Fiji (02/01)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Republic of the Fiji Islands

Area: 18,376 sq. km (7,056 sq. mi.).
Cities: Capital--Suva (pop. 167,000), Lautoka, Nadi.
Terrain: Mountainous or varied.
Climate: Tropical maritime.

Nationality: Noun--Fiji Islander; adjective--Fiji or Fijian.
Population: 807,000.
Age structure: 33% under 15, 4% over 65.
Growth rate: 1.4%.
Ethnic groups: Indigenous Fijian 51%, Indo-Fijian 44%.
Religion: Christian 52% (Methodist and Roman Catholic), Hindu 35%, Muslim 7%.
Languages: English (official), Fijian, Hindi.
Education: Literacy--91%.
Health: Life expectancy--male 65.5 yrs.; female 70.5 yrs. Infant mortality rate--14.5/1,000.
Work force: Agriculture--67%.

Type: Interim civil government.
Independence (from U.K.): October 10, 1970.
Constitution: July 1997 (suspended May 2000).
Branches: Executive--President (head of state), Prime Minister (head of government), Cabinet. Legislative--bicameral parliament; upper house is appointed, lower house is elected. Judicial--Supreme Court and supporting hierarchy.
Major political parties: Fiji Labor Party (FLP), Fijian Association Party (FAP), Fijian Political Party (SVT).

GDP: $2.01 billion.
GDP per capita (nominal): $2,470.
GDP per capita (purchasing power parity): $7,800.
GDP composition by sector: Services 58%, industry 25.5%, agriculture 16.5%.
Industry: Types--tourism, sugar, garments.
Trade: Exports--$494.5 million; sugar, garments, gold, timber.
Export markets--Australia, U..K., New Zealand, U.S., Japan.
Imports--$721 million; basic manufactures, machinery and transport equipment. Import sources--Australia, New Zealand, U.S. ($91.8 million).
External debt (1997): $213 million.
Currency: Fijian dollar (F$).

Fiji comprises a group of volcanic islands in the South Pacific lying about 4,450 km (2,775 mi.) southwest of Honolulu and 1,770 km (1,100 mi.) north of New Zealand. Its 322 islands range in size from the large--Vitu Levu (where Suva and 70% of the population are located) and Vanua Levu--to much smaller islands, of which just over 100 are inhabited. The larger islands contain mountains as high as 1,200 meters (4,000 ft.) rising abruptly from the shore. Heavy rains (up to 304 cm or 120 inches annually) fall on the windward (southeastern) side, covering these sections of the islands with dense tropical forest. Lowlands on the western portions of each of the main islands are sheltered by the mountains and have a well-marked dry season favorable to crops such as sugarcane.

More than half of Fiji's population lives on the island coasts, either in Suva or in smaller urban centers. The interior is sparsely populated due to its rough terrain.

Indigenous Fijians are a mixture of Polynesian and Melanesian, resulting from the original migrations to the South Pacific many centuries ago. The Indo-Fijian population has grown rapidly from the 60,000 indentured laborers brought from India between 1879 and 1916 to work in the sugarcane fields. Thousands more Indians migrated voluntarily in the 1920s and 1930s and formed the core of Fiji's business class. The native Fijians live throughout the country, while the Indo-Fijians reside primarily near the urban centers and in the cane-producing areas of the two main islands. Nearly all of the indigenous Fijians are Christian, with more than three-quarters being Methodist. About 80% of the Indo-Fijians are Hindu, 15% are Muslim, and the rest mostly Sikh, with a few Christians.

Melanesian and Polynesian peoples settled the Fijian islands some 3,500 years ago. European traders and missionaries arrived in the first half of the 19th century, and the resulting disruption led to increasingly serious wars among the native Fijian confederacies. One ratu (chief), Cakobau, gained limited control over the western islands by the 1850s, but the continuing unrest led a convention of chiefs to cede Fiji unconditionally to the British in 1874.

The pattern of colonialism in Fiji during the following century was similar to that in other British possessions: the pacification of the countryside, the spread of plantation agriculture, and the introduction of Indian indentured labor. Many traditional institutions, including the system of communal land ownership, were maintained.

Fiji soldiers fought alongside the Allies in the Second World War, gaining a fine reputation in the tough Solomon Islands campaign. The United States and other allied countries maintained military installations in Fiji during the war, but Fiji itself never came under attack.

In April 1970, a constitutional conference in London agreed that Fiji should become a fully sovereign and independent nation within the Commonwealth. Fiji became independent on October 10, 1970.

