As the Fiji Government prepares to draft and adopt a new Constitution and return the country to democratic rule, it might be useful to take a leaf out of the history of the West African state of Ghana. It is today one of the few stable and prosperous democracies on the African continent, thanks largely to an air force officer named Jerry Rawlings.
Like Voreqe Bainimarama, Rawlings emerged on the Ghanan ian political scene at a crucial time and launched a radical and ambitious reform agenda.
The lives of these two leaders bear remarkable similarities. Rawlings enlisted in the Ghananian Air Force and rose to the rank of Flight-Lieutenant; Bainimarama chose the Fiji Navy and rose to become its Commodore.
Both were reluctant politicians and seized power because they were appalled by the level of corruption, cronyism and general maladministration that had become endemic in their countries.
Just as Commodore Bainimarama survived an assassination attempt, so did Fl-Lt Rawlings survive a death sentence during their first forays into politics. Fl-Lt Rawlings led a group of air force officers in a coup attempt against the corrupt regime of Fred Akuffo on May 15, 1979 but was arrested, court-martialled and sentenced to death.
Before the sentence could be carried out, his fellow officers mounted another coup on June 4 and succeeded in freeing Rawlings and his colleagues and toppling the Akuffo government Rawlings and company formed the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council and began “a housecleaning exercise” where large sums of stolen government money were retrieved into government coffers.
The same year, Rawlings and his council organised a free and fair general election which was won by the People’s National Party led by Hilla Limann.
But on December 31, 1981 Rawlings and the revolutionary council deposed the Limann government and assumed power, with himself as chairman of the Provisional National Defence Council.
He ruled Ghana as a military dictator from 1981 to 1992 and then as elected president of the fourth republic from 1993 to 2001.He founded the National Democratic Party and was popularly re-elected in 1997.
He retired at the end of his term and endorsed his vice-president John Evans Atta Mills to succeed him in the 2000 election but this time the Opposition New Patriotic Party’s John Kufuor won.
Rawlings was the joint winner of the World Hunger Award in 1993. He used this money as seed capital in establishing the University of Development Studies in northern Ghana. Today, he is regarded as an elder statesman and is held in high esteem by his people.
Unlike Commodore Bainimarama, Fl-Lt Rawlings resorted to some harsh and brutal measures during the first few years of his rule to bring to book those responsible for widespread corruption and malfeasance throughout the country.
But his lasting legacy is a country that enjoys democratic rule and economic prosperity. That the Opposition is currently in power is testimony to the solid roots of democracy that he helped to plant and nurture.
Commodore Bainimarama embarked on a similar radical reform agenda when he deposed the Qarase Government and seized power. However, his method of enforcing change was not brutally repressive but severe and authoritarian. At worst, he could be accused of being a benevolent autocrat.
His vision and mission were clear: to reform a political system that divided the country into racial blocs; to root out corruption; abolish some of the anachronistic institutions and thus clear the decks of the last vestiges of the old colonial power structure, and, finally, to charter a course for a free, democratic and prosperous Fiji.
The establishment of the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC) has already claimed a few big scalps but the war on corruption is both complex and difficult, not to mention time-consuming.
It will take long and persistent efforts to even partially eradicate an entrenched culture of baksheesh, loloma or ghoose. But the very presence of such a watchdog entity acts as a strong deterrent to those inclined to seek and bestow favours, illicitly and in secret, for cash or other considerations.
His economic and social reforms have been targeted to help the poor. Free school bus services, increased welfare payments, changes to the tax system and reforms to the land tenure system are significant measures towards creating an equitable and just society.
Among his many bold and historic reforms, the creation of a single common name for all citizens and thus giving our people an internationally recognisable national identity must be singled out as his greatest achievement. It gives all Fijians a sense of belonging and instills in them national pride. It will foster, one hopes, a more cohesive and united civil society. It should gradually purge politics of the curse of racial divide.
On the negative side, the Government’s imposition of press censorship and a blanket ban on public assembly were ill-conceived. They proved counter-productive as bloggers and other critics of the regime went feral on the internet and other social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
The Government’s message, however positive or well-intentioned, got lost amid a sea of wild accusations, rumours and chatter that dominated cyberspace.
Belatedly, the Government has lifted these restrictions but still seeks to impose some form of control on the media. It must realise that a free and vibrant media is the fourth pillar on which the mansion of democracy rests.
For its part, the media has a responsibility to be truthful, fair and balanced in its news reporting, and not assume the role of an opposition political party. Fiji has been devastated by a series of natural disasters during the past three years which placed severe strains on the economy.
The suspension and cutbacks in aid from traditional foreign donors have also hurt growth.
Despite these setbacks, Fiji has not become a basket case. On the contrary, its economy is still growing at a modest 2.7 per cent.
As the nation begins registering voters for the next general election and the Constitution Review Commission undertakes the task of public consultation to draft a new Constitution, people should feel buoyed by the winds of change blowing over the country.
Prime Minister Bainimarama has demonstrated through his actions his commitment to return the country to parliamentary democracy and one hopes he will, like Jerry Rawlings, continue to serve Fiji and eventually win a similarly honoured place in its history.
(Vijendra Kumar is one of the most respected journalists Fiji has produced. He was the first Fiji- born editor of The Fiji Times and ran the newspaper during its heyday. He then had a successful media career in Australia).