Fiji (04/08)

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

Fiji flag is light blue, with U.K. flag in upper hoist-side quadrant and Fijian shield on the outer half of the flag.


Republic of the Fiji Islands

Area: 18,376 sq. km (7,056 sq. mi.).
Cities: Capital--Suva (pop. 172, 948), Lautoka (pop. 52,742), Nadi (pop. 42,712).
Terrain: Mountainous or varied.
Climate: Tropical maritime.

Nationality: Noun--Fiji Islander; adjective--Fiji or Fijian.*
Population (2007 census): 827,900. Age structure: 35.4% under 14; 3.1% over 65.
Annual growth rate (2006 est.): 0.83%.
Ethnic groups: Indigenous Fijian 57%, Indo-Fijian 37%.
Religion: Christian 52% (Methodist and Roman Catholic), Hindu 33%, Muslim 7%.
Languages: English, Fijian, and Hindi are official languages.
Education: Literacy (2004)--93%.
Health (2004): Life expectancy--overall, 67.8 years, male 66 years; female 70. Infant mortality rate--16/1,000.
Work force: Agriculture--67%.

*The term "Fijian" has exclusively ethnic connotations and should not be used to describe any thing or person not of indigenous Fijian descent.

Type: Parliamentary democracy (overthrown by military coup in December 2006).
Independence (from U.K.): October 10, 1970.
Constitution: July 1997 (suspended May 2000, reaffirmed March 2001).
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: Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL), Fiji Labor Party (FLP), United People's Party (UPP), National Federation Party (NFP), National Alliance Party (NAP), Nationalist Vanua Tako Lavo Party (NVTLP).

Economy (all figures in U.S. dollars)
GDP (2007 est.): $2.43 billion.
GDP per capita (nominal): $2,461.
GDP composition by sector: Services 59.7%, industry 30.4%, agriculture 9.9%.
Industry: Types--tourism, sugar, garments.
Trade (2007): Exports--$526 million; sugar, garments, gold, fish, mineral water. Major markets--Australia, U.S., U.K., Japan, New Zealand. Imports--$1.26 billion; mineral products, machinery and transport equipment. Major sources--Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, U.S. ($20 million).
Government external debt (2007 provisional): $209 million.

Fiji is comprised of 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 vary dramatically in size. The largest islands are Viti Levu, about the size of the "Big Island" of Hawaii, and where the capital and 70% of the population are located, and Vanua Levu. Just over 100 of the smaller islands 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. (120 in.) annually--fall on the windward (southeastern) sides of the islands, covering these sections 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.

Most of Fiji's population lives on Viti Levu's coasts, either in Suva or in smaller urban centers. The interior of Viti Levu 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 grew 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. Native Fijians live throughout the country, while Indo-Fijians reside primarily near the urban centers and in the cane-producing areas of the two main islands. Nearly all of indigenous Fijians are Christian; more than three-quarters are Methodist. Approximately 80% of Indo-Fijians are Hindu, 15% are Muslim, and around 6% are Christian.

Some Indo-Fijians have been displaced by the expiration of land leases in cane-producing areas and have moved into urban centers in pursuit of jobs. Similarly, a number of indigenous Fijians have moved into urban areas, especially Suva, in search of a better life. Meanwhile, the Indo-Fijian population has declined due to emigration and a declining birth rate. Indo-Fijians currently constitute 37% of the total population, although they were the largest ethnic group from the 1940s until the late 1980s. Indo-Fijians continue to dominate the professions and commerce, while ethnic Fijians dominate government and the military.

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 him and 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 many 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 deadlocked negotiations, Rabuka staged a second coup on September 25, 1987. The military government revoked the 1970 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 of Nations and official non-recognition of the Rabuka regime from foreign governments, including Australia and New Zealand. On December 6, 1987, 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 interim Prime Minister, and Rabuka became Minister of Home Affairs.

The new government drafted a new constitution, effective 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 in 1993 after elections under the new constitution.

