Colour, Class and Custom

Five: Explanations Involving Specific Interest

The motivations of specific organizations and individuals are the main subject of Lal's Power and Prejudice (1988a). Lal considers the coup to have been 'more about frustrated politicians bent upon recapturing power lost at the polls than ... about ethnic prejudice' (ibid.:7). His analysis treats each systemic factor as only one element among the many which make up an explanation for the coup. While this approach tends to undervalue some factors, it does allow valuable insights to be made into the motivations of key players.

This section deals with the 'specific interests' of four groupings of organizations and individuals: first, the United States and other external forces; secondly, Rabuka and the RFMF; thirdly, the governor-general; and fourthly, Mara.

The United States and other external forces

The promise by the Bavadra government to ban nuclear ship visits to Fiji, although merely a reversion to pre-1983 Fiji government policy, was considered by many observers to be a threat to US interests in the Pacific. This and some of the events surrounding the coup raised the possibility of CIA involvement in the coup's planning and execution.

Given the CIA's track record, it is no surprise that such suspicions should arise; as Ralph Premdas says, 'the behavior of the US in other parts of the Third World is powerfully suggestive' (1989:109). These suspicions increased dramatically two days after the coup when the Sydney Morning Herald reported an 'unnamed Pentagon source' as saying 'we're kinda delighted. ... All of a sudden our ships couldn't go into Fiji, and now all of a sudden they can' (quoted in Wilkes 1987:4). This anonymous quotation has probably done more to keep the 'CIA theory' alive than anything else.

The theory's primary champion has been Owen Wilkes, whose argument appears in an article published in various New Zealand newsletters.[59] The theory gained further exposure when a similar article by Joann Wypijewski was reprinted by the prominent magazine Pacific Islands Monthly (October 1987, pp.46-48; the article was first published in the New York-based The Nation) and when Wendy Bacon produced a report for SBS Television's 'Dateline' programme following Rabuka's second intervention (see Robie 1989:244-45).

Wilkes argues that 'the US since 1982 has been increasingly intervening in Fijian political, economic and trade union affairs', and notes 'a visit by America's foremost coup-maker [General Vernon Walters] and a stepping up of CIA activity immediately prior to the coup' (1987:4). His evidence for the former is the involvement in Fiji's affairs of various American-backed organizations, such as Business International, the Pacific Islands Development Program, and the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, all allegedly linked to the CIA. As for Vernon Walters, 'America's top expert on coups' (ibid.:7) Wilkes says:

There is no evidence he was actively involved in coup preparation. Presumably, however, he conveyed some sort of assurance to whoever was planning the coup that US assistance and support would be forthcoming (ibid.:8).

Joann Wypijewski, after covering similar ground to Wilkes, also notes deposed Deputy Speaker Noor Dean's conviction that 'the men who arrested him and his colleagues were not Fijian' (Pacific Islands Monthly October 1987, p.48). At least some were blacked up with shoe polish, all wore masks, and none spoke—the implication being that they were US soldiers, not Fijians. According to Wilkes, Edrick Sherman, the deputy chief of the US Embassy in Suva and 'probable head of the CIA team', was 'reportedly seen accompanying Rabuka on several occasions after the coup' (1987:9).

The chief adversary of this theory has been Michael Danby (1988), who argues that it is the result of a Soviet disinformation campaign. Danby follows the trail of key news stories from 'Moscow's principal front organization, the World Peace Council' (ibid.:43) to fringe publications and from there to the mainstream press. He dismisses allegations that 'the body movements' of the soldiers taking over Fiji's Parliament were those of American blacks as 'racist drivel'; the argument that US mercenaries were involved, he says, is 'patronizing' towards Fijians, who are perfectly capable of 'organizing and executing their own rebellions' (ibid.:45).

