Fiji (12/23/10)

December 23, 2010

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


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 (2010 est.): 847,793. Age structure--28.7% under 14; 7.9% over 60.
Annual population growth rate (2010 est.): 0.5%.
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 years. Infant mortality rate--16/1,000.
Work force: Agriculture--67%.
Unemployment (2009): 8.6%

Type: Parliamentary democracy (overthrown by military coup in December 2006).
Independence (from United Kingdom): October 10, 1970.
Constitution: July 1997 (abrogated April 2009).
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, Court of Appeal, High Court, Magistrate Courts.
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), Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT), General Voters Party (GVP), Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua (CAMV).

Economy (all figures in U.S. dollars)
GDP (2010 estimate): $3.216 billion.
GDP per capita (2010 estimate): $3,613.
GDP composition by sector: Services 59.7%, industry 30.4%, agriculture 9.9%.
Industry: Types--tourism, sugar, garments.
Trade (January-June 2010): Exports--$324.3 million: sugar, garments, gold, fish, mineral water. Major markets--U.K., Australia, U.S., New Zealand, Japan. Imports--$712.5 million: mineral products, machinery and transport equipment. Major sources--Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, China, U.S. ($33.441 million).
Government external debt (2010 est.): $283.78 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. The interim government that governed Fjii from December 1987-1992 was led by former Prime Minister Mara who 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, the military commander Frank Bainimarama and the Great Council of Chiefs appointed former banker Laisenia Qarase interim Prime Minister and head of the interim civilian administration. 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 assumed executive authority, 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. There has been little visible progress toward elections. In October 2008, the High Court ruled that President Iloilo’s January 2007 appointment of Bainimarama as Prime Minister, the granting of amnesty to coup perpetrators, and rule by decree, was not unconstitutional. However, on April 9, 2009, the Court of Appeal ruled that that the 2006 coup had been illegal. The following day President Iloilo abrogated the constitution, and removed all officials appointed under the constitution including all judges and the Governor of the Central Bank. He then reappointed Bainimarama as Prime Minister under his "New Order" and imposed a "Public Emergency Regulation" that allowed press censorship.

The 1997 constitution provided for a ceremonial president selected by the Great Council of Chiefs and an elected prime minister and parliament. However, in 2006 the armed forces commander, Commodore Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, overthrew the elected government in a bloodless coup d'etat. In January 2007 the interim military government was replaced by a nominally civilian interim government (the "interim government") headed by Bainimarama as prime minister. After the Court of Appeal declared the December 2006 coup and the interim government appointed in January 2007 unlawful, the 1997 constitution was abrogated and a state of emergency imposed on April 10, 2009. Bainimarama and his government established rule by decree after the abrogation. The constitutional Bill of Rights has not been revived, and despite the revival of the Fiji Human Rights Commission (FHRC) by decree, the FHRC is prohibited from investigating the abrogation of the constitution and the actions of the de facto government and security forces. Bainimarama and his Military Council control the security forces.

After the abrogation of the constitution by President Iloilo on April 10, 2009, he signed decrees re-establishing the judiciary and his own position as President. Iloilo resigned in July 2009 and a new President was appointed by the interim cabinet. Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, former RFMF commander, diplomat, and Speaker of the House of Representatives (2001-2006) was appointed President by the interim cabinet. The decree provides that the Chief Justice is to act in place of the President in his absence, and no vice president has been appointed.

Fiji maintains a judiciary consisting of a Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, a High Court, and Magistrate Courts. Since the 2006 coup, a number of High Court and Court of Appeal justices have resigned, claiming interference in judicial affairs. After the abrogation of the constitution on April 10, 2009, all sitting judges and magistrates were terminated and some were reappointed to a new judiciary re-established by decree in May 2009. The Fiji Government has also drawn new judges and magistrates from Sri Lanka. All cases challenging the actions of the interim government since December 2006, its decrees, and the coup itself were dissolved by decree, which prohibits the judiciary from hearing challenges to the actions of the government since April 2009, the 2006 coup, and the abrogation of the constitution in April 2009.

There are four administrative divisions--central, eastern, northern, and western--each under the charge of a divisional commissioner, all of whom are senior military officers. 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.

Principal Government Officials
Head of State (President)--Epeli Nailatikau
Interim Head of Government (Prime Minister)--Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama
Interim Minister of Foreign Affairs--Inoke Kubuabola
Ambassador to the United States--Winston Thompson
Permanent Representative to the United Nations--Peter Thomson

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. Bainimarama appointed an interim government led by interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. 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.

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 was appointed interim Prime Minister in 2007; his 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. Since 2006, sugar price reductions totaled 36%. 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 improves 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 World Trade Organization (WTO) General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. The income from garments plummeted by 47% in 2005 with the end of the ATC quotas. Garments now account for approximately 9.4% of Fiji's exports and sugar approximately 20.9%. Other important export crops include coconuts and ginger, although production levels of both are declining. Fiji has extensive mahogany timber reserves, which are 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. From 2000 the export of still mineral water, mainly to the United States, had expanded rapidly. By the end of 2009, water exports totaled around U.S. $41.95 million, a decrease of 27.1% from 2008.

Economic growth in 2010 was downgraded from 1.8% to 0.1%. For 2011, the Fiji Government forecasts a 1.3% economic growth rate.

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. In the first 6 months of 2010, tourist arrivals grew by 21.6%, recovering from a setback in 2007 after the 2006 coup and flooding in 2009. About 45% of Fiji's visitors come from Australia, with large contingents also coming from New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Pacific Islands. In 2009, more than 51,000, or around 10%, of the tourists were American, a number that had steadily increased since the start of regularly scheduled nonstop air service from Los Angeles. Fiji's gross earnings from tourism in 2009 were about $423.4 million (F$816.5 million), an amount more than 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.

Although tourism revenues yield a services surplus, Fiji runs a persistently large trade deficit. The trade deficit in the first half of 2010 decreased by 14% to $388.2 million (F$748.8 million) compared with the same period in 2009. 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. Indigenous Fijians also have begun to emigrate in large numbers, often to seek employment as home health care workers. Remittances from overseas workers, which grew 14% from January to May in 2010 compared with the same period in 2009, are second only to tourism as a source of foreign exchange earnings.

The Fiji Government’s year-end 2010 inflation forecast is 4.1%.

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 (PIF), as well as a number of other prestigious regional organizations. However, in May 2009, the PIF suspended Fiji’s membership for failing to declare elections before the deadline set by the organization. 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, MFO Sinai in the Middle East, Sudan, and Liberia. Fiji also has a number of private citizens working in Iraq and Kuwait, mostly in security services, and over 1,500 citizens serving in the British Army.

Relations between the elected government of Fiji and the United States have traditionally been 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. The three pillars of U.S. policy toward Fiji under the coup government are: upholding U.S. law-based sanctions, protecting and promoting U.S. interests in the region, and doing no harm to the people of Fiji.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--C. Steven McGann
Deputy Chief of Mission--Richard K. Pruett
Political/Economic/Commercial Affairs--James T. Crow
Public Diplomacy Officer--Douglas A. Morris
Consul--Gregory Patrick
Regional Environmental Officer--Norman Barth
Regional Security Officer--William B. "Beau" Black

The U.S. Embassy in Fiji is located at 31 Loftus Street, Suva; tel: 679-331-4466, fax: 679-330-2267. The mailing address is U.S. Embassy, P.O. Box 218, Suva, Fiji.