Tensions simmered in 1995-96 over the renewal of land leases and political maneuvering surrounding the mandated 5-year review of the 1990 constitution. A Constitutional Review Commission recommended a new constitution that expanded the size of the legislature, lowered the proportion of seats reserved by ethnic group, gave to the unelected Council of Chiefs authority to appoint the president and vice president, and opened the position of prime minister to all races. Ethnic Fijians and Indo-Fijians were allocated communal seats proportional to their numbers in the population at the time. Twenty-five seats were "open" to all. Prime Minister Rabuka and President Mara supported the proposal, while the nationalist indigenous Fijian parties opposed it. The constitution amendment act was unanimously approved by parliamentarians in July 1997. The new constitution mandated the formation of a multi-party cabinet (each party with 10% of members of Parliament was entitled to nominate a cabinet minister). Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth.

The first legislative elections held under the new constitution took place in May 1999. Rabuka's coalition was defeated by the Fiji Labor Party (FLP), which formed a coalition, led by Mahendra Chaudhry, with two small Fijian parties. Chaudhry 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 then-president Mara due to his inability to govern while a hostage. The Republic of Fiji military forces abrogated the constitution, convinced President Mara to resign, and brokered a negotiated end to the situation. Speight was later arrested when he violated the settlement's terms. In February 2002, Speight was convicted of treason and is currently serving a life sentence.

In July 2000, former banker Laisenia Qarase was named interim Prime Minister and head of the interim civilian administration by the military and Great Council of Chiefs. The Vice President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, was named President. The Court of Appeal in March 2001 reaffirmed the validity of the constitution and ordered the President to recall the elected Parliament. However, the President dissolved the Parliament elected in 2000 and appointed Qarase head of a caretaker government to take Fiji to general elections that were held in August. Qarase's newly formed Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party won the elections but did not invite into the cabinet representatives of the FLP as required by the constitution. In May 2006, the SDL was re-elected to a majority in the Parliament. Qarase continued as Prime Minister and formed a multi-party cabinet, which included nine members of the FLP.

In the lead-up to the May 2006 election and beginning again in September, tensions grew between Commander of the Fiji Military Forces Commodore Frank Bainimarama and the Qarase government. Bainimarama demanded the Qarase government not pursue certain legislation and policies. On December 5, 2006 Bainimarama removed elected Prime Minister Qarase from his position and dissolved Parliament in a military coup d'état. Qarase was exiled to an outer island. On January 4, 2007, Bainimarama reinstated President Iloilo, who stated the military was justified in its behavior and promised them amnesty. The following day Iloilo appointed Bainimarama interim Prime Minister. Over the following weeks Bainimarama formed an "interim government" that included, among others, former Prime Minister Chaudhry and former Republic of Fiji Military Forces heads Epeli Ganilau and Epeli Nailatikau. On January 15, 2007, President Iloilo decreed amnesty to Bainimarama, the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), and all those involved in the coup from December 5, 2006 to January 5, 2007, and he claimed to ratify all the actions of Bainimarama and the RFMF.

The coup was widely condemned by regional partners, including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and the European Union. In April 2007, the interim government suspended the Great Council of Chiefs after the council declined to appoint the interim government's choice as vice president. In October 2007, the interim government launched a People's Charter initiative, ostensibly to remove communal or ethnic voting and improve governance arrangements. The interim government has pledged itself to hold elections in March 2009, although the interim government's rhetoric continues to create uncertainty about the firmness of this commitment. A series of court cases challenging the constitutionality of the coup and its aftermath are pending.

Under the Fiji constitution, 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. The prime minister must have the support of the House of Representatives in order for his government to enact legislation. Both houses of the legislature have some seats reserved by ethnicity. Other seats can be filled by persons of any ethnic group. The House of Representatives is elected; the Senate is appointed. Since the December 2006 coup, the self-appointed interim government has ruled by decree.

Fiji maintains a judiciary consisting of a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, a High Court, and magistrate courts. All but one of the five judges on the Supreme Court also is a serving judge in Australia or New Zealand. Since the 2006 coup, a number of High Court and Court of Appeals justices have resigned, claiming interference in judicial affairs.