Danby does convincingly refute some of the more outlandish claims of US involvement in the coup; a Soviet disinformation campaign, too, seems quite possible. But Danby's argument shares some of the weaknesses of the CIA theory itself. Wilkes points to organizations with 'alleged CIA links', while Danby points to 'front organisations' and typecasts Wilkes as a 'source of information for a whole network of hard-left activists, working to extend New Zealand's anti-US policy to the rest of the Pacific' (ibid.:46). In this sea of allegations there are few solid facts.

This has been reflected in discussions of the CIA theory by the major observers: few commit themselves to a position. After examining the evidence, Robertson and Tamanisau (1988:93, 108) conclude on a note of doubt: 'Many questions remain unanswered. US reactions after the coup might simply represent opportunism'. They think it 'unlikely that the US was a prime mover' of the events of May.

Scarr is, not surprisingly, sceptical: 'The Royal Fiji Military Forces have never struck people who know them with the impression they would need CIA incitement or help ... to carry out a coup' (1988a:53). He says the visit of General Walters, 'that alleged harbinger of American coups', was 'long-planned'. And, in a swipe at Indian parliamentarians, he suggests that the soldiers carrying out the coups looked perfectly Fijian—to Fijians (ibid.:53-54).

Lal discounts the wilder allegations of US soldiers actually taking part in the coup (like Scarr, he notes that Rabuka was heard speaking in Fijian to his men). But he does not discount the overall possibility of US involvement:

Not all the evidence is in. ... The allegation that some [US] Embassy officials may have passed money and perhaps even material to members of the Taukei Movement is entirely within the realms of possibility. The real question is not whether the US was involved, but how deeply was it involved (1988a:36).

Robie, who draws heavily on Wilkes, notes the circumstantial nature of the evidence, but says 'there are too many coincidences for the possibility to be dismissed out of hand. Some involvement would not have been inconsistent with a CIA agenda' (1989:247).

But most who, on the one hand, say US involvement is a fair possibility, on the other hand admit that doubts will always exist. Events since the coup have given little firm evidence either way. Allegations in July 1987 of US plans for a military base in Fiji were quickly denied (Wypijewski 1987:46). Mara claimed soon after the coup that George Schulz had promised US aid for Fiji if Australia and New Zealand imposed trade embargoes (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:88), but the US was 'one of the few countries to suspend aid after the first coup' (van Fossen 1987:24),[60] and any promise made by Schultz has since been overshadowed by France's generous military aid to Rabuka (see, for example, Robie 1990:24-26).

That the US has not defended democracy in Fiji as vehemently as one might prefer is insufficient evidence for US involvement in the coup. The US's feting of Fiji's military (Wilkes 1987:6-7), and its wooing of Mara (who responded by revoking the pre-1983 ban on nuclear-ship visits without consulting his cabinet), is no more than one would expect of a country looking after its own interests. Wilkes has, since 1987, come to the conclusion that the coup was actually counter-productive to US interests (see Robie 1989:247); but just as this does not remove the possibility that the US helped plan the coup, neither does the probability that the US was 'kinda delighted' by the coup mean that it was involved.

The US is not the only external candidate which has been suggested as a likely instigator of the coup. Robie suggests that the influence of Australian and New Zealand businessmen such as Jeffrey Reid, the manager of Emperor Mines (which operates a large gold mine in Fiji), was 'probably even more crucial' than that of the US. Reid enjoys a close relationship with Mara and Ganilau, and, says Robie,

the Fiji Labour Party's threat to nationalise the [Vatukoula] mine, later withdrawn, no doubt played a much larger role in the events of 14 May 1987 than did the stated intention to introduce a non-nuclear policy similar to that of New Zealand (ibid.:247-48).

Bavadra has relayed reports that Reid funded the Taukei Movement and spoke at public meetings in support of it (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:67), but the direct involvement of Reid in marshalling these forces and provoking the coup is as difficult to substantiate as that of the CIA. Reid's public support would, however, have helped increase the confidence of Fiji's anti-Coalition forces.