Post-independence politics came to be dominated by the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The Indian-led opposition won a majority of House seats in 1977, but failed to form a government out of concern that indigenous Fijians would not accept Indo-Fijian leadership. In April 1987, a coalition led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra, an ethnic Fijian supported by the Indo-Fijian community, won the general election and formed Fiji's first majority Indian government, with Dr. Bavadra serving as Prime Minister. Less than a month later, Dr. Bavadra was forcibly removed from power during a military coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka on May 14, 1987.

After a period of continued jockeying and negotiation, Rabuka staged a second coup on September 25, 1987. The military government revoked the constitution and declared Fiji a republic on October 10. This action, coupled with protests by the Government of India, led to Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth and official nonrecognition of the Rabuka regime from foreign governments, including Australia and New Zealand. On December 6, Rabuka resigned as head of state and Governor-General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau was appointed the first President of the Fijian Republic. Mara was reappointed Prime Minister, and Rabuka became Minister of Home Affairs.

The new government drafted a new constitution that went into force in July 1990. Under its terms, majorities were reserved for ethnic Fijians in both houses of the legislature. Previously, in 1989, the government had released statistical information showing that for the first time since 1946, ethnic Fijians were a majority of the population. More than 12,000 Indo-Fijians and other minorities had left the country in the 2 years following the 1987 coups. After resigning from the military, Rabuka became Prime Minister under the new constitution in 1993.

Ethnic tensions simmered in 1995-96 over the renewal of Indo-Fijian land leases and political maneuvering surrounding the mandated 7-year review of the 1990 constitution. The Constitutional Review Commission produced a draft constitution which expanded the size of the legislature, lowered the proportion of seats reserved by ethnic group, reserved the presidency for ethnic Fijians but opened the position of prime minister to all races. Prime Minister Rabuka and President Mara supported the proposal, while the nationalist indigenous Fijian parties opposed it. The reformed constitution was approved in July 1997. Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth in October.

The first legislative elections held under the new constitution took place in May 1999. Rabuka's coalition was defeated by Indo-Fijian parties led by Mahendra Chaudhry, who became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister. One year later, in May 2000, Chaudhry and most other members of parliament were taken hostage in the House of Representatives by gunmen led by ethnic Fijian nationalist George Speight. The standoff dragged on for 8 weeks--during which time Chaudhry was removed from office by the then-president due to his incapacitation--before the Fijian military seized power and brokered a negotiated end to the situation, then arrested Speight when he violated its terms. Former banker Laisenia Qarase was named interim prime minister and head of the interim civilian government by the military and Great Council of Chiefs in July. A constitutional review commission is in the process of drafting a new constitution. The timetable for elections to replace the interim government is still under discussion.

The president (head of state) is appointed for a 5-year term by the Great Council of Chiefs, a traditional ethnic Fijian leadership body. The president in turn appoints the prime minister (head of government) and cabinet from among the members of parliament. Both houses of the legislature have seats reserved by ethnicity. The Senate is appointed; the House of Representatives is elected.

Fiji maintains an independent judiciary consisting of a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, a High Court, and magistrate courts. The judiciary remained independent through the coups and the consequent absence of an elected government.

There are four administrative divisions (central, eastern, northern and western), each under the charge of a commissioner. Ethnic Fijians have their own administration in which councils preside over a hierarchy of provinces, districts, and villages. The councils deal with all matters affecting ethnic Fijians. The Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga) contains every hereditary chief, or Ratu, of a Matagali, or Fijian clan.

Principal Government Officials
(all interim as of January 2001)

Head of State--President Josefa Iloilo
Head of Government--Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Kaliopate Tavola
Ambassador to the U.S.--vacant
Ambassador to the UN--Amraiya Naidu

Fiji maintains an embassy at Suite 240, 2233 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20007 (tel: 202-337-8320).

For 17 years after independence, Fiji was a parliamentary democracy. During that time, political life was dominated by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and the Alliance Party, which combined the traditional Fijian chiefly system with leading elements of the European, part-European, and Indian communities. The main parliamentary opposition, the National Federation Party, represented mainly rural Indo-Fijians. Intercommunal relations were managed without serious confrontation. However, when Dr. Bavadra's coalition democratically installed a cabinet with substantial ethnic Indian representation after the April 1987 election, extremist elements played on ethnic Fijian fears of domination by the Indo-Fijian community. The racial situation took a turn for the worse from which it has yet to fully recover. Three coups, two discarded constitutions, and tens of thousands of outward emigrants have been the result.