There are four administrative divisions--central, eastern, northern, and western--each under the charge of a divisional commissioner. Ethnic Fijians have their own administration in which councils preside over a hierarchy of provinces, districts, and villages. The 14 provincial councils deal with all matters affecting ethnic Fijians. There is also a Rotuma Island Council for the island of Rotuma.

The Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga) is made up of 55 hereditary chiefs, most of whom are nominated to the Council by their respective provincial councils. It is established under the Fijian Affairs Act and recognized by the constitution. The interim government promulgated regulations in February 2008 concerning membership in the Great Council of Chiefs that are being challenged in Fiji's courts.

Principal Government Officials
Head of State (President)--Josefa Iloilo
Interim Head of Government--Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama
Interim Minister of Foreign Affairs--Ratu Epeli Nailatikau

Ambassador to the United States--vacant
Permanent Representative to the United Nations--vacant

Fiji maintains an embassy at 2000 M Street NW, Suite 710, Washington, DC 20036 (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 a cabinet with substantial ethnic Indian representation was installed after the April 1987 election, extremist elements played on ethnic Fijian fears of domination by the Indo-Fijian community, resulting in a military coup d'etat.

This began what many now refer to as the "coup cycle." The most recent coup took place in December 2006, but has its roots in the previous 2000 coup and mutiny. Military commander Commodore Bainimarama helped resolve the 2000 crisis by imposing martial law. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase led the interim government that followed. Subsequently, Qarase was elected in 2001 and 2006, but pursued some policies favoring the indigenous Fijian community.

One of the main issues of contention is land tenure. Indigenous Fijian communities very closely identify themselves with their land. In 1909 the land ownership pattern was frozen by the British and further sales prohibited. Today, 87% of the land is held by indigenous Fijians, under the collective ownership of the traditional Fijian clans (mataqali). That land cannot be sold and is held in trust by the Native Land Trust Board on behalf of the landowning units. Indo-Fijians produce more than 75% of the sugar crop but, in most cases, must lease the land they work from its ethnic Fijian owners instead of being able to buy it outright.

In 2005 and 2006, tensions rose between Bainimarama and Qarase over legislation proposed by the Qarase government concerning land ownership, traditional non-public ownership of the foreshore, and a reconciliation bill that opened the possibility to grant immunity to some coup participants from 2000. Bainimarama began to make demands and threats, and engaged in shows of military force to intimidate the Qarase government into backing away from the controversial policies. When the Qarase government did not accede to all military demands, on December 5, 2006, Bainimarama assumed the powers of the presidency, dismissed Parliament, and declared a temporary military government.

Commodore Bainimarama's interim government has pursued what he terms a "clean-up campaign" to root out what he considers to be large-scale corruption in Fiji. A number of civil servants, including the Chief Justice, were summarily suspended or dismissed due to unidentified corruption concerns. Many individuals who spoke out against the coup were taken to military camps where they were questioned and sometimes abused.

Fiji is one of the more developed of the Pacific island economies, although it remains a developing country with a large subsistence agriculture sector. For many years sugar and textile exports drove Fiji's economy. However, neither industry is competing effectively in globalized markets. Fiji's sugar industry suffers from quality concerns, poor administration, and the phasing out of a preferential price agreement with the European Union beginning in 2006/2007. The European Union has promised a large amount of financial aid to assist the ailing sugar industry, but, post-coup, has clarified that the aid will only be forthcoming if Fiji cleans up its human rights situation and moves quickly to democracy.

In 2005, the textile industry in Fiji markedly declined following the end of the quota system under the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC) and the full integration of textiles into WTO General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. The income from garments plummeted by 43% in 2005 with the end of the ATC quotas. Garments now account for approximately 12% of Fiji's exports and sugar approximately 24%. Other important export crops include coconuts and ginger, although production levels of both are declining. Fiji has extensive mahogany timber reserves, which are only now being exploited. Fishing is an important export and local food source. Gold is also an important, albeit troubled, export industry for Fiji.

