Fiji Coup Supplement


2 August 2000

Strategic Marriages
by Ross Nepia Himona


Media comment on events in Fiji over the last three months, or 13 years, have shown a distinct lack of understanding about the structure of indigenous Fijian society. Much comment has also tended to deride and trivialise the tribal and chiefly system.

New Zealand's political and foreign affairs establishment obviously grossly underestimated this structure as the unifying force that holds Fiji together, for both Fijians and Indians. Calls for "pure" democracy, on the Westminster understanding of democracy, ignore the reality that systems of governance cannot successfully be imposed from without, but must be built upon those elements which will unite the peoples under a central government.

Before we pass judgement about the need for "democracy" in Fiji, we should study Fiji's traditional society in a little detail.


In recording the Maori history of Aotearoa New Zealand, early ethnographers tended to focus on the history of inter-tribal warfare and conquest. This (along with their myth of a fleet of seven settling canoes) became a central theme around which they attempted to chronicle a coherent country-wide history from many overlapping and often contradictory tribal histories. From this artificial viewpoint flowed the myth, or at least an over-exageration, of the Maori as a warrior race.

Whilst there is no doubt that many of the tribes did preserve a proud warrior tradition, the myth belies the reality of life in tribal societies. It is an ancient wisdom that without peace there can be no prosperity, and it is prosperity that holds tribal societies to their leaders. A leader who impoverished his tribe through too much warfare would no longer be leader. In fact, the need to feed the tribe, year after year, made food growing and gathering the predominant activity.

You could not feed your tribe forever through conquest of neighbours and their food resources, for sooner or later those neighbours would band together and retaliate in kind.

The most important theme in tribal history is whakapapa, or genealogy, which many early Europeans wrongly interpreted as a focus on ancestor worship. But those genealogies actually reveal the enormous importance of strategic inter-tribal marriages. Such marriages influenced events for many generations, and even today we are influenced by strategic marriages as long as 25 generations ago. Strategic marriages paved the way for the sharing of food resources, and for cooperative activity. By contrast, the benefits gained through inter-tribal warfare and conquest were short lived.

Wise chiefs knew this well, and expended considerable effort in forging these inter-generational alliances. In my own confederation of tribes the success of the chief Te Huki is preserved in the story of Te Kupenga A Te Huki, the Net of Te Huki, which still binds together many tribes, many generations later (see link below).


Fijian chiefly society remains heavily influenced by the alliances created by strategic marriages.

Fijian society is based on the family unit or tokatoka and groups of these are known as mataqali. The next level are yavusa. This parallels the Maori whanau, hapu, iwi system.

Collectively Yavusa then form the Vanua or land, a term that has been much used in reportage during recent months. In modern Fiji groups of Vanua make up a province. There are 14 provinces and over that there are three confederacies. As in Te Ao Maori, there is no overall paramount chief, but the dominant chiefs in each of the three confederacies are the most powerful, influential and respected. In independent post-colonial Fiji they have also dominated Fijian national politics.


Comprised of the provinces of Tailevu, Naitasiri, Lomaiviti, and parts of the western provinces of Ba, Ra, and Namosi. The Vunivalu is the high chief, or paramount chief, of this confederacy. His seat is at Bau in the province of Tailevu.

The position of Vunivalu has been vacant since the death of Ratu Sir George Cakobau in 1989. Ratu Sir George was a leading figure in national politics, and was a Governor General. His eldest daughter Adi Samanunu Cakobau, presently high commissioner in Malaysia, was proposed by George Speight as Prime Minister, and she is now being investigated for her activities during the attempted revolution, while she was still a public servant.

Traditionally in Kubuna, the title of Vunivalu is bestowed on a male, but not necessarily the son of the deceased Vunivalu. At the moment there are five eligible males. Brigadier General (retired) Ratu Epeli Nailatikau is a contender, and as the oldest contender he has recently called for the installation of a new Vunivalu. Ratu Epeli is presently Deputy Prime Minister. His younger brother, Ratu Tuakitau Cokanauto, is also eligible to be Vunivalu, and is also a cabinet minister.