One of the main issues of contention is land tenure. Indigenous Fijian communities very closely identify themselves with their land. In 1909 near the peak of the inflow of indentured Indian laborers, the land ownership pattern was frozen and further sales prohibited. Today over 80% of the land is held by indigenous Fijians, under the collective ownership of the traditional Fijian clans. Indo-Fijians produce over 90% of the sugar crop but must lease the land they work from its ethnic Fijian owners instead of being able to buy it outright. The leases have been generally for 10 years, although they are usually renewed for two 10-year extensions. Many Indo-Fijians argue that these terms do not provide them with adequate security and have pressed for renewable 30-year leases, while many ethnic Fijians fear that an Indo-Fijian government would erode their control over the land.

The Indo-Fijian parties' major voting bloc is made up of sugarcane farmers. The farmers' main tool of influence has been their ability to galvanize widespread boycotts of the sugar industry, thereby crippling the economy.

Prior to the 1987 coups, Fiji was often cited as a model of human rights and multiracial democracy. Despite the difficulties that have arisen in the decade and a half since then, Fiji has maintained at least a certain degree of restraint.

Fiji is one of the most developed of the Pacific island economies, although it remains a developing country with a large subsistence agriculture sector. The effects of the Asian financial crisis contributed to substantial drops in GDP in 1997 and 1998, with a return to positive growth in 1999 aided by a 20% devaluation of the Fijian dollar. The economy is estimated to have contracted by about 10% due to the disruptions from the 2000 political turmoil.

Tourism has expanded rapidly since the early 1980s and is the leading economic activity in the islands. More than 409,000 people visited Fiji in 1999 (excluding cruise ship passengers). About one-quarter came from Australia, with large contingents also coming from New Zealand, Japan, the U.S. and U.K. Over 62,000 of the tourists were American, a number that has steadily increased since the start of regularly scheduled nonstop air service from Los Angeles. Tourism earned more than $300 million in foreign exchange for Fiji in 1998, an amount exceeding the revenue from its two largest goods exports (sugar and garments).

Fiji runs a persistently large trade deficit, although its tourism revenue yields a services surplus which keeps the current account of its balance of payments roughly in balance. Australia accounts for between 35% and 45% of Fiji's trade, with New Zealand, the U.S., the U.K., and Japan varying year-by-year between 5% and 15% each.

Fiji's two largest exports are sugar and garments, which each accounted for approximately one-quarter of export revenue in 1998 (roughly $122 million each). The sugar industry suffered in 1997 due to low world prices and rent disputes between farmers and landowners, and again in 1998 from drought, but recovered in 1999. The Fijian garment industry has developed rapidly since the introduction of tax exemptions in 1988. The industry's output has increased nearly ten-fold since that time.

Other important export crops include coconuts and ginger, although production levels of both are declining. Fiji has extensive timber reserves, but forestry has become important as an export trade only since the mid-1980s. Fishing is important as an export sector and for domestic consumption. In the mining and manufacturing sectors, gold and silver are exported, with the most important manufacturing activities being the processing of sugar and fish.

Since 1987, Fiji has suffered a very high rate of emigration, particularly of skilled and professional personnel. More than 70,000 people left the country in the aftermath of the 1987 coup, some 90% of which were Indo-Fijians. With the continued expiration of land leases and the instability surrounding the 2000 coup, an outflow of skilled workers is again being reported.

Other long-term economic problems include low investment rates and uncertain property rights. Investment laws are being reviewed to make them more business friendly, including a relaxation of work permit requirements. But investor confidence in Fiji has dropped significantly due to the recurrence of political instability. Beyond investor and tourist unease, the fallout from Chaudhry's removal and the potential return to a racially biased constitution also could cost Fiji the preferential price and access arrangements its sugar enjoys with the European Union and the preferential treatment Australia affords the Fijian garment industry.

Fiji maintains an independent, but generally pro-Western, foreign policy. It has traditionally had close relations with its major trading partners Australia and New Zealand, although these relations cooled after both the 1987 and 2000 coups.

Since independence, Fiji has been a leader in the South Pacific region. Other Pacific Island governments have generally been sympathetic to Fiji's internal political problems and have declined to take public positions.

Fiji became the 127th member of the United Nations on October 13, 1970, and participates actively in the organization. Fiji's contributions to UN peacekeeping are unique for a nation of its size. It maintains nearly 1,000 soldiers overseas in UN peacekeeping missions, mainly in the Middle East.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Osman Siddique
Deputy Chief of Mission--Ronald K. McMullen

The U.S. embassy in Fiji is located at 31 Loftus Street, Suva. Internet: Telephone: 679-314-466. Fax: 679-300-081. The mailing address is U.S. Embassy, P.O. Box 218, Suva, Fiji.