Fiji, 1987-2007: The Story of Four Coups

Fiji's military leader Bainimarama (left) talks to his senior officers before attending a press conference where he appealed to the world for understanding of his coup on Dec. 7, 2006. (Photo: William West / AFP-Getty Images)

In the past 20 years, Fiji has had four coups. The first coup in 1987 was executed to stifle collaboration between Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians for a non-racial political discourse. The second coup in the same year severed Fiji's ties with the Commonwealth and deposed Governor General Ratu Penaia Ganilau. Racial tensions remained despite Fiji's three post-coup constitution reviews and in May 2000, armed gunmen held government ministers hostage for 56 days and coordinated race attacks against Indo-Fijians from the parliament. As a result of the 2000 coup, the indigenous Fijian-dominated Qarase government came to power. However, by 2006, the Qarase government and the military had started a public fight over government policies and bills, which resulted in the December 2006 takeover.

Coup One

On May 14, 1987, Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka along with 10 soldiers in gas masks hijacked and incarcerated the elected government of Timoci Bavadra. For the coup leader he was protecting an elected government from the wrath of the indigenous nationalist Taukei Movement, which organized noisy demonstrations in April 1987. Kenneth Bain, a political observer, reported that on May 14, "at 10 a.m. in Suva, the face of Fiji was damaged beyond recognition; and no plastic surgery would restore its shattered image" (1989). There were a number of players involved in the May coup, including members of the Royal Fiji Military Forces and indigenous activists of the Taukei Movement: Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, Viliame Gonelevu, Jone Veisamasama, Tomasi Raikivi, Ratu Finau Mara, Filipe Bole, Qoroniasi Bale, Ratu George Kadavulevu, Apisai Tora, and late Taniela Veitata (Sharpham 2000)—all known Alliance Party members who refused to accept the result of the April 1987 elections and, through a series of church meetings, formalized a destabilization campaign against the newly elected government. There are allegations that the President Ratu Mara gave his blessing to a military takeover after maintaining throughout the crisis that he had "no knowledge of the coup whatsoever."

To observers, the causes of the coup were many. Brij Lal (1988, 1992) sees the defeat of the Alliance Party that ruled Fiji from 1970 to 1987 as the principle cause of the coup. Victor Lal (1988) analyzed the possibility of foreign involvement and contextualized the events of May within the super power rivalry of the 1980's. Robert Robertson and Akosita Tamanisau (1988) and William Sutherland (1992) saw the rise of Fiji Labor Party (F.L.P.)-National Federation Party (N.F.P.) coalition as an expression of class aspiration whereas Michael Howard (1991) and Stephanie Lawson (1996) argued that eastern chiefs, referred to by Howard as "eastern chiefly oligarchy," did not want to relinquish its traditional political authority to a commoner indigenous Fijian. Chiefly dominance in Fiji politics was effectively used by the F.L.P.-N.F.P. coalition in 1987 to entice urban indigenous Fijian and mostly European General Electors in the lead up to the elections. Moreover, the coalition clearly emphasized class distinctions and capitalized on the developments on the industrial relations front where the Alliance Party had by 1987 alienated a large segment of the working population of all races in Fiji.

Coup Two

Following the 1987 coup, Rabuka, the coup leader, established a military council and Governor General Ratu Penaia commissioned a Constitution Review Committee, led by John Falvey, to look at the deficiencies of the 1970 constitution, which was deemed by nationalists to have failed indigenous Fijians. The review of the constitution was stacked with individuals who supported the coup and the final report of the committee was inconclusive. Meanwhile, the farmers threatened to boycott the cane harvest as the governor general attempted to bring the Alliance Party and the coalition together in a series of meetings after he dissolved parliament and granted amnesty to Rabuka and promoted him to the position of commander of the Royal Fiji Military Forces.

The actions of Ratu Penaia were viewed with suspicion by the coalition and Bavadra challenged Ratu Penaia's decision in court. Immediately, the Taukei Movement went on the offensive criticizing the coalition for infringing on indigenous tradition by taking a high chief to court. While the discussions between the Alliance Party and the coalition resulted in a framework for a government of national unity, the coup leader/army commander saw the move as being against the "objective" of the May coup and on Sept. 25, 1987, deposed the governor general in a second coup, imposed martial law, and banned all commercial activities on Sunday.