Premdas (1989:109), for one, says that the theory of external intervention, which 'brings together the role of certain multinationals, certain ex-ministers of the previous government, and the possible role of the US' and points to 'a coincidence of interests accidentally or conspiratorially converging', in his view 'best explains the coup'.[61] But the arguments in the theory's defence are characterized by scantily supported and often qualified allegations, and doubt exists on either side of the debate, to the point where it is given little credence today. Whatever the truth behind it, external intervention is therefore probably the least useful explanation for the coup. It also has the unfortunate effect of devaluing, in the minds of some foreign observers, the powerful internal explanations discussed hitherto.

Rabuka and the RFMF

Rabuka, as the leader of the coup, is the most important of the many players in any coup explanation. He has always maintained that he acted alone in its planning. If this claim is accepted at face value, then an explanation for the coup need go no further than Rabuka's personal motives. Unfortunately, these motives were not as logical and obvious as one might prefer. They included a personal interpretation of race and custom, as has been noted in previous chapters; but private motives were also involved. These motives were nonetheless important, in that they strengthened Rabuka's determination to act as less single-minded people would not have acted. Tribal or ruling class conspiracies would have come to nought had a suitable agent not been at hand.

Robertson and Tamanisau suggest that Rabuka's views would have been well known in the appropriate 'small social and political circles'. As a result, 'only one person needed to approach him and suggest what they were seeking. He reportedly had his own axes to grind' (1988:107).

What were these 'axes to grind'? Among other things, Rabuka feared that the Coalition would endanger Fiji's allegiance to the Queen (rather ironic, in view of his later declaration of a republic). Also revealed in his account of the coup is an obsession with the threat of Russian and Libyan expansionism in the Pacific: 'there was, in his assessment, a very real likelihood of India increasing its influence in Fiji—"and behind India stands Russia"' (quoted in Dean and Ritova 1988:48). This was despite the Coalition's pledge not to allow a Russian embassy to be opened in Fiji (see Pacific Islands Monthly May 1987, p.14). In fact, the biggest Russian story in Fiji's immediate past concerned actions of the Alliance: Mara 'rocked the region' in 1986 when he announced that Fiji might negotiate a fishing agreement with the USSR (Pacific Islands Monthly August 1986, pp.20-26). Rabuka's fear of Labour Party 'socialism' ignored the pragmatism and caution shown by the Bavadra government; he saw a modern social democratic party in terms of 1950s stereotypes.

Lal has given a further explanation for Rabuka's fear of a Coalition government. For some years, the Royal Fiji Military Forces had exercised a 'blatantly discriminatory admission policy' against Indians (1988a:55). A Coalition minister, shortly after the election, approached the RFMF to see what steps could be taken towards admitting more non-Fijians (ibid.:57); the government also announced a review of the army's role in the nation. Both moves would have disturbed Rabuka:

The army was close to Rabuka's heart, and the prospect of unacceptable reform in its operations and structure may have helped to convince him to act before it was too late (ibid.).

Rabuka's own briefing notes, handed to the soldiers who carried out the coup, suggest that Lal's conclusion is too equivocal. Rabuka makes very clear the importance he accords the RFMF:

Foreign Policy
GG's position very difficult as he will be forced to accept policies which are against traditional interests but most importantly against the interests of the RFMF.
Defence Policy
They are likely to introduce measures to gain political control over RFMF e.g. intro of racial parity principle. ... This we cannot and should never accept.
To overthrow the govt and install a new regime that will ensure that the RFMF and national interests are protected ('Opord 1/87' reproduced in Dean and Ritova 1988:21-22).

Rabuka's view of the importance of the military in developing nations springs, in part, from his experience of writing a thesis on that very subject. Dean and Ritova describe his year (1979) spent at the Indian Defence Services Staff College as 'one of the most influential in his career ... deeply affecting, and directing, his political attitudes and opinions' (ibid.:28). Robie, however, has described the result of his ten months there as 'a dubious MSc "degree"' which is 'a frequent topic of bar jokes by his civilian and military colleagues' (Robie 1989:227-28). Rabuka had twice failed New Zealand's University Entrance examinations. His thesis was said to be 'heavily plagiarised from other writings on military coups' (ibid.:228).

