Chapter 5: The changing role of the Great Council of Chiefs

Robert Norton

Table of Contents

The Great Council of Chiefs as an instrument of colonial rule
The GCC’s dual political role
The army coups of 1987: Managing militant ethno-nationalism
The GCC and liberal constitutional reform 
The coup crisis of 2000 
The 2006 coup  

The central dilemma in Fiji’s political development has been the problem of how to devise constitutional government that can reconcile the indigenous Fijian conviction of entitlement to political pre-eminence with a just representation of the interests of other sections of the population, primarily the Indians. Both the army and the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) have gained prominence during the last 20 years as institutions of indigenous Fijian power with capacities for the extra-constitutional management of crises arising after the electoral defeat of Fijian-dominated governments. Both have grappled with the dangerous force of Fijian nationalist sentiment, at times endorsing it and at times restraining it in the process of setting up new regimes. Army and political leaders have turned to the GCC for legitimation of their actions, and, in the decade following Rabuka’s coups of 1987, the GCC came to be widely viewed as having an important national political role, notwithstanding the fact that its members are typically strongly ethnocentric.

A dramatic highlight of the aftermath of the army coup of December 2006, however, has been military commander Bainimarama’s acrimonious conflict with the GCC. Whereas Rabuka had readily secured the chiefs’ approval of his quest to re-instate a Fijian-dominated government, Bainimarama had, purportedly in the national interest, deposed such a government – indeed, one only recently returned to office by the vast majority of Fijian voters. The GCC refused to accept Bainimarama’s claim to have taken authority from the President of Fiji, asked the army to return to barracks, and proposed that the President appoint a council to set up an interim regime. The commander’s angry response was to direct the GCC not to meet again without his approval. Continuing resistance from the GCC provoked Bainimarama to declare he was dissolving its current membership in preparation for a review and reform.

The commander’s ascendancy in Fiji’s political life was driven especially by his determination to expunge the nationalist influence that, since the crisis of 2000, he had viewed as a threat to the integrity of the army under his control. His rhetoric about the army’s responsibility to safeguard the nation has been compelled by this preoccupation no less than by a concern for order, justice, and well-being in Fiji’s multi-ethnic society. The army has become the pre-eminent institutional vehicle of ethnic Fijian power – paradoxically set against Fijian nationalism, and harshly dismissive of the GCC as being mainly aligned with that force. Army leaders now seek to relegate the chiefs to a compliant, supportive role in the project of cleansing the nation of alleged corruption and bad governance.

The Great Council of Chiefs as an instrument of colonial rule

The GCC was created by the first colonial governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, following his consultations with an assembly of chiefs on how the Fijians should be governed. It became the major symbol of Fijian identity and strength in the colonial political structure and continued to have this significance after independence, ritually affirming an ethnic political unity transcending geographical and cultural differences among Fijians in opposition to the other sections of Fiji’s population.

Under British rule, the GCC embodied the privileged relationship of trust and protection established between the Fijians and the British when the leading chiefs voluntarily ceded the islands to the Crown in 1874. The colonial governors chaired meetings of the GCC – held every year or two with rich ceremonial protocol, usually in the villages of pre-eminent chiefs – in order to consult about policy and legislation for Fijian affairs and, until 1963, to select the Fijian representatives for the colonial parliament.

Councils of chiefs had long been important in Fijian political life, and the chiefs who assembled to discuss ceding their islands to the British Crown formed, perhaps, the greatest of such assemblies. Although in pre-colonial times there had been no enduring council of representatives from all chiefdoms, the GCC can be said to have roots in Fijian tradition – as well as in the ideas of British colonial officials. It is the classic ‘neo-traditional’ institution, established through a blending of traditional forms of rank and political procedure with colonial law and its administrative and consultative requirements.[1]

Throughout most of the colonial period, the GCC continued to be almost exclusively a forum of high-ranking hereditary chiefs, and included many senior officials in the Fijian Administration, the body charged with supervising village life. The most influential members have been paramount chiefs of southeastern Viti Levu  and the eastern islands. In the last 20 years of British rule they were Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, Ratu Kamisese Mara, Ratu George Cakobau, Ratu Edward Cakobau, and Ratu Penaia Ganilau. All began their political careers as GCC nominees to the colonial parliament, and, especially in the context of ethnic tensions, preserved their leadership after Fijians were given the franchise in 1963. The last four of these chiefs dominated the political arena in the transition to independence, and Ganilau and Mara continued to exercise powerful influence until recent times, dying in 1993 and 2004 respectively.

