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Fiji strongman abolishes Great Council of Chiefs

16 march 2012, 16:29
Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama. ©REUTERS/Patrick Andrade
Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama. ©REUTERS/Patrick Andrade
Fiji's military ruler Voreqe Bainimarama has abolished one of the country's oldest constitutional bodies, in a move that critics Thursday described as "outrageous" and an attempt to curb dissent, AFP reports.

The 137-year-old Great Council of Chiefs, which dates back to Fiji's days as a British colony, was traditionally a power base for ethnic Fijians, who have a history of tensions with the Indian community in the country of 890,000.

It once met to select Fiji's president but Bainimarama curbed its powers after members objected to the 2006 military coup in which he seized office, suspending it a year after he took over the country.

Bainimarama said this week that he was formally "de-establishing" the institution, describing it as a colonial relic with no place in a country that was creating a new constitution and wanted to put past divisions behind it.

"As an institution the Great Council of Chiefs perpetuated elitism and fed into the divisive politics which plagued our country," he said.

"We must now look to our commonalities as citizens of the same nation, not to what separates us as individuals or groups."

The Labour Party said Bainimarama's move was an "outrageous attack" on a revered institution for indigenous Fijians

"The dissolution of the GCC at a time when we are about to begin the constitutional process is surprising, to say the least," it said in a statement.

"It is a matter which the indigenous people themselves should have the right to decide."

Bainimarama last week outlined plans to create a new constitution by February next year, ahead of elections in 2014, and the council's abolition means it will have no role in the new political process.

Human rights lawyer Niko Nawaikula said the Fijian leader wanted to remove a dissenting voice from negotiations around the new constitution so he could shape their outcome.

"The motive behind that is because when you bring in a new constitution, you want to have a consensus of the population," he told the FijiLive website.

"Now this government will not have the consensus of the population unless it has in place people who are sympathetic to it."

Bainimarama has repeatedly said that the 2014 elections must be on the basis of one-person-one-vote, unlike past arrangements, some of which have favoured indigenous Fijians over voters with Indian backgrounds.

The Fijian leader has previously reneged on a pledge to hold elections in 2009, saying his country was not yet ready to embrace democracy, but has insisted recently that the 2014 vote will proceed.

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