Archive: Council considers what to do about coup leader with ‘fanatical streak’


Share post:

By David Robie in Suva

Fiji’s Great Council of Chiefs is meeting at a military camp near Suva to decide how to respond to the attempted coup and hostage taking at Parliament.

The Council’s deliberations will determine the fate of three men: President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry who is being held captive with several of his MPs, and rebel leader George Speight.

The first two are well-known public figures and leaders. The third is a man who burst into the spotlight from out of nowhere last Friday morning.

He has been branded as a terrorist by both the country’s president and the leading daily newspaper, The Fiji Times.

But just five days ago he was a local timber industry businessman with a modest profile and reputedly an undischarged bankrupt.

Although rumours of an impending coup attempt had been rife in Fiji for weeks, few people took them seriously. And self-proclaimed rebel prime minister Speight, with shaved-head and measured voice, was not on the list of aspiring coup-makers.

Even though he regularly played golf with Sitiveni Rabuka, the man who staged Fiji’s first two coups in 1987 which ended with the country becoming a republic and ostracised by the Commonwealth, Speight’s armed takeover of Parliament was a surprise to the former military commander.

Cult figure
At first, Rabuka seemed an ideal mediator. He had been something of a cult figure among young indigenous Fijians after his early exploits and his first biography Rabuka: No Other Way. He was again a celebrity earlier this year with the publication of his life story in the book Rabuka of Fiji.

He had been the dominant political figure in Fiji for more than a decade. Ironically, he was also a key architect of the 1997 multiracial constitution, which led to his crushing defeat by Chaudhry’s Fiji Labour Party-led coalition a year ago this month.

However, after early “shuttle diplomacy” between President Ratu Mara, and Speight in several attempts to resolve the hostage crisis, Rabuka finally ran foul of the kidnappers.

Speight said he no longer trusted Rabuka.

The former coup leader was scathing about Speight and his fellow kidnappers in an exclusive interview with Fiji Television.

Rabuka scoffed at Speight’s claims to have seized Parliament on behalf of indigenous Fijians.

“I don’t know why he is claiming to be acting on behalf of indigenous rights like I did in 1987. I’m still waiting for him to say this in Fijian,” Rabuka said.

White settler descendant
Speight, a mixed-race fourth-generation descendant of a white settler in Fiji, is the son of Opposition parliamentarian Savenaca Tokainavo, who is among the hostages.

Tokainavo, a dairy farm farmer also known as Sam Speight, is reportedly depressed about his son’s actions in seizing Parliament.

George Speight’s paternal grandmother is from Naivicula village in Wainibuka, about 10km from Korovou in Tailevu, near Suva. His mother is from Ra in the western sugar cane belt of the main island of Viti Levu.

The family is popular over its local community development activities.

During last year’s election, Speight stood as a proxy candidate for his father on a ticket for Rabuka’s SVT party. Savenaca Tokainavo defeated nationalist Iliesa Duvuloco — now the “lands minister” in Speight’s rebel government — at the polls.

“Nobody thought Speight had this sort of fanatical streak,” said a colleague who declined to be named.

Last Monday, he pleaded not guilty on exchange rate and extortion charges in the High Court in Suva.

Surprised over brush with law
Rabuka said he was surprised by Speight’s earlier brush with the law.

According to The Fiji Times, Speight is also an undischarged bankrupt.

“He was director George Speight of the Wattle Group, an Australian investment company which siphoned millions of dollars from the Australian police, Fiji citizens and life savings,” alleged the newspaper.

Speight is seen by some associates as bearing a grudge against the Labour Party-led coalition and Prime Minister Chaudhry because he was dumped as chief executive from the Fiji Hardwood Corporation and also from the board of Fiji Pine Ltd.

The coalition’s Forests Minister, Poseci Bune, an indigenous Fijian, sacked him when the cabinet moved to halt privatisation policies of the Rabuka government.

Speight is understood to have earlier basked in the patronage of former Finance Minister Jim Ah Koy in Rabuka’s government.

He has no apologies for what is seen as an unashamedly racist and pro-Fijian stance.

‘Not apologising’
“We are not going to apologise to anybody and we are not going to step back, and we are not going to be daunted by accusations of racism, or one-sidedness,” Speight said early in the crisis.

“At the end of the day, it is [about] the supreme rights of our indigenous people in Fiji, the desire is that it be returned — wholesome and preserved for the future.”

Speight says people don’t need to have the “mind of an Albert Einstein” to understand the plight of indigenous Fijians. He believes expressed grievances had fallen on deaf ears.

The irony is that while many indigenous Fijians distrust the Labour-led government’s policies on land tenure for landless Indo-Fijian cane farmers, Chaudhry has initiated many far-reaching reforms for the benefit of all rural and urban poor Fiji Islanders and boosted education, health and welfare.

Asked whose coup was better planned and executed, Rabuka would not be drawn into comparisons with Speight, saying such judgements were best left to observers.

But he adds: “We went down a similar road in 1987. It led us nowhere. Speight should pull out of this treasonable act while there is still time.”

David Robie is senior lecturer and coordinator of the journalism programme at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji. This article was published in The New Zealand Herald.

David Robie
David Robie
Dr David Robie was previously founding director and professor of journalism at AUT’s Pacific Media Centre (PMC). He worked with postgraduate student journalists to edit Pacific Media Watch - a daily digital archive of dispatches about Pacific journalism and media, ethics and professionalism. The PMC also jointly published the high profile independent Pacific Scoop news website with industry partner, Scoop Media, and Asia Pacific Report, which David now edits independently in partnership with Evening Report: David is also the founding editor of Pacific Journalism Review (PJR).
- advertisement -

Related articles

20 people wounded in Indonesian police crackdown on Papua protest

Asia Pacific Report At least 20 people were wounded when police used batons, water cannon and tear gas to...

Open letter criticises ‘colonial’ French agency, media over Kanaky sexual violence allegations

Pacific Media Watch A controversial report by a French metropolitan not-for-profit about sexual and sexist violence in France’s overseas...

Rainbow Warrior sails Pacific seeking evidence for World Court climate case

By Sera Sefeti in Suva International environmental campaign group Greenpeace’s flagship Rainbow Warrior is currently sailing across the Pacific,...

West Papuan solidarity group condemns arrest of 21 activists protesting 1962 ‘tragedy’

Asia Pacific Report An Australian West Papuan solidarity group has condemned the reported arrest of 21 activists protesting in...