other Pacific nation. Since independence, it has had the 1970 Constitution that was trashed, following the first military takeover of a civilian Government on May 14, 1987; it later replaced it with the 1990 Constitution that was blatantly racist both in content and intent. However, it failed to fulfil the dreams and aspirations of the coup makers and was later replaced by the 1997 Constitution that was again trashed when the court ruled that the December 5, 2006 coup was illegal.

It will be recalled that the High Court found the actions of the President in dismissing Qarase and appointing Bainimarama to be legitimate. Subsequently, Appeals Court with four Australian judges reversed the High Court decision and ruled that the President did not have the emergency powers he claimed. The current, military-installed Government took office on December 5, 2006. It has ruled since, promising the formulation of a new Constitution and elections before September 2014. It seems to be on track to fulfil its promises to the nation and the announcement of the formulation process has been welcomed nationally and internationally. The proposed Constitution is to be formulated in accordance with the provisions of the People’s Charter for Change that advocates –

1) A common citizenry;
2) A secular state;
3) The removal of systemic corruption;
4) An independent judiciary;
5) Elimination of discrimination;
6) Good and transparent governance;
7) Social justice;
8) One person, one vote, one value;
9) The elimination of ethnic voting;
10) Proportional representation;
11) Voting age of 18.

The noble precepts of the People’s Charter for Change are expected to be the core content of the proposed Constitution, which will be a significant departure from the past Constitutions that dwelt strongly on ethnicity and ethnic representation, which compromised the basic essence of democracy i.e. one person, one vote, one value. The past Constitutions consolidated racial divisions, inhibited racial integration and contributed to political instability that led to social, political and economic chaos. Indeed, politics of race has been a serious impediment to Fiji’s social and economic growth and political stability.

Historically, Fiji has had a long experiment with politics that was race-based. It has proven successively that politics of race neither benefited the indigenous Fijians (the targeted beneficiaries) nor Indo-Fijians (the victims). The system created indigenous elites that comprised of the chiefs and those that climbed the indigenous political ladder for one reason or other. They became and posed as God’s chosen ones to guide the destiny of a divided Fiji. The racial divisions only helped them to prosper while others fought for the crumbs. It was cruel and evil but packaged and promoted in such a way that the so-called leaders were viewed and accepted as the true champions of the indigenous community. The truth was that they discreetly and deviously promoted their self interest above the interests of the community that they purported to serve.

Interestingly, the people of Fiji accepted the villainy of the elites without resistance, as truth was submerged in the debris of deceit and lies that characterized successive Fijian Governments. Sadly, the ordinary indigenous Fijians remained loyal to their leaders and Indo-Fijians accepted their plight in the absence of enlightened and committed leadership. Their prime focus was education of their children and immigration, as their hope, faith and trust in a fair political and administrative system in Fiji was long gone. Fiji’s democracy was hollow and under its cover, they had suffered much and the noose around their necks kept tightening every passing day. Most were of the view that it was all systematically designed to accelerate their exodus overseas and it worked miraculously for its proponents. Over 200,000 Indo-Fijians now live overseas and the Indo-Fijian population has dropped from 52 per cent to 34 per cent since the first coup of May 14, 1987.

Will the proposed Constitution allay Indo-Fijian fears and restore their faith and trust in Fiji? Hardly, if recent history is to be taken as a guide. The 1997 Constitution was adopted with great fanfare. It was meant to augur the spirit of multiracialism and unite the peoples of Fiji. It was widely felt that Fiji had learnt its lessons, as it suffered international ostracism, widespread poverty and unemployment following the first coup. The plight of ordinary indigenous Fijians was no better than what they were before the coup. The then Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, the coup maker, subsequently expressed his remorse before the nation and urged the peoples of Fiji to unite and work together for the common good. With his appeal, the proposed Constitution received unanimous approval from everyone including the Great Council of Chiefs.

However, the elation was short-lived, as the 1999 general elections held under the provisions of the 1997 Constitution, produced a result that elected an Indo-Fijian dominated Government and an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister. The tables were swiftly turned, as those that lauded the new Constitution condemned it, as it failed to give them the desired electoral result, ensuring indigenous political supremacy. Within a year the elected Government was again cruelly deposed in a coup. This was called a civilian coup that had covert support from sections of the Fijian army. It succeeded but it caused created deep fissures in indigenous politics that subsequently contributed to the Fijian army turning against the indigenous Fijian elites.

In an about turn, the Fijian army is now at the forefront of the Constitution formulation process and it wants its formulation to be in accordance with the provisions of the People’s Charter. The troublemakers, nationalists, chiefs and elites who advocated racism have been neutralized. This scenario has changed the political landscape of Fiji dramatically. Basically, the servant of the State is now the master and is calling the shots.
The appointment of Professor Yash Ghai as the Chairman of the Constitutional Commission is significant. He is an internationally acclaimed constitution and human rights expert who has helped many countries in the formulation their Constitutions. Indeed, he had substantial input in the formulation of Fiji’s 1997 Constitution, as his services were enlisted by the National Federation Party in making submissions to the Reeve’s Commission. The other two appointees, Taufa Vakatale and Satendra Nandan are national icons who would no doubt provide valuable assistance to the Constitutional Commission. Names of two other members to serve on the Constitutional Commission are to be announced later.

The schedule of activities certainly appear to be tight but the desire of the Government to engage everyone in the process is worthy of praise. In May, a civic education process is to be initiated to ensure that people have the necessary information available so that they constructively engage in the process.  Some of the issues that people are expected to express their views include –

-Should social and economic rights be included in the Bill of Rights?
-What should be the size of the new Parliament?
-How to attract better quality of candidates in the Parliament?
-Should there be a Senate? If yes, should Senators be elected or selected;
-How should the judiciary be selected;
-Should political parties and their office holders disclose their assets and liabilities

In the chain of planned events, from July – September consultations will commence between the Constitutional Commission and the people and from October – December the Commission will collate the public submissions and based on the Guiding Principles, it will draft a Constitution. It is expected that the draft Constitution will be placed before a Constituent Assembly for its consideration. It will comprise of representatives of the civil society groups and organizations that are Fijian registered, including faith-based organizations, national institutions, political parties and Government.

The Constituent Assembly will debate the draft Constitution and will make amendments if and where necessary and the approved Constitution will then be given for assent to by the President. The composition of the Constituent Assembly is expected to be announced by December this year, including its powers and operational details. This announcement has received positive response from Australian and New Zealand Governments.

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Year 2013
Fame will come to you in the first half of this year. With fun and delight, you’ll be able to lead your life. Try to fight with tension and anxiety. You will earn much money during the end of the year.

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