From the 1950s, with rising numbers of Fijians entering the modern economy as wage-earners, membership of the GCC was broadened to allow representation of trade unions and other urban organizations. It was becoming, Ratu Mara once explained to critics, more a ‘chiefly’ council than a council of chiefs, characterized by ‘a certain standard of behaviour which can be performed by all sections of Fijians…a standard of behaviour for which all Fijians aim’.[2] This trend was strengthened after independence, when all Fijians elected to the lower house of parliament were made ex-officio members of the GCC. By the late 1970s, sometimes half the GCC members were commoners or people of modest chiefly rank.[3] The GCC had become ‘an assembly of Fijian leaders from all walks of life, with divergent interests’.[4]

Soon after Rabuka’s coups, however, the GCC, with the encouragement of the military, reverted to being almost exclusively a council of hereditary chiefs, and so it remains today. The then Minister of Fijian affairs, an army colonel, explained that ‘while we appreciate the contributions made by commoners…it is becoming increasingly evident that the chiefs can be outvoted …[W]hat we want is for the commoners to act as advisers while the decision-making is left entirely to the chiefs’.[5] Rabuka himself lamented that ‘there are so many non-chiefs there who will try to dictate the resolutions …[T]he chiefs are so humble, their personalities and their character do not make them forceful enough when they discuss matters. They will agree, they will compromise…whereas those who are not chiefs in [the GCC] tend to be very very selfish…’.[6] This view received no vindication from the turmoil stirred up by aggressive chiefly rivalries in the GCC in recent years, especially during the coup crisis of 2000.

Today the GCC has 54 members. Each of the fourteen provincial councils chooses three. There are four ex-officio members – the President and Vice-President of Fiji, and the Prime Minister and the Minister for Fijian Affairs. The latter nominates an additional six chiefs, and the Council of Rotuma has two delegates. The members form a wide spectrum of experience and outlook. A few have tertiary education, careers as bureaucrats, professionals, or politicians, and are widely travelled. But most have relatively little formal education and many live mainly in their home villages. While some have progressive views on the sharing of power and resources, the majority have very ethnocentric outlooks.

While the GCC membership has undergone this regressive change since 1987, its powers have been enhanced. The 1990 constitution increased its delegates to the Senate from 8 (of 22) members – as it was under the 1970 constitution – to 24 (of 34) members, and empowered it to decide the appointments of the President and the Vice-President of Fiji. This authority is retained in the current (1997) constitution, although the GCC’s strength in the Senate is reduced to 14 (of 32) seats. While commoners and people of modest chiefly rank have been largely excluded from the GCC, they have for many years predominated among the elected Fijian members of the House of Representatives.  

[1] Nayacakalou, R. 1975. Leadership in Fiji, Melbourne: Oxford University Press; Macnaught, T. 1982. The Fijian Colonial Experience: A study of the neo-traditional order under British colonial rule prior to World War II, Pacific Research Monograph #7, Australian National University, Canberra; Norton, R. 1999. ‘Chiefs for the Nation: Containing Ethno-nationalism and Bridging the Ethnic Divide’, Pacific Studies 22(1):21-50; Newbury, C. 2006. ‘Bose Vakaturaga: Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs’, Pacific Studies 29(1&2): pp.82–127.

[2] ‘Chiefly council’ is the literal translation of the Fijian title of the GCC: Bose Levu Vakaturaga (Fiji Legislative Council Debates, May 1966: 92). Sir Arthur Gordon’s account of the earliest councils is in Gordon, A. 1883. ‘Native Councils in Fiji’, Contemporary Review 43:711–731.

[3] Lasaqa, I. 1984. The Fijian People: Before and After Independence, Canberra: Australian National University Press, pp.161–164.

[4] Ibid p.162

[5] The Fiji Times 16 February 1988.

[6] Dean, E. and Ritova, S. 1988. Rabuka: No Other Way, Doubleday, Sydney.