By the end of 1987, Rabuka established an interim government with Ratu Mara as the interim prime minister and Ratu Penaia as the president. Despite handing over authority to a "civilian" government, Rabuka continued as the minister for home affairs and in 1989, the constitutional review process restarted with the appointment of the Manueli Committee, which documented the constitutional wishes of the Taukei Movement, the chiefs, and the army and largely ignored the submissions from the F.L.P. and the N.F.P.

In 1990, a new racially weighted constitution was promulgated. Unlike the 1970 constitution, this constitution ensured that indigenous Fijians and in particular chiefs had a monopoly on political power and the military continued to play a political role in the affairs of the country (see the 1990 constitution).

Also in 1990, the F.L.P. and the N.F.P. fractured following the death of the F.L.P. leader, Bavadra, and Rabuka was elected leader of the chief-sponsored Soqosoqo ni Vakevulewa ni Taukei (SVT) party, which won the 1992 general election. According to Ralph Premdas (1993), "the SVT won 30 seats with 66.6 percent of all Fijian Votes." Tensions between two aspiring candidates within the SVT—Rabuka and Josevata Kamikamica—erupted for the position of prime minister, leading to the defeat of the 1994 budget on Nov. 29, 1993 (The Review, December/January 1994). Seven SVT M.P.'s voted against the budget, including Ilai Kuli, Ratu Emosi Vuakatagane, Ratu Serupepeli Nailvalu, Ratu Viliame Dreunimismisi, Viliame Saulekaleka, Viliame Gonalevu, and Josevata Kamikamica. On Jan. 15, 1994, a new indigenous Fijian political party, the Fijian Association Party (F.A.P.), was formed in Suva (The Fiji Times, Jan. 17, 1994).

Fiji went to the polls again in less than two years due to indigenous Fijian disunity and the SVT was returned to office by a 31-seat majority. Tensions also increased during and after the elections within the Indo-Fijian camp and the F.L.P. lost support and won only 7 seats compared to 13 in 1992 whereas the N.F.P. increased its total share of communal seats from 14 to 20. Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka quickly developed a working relationship with the N.F.P. and finalized the composition of the Constitution Review Commission (House of Representatives, Daily Hansard, March 34, and June 24, 1994).

On March 15, 1995, the Constitution Review Commission was appointed with Sir Paul Reeves, Brij Lal, and Tomasi Vakatora as members and after more than a year of hearings, the commission's report was tabled in the Fiji parliament on Sept. 10, 1996. A Joint Parliamentary Select Committee then started negotiations and agreed to a new constitution, which was supported by both houses of parliament and by the Great Council of Chiefs. However, dissent within the SVT increased during consensus talks with the opposition and some indigenous members split and formed the Veitokani ni Lewenivanua Vakarisito (VLV) party in 1998.

In the western part of Fiji, veteran politician Apisai Tora spearheaded the establishment of a regional based Party of National Unity (PANU) and the F.L.P. successfully negotiated an agreement with the F.A.P., the VLV and PANU. According to Alumita Durutalo (2000), "the 1999 elections saw the re-emergence of pre-colonial vanua under the guise of alternative Fijian parties, including the F.A.P., the VLV and the Party of National Unity (PANU)." The F.L.P. successfully consolidated Indo-Fijian votes, and fragmented indigenous Fijian ones, through pre-election preference deals with its coalition partners and as a result won 36 seats (Ramesh 2007).

Coup Three

The F.L.P.-led coalition did not hold very long as the PANU founder resigned from the party and the F.A.P. split into two factions: one led by Adi Kuini Speed and the other by Tailevu chief Ratu Tu'akitau Cokonauto. According to a survey in 1999 by Reinout E. de Vries (2002), "indigenous Fijians felt threatened by the (real or perceived) influence of Indo-Fijians, represented by Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry."

