Fiji Sun, Tuesday, 4 July 2006, p. 7

Are Rotumans indigenous in Blueprint?

by Victor Lal

As the Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase continues his sledgehammer approach to the Fiji Human Rights Commission's controversial report on the Government's affirmative action programme, it is now more than important to resolve the burning question - whether the minority Rotuman community are indigenous to Fiji and therefore entitled to all the free 'goodies' in the Blueprint? For unless their indigenity is resolved, it will be pointless to continue arguing that we need a robust affirmative action programme to level the playing educational and economic fields between the Fijians and Rotumans and the other races in the country.

Firstly I want to make it clear that this is not a personal attack on the Rotuman community, many of whose members are very good personal friends of mine, and some are even related by marriage to my family. And if we are to exploit the loophole in the programme, what the report terms 'Ali‑Baba Enterprise Syndrome', we should not be complaining. 'Ali‑Baba enterprises' is where the indigenous individual ostensibly owns the business and is legally entitled to Government benefits, while Baba is the non-indigenous person who actually controls the enterprise and essentially pays Ali for the use of his name and ancestry. This is a common practise in Malaysia, and since our affirmative action programme is based on the Malaysian model, some of the Ali‑Baba syndrome is already in operation in Fiji as the report found out in its investigations.

Secondly, I disagree with the Prime Minister on some aspects of his criticism of the report, namely that a lone foreign consultant prepared it, and that its office was not consulted in its overall preparation.

As a result, he says he won't even bother acting on the commission's recommendations, labelling the report as nothing more than a 'paper analysis'. According to the FHRC's report, which it has hosted on its official website, the Commission did invite the PM's office on numerous occasions to cooperate but to no productive avail. Moreover, one could equally argue with the Prime Minister why his Government did not consult the victims of the 2000 coup, especially those who were held hostage, before submitting the controversial Reconciliation and Unity Bill to Parliament.

Who prepared the original bill? Why is the author of the Bill 'a faceless person'? He also questioned the use of a foreign consultant to work on a highly sensitive issue when there were qualified locals to do the work.

If we agree with the Prime Minister, one could equally ask other questions, but just to name one: why did the SDL hire two overseas consultants during the election campaign when there were locals who understood the society far better than the expatriates? There have been many other instances where the Government has relied solely on one single foreign consultant. So why create a stink about the 'faceless consultant'. As the current debate now shows, maybe it was a wise decision on the part of the FEMC to hire a foreign consultant who would look at issues objectively.

Returning to the Blueprint. It is wrong for the Prime Minister to insist that the affirmative action programme will continue because the Fijians are lagging behind in education and commerce. That the elitist taukei Fijians beneficiaries will continue to have access to the programmes simply because they are Fijians, and that I presume, also applies to the Rotumans. The argument is 'bridging the gap'. Statistically speaking, the wealth of the nation, nearly 75 per cent, is not in the hands of the ordinary Indo-Fijians. It is in the hands of the minority Gujarati community. Most of the joint local business ventures are between this community and between Fijian provincial councils and holdings.

Crucially, the Indo-Fijians who have made it good in education have made it purely by the dint of hard work and come from poor or middle class families. It is time we asked some hard questions: whose wealth is it that is being distributed to the Fijians and Rotumans? If non‑Fijians have generated the wealth, then surely the Prime Minister should go to them to find out what do they think, like he claims that the foreign consultant should have consulted him on his blueprint.

It is time the Fijians learnt to acquire wealth and education the hard way. One may ask whether it is fair that the Monasavu landowners should collect millions of dollars one day (including their lawyer), and the next day their sons and daughters go to the Fijian Affairs Board and collect a cheque for further studies? Is it fair that a son or a daughter of a Fijian or a Rotuman judge, who takes home a yearly salary of $75,000, have unfettered access to a Government scholarship for further studies without any income test? No, but the Prime Minister insists that that it what is going to happen during his term in office.

'Take scholarships for example, there is no income threshold for Fijians like in the multi‑ethnic scholarship,' he said. 'The objective there is to get the numbers of Fijians (regardless of income) well qualified rather then aiming at the specific needs'.

Such sledgehammer response immediately brings comparison with the National Bank of Fiji fiascos. In 1995, the former Cabinet minister Berenado Vunibobo told his shocked colleagues that the NBF was by all intents and purposes insolvent. As Sitiveni Rabuka's biographer points out, many of the loans were given with little or no security and among the defaulters were politicians and their families. 'Everyone had a go at it'. The NBF chief, Visanti Makrava, stated that he thought he was following broad Rabuka government policy to promote Fijian and Rotuman interests (he being a Rotuman). Mr Rabuka had appointed him to the post after the 1987 coup.