The most important manufacturing activities are the processing of sugar and fish. Since 2000 the export of still mineral water, mainly to the United States, has expanded rapidly. By the end of 2006, water exports totaled around U.S. $52 million per year, an increase of 28% over 2005 and an increase of 775% since 2000.

During 2007, GDP declined by 3.9%, largely as a result of the December 2006 coup. GDP growth rate in 2006 was 1.7%.

In recent years, growth in Fiji has been largely driven by a strong tourism industry. Tourism expanded rapidly since the early 1980s and is the leading economic activity in the islands. However, the December 2006 coup led to an overall decline in tourist arrivals during 2007. About one-third of Fiji's visitors come from Australia, with large contingents also coming from New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. In 2005, more than 70,000, or around 13%, of the tourists were American, a number that had steadily increased since the start of regularly scheduled nonstop air service from Los Angeles. In 2004, Fiji's gross earnings from tourism were about $418 million, an amount double the revenue from its two largest goods exports (sugar and garments). Gross earnings from tourism continue to be Fiji's major source of foreign currency.

Fiji runs a persistently large trade deficit, F$1.94 billion (U.S. $1.17 billion) for 2006, although tourism revenues yield a services surplus. Australia accounts for between 25% and 35% of Fiji's foods trade, with New Zealand, Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan varying year-by-year between 5% and 20% each. Since the 1960s, Fiji has had a high rate of emigration, particularly of Indo-Fijians in search of better economic opportunities. This has been particularly true of persons with education and skills. The economic and political uncertainties following the coups have added to the outward flow by persons of all ethnic groups. In recent years, indigenous Fijians also have begun to emigrate in large numbers, often to seek employment as home health care workers. Remittances from overseas workers, often undocumented, are second only to tourism as a source of foreign exchange earnings.

Inflation has increased during the first months of 2008, reaching 7% at the end of February 2008. This was due to higher oil prices, some increase in duties from the national budget, and some disruptions in local supply of vegetables.

Fiji has traditionally had close relations with its major trading partners Australia and New Zealand. Currently, a number of countries including Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have placed targeted sanctions on the illegal interim government. Fiji has pursued closer relations with a number of Asian countries, including the People's Republic of China and India.

Since independence, Fiji has been a leader in the South Pacific region. Fiji hosts the secretariat of the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum, as well as a number of other prestigious regional organizations. In 2002, Fiji hosted the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Summit with more than 80 countries represented. During the ACP Summit, the Nadi Declaration was adopted regarding economic cooperation with the European Union. In July 2003, Fiji hosted the South Pacific Games, a prestigious event that went far beyond athletics and symbolized the country's return to normalcy. In September 2005, Fiji hosted the 51st Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference. 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 about 600 soldiers and police overseas in UN peacekeeping missions, primarily in Iraq, and with MFO Sinai in the Middle East. Fiji also has a number of private citizens working in Iraq and Kuwait, mostly in security services.

Relations between the elected government of Fiji and the United States were excellent. The United States has limited its relationship with the interim government established by the illegal December 5, 2006 coup. Fiji maintains an embassy in Washington DC and trade office in Los Angeles, as well as a Permanent Mission in New York at the United Nations. Although the United States provides relatively little direct bilateral development assistance, it contributes as a major member of a number of multilateral agencies such as the Asian Development Bank and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. The U.S. Peace Corps, temporarily withdrawn from Fiji in 1998, resumed its program in Fiji in late 2003.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Larry M. Dinger
Deputy Chief of Mission--Ted A. Mann
Political/Economic/Commercial Affairs--Brian J. Siler
Consul--Debra J. Towry
Management Officer--Ila S. Jurisson
Regional Environmental Officer--Joseph P. Murphy
Regional Security Officer--Jim T. Suor

The U.S. Embassy in Fiji is located at 31 Loftus Street, Suva; tel: 679-331-4466, fax: 679-330-0081. The mailing address is U.S. Embassy, P.O. Box 218, Suva, Fiji.