In April 2000, the indigenous nationalist Taukei Movement was reinvented and at the height of a nationalist protest march in Suva, a small group of heavily armed men invaded parliament and incapacitated the government (The Sydney Morning Herald, May 19, 2000). Unlike the 1987 coup, the government ministers were held captive for 56 days and the coup disguised as a nationalist push for indigenous political control ended up exacerbating divisions among the indigenous Fijians as chiefs from Fiji's three confederacies—Tovata, Kubuna, and Burebasaga—jostled for power and influence through the Great Council of Chiefs. The military intervened, suspended the constitution and installed an interim government led by Laisenia Qarase, who went on to form the Soqosoqo ni Duvata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party in 2001 after the Court of Appeal declared that: "The military-appointed interim government failed to establish that it was the legal government. It ruled that the Constitution Amendment Act 1997 (Fiji Islands) remained the supreme law of the country and had not been lawfully abrogated by the military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama" (Head 2001).

Fiji went to the polls in August 2001 and, according to Robert Stockwell (2005), the election gave victory to a "Fijian ethno-nationalist party, which was dedicated to maintaining indigenous control over government and entrenching Fijian paramountcy." By 2003, differences between army commander Frank Bainimarama and the government of Laisenia Qarase became public after it was alleged by the army that the government wanted to replace the commander with an appointee from overseas. Worse, the government intervened on behalf of the chiefs convicted for their role in the 2000 coup. Former Vice President Ratu Jope Seniloli, former Minister for Lands and Mineral Resources Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu and SDL-appointed Senator Ratu Josefa Dimuri were convicted of coup related offences but released on compulsory supervision following the intervention of the SDL government (Ramesh 2006).

Coup Four

Before the 2006 elections, the SDL absorbed its coalition partner, Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua (C.A.M.V.), much to the disappointment of the army, which campaigned in the indigenous Fijian villagers against the SDL party. Following a racially divisive election, the new multiparty government reintroduced legislations that were deemed by the military to be a threat to the national security. In 2005, the SDL government proposed three legislations: Racial Tolerance and Unity (R.T.U.), the Qoliqoli bill, and the Land Claims Tribunal bill.

The R.T.U. aimed to promote reconciliation and tolerance and provide amnesty to the 2000 coup conspirators, the Qoliqoli legislation sought to return foreshore and marine resources to indigenous Fijians, and the Land Claims Tribunal was expected to hear application by aggrieved indigenous landowners whose land was previously alienated by deceit. On Nov. 13, 2006, the military ordered the government to withdraw the bill.

On Dec. 5, the military tightened its grip on Suva and confiscated government vehicles, and in the evening, the commander of the Royal Fiji Military Forces assumed executive authority and effectively incapacitated the Qarase government (Fijilive, Dec. 5, 2006). A number of SDL-appointed individuals to various statutory boards were dismissed as the commander set in motion his "clean up" campaign. An Anti-Corruption Unit was established to investigate possible fraudulent practices in the Native Land Trust Board and the Fiji National Provident Fund and an interim government was sworn in after Bainimarama transferred executive power back to the president of Fiji, Ratu Josefa Iloilo.

Unlike the previous three coups, the 2006 coup was enthusiastically embraced by many Indo-Fijians who disliked the ethnically exclusive policies of the SDL. Since the SDL was voted into office by 80 percent of indigenous Fijians, many in the indigenous community felt robbed of their "democratic" choice and started passive resistance in the form of letters to the editor and Web blogs. The European Union together with Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Britain applied smart sanctions as Fiji hoped to return to democratic rule within two years.

May 14, 2007, will mark the 20th year since the first coup. Over the past 20 years, indigenous Fijian nationalists have militantly asserted indigenous political dominance, which caused internal divisions within the community and in particular among chiefs, especially after the events of May 2000. The December 2006 coup was aimed at correcting the imbalance caused by the three previous coups and, more importantly, the 1996 aims to dismantle chiefly dominance, corruption, and command style structures and bring about accountability, transparency, inter-ethnic tolerance, and good governance.


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