By David Robie in Auckland
Bananas, balaclavas and banners … these were stock-in-trade for human rights activists of the New Zealand-based Coalition for Democracy in Fiji who campaigned against then Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka’s original two coups in 1987 and the “banana republic” coup culture that emerged.
Many of the activists, politicians, trade unionists, civil society advocates and supporters of democracy in Fiji gathered at an Auckland restaurant in Cornwall Park to reflect on their campaign and to remember the visionary Fiji Labour Party prime minister Dr Timoci Bavadra who was ousted by the Fiji military on 14 May 1987.
Speakers included Auckland mayor Phil Goff, who was New Zealand foreign minister at the time, and keynote Richard Naidu, then a talented young journalist who had emerged as Dr Bavadra’s spokesperson — “by accident” he recalls — and movement stalwarts.
The mood of the evening was a fun-filled and relaxed recollection of coup-related events as about 40 participants — many of them exiled from Fiji — sought to pay tribute to the kindly and inspirational leadership of Dr Bavadra who died from cancer two years after the coup.
Participants agreed that it was a tragedy that Dr Bavadra had died such an untimely death at 55, robbing Fiji of a new style of social justice leadership that stood in contrast with the autocratic style of the current Fiji “democracy”.
Naidu, today an outspoken lawyer and commentator, spoke via Zoom from Suva about Dr Bavadra’s unique approach to politics, not unlike a general practitioner caring for his patients, a style that was drawn from his background as a public health specialist and trade unionist.
He referred to Johns Hopkins University in the United States — “the bible of global statistics about covid-19 pandemic in the world” — and remarked that Dr Bavadra had gained his public health degree at that celebrated campus.
Covid and Dr Bavadra
Naidu asked how, if he had been alive today and still prime minister, Dr Bavadra might have approached the Fiji covid-19 crisis with 46 new cases of infection being reported last night.
Fiji has now had 360 cases in total since the first case was reported in March 2020, with 161 recoveries and four deaths.
Naidu described the current leadership in Fiji in response to the covid pandemic as unresponsive and lacking in direction. He believes Fiji is in a worse position today than it was in 1987 and poverty and food shortages were a growing problem.
The challenge for Fiji was a lack of consultation with grassroots organisations and a “bubble” mentality among the key leaders of Voreqe Bainimarama’s government that refused to see the suffering on the ground.
“Everything was bad in Fiji before 2006 [when Bainimarama staged his coup],” he said, reflecting the leadership’s mantra. “Everything good in Fiji is after 2006.”
Lawyer Richard Naidu speaking about Dr Bavadra’s legacy and the reality of Fiji today. Video: David Robie/FB
Naidu referred to a social media posting in relation to the Samoan constitutional crisis when he commented: “ Australia and New Zealand must be wondering: Is Samoa ‘21 just a rehearsal for Fiji ’22?” The question is what would happen if Bainimarama and FijiFirst lose the election next year.
In spite of his fears for the future, Naidu said he still remained optimistic because of the young leadership and committed civil society that was emerging in spite of the barriers.
‘Have we won?’
Looking back 34 years, Naidu asked the audience: “Have we won?”
With a negative response, he challenged the participants to keep working for a better Fiji.
Auckland mayor Phil Goff speaking at the Bavadra reunion last night. Image: David Robie/FB
Mayor Phil Goff said that after the 1987 coups, New Zealand did not just have a “trickle of migration, we had a flood of migration, and I think something like 20,000 or 30,000 people came from Fiji in the wake of the coups”.
And, he added, “that was a huge benefit to our country, it strengthened our country. But it was a huge drain on Fiji because these were the people with skills and energy and they could have been contributing had Fiji been a welcoming country, if everybody had first class citizenship.
“But they didn’t see that future for themselves in Fiji and I understand that and they came to make a better life in New Zealand.”
Goff called on those present to keep campaigning for human rights.
Union and NFIP days
Trade unionist Ashok Kumar recalled when he had worked for the Fiji Public Service Association and Dr Bavadra had been president at the time and he had inspired many people with the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement, “which had been a big issue for Fiji”.
Trade unionist Ashok Kumar speaking. Video: David Robie/FB
Other speakers also spoke of their admiration for a “forgotten” Dr Bavadra and how they hoped to “keep his memory alive”.
Former National Federation Party MP Ahmed Bhamji said it was hoped that the Bavadra lecture event would become an annual one and he declared that they were already planning for the 35th anniversary of Rabuka’s first coup next year.
Bhamji was a sponsor of this year’s event and among his fellow organisers were Nikhil Naidu, Rach Mario and Maire Leadbeater, who was MC for the evening.