Bullying Fiji, Part 2: The Inside Game
Posted on 14:13, January 29th, 2009 by Pablo
Pursuant to the post of a few days ago, I thought it best to follow up with some facts in order to illuminate some of the complexity of the Fijian situation. In doing so I hope to clarify why NZ’s approach may be counter-productive.
The Fijian armed forces total 3,500 troops. Of those, 3,200 are in the Army and 300 in the Navy (there is no air force). Upwards of 97 percent of these troops are indigenous Fijians, with less than 50 military personnel (mostly Indo-Fijians) coming from other ethnic groups. Most of the non-ethnic Fijians are officers, and most are in the Navy (which nominally has nine patrol boats, only of which 2-3 are operational at any given moment). Twenty percent of the Fijian Army are continually deployed on UN or other international missions (such as Iraq), with the superior UN pay levels being a prize for both officers and enlisted personnel that is transferred in the form of remittance payments to their families back home. If military veterans and private security contractors are included in the total of men under arms, the numbers of ethnic Fijians well versed in combat swells to over 10,000 (Fiji has a thriving market for private security contractors due to its operational experience in foreign conflict zones). The Fijian Navy has limited combat experience, whereas its Army has seen action in a variety of theaters as well as at home.
What this means is that Commodore Bainimarama, as a member of the smaller service (one that has little ground security responsibilities and no ground warfare experience), serves at the behest of the Army commanders. This is important because, as mentioned in the last post, the Fijian armed forces are a classic praetorian military: they internally reflect the political conflicts surrounding them. Since the Army leadership are ethnic Fijians, the Commodore’s proposals to dismantle the disproportionate representation system that favours ethnic Fijians will have a direct impact on the political fortunes of their indigenous kin. Thus Bainimarama must first negotiate the terms of any such constitutional revision with his own High Command, which in turn will have to accept it before popular resistance within the ethnic Fijian community can be lowered. Moreover, the real power to fight in any Army comes from its Non-Comissioned Officers (NCOs, most often of the sergeant rank), which means that there is at least two tiers of command that have to be convinced that such a move is worth backing in the face of family and tribal opposition. Just having the High Command leadership agree will not necessarily be enough to satisfy the NCOs, and recent Fijian history has shown that it is the lower command ranks that ultimately call the shots (literally) when political factors do not swing their way. Perhaps that is why the process of constitutional reform is so slow.
The South Pacific Forum decision to issue an ultimatum calling on Fiji to announce a date for elections is thus problematic. Perhaps NZ and the other sponsors of the resolution believe that in doing so they are giving the Commodore some leverage with which to push his proposals past the Army High Command while at the same time allowing him the cover of publicly voicing nationalist resentment against the intrusion on Fijian sovereignty. But equally plausible is that the ultimatum serves to undermine Bainimarama’s efforts to convince his flag-ranked colleagues and NCOs of the need to accept the “one-person, one vote” system. Should he be seen as weak in the face of this foreign pressure, it is quite possible that a counter-coup will be staged by the Army that will restore disproportionate ethnic Fijian voting privileges in a future constitutional reform. Having a reserve pool of armed veterans amongst the male ethnic Fijian population makes the prospects for success of such a counter-coup more likely.
Bainimarama’s regime has relatively few uniforms in civilian ministerial positions and in fact has a majority of civilian administrators and bureaucrats undertaking the daily operations of the Fijian state. Although the Commodore has a petulant streak and his police are selectively heavy handed with regards to dissidents and foreign diplomats who support them, the regime is not universally repressive of the population (perhaps with good reason given the balance of power within the armed forces). But that could change as pressure mounts from both sides–internally as well as externally. Thus increasing foreign pressure on Bainimarama is slowly backing him into a corner–but perhaps not the one that NZ and its allies want him to be in.
This is just one aspect of the equation. One assumes that MFAT has specialists who are aware of this internal game and are advising the government accordingly. It would be advantageous if there were military to military contacts between the NZDF and Fijian military commanders that might serve as a quiet parallel track to the public diplomacy now ongoing. But as things stand the NZ posture seems to be all rhetoric and little if any influence on this (or any other) internal game. If the Commodore does not meet the SPF deadline and economic and diplomatic sanctions are imposed, what is to say that the situation will not get worse rather than better, at least in terms of a peaceful resolution that leads to the restoration of democracy in Fiji? At that point it will be the Fijian Army that will decide the outcome, and it may not be the outcome NZ favours.