By 1987, then, coups had long been on Rabuka's mind. Rabuka, says Lal, has acknowledged that he thought of a coup in 1977 when the Alliance was (temporarily, as it turned out) defeated by the NFP: 'By his own admission ... the Colonel had plotted to overthrow a duly elected government by force of arms for quite some time' (1988a:9-10). By the time Bavadra's government was in place, his mind was made up: 'He decided on the military option the day the election results started to come out' (Som Prakash, review of Rabuka - No Other Way in Prasad 1988:102).

A concern for his personal future would also have been on Rabuka's mind. The commander of the RFMF, Brigadier Epeli Nailatikau, left the country four days before the coup, after stating that he was definitely going ahead with a court-martial for Rabuka. (Rabuka had disobeyed orders some years before by allowing a senior officer to return to Fiji from the Middle East for his father's funeral. See Scarr 1988a:66.) Rabuka, therefore, had to act while Nailatikau was away, if he was to act at all.

Rabuka's military obsessions and fears, coupled with his personal theories about race and tradition, are almost enough to make his No Other Way claims of 'going it alone' sound convincing. But even if those claims are accepted, Rabuka could not have staged his coup without his fellow soldiers' cooperation. Jim Sanday (1989)[62] and John Dalton (1990) have investigated the role of the RFMF, and have found that most of its predominantly Fijian members were supporters of the Alliance and the chiefs. This trend was noted in 1978 by sociologist Cema Bolabola (1978:158):

To the Fijians a military career is a new symbol of power and a "weapon in favour of chiefs". Thus in the event of any threat to their status, support for the chiefly system from the army would be guaranteed.

Coveted military positions had long served as 'a major source of Alliance Party patronage' (Howard 1990:11) and the 'conservative power elite became dominant within the officer corps' (Dalton 1990:5). Sanday says that the appointment in 1982 of 'a member from the ruling chiefly class to command the RFMF (Ratu Epeli Nailatikau) ... reinforced the ascendancy of Fijian traditional values within the military' (1989:12). Most members of the RFMF would not only have shared Rabuka's fears for its future, but also would have shared his fears about threats to chiefly dominance.

The army's highest-ranking officers, Brigadier Nailatikau and Lieutenant-Colonel Sanday, were both committed to upholding due constitutional processes. But others were thoroughly 'socialised in the values of the conservative ruling elite' (ibid.).[63] Scarr (1988a:66-68) says that they saw the first- and second-in-command officers as 'out of touch' and preferred to follow the third-in-command, Rabuka. Rabuka would have had little difficulty in finding coup-makers and coup-supporters among his fellow soldiers.[64]

There is more to a successful coup, however, than the act. The motives of Rabuka and the army were a necessary cause of the events of the morning of 14 May, but were hardly sufficient to ensure the coup's success. That success was ensured by more powerful forces. This does not diminish the importance of Rabuka's personal motives, however, for Rabuka's motives made him a willing 'hired gun' (to use Lal's term) of the more powerful forces at work in Fiji (Lal 1988a:57).

The governor-general

In the weeks following 14 May 1987, many pro-Coalition and pro-democracy forces inside and outside Fiji (including the governments of Australia, New Zealand, and Britain) placed their faith in the governor-general, whom they saw as offering the best chance for a return to pre-coup democracy or some broadly acceptable substitute. It has since been suggested that this faith was misplaced all along.

Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau's background did not support the picture of an unbiased mediator which governments and the press tried to paint of him after the coup. He was 'a former soldier, steeped in military tradition and a former [Alliance] Minister of Defense' (West 1987:224), and had also been deputy prime minister under Mara. Ganilau was not pleased by the Coalition's victory, as Scarr reports:

When the new prime minister was sworn in ..., it struck him the governor-general was not a happy man. Adi Kuini Bavadra, brought up for part of her childhood in Ratu Sir Penaia's own household, felt uncomfortable. The ritual tea-drinking was short on conversation (1988a:39).

