Fijian strongman to pick military successor

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 15:37 14/02/2014
Colonel Mosese Tikotoga, Commodore Frank Bainimarama and Brigadier-General Mohammed
Fiji Ministry of Information

HANDOVER: Fiji's Colonel Mosese Tikotoga, Commodore Frank Bainimarama and Brigadier-General Mohammed Aziz in Suva today.

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Nearly 40 years of military life about to end for Fiji's military strongman Frank Bainimarama as he transforms himself into a politician.

The 59-year-old who ousted a democratically elected government in 2006 in a military coup is now the front-liner in democracy-restoring elections in September.

"These old politicians are part of Fiji's past," he said this week.

"They have no fresh ideas to take the country forward. They are locked in the same mindset that created our national traumas in the first place.

"They are bogged down in the same old politics of sowing suspicion and discord."

Bainimarama says he has staged a "revolution" in cleaning up Fiji.

His coup, he says, was to end Fiji's culture of coups.

Like anybody with a tiger by the tail, Bainimarama has some issues letting go.

In the next week or so he will name a successor as commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF). Its 3500 active soldiers and 6000 territorial have played key roles in all four coups.

If Bainimarama's revolution fails, the next coup will inevitably come from one of the colonels.

With self-censorship strong in Fiji's media, there has been little speculation on who will take over Bainimarama's military role.

Two of his fellow coup plotters and strong critics of New Zealand, Colonel Mosese Tikotoga and Commodore Esala Teleni, are in the picture.

Another name there is Brigadier-General Mohammed Aziz who provided the legal structures for Bainimarama's coup. That he is virtually the only Muslim Indian in the entire indigenous Fijian RFMF probably counts against him.

And there is also the question of what role he may have had in a 2010 colonels' attempt to seize power and kill Bainimarama. One colonel escaped to Tonga and another is in jail and claimed Aziz was on their side.

The reality will be that Bainimarama will still be the strongman in Fiji and the new military commander will be answering to him.

As 1987 colonel and RFMF number three Sitiveni Rabuka showed, coups don't need to be staged by the man in charge.

Bainimarama joined the Fiji Navy in 1975 as an able seaman, rising to midshipman within a year.

He served with the Chilean Navy, serving on exchange on the sailing ship Esmeralda at the time it was being used by Augusto Pinochet's regime as a base to torture political opponents.

Unlike the bulk of the RFMF, Bainimarama never served in peace-keeping operations or in combat.

The only hostile fire he experienced was in November 2000 when, in the wake of the George Speight coup, his soldiers mutinied. He escaped being killed by running down a bank. Three of his soldiers died and five rebels were killed - most of them after they surrendered.

At a military farewell church service last week he recalled the mutiny, noting the deaths of the three loyal soldiers.

"We are lucky that five [rebels] died in the process," he said.

"I don't care about the rest. There have been talks about human rights regarding this. I don't want to know about that."

The new Bainimarama has tough criteria for creating political parties but a number have been formed with their ranks likely to include coup-deposed former prime ministers Mahendra Chaudhry and Laisenia Qarase. There is also academic Tupeni Baba, who had the misfortune of having his parliamentary speeches interrupted in both the 1987 and 2000 coups.

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Bainimarama, who has not yet formed a party, is likely to easily win September's election, if only because he has created the electoral rules that are to be finalised in the next few weeks.

He calls the old politicians "yesterday's men and woman".

"They have nothing to offer Fiji's young people," he said.

"They have nothing in the way of a bold vision to take our nation forward."

He says young people should "turn their backs on the politics of the past and embrace my vision of a new and better Fiji.".

A worldwide survey by Gallup International at the end of last year showed that 70 percent of Fijians thought 2014 would be better for the country than 2013, and 62 per cent thought this year would be a year of economic prosperity.

Bainimarama celebrates the fact that there has been no voting under his regime.

"You need to be at least 28 to be able to remember voting at all in the last election in 2006, when it was restricted to those aged 21 and above," he said.

"You need to be in your late teens or early 20s to have any memory of the traumatic events of 2000, when our parliament was seized by rebels.

"And only those in their mid-to-late 30s will have any recollection of the equally traumatic coups of 1987."

The greatest upheavals in Fijian history have not been lived by young Fijians, he says.

"So they are not interested in these old battles being fought again by some of the same politicians now putting themselves forward for political office in the 2014 election."

- Stuff

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