Fiji President welcomes inclusive ‘new dawn’ for Great Council of Chiefs

Fiji's President Ratu Wiliame Katonivere (front centre) arrrives on Bau Island
Fiji's President Ratu Wiliame Katonivere (front centre) arrrives on Bau Island for the reinstatement ceremony of the Great Council of Chiefs. Image: Fiji govt/RNZ Pacific

By Iliesa Tora, RNZ Pacific journalist, and Kelvin Anthony, lead digital and social media journalist

Chiefs are to serve people and not to be served, Fiji President Ratu Wiliame Katonivere told the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) on Bau Island in Fiji today.

The Council — regarded as the apex of traditional Fijian leadership and also accused of being a racist institution — was discarded by former prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama following his 2006 military coup.

Today, 16 years since it was removed, the Great Council is returning under Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka’s coalition government.

Ratu Wiliame Katonivere said the Great Council was now challenged more than ever in their decision making as traditional leaders to safeguard, collaborate and promote inclusivity in the dynamics of an evolving Fiji.

He said the Turaga Tui Macuata urged chiefs to stand to together in unity in their service, while expecting challenges and changes.

Ratu Wiliame said the chiefs met in a new dawn and they needed to welcome those who made up Fiji’s multicultural society and have made Fiji their home.

“We are chiefs in our own right — we have subjects, we are inheritors of our land, sea, and its flora and fauna,” Ratu Wiliame said.

‘Unifying vision’
“As we meet, we bring with us the hopes and the needs of our people and our land that depend on our vision in unifying our wise deliberations that shall lead to inclusive decisions that encompasses all that we treasure as a people and a nation.”

“As it reconvenes, the GCC must focus on two principles, firstly, we need to be conscious of the existence of those who will challenge the status quo; and secondly, to encourage our people to work together for our advancement as a people, where no one is left behind,” he said.

Ratu Wiliame said the reinstatment of the Great Council was happening at a critical stage in Fiji’s development and the challenge was for the chiefs to stand up and be counted by playing their roles that they were born into, reminding them of the words of the late Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna that being a chief was not an ornament.

“The title of chief is not an ornament. An ornament is adorned to be marveled and admired, or as fashionable wear, rather as chiefs we are bound by duty and responsibility that require our intentional and undivided attention,” he said.

With this new beginning, it was “paramount that we reflect on our traditional ties with one another as iTaukei, to the government of the day and to the church.”

He said it was crucial that the reconvened Great Council of Chiefs delivered on the very purpose with which it was initially established, for the preservation of the iTaukei land, marine and natural ecosystem, guided by relevant legislation.

“The Great Council of Chiefs is duty-bound to safeguard, defend, liberate all-encompassing matters of all Fijians respecting the rule of law,” Ratu Williame said.

Ratu Sukuna’s legacy
Speaking to the gathering on Bau Island, Ratu Wiliame also referred to the late Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna.

“He was predestined for leadership that included military training and he was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his gallant role in World War I under the French Foreign Legion.

“The preordained life of Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna became the gateway to his life of servitude to his people, the land and the crown.”

He said these were traits that the late Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna was renowned for, a visionary, decisive and intellectual leader that was indicative only of a leader who was divinely anointed.

Ratu Sukuna was Fiji’s older statesman and he helped in setting up iTaukei leadership and land systems.

New vision and mission
Ratu Wiliame said it was therefore crucial that the Great Council of Chiefs establish and build on its previous accomplishments and embark on a new vision and mission to be able to better navigate the new changes and developments as we chart our way forward.

He said their role as leaders remained to be the fiercest defender of Fiji’s natural resources both on land and at sea, particularly with protecting their frontier from the current effects and impact of climate change.

He also called on chiefs to remember their role equally lay in encouraging iTaukei and people to contribute to growing the economy and to promote economic empowerment and stability to better enhance their livelihoods.

“Should we want a better Fiji, it is pertinent that our younger generations are groomed in iTaukei protocol, leadership and all mannerism befitting a servant leader,” he said.

“The Great Council of Chiefs is now challenged more than ever in our decision making as traditional leaders to safeguard, collaborate and promote inclusivity in the dynamics of our evolving Fiji.”

Ratu Wiliame acknowledged the Turaga na Vunivalu na Tui Kaba, Ratu Epenisa Cakobau for inviting the Great Council to be held on Bau Island.

Ratu Epenisa is the paramount chief of Fiji in his traditional title as the high chief of the Kubuna Confederacy.

The Fiji govt apologises (presented a matanigasau) for the actions of the previous govt and for any offence it had caused to the chiefs. Bau Island 24 May 2023
The Fiji government apologises (presenting a matanigasau) for the actions of the previous government and for any offence it had caused to the chiefs. Image: Kelvin Anthony/RNZ Pacific

The opening ceremony also saw the seeking of forgiveness from government and the Christian churches in Fiji for past events that had caused splits within the Great Council and Fiji as a nation.

The government’s traditional apology, or matanigasau, was presented by Apimeleki Tola, Acting Commissioner of the Native Lands Commission and was accepted by the Marama Bale Na Roko Tui Dreketi, Ro Teimumu Kepa, the traditional head of the Burebasaga confederacy.

Tola asked the chiefs to forgive the past government and its decision to de-establish the Great Council and also asked for their blessings and support in the work that government is doing for the people of Fiji.

Ro Teimumu accepted on behalf of the chiefs and urged government and civil servants to continue their service to the people of Fiji.

Two other apologies were presented and accepted.

The first was from the government to the church and religious leaders and the second from the religious leaders to the chiefs of Fiji.

The official opening ceremony was preceded by a church service conducted by the president of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma and full traditional Fijian ceremony of welcome.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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