Ganilau's Alliance sympathies were compounded by his position as a prominent chief. He had long shared the fears of fellow chiefs that they were losing the support of the Fijian community. Lawson quotes one of his many pre-coup remarks on the subject:

[Ganilau] said a lot depended on the command and respect the chiefs had and received from their people. He said people must be educated and told to respect their chiefs. "This process must begin within the communities through teaching pre-school children the importance of traditional leaders and the respect they should have for them" (excerpt from a Fiji Department of Information press release, quoted by Lawson 1988a:16).

In the period immediately before the coup, Ganilau had been appointed Tui Cakau-elect, paramount chief of the Cakaudrove confederacy (to which Rabuka belongs), an appointment which might not have been guaranteed had it not been for Taukei Movement support. Robie (1987:12) has suggested that this may have swayed him in favour of the Movement.

Ganilau, says Scarr, had been warned by the Movement of its plans to bring down the Coalition through a 'civilian coup' (1988a:65) and Rabuka has said that he told Ganilau on 9 May that 'if he did not stage a political coup, I would stage a military coup' (quoted, ibid.:69). The governor-general passed none of this on to the prime minister. Bavadra had, like many, heard similar rumours, but had not believed them; a warning from such a notable as Ganilau would have demanded that precautionary measures be taken. Scarr is, however, forgiving of Ganilau's oversight: 'Ratu Sir Penaia does not always hear Sitiveni Rabuka very clearly' (ibid.).

Ganilau was certainly well-disposed towards Rabuka; he knew him well, having even been manager of Rabuka's rugby team (see Dean and Ritova 1988, photo insert). Significantly, in 1985 he intervened to have charges of court-martial against Rabuka dropped (Robie 1987:12), and in 1987 was trying to do so again, despite the fact that it was 'way outside his constitutional powers' (Scarr 1988a:66). Events at Government House on 14 May suggest, if not his inside knowledge, then an incredibly forgiving attitude towards Rabuka. Robie reports that:

When Colonel Rabuka arrived shortly after [the coup] at Government House his first words to Ratu Ganilau were: "Well, sir, I've done it!" (Robie 1987:12).

(Scarr [1988a:73] disputes this, saying that Rabuka instead 'referred to his having effected what the chiefs wanted'.) Lieutenant-Colonel Sanday had been called out to Government House by Ganilau and was there when Rabuka arrived (possibly, speculates Robie [1989:220], to get him out of the way). Scarr describes the following moments:

Soon afterwards, suspended, Sanday was seen to come out with tears in his eyes. The complete professional, he had waited for the commander-in-chief's order to use the weapons Ratu Sir Penaia had available but no order had come. Siti was the favourite (1988a:74).

Ganilau's possible underlying support for Rabuka's actions conflicted, however, with his responsibilities as governor-general, about which Fiji's judiciary were anxious to remind him. At 2 p.m. on 14 May, the chief justice approached him with, as Lal puts it, 'inexplicably unsought legal advice that the purported suspension of the Fiji constitution was "illegal and invalid"' (1988a:74), and offered him the judges' 'undivided and complete loyalty'. Now more sure of his constitutional role, Ganilau issued a statement condemning the coup as 'unlawful' and announcing his assumption of executive authority (ibid.:81-82).

This brought Ganilau under intense pressure from outside Fiji to stand firm. He received a message of encouragement from the Queen (which, as a committed monarchist, as are many Fijians, he would have found very persuasive), and foreign governments chose to recognize him as the legitimate authority during the crisis. Soon afterwards, however, Ganilau's actions began to fail the test of legality, both constitutionally and under the doctrine of necessity. This case is argued by Ghai and Cottrell in their legal work, Heads of State in the Pacific (1990). Ganilau, they say, given his chiefly sway over Rabuka, could have 'tried harder to persuade Rabuka to return the military to the barracks' (ibid.:215). On 19 May Ganilau granted amnesty to Rabuka and his collaborators, dissolved parliament, and dismissed Bavadra's government. These actions were not only constitutionally illegal, they had 'no justification' under the doctrine of necessity. By these actions, Ganilau

made other solutions highly unlikely, ... [he] sidelined the Coalition leaders and weakened their legal and political position, ... [and] he went a long way to consolidate the coup, its leaders and objectives (ibid.).