The loans‑to‑deposits ratio in Rotuma exceeded all other areas, with a number being given under the interest code 8888 ‑ meaning they were interest free ‑ to friends and colleagues. The Rotuman branch was out of control. Mr Makrava later warned,’ If I open my mouth, half the Government goes, including the leader'. Now the foreign consultant has opened his mouth. so to speak, through his FHRC report.

Since no one was prosecuted in the NBF saga, it is only right and proper that those Rotumans who might have financially and hugely benefitted cannot be allowed to take another bite of the 'affirmative action economic cherry' simply because there is no means test for them and the Fijians, and never will be because the Prime Minister will not allow it during his term of office. Where is transparency? Where is honesty? Where is accountability? Where is morality? Where is fairness? Where is rationality?

Well, if the Fijian or a Rotuman wants to aspire to the standard of an Indo-Fijian, Chinese, Part-European and Fiji European, than he bloody work for it. If not, it is an insult to his race and intelligence to be treated like an inferior leper who needs economic State medicine to keep him going. He has been overdosed with free medicine since 1874, long before the first Indian coolie went to school or opened a small corner shop. Why is the Fijian still behind? That is what the Government should be asking itself, and should seriously act on many positive aspects of the consultant's findings. It is ridiculous to state that income disparity was the cause of the 1987 and 2000 coups. Was Mr Rabuka a poor starving Fijian? Was his copycat, a failed businessman George Speight, a down‑trodden poor Fijian or in his case Part‑Fijian?

The wealth belongs to the nation and not exclusively to the Fijians. And if we agree that taukei Fijians need a huge push because they are indigenous, than so do other races. If Rotumans can be included in the blueprint despite historical evidence to the contrary that they are not indigenous to Fiji, than why not other races.

What the FHRC report pointed out was that the programmes were inconsistent with the Constitution. That should be the Commission's only 'crime' in the eyes of Government.

In the process, the Commission has however exposed some serious failings and the gross unfairness of the programmes from a human rights perspective. For example, what the report seems to be suggesting is that perhaps the Government should apply some form of means test for Fijians (and Rotumans), say in the squatter settlements. How do we know that the Fijian squatter who is applying for all the 'goodies' in the Blueprint is not hiding in his sulu or a bank $10,000 cash. What is wrong with such a recommendation? What is racial about it? It is common sense and prudence.

Moreover, we if (sic) take the politics of race out of the equation, an ordinary Fijian who is surviving on $50 dollar a week, has every right as a non‑Fijian contemporary of his, to demand to know why a fellow Fijian lording it out on a salary of $5000 a week, be entitled to the same affirmative action privileges.

Surely, if there were a means test, like it is for non-Fijians, the poor Fijian would have additional money in his wallet, and might be able to give another of his child a better life. The report aims to equally protect the poor and uneducated Fijian from his more voracious and elitist rich Fijian counterpart.

Take a small example. Every month Fijian soldiers serving in the British army are sending home through the Western Union approximately between $F500 to $F700 to their families. Are these monies ever disclosed by the recipients? No, but the Government might counter by saying they do not have to, because as far as we are concerned, by virtue of their nativeness, the Fijians must be allowed a free run of the monies allocated in the Blueprint.

As for the Rotumans, they have no historical right to squeeze out the non-Fijians on the contestable basis of indigenity. During the London constitutional talks in 1970, as British colonial office records clearly show, it was the Indo‑Fijian delegation that persuaded their Fijian political contemporaries to give the Rotumans a separate seat in Parliament. For Ratu Edward Cakobau, a high chief, had felt that the Rotumans should be treated like any other minority in Fiji. In other words, he was saying that the Rotumans were not natives and, therefore, were not entitled to special treatment. Rotuman chiefs ceded their island to Great Britain on 13 May 1881 through a separate Deed of Cession, and not through the 1874 Fijian Deed of Cession. It was enjoined by the British to Fiji for administrative purposes.

The Rotumans are, from historical records, not indigenous to the country. And therefore have no right to stand in the front queue for handouts in the Blueprint. It is definitely unconstitutional to treat them otherwise.

As to the Prime Minster's contention, surely he is not suggesting that his disposable income is worth the same to that of his fellow Fijian, and if the need arise in the future, he must have access to the goodies in the of Blueprint. Why? Because he is taukei Fijian.

As I have always maintained, a free for all ‑ if you are a Fijian ‑ will sooner or later pitch a Fijian against his fellow Fijian.

Perhaps it is time for the Government to present a comprehensive report of it own, giving a detailed account of which Fijian institution, or council, got how much ‑ than only one can be sure if the Blueprint has been free and fair, even to the Fijians.