Ratu Epeli and Ratu Tauakitau are the sons of the late Ratu Edward Cakobau, who was the brother of Ratu Sir George Cakobau. Ratu Edward was also involved in national politics, and was a deputy prime minister.

Ratu Epeli Nailatikau is married to Adi Koila Mara Nailatikau, who is the daughter of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Adi Lady Lala Mara.


The seat of this confederacy is at the village of Somosomo on the island of Vanua Levu. Somosomo has been in the news in recent months.

Comprising the provinces in Vanua Levu, the second largest island to the north of Viti Levu, the island where Suva and Nadi are located. The provinces are Bua, Macuata and Cakaudrove (retired Major General Sitiveni Rabuka's province). Also included in this confederacy is the province of Lau, another group of islands in the north-east. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, long-time Prime Minister then President, is the high chief in Lau with the title of Tui Nayau. He is married to Adi Lady Lala Mara from the confederacy of Burebasaga.

The chief of this confederacy is the Tui Cakau and this position has also been vacant since the death of Ratu Glanville Lalabalavu late in 1999. The previous Tui Cakau was the late Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, a former battalion commander in the Army, former Deputy Prime Minister, and former Governor General.

Ratu Sir Penaia's son is Brigadier General (retired) Ratu Epeli Ganilau, a former commander of the Fijian Military Forces, and a member of the military council that ruled Fiji in the aftermath of the attempted coup. Ratu Epeli Ganilau is married to another daughter of Ratu Sir Kamisese and Adi Lala Mara.


The largest of the three confederacies comprises the provinces of Rewa, Nadroga, Serua, the island of Kadavu off the coast of Suva, and parts of Ba and Ra. Burebusaga comprises the provinces of the eastern part of Viti Levu (the largest island) and also parts of the west. The seat is located at the village of Lomanikoro in the province of Rewa.

The chief of this confederacy is known as Roto Tui Dreketi who is currently Adi Lady Lala Mara, married to Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. She is regarded as a formidable and astute woman. Her daughter, Adi Koila Mara Nailatikau (married to Ratu Epeli Nailatikau) is a qualified lawyer and was Minister for Tourism in the Chaudhry government. She was held hostage by George Speight's group.


For many years after independence the traditional leaders Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Adi Lady Lala Mara, Ratu Edward Cakobau, Ratu Sir George Cakobau and Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau dominated national politics in Fiji. The leadership vacuum created by the vacancies of Vunivalu in Kubuna, and Tui Cakau in Tovata, have been blamed by some for the unrest in the provinces in recent months.

It seems that in aiming to remove Ratu Mara from the presidency, the coup makers might have been trying to replace this traditional leadership.

There is in Fiji a growing younger, urbanised and educated group of activists, who are probably the vanguard of a new style of legitimate national leadership in the future. They are not necessarily of chiefly status, but seem to include some of the younger chiefs. They also seem to have a measure of support out in the provincial towns.

The real story of the May 2000 attempted coup is still to be told, particularly the story of who was really behind the coup. No doubt there were political self-interested opportunists, but perhaps also some of the new legitmate leadership coming through.

In the meantime the appointment of the interim government indicates that the traditional chiefly leadership is moving to reassert itself in Fiji, and that the alliances created by the strategic marriages between the chiefly families of the three confederacies will assist this process. Their strong links with the military will also reinforce their dominance for a time. These chiefly families are also closely linked through strategic marriage with others around the Pacific, notably with the King of Tonga and the Head of State of Samoa.

Perhaps, in these troubled times, until a strong well educated indigenous Fijian political elite is fully developed, and until a way is found to accommodate the different needs of Fijians and Indians, this may well be the best course for Fiji. Certainly, events have shown that the traditional chiefs and the military are, for the moment, the only two institutions capable of maintaining stability, and law and order.

Te Kupenga A Te Huki


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