Furthermore, Ganilau made no attempt to restore the 1970 Constitution:

When the Governor-General talked of return to parliamentary government, he had in mind a new constitutional dispensation more in line with the thinking of Rabuka and his taukei associates (ibid.:216-17).

Ganilau initially encountered opposition from the Great Council of Chiefs for his perceptibly anti-coup stand. His difficulty, he told its 20 May meeting, was that, as Lal (1988a:87) reports, 'whatever his personal feelings ... his oath of office required him to uphold the existing constitution'. After further lobbying from the Council, Ganilau assured its members that 'we are all aiming at the same result, generally, but that we are considering different methods of achieving this'. This assurance was followed by his announcement of a 'compromise' Council of Advisors dominated by Fijian Alliance members (many of whom were also Taukei Movement members). Rabuka delightedly noted that he 'personally endorsed 14 of the 18 members' (ibid.:88-89).

While there appears to be no solid evidence that Ganilau was involved in the coup's planning, his actions during May and June 1987 were clearly critical to its success. Rabuka's own biographers concede that 'the coup leader needed the Governor-General's acquiescence, at the very least' (Dean and Ritova 1988:74). Perhaps his greatest value for Rabuka was that 'the cloak of the rule of the Governor-General protected the regime from the full force of foreign as well as domestic opposition' (Ghai and Cottrell 1990:216).

Ganilau's stand during Rabuka's second intervention notwithstanding,[65] he has demonstrated a broad support for the coup's aims, to the extent that he is now president of the Republic of Fiji. Perhaps the most pointed comment on Ganilau's post-coup actions was made by Bavadra's senior legal counsel, Dr John Cameron, in a July 1987 letter to The Bulletin: 'If this is neutrality, God help democracy and non-Fijians if he ever decides to take sides with the Fijians'.[66]


Fiji's most prominent politician, and the person most often singled out as a possible instigator of the coup, is Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Rabuka described Mara's support as his 'trump card'. When Mara joined his Council of Ministers the day after the coup, Rabuka says he 'nearly hit the roof as [he] jumped and cheered' (quoted in Dean and Ritova 1988:78).

Rabuka had good reason to do so. He had secured the support of unquestionably the most influential chief in the nation. Mara was not merely Fiji's longest-serving prime minister; to many people, say Robertson and Tamanisau, he was Fiji: 'Like many founders of modern nations, Mara ... assumed an aura of long-held power and a sense of indispensability' (1988:105). One senior Fiji law officer opined that 'nobody in his right mind would organise a coup without knowing that Mara approved and was behind it' (ibid.:94).

Did Mara help organize the coup? As with Ganilau, there appears to be no solid evidence to that effect. But, as with Ganilau, it is likely that he knew what was afoot. Mara was at a conference at the Fijian Hotel, far from Suva and Parliament House, on the morning of 14 May. But he was far from out-of-touch, as Scarr observes:

If a report from deep within the Taukei Movement is true, Ratu Finau Mara [Mara's son and a member of the Movement] had been keeping his father informed and a message went down to the Fijian Hotel on 12 May to say the operation had been brought forward from Friday because the House was not to sit on 15 May (1988a:75).

Mara has indirectly admitted previous knowledge of the coup, although not to that extent. In an interview with Robert Keith-Reid, Mara said he heard about the coup 'around 9 a.m'. on 14 May—an hour before it happened (Robie 1987:12).

As has been widely reported, Mara also played golf with Rabuka on 10 May. Two Samoan visitors playing with them concluded that 'from the conversation they had heard there was going to be a coup' (Scarr 1988a:67). These days, says Scarr, Rabuka's enigmatic response to this is 'I think it's the most widely publicised coup that took everybody by surprise' (quoted, ibid.).

