How did the government lose the war with USP?

Former prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama is escorted by policemen at the Police CID headquarters in Suva, on Thurs 09 Mar 2023. Picture: ELIKI NUKUTABU

THE long-running row between the former Fiji government and the University of the South Pacific (USP) has come back to haunt former prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama, who spent a night in a police cell on March 9 before appearing in court, charged with abuse of office.

Not only did the “USP saga”, as it came to be known, cause a major rift between Fiji and the other 12 USP-member countries, but it may have contributed to the narrow loss of the FijiFirst Party (FFP) in the December 2022 election.

Mr Bainimarama’s abuse of office charges include accusations of interfering with a police investigation into financial malpractices at USP.

If convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of 17 years in jail. But there are also serious questions about the future of the party that he co-founded, and which won successive elections in 2014 and 2018 on the back of his popularity.

A day before his indictment, there were surreal scenes at the Suva Central Police Station, as Police officers marched an ashen-faced Mr Bainimarama to his cell to spend the night before his court appearance the next morning.

This took place under the full glare of live media coverage, with journalists tripping over themselves to take pictures of the former military strongman, who installed himself as prime minister after the 2006 coup and ruled for 16 years straight.

Arrested, detained and charged alongside Mr Bainimarama was his once-powerful police chief, Sitiveni Qiliho, who managed a wry smile for the cameras. Both were released on a surety of $10,000 after pleading not guilty to the charges.

It is alleged that in 2019, the duo “arbitrarily and in abuse of the authority of their respective offices” shut down a police investigation into alleged irregularities at USP.

The row begins

In November 2018, the newly-arrived Vice-Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia, revealed large remuneration payments to certain USP senior staff, some running to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Fiji government, unhappy with Prof Ahluwalia’s attack on Rajesh Chandra, counter-attacked by alleging irregularities in Prof Ahluwalia’s own administration. As the dispute escalated, the Fiji government suspended its annual grant to the USP in a bid to force an inquiry into its own allegations.

When an external audit by accountants BDO (NZ) confirmed the original report’s findings, the USP executive committee, under the control of Fiji government appointees, suspended Prof Ahluwalia in June 2020. This was in defiance of the USP’s supreme decision-making body, the USP Council, which reinstated him within a week.

Samoa’s then Deputy Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa (who is now prime minister, having won a heavily contested election of her own) said at the time that Prof Ahluwalia’s suspension was a “nonsense”.

The then Nauruan President, Lionel Aingimea, attacked a “small group” of Fiji officials for “hijacking” the 12-country regional university. The USP Students’ Association threatened a boycott of exams, while more than 500 signatures supporting the suspended vice-chancellor were collected and students protested across several of USP’s national campuses.

All these events played out prominently in the regional news media as well as on social media platforms. As 2021 opened, and with elections scheduled for the following year, the political toll was becoming obvious.

However, Mr Bainimarama’s government either did not see it, or did not care to see it. Instead of backing off from what many saw as an unnecessary fight, it doubled down.

In February 2021, around 15 immigration and security personnel staged a late-night on Prof Ahluwalia’s Suva home, detained
him with his wife, Sandra Price, and put them in a car for the three-hour drive to Nadi International Airport where, deported,
they were put on the first flight to Australia.

The move sent shockwaves through Fiji and the region. To many, it looked like a government that had come to power in the name of a “cleanup campaign” against corruption was now indulging in a cover-up campaign instead.

The USP saga became political fodder at opposition rallies, with one of the opposition’s major campaign promises being to bring back Prof Ahluwalia and restore the unpaid Fiji Government grant that then stood at $86 million.

A month before the 2022 polls, a statement targeting the estimated 30,000 staff and student cohort at USP, their friends and families, urged them to vote against FijiFirst, which would go on to lose government by a single parliamentary vote to the tripartite coalition led by another former coup leader, Sitiveni Rabuka.

It was Mr Rabuka who greeted Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on his first official visit to Fiji earlier this week.

During talks at the Australian-funded Blackrock military camp, Albanese reportedly secured Mr Rabuka’s support for the
AUKUS deal. Australian is keen for stability in Fiji, which has had democratically elected governments removed by coups in 1987, 2000 and 2006.

Any disturbance in Fiji has the potential to upset the delicate balance in the region as a whole.

Things fall apart

For Mr Bainimarama and his followers, there is much to rue. His claimed agenda – to build national unity and racial equality and to rid Fiji of corruption – earned widespread support in 2014.

His margin of victory was much narrower in 2018 but Mr Bainimarama managed to secure a majority in parliament to lead the nation again. His electoral loss in 2022 was followed by a series of dramatic events, which fi rst saw Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, his deputy in all but name, disqualified from holding his seat in parliament.

Mr Bainimarama went next, suspended for three years by Parliament’s Privileges Committee for a speech attacking head of
state Ratu Wiliame Katonivere. He chose to resign as opposition leader.

Following his March 10 hearing, Mr Bainimarama addressed the media and a few supporters outside court, adamant that he had served the country with “integrity” and with “the best interests” of all Fijians at heart.

The former leader even managed to smile for the cameras while surrounded by followers. He had nearly double the personal votes of the sitting PM Rabuka under Fiji’s proportional representation voting system. His supporters were still harbouring some hope that he could return as Fiji’s leader one day.

However, his health is not the best. He is now out of Parliament and bogged down by legal troubles. Is the sun now setting on the era of Mr Bainimarama and FijiFirst?

    Professor of Pacifi c Journalism at the
    University of the South Pacifi c. The views
    expressed in this article are not necessarily
    the views of USP or The Fiji Times.

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