"Rabuka of Fiji, the authorised
biography of Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka"
by John Sharpham, Central Queensland University Press, Brisbane, 2000
I'm probably a bit biased about this book as I've known Sitiveni Rabuka and a few of the other players in it since the mid 1970s. E hoa ma, you can see that I'm a name dropper, ne.
In the late 1960s the then Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, was quoted as saying that if the Indians ever gained political power in Fiji, then Suva would burn to the ground, and all the indigenous Fijians would lose would be the Indians' records of Fijian debt. At the time when I pointed this out to my military and political masters, they saw no significance in it. I was not surprised by the 1987 coup d'etat in Fiji. But they were.
In 1974 the then Captain Sitiveni Rabuka told me about his village and his tribe, and the traditional role of his tribe, and various other tribes, in the affairs of indigenous Fiji. His tribe were the warriors who did the bidding of the Chiefs, and he saw that his role as an army officer was to fulfil his traditional role. I was not surprised by who carried out the 1987 coup d'etat.
In 1998 I had a session with him in Suva, and I reminded Sitiveni of that earlier conversation, and asked indirectly if he had been asked by the Chiefs to mount the coup. He did not deny my proposition.
In this biography Sitiveni Rabuka publicly reveals for the first time that he had some support from the Fijian Great Council of Chiefs, and that he had the support of the then Prime Minister and High Chief, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Ratu Mara is now denying the allegation, and is suing Rabuka and the book's publishers for that revelation. Ratu Mara is now President of the Republic, and would certainly be embarrassed by the book.
As one would expect, most of the book is given over to the coup d'etat and subsequent events, including Colonel Rabuka's promotion to Brigadier then Major-General, and Army Commander; then to his role as Cabinet Minister, and then Prime Minister. After the coup he was made a life member of the Fijian Great Council of Chiefs, and after being voted out of government last year he was made Chairman of that Council of Chiefs. He has since resigned his seat in Parliament.
The Great Council of Chiefs appoints the President of the Republic of Fiji. There is much speculation about whether Sitiveni Rabuka will succeed Ratu Mara as the next President. Whether he does or not, he has now reached the pinnacle in the traditional indigenous Fijian hierarchy, a remarkable honour for a man born a commoner.
The book chronicles a remarkable journey by the commoner son of a village schoolmaster to army officer, Army Commander, Prime Minister, and then to Chairmanship of the Fijian Great Council of Chiefs. It was, of course, an unconventional journey by an unconventional person, who took the most illustrious part of that journey into his own hands in 1987.
I found the chapters leading up to the coup to be very interesting, and to set the scene well for the rest of the book. It chronicles his village years, then his years at boarding schools where his leadership aptitude and skills were developed by his experiences and mentors. His experiences and education in the army deepened his leadership ability and reputation, and gained him the respect of all his soldiers and many other indigenous Fijians. He was known as a commander who always looked after his soldiers. He was a loner from an early age, who nevertheless had the ability to relate well to people, and to build enduring relationships and networks. He also showed an early tendency to champion the ordinary people, and to be passionately committed to matters indigenously Fijian.
A theme that unveils itself in these leadup chapters is that his whole journey reveals his destiny from childhood to be a great Fijian leader.
From an early age he decided that he would be an army officer, he pursued that ambition until he achieved it, and he was passionately committed to his career. He was also passionate about his rugby.
This is a man of passion, and his weaknesses in that area are laid bare in the book. His many affairs are revealed, both before and after his marriage to Suluweti. This aspect of his character has attracted much attention in the media since the book was published.
The two coup d'etat in 1987 are interesting, as is the unfolding of his political career, most of it as Prime Minister. It shows that he had to learn a whole new set of skills in order to be a politician, but that his ingrained ability to relate to people stood him in good stead. If anything, the book seemed to hint that he wasn't personally nasty enough to be an outstanding politician.
Perhaps his greatest contribution was that with his former foe turned friend, Jai Ram Reddy (the Indian politician who was jailed by Rabuka), he presided over the adoption of the present constitution. The basis of this constitution was drafted by Sir Paul Reeves and his consitutional commission. However it was Rabuka and Reddy who combined their efforts, against much opposition and mistrust, to slowly but inevitably guide the constitution through various amendments until its eventual adoption. The constitution itself is not modelled on Westminster, but is designed specifically for Fiji. This constitutional process is a fascinating aspect of recent political affairs in Fiji not well reported in the media. Perhaps it is because of the lingering white hatred of Rabuka.
The book contains many lessons for Maori about politics and power in the coming fifty years or more, and should be read from that perspective. We can learn much from it, not necessarily about coup d'etat.