If, as seems likely, Mara knew what was imminent, his silence made him as much an accessory to the coup as if he had helped plan it. Mara's duty as a parliamentarian and a national statesman—not merely a Fijian one—was to uphold the 1970 Constitution and the duly elected government. Even if he had known only an hour beforehand, Mara should have alerted Bavadra to the danger. Bavadra would then have had at least some chance to put a stop to Rabuka's takeover.

David Lange believes that a word to the public from Mara before the coup 'would have arrested all this'.[67] Certainly, as was noted in previous chapters, Mara failed to publicly condemn the Taukei Movement's campaign of disruption. Had he done so, his words would have been given great weight by most Fijians. To many Lauans, at least, Mara is regarded as literally a demi-god. Mara's condemnation of the Movement would have brought into question its claims of enjoying 'wide Fijian support' (claims later adopted by Rabuka).

Mara's behaviour throughout this period confounded some of his admirers. Why, if he knew of the coup plans, did he let it happen? Why, if he did not, did he lend his support after the event by joining Rabuka's Council of Ministers the next day? Rabuka has reported that when Mara accepted his invitation to join, and Rabuka asked 'what about your reputation, sir?', Mara's reply was that 'his reputation was of no use if the nation was in ruins' (Dean and Ritova 1988:78). Scarr's opinion is that Mara's attitude was along the lines of 'what sort of mess will these bloody fools make of things without me?' (1988a:75) and that Mara is, by nature, loathe to keep out of Fiji's politics for long.

More convincing reasons, however, have already been given. The custom factor provides many of the motives of Mara, the most influential high chief. For Robie, Mara was behind the coup by virtue of his position as head of Fiji's eastern chiefly elite. Robie also relays journalist Karen Mangnall's claims that

Mara had begun building up "Fijian institutions, particularly the military", on the assumption they would be needed for a coup as far back as 1979 (1989:247).

Mara was, furthermore, the backbone of the Alliance, and in that role, his political future (as well as the party's) looked uncertain. Robertson and Tamanisau believe that after the elections, Mara lost the initiative within his own party, many members of which blamed him for the Alliance's loss. Therefore, they argue, 'it is probable that Mara believed that by assisting Rabuka he might regain the political initiative'. In so doing, he could return 'in his capacity as a Fijian chief' (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:105).

A further cause for concern may have been the Coalition's determination to uncover corruption. When the Coalition won power, it inherited a system of government saturated with friends of the Alliance, people receiving personal benefits from the Alliance, and people who felt they owed their livelihood to the Alliance. In its month of government, the Coalition shuffled around public servants and replaced others, and announced its intention to weed out corruption. After seventeen years of rule by one government it would inevitably have found it, and many in the Fiji bureaucracy and Alliance Party would have feared discovery.[68] Lawson is one who stresses the importance of this fear as a motivation of supporters of the coup. Robertson and Tamanisau, too, state that 'it is probable that corruption or the desire for access to state resources pushed many Alliance personnel into roles as active collaborators' (1988:108).

Had this Coalition push succeeded, it would have done more than embarrass a few public servants and party officials. The reputation of the former prime minister, having presided over a government seen to be corrupt, would have been severely damaged. It was suggested during the election campaign that Mara himself had skeletons in his closet:

In 1985 his family invested $1.7 million loaned from the FNPF and the Bank of New Zealand into Marella [sic] House, an office complex rented to the Education Department (ibid.:95).[69]

The Education Department had been moved from quarters which, although imperfect, had room for expansion; those quarters remained unoccupied after the move. Scarr, in Mara's defence, notes that the move 'represented a saving of $F31,284 on the rent of the department's existing offices', but admits 'there was room to see conflict of interest in this', although he then calls it a 'failure of judgement' (1988a:46).

