19 Jul 2018

Coup legacy still haunts Fiji's Rabuka, says academic

3:37 pm on 19 July 2018

Sitiveni Rabuka's past hangs around him like a dead weight as he heads towards this year's election, an author and academic says.

Former Fiji prime minister and two-time coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka.

Former Fiji prime minister and two-time coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka. Photo: AFP PHOTO / Torsten BLACKWOOD

Robbie Robertson, author of The General's Goose: Fiji's Tale of Contemporary Misadventure said the leader of Fiji's first coup, later an elected prime minister, had "zilch" chance of election this time around even if he did escape conviction in the current court case against him.

Mr Rabuka is the leader of the opposition party SODELPA, which holds 15 seats in the 50 seat parliament.

He doesn't yet have a seat only being elected to the leadership two years ago, displacing Ro Teimumu Kepa who remains Leader of the Opposition.

"He wants to forget his 1987 role," Professor Roberston said.

"He certainly wants to play that down and he also to some extent wants to play down his terrible record as a leader during the 1990s," he said.

Prof. Robertson, a professor at Swinburne University in Australia, said Mr Rabuka banned him from Fiji after the '87 coup but he returned to work there in the early 2000s, leaving before Frank Bainimarama's coup in 2006.

Robbie Robertson has worked in Fiji in various social policy roles and as Professor of Development Studies at the University of the South Pacific, continuing to follow developments in Fiji and Mr Rabuka's re-emergence as a political leader.

He described Mr Rabuka as still "deeply conflicted".

Mr Rabuka has apologised numerous times for his role as coup-maker, saying "we cannot change the past".

Since his controversial election to the leadership of SODELPA, he has called out Frank Bainimarama's Fiji First government on media freedom and other human rights issues.

Some in the party have lauded him as a changed man, while others have left the fold, unable to stomach a former coup-maker at the helm.

"Rabuka has come a long way as a politician," SODELPA's Lynda Tabuya told RNZ Pacific in May.

"He's a moderate politician now. He's trying to moderate SODELPA," she said, referring to its mainly indigenous leadership line-up.

After taking on the helm at SODELPA two years ago he said he wanted to be conciliatory towards other races.

"We cannot hope to develop Fiji focusing just on indigenous rights."

But Mr Rabuka's chances of election are threatened by a possible conviction for alleged anomalies in his financial declarations.

He has pleaded not guilty but a conviction would put him in the same camp as another former Fiji prime minister, Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry, who was found guilty of breaching the Exchange Control Act.

He is challenging his ineligibility for this year's election.

Prof. Robertson said even without a conviction, Mr Rabuka's chances against incumbent prime minister Frank Bainimarama were slim.

"The big difference between the two leaders is that I think at this stage Rabuka seems to have a fairly insecure position within his own party," Prof. Robertson said.

"Many of his opponents who didn't want him to be a leader of the party pointed to the fact that he was a coup leader and that therefore he was no better than Bainimarama.

"There's some truth in that and that hangs around his neck like a dead weight for some people, so he has to live with that and I'm not certain how well he does live with that."

Two of the Pacific's most notorious strongmen are now trading blows as electioneering heats up, although an election date is yet to be announced.

But neither of the ex-military men would be likely to play a military card, according to Prof. Robertson.

He said, as politicians, they now had to consult.

Besides, he said Mr Rabuka wanted to play down his military past and Mr Bainimarama, as a former commodore in Fiji's navy, was always an "outsider" commanding the Republic of Fiji MIlitary Forces.

"When he was first appointed by Rabuka's government in 1999 to that position there was a huge amount of opposition within the military itself."

The scholar said Mr Bainimarama could point to economic growth under his watch while Mr Rabuka would be haunted by economic decline when he was elected prime minister from 1992 to 1999.

"Rabuka's great for the government as an opposition person because they've got so much on him," Prof. Roberston said.

Prof. Robertson, meanwhile, said Mr Rabuka had enjoyed the limelight in 1987 and he had the same motivation for coming back into politics.

"He sees himself as a natural leader for the country."

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