Scarr points out, furthermore, that anyone who 'supported the coup to avoid exposure ... seemed likely to be disappointed because an army inquiry [into corruption] was in progress until, at any rate, the beginning of December 1987' (ibid.:47). This avoids the issue at hand. The army's future actions were unknown to corrupt onlookers at the time of the coup. Faced with the likelihood of exposure by the Coalition on the one hand, and possible escape from such exposure under the army on the other, many would have chosen to support the coup and hope for the latter.[70]

Scarr does not note Rabuka's early claim that corruption allegations directed towards Mara were an insult to a high chief and the chiefly system: 'To see my high chief being accused of corruption with no proof ... the language used against him I will never accept' (quoted in Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:77). Doubtless Mara felt similarly insulted for similar reasons. Doubtless, too, he would rather not have faced such an inquiry, whether he was guilty or innocent.

The most interesting interpretation of Mara's actions (and inaction) is Lal's. He explains them not only in terms of Mara's Fijian role and his obvious political interest in seeing the Coalition overthrown, but as a repeat of his behaviour during previous times of crisis. In 1968, by-elections which established the NFP as 'the only true representative of the Indian people' promised to provoke racial conflict (Lal 1988a:41). Despite pleas from the public to calm the air, Mara chose to 'let things take their natural course for a while' (Mara, conversation with Frank Rennie, quoted in Lal 1988a:41). When the threat of conflict began to die down, Mara returned to the public arena 'with superb timing ... stressing the vital importance to independent Fiji of multi-racial development' (ibid.).

In 1982, Mara claimed that his election opponents (an NFP-Western United Front coalition) had been provided with funds by the USSR. After sitting out the ensuing anti-coalition uproar, Mara 'returned to the centre stage, claimed the middle ground and "flew a kite"—his own words—about the need for a government of national unity' (ibid.:42).

Mara's refusal to condemn the Taukei Movement was, then, says Lal, a repeat of a tried-and-true tactic:

But 1987 was different. The problem did not resolve itself peacefully enough, as it had done in 1968, for Ratu Sir Kamisese to make his accustomed triumphant return as a prophet of multi-racialism to rescue the situation in time (ibid.:44).

As for Mara's motives, Lal is in no doubt:

He leaned towards goals sought by Col. Rabuka. The 1970 Constitution did not guarantee Fijian paramountcy in perpetuity, as he thought it should have done and had been advised to that effect by constitutional experts (ibid.:81).

In conclusion, even if the possibility that Mara previously knew of the coup is disallowed, he (in that case rapidly) demonstrated his support for Rabuka's coup by joining his Council of Ministers. By doing so, for reasons related to customary and possibly personal interests, Mara dramatically increased Rabuka's chances of success, by providing his regime with legitimacy in the eyes of many Fijians, and by denying those international and domestic forces in favour of constitutional democracy that same advantage. The role of Mara in the coup and subsequent events was therefore a highly important one.

The value of the specific interest factor

The elements of the factor of specific interest are diverse, and some are of more value in a coup explanation than others; perhaps not surprisingly, external forces are less important than internal forces. The importance of the personal interests of Rabuka, Ganilau, and Mara stems from their critical role both in the events of the coup and in ensuring its success.

Although some of Rabuka's interests derived from other factors of explanation, the personal interests resulting from his military role had a strong influence on his actions (which were, naturally, 'critical to the coup's success'!). The interests of Mara and Ganilau, however, are largely derived from custom interests, and could therefore be explained by the custom factor. The question of corruption could possibly be addressed in terms of the class factor. Still, in both Mara's and Ganilau's cases, some of their personal traits (Ganilau's monarchist reluctance to abandon his constitutional position entirely, and Mara's tactic of 'leaving Fiji to it' and then stepping in to save the day) affected the course of the coup.

Specific interest, in the form I have adopted, is incapable of providing a complete explanation for the coup. But it does deal with aspects of the coup which cannot be easily explained in other contexts. Rather than contradicting the other factors of explanation, then, it complements them.



Page created 3 September 1998

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