The Great Council of Chiefs – An historical anachronism?
18 February, 2023, 3:32 pm
IN 1874, thirteen Fijian chiefs headed by the Vunivalu, Ratu Seru Cakobau, ceded Fiji to Great Britain.
Queen Victoria, Empress of India, was on the throne.
Her Prime Minister at the time was the Conservative statesman, Benjamin Disraeli.
Under the Deed of Cession, the chiefs on behalf of the Fijian people, totally and unreservedly surrendered sovereignty over all their lands and territories.
The Deed has come to be regarded by many Fijians as their Magna Carter (Premdas & Steeves).
In return, the Crown gave the chiefs two assurances.
First, Fijian possession of their tribal lands would be retained by them according to their custom and usage in accordance with the English common law principle of native or aboriginal title.
Second, the position and authority of the high chiefs was also assured.
Sir Arthur Gordon (later Lord Stanmore), was appointed the first Governor of Fiji (1875 to 1880).
He established the Council of Chiefs (earlier known as the Native Council), in 1876.
The Governor’s priority was to devise an institutional structure and the enabling regulations for native administration and the welfare of the Fijians.
He needed to be able to persuade the chiefs to agree on a common and standardised system of customary tenure for all native land.
As it developed, the Council was to play an important advisory role to the Governor on all matters related to Fijian land, culture and identity.
All members of the Council are and have remained indigenous Fijians.
The Council of Chiefs morphed into a “Great” council (GCC) in the colonial broadcasting era in the 1950s (Field).
In pre-colonial Fiji, there was no formal organisation of chiefs.
While it can be said the Council was essentially a colonial construct, it has its roots in Fijian tradition (Norton).
Historically, Fijians have embraced it as part of their socio-political structure, and in some respects, their identity.
The Bose Levu Vakaturaga (BLV) represented some sense of themselves as a repository of knowledge on matters Taukei.
“Bose Levu Vakaturaga” or “Vakaturaga” means in a chiefly or courtly manner, envisioning that BLV proceedings would be in that vein.
In this connection, it implies an important meeting conducted with appropriate decorum and dignity protocol, rather than on its status.
In December 1879, under the leadership of Governor Gordon, the Council of Chiefs met in Bua to discuss matters related to land.
There was agreement on a number of broad principles including that all native lands would vest in the “mataqali”, and that there would be one custom for all native land in the colony.
The Bua meeting of the chiefs also resolved that mataqali land could not be alienated.
Around this time, the population of indigenous Fijians was just over 100,000 or roughly 90 per cent of Fiji’s total population.
In 1875, a measles epidemic swept through the young colony, killing almost one third of the Fijian population.
Between 1879 and 1916 around 60,000 “girmitiyas”, were brought to Fiji from India by the colonial administration, to look after the sugar plantations.
It was British policy to cocoon the Fijians within their own enclave, to avoid disrupting their social system and way of life.
The well-being of the colony was to be underwritten by the cultivation of sugar cane, and the production of sugar.
When Indenture ended, some Indians returned to the sub-continent, but many remained.
By 1966, Indians accounted for just over 51 per cent of the population of Fiji.
Today that figure hovers around 35 per cent, with Fijians forming more than half the country’s inhabitants.
In the 1960s, indigenous Fijians comprised just 42 per cent, with the remainder consisting of Rotumans, Europeans, Chinese and other Pacific Islanders.
The fear of Indian domination was a theme that ran through the political discourse leading to Fiji’s independence in 1970.
As the young colony grew, demand for land also grew with it.
GCC’s contribution to land law
Sir Arthur Gordon who was a visionary, proposed the idea of setting up a body to hold native land in trust which would then lease it to interested farmers.
The expectation of a growing Indian population meant that the demand for land would inevitably increase.
In 1933, Ratu Sukuna (later Sir) a Fijian of noble birth (and uncle of Fiji’s first Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara) who was to occupy senior administrative positions in the colonial civil service, addressed the Council of Chiefs, saying, “We regard the Indian desire for more permanent tenancy as a natural and legitimate consequence an agricultural community settling in any country. But how was this desire to be reconciled with the need to protect the interests of present and future Fijian landowners?”
Initially, Ratu Sukuna was met with a large degree of skepticism and apprehension in his endeavour to open up native land for leasing to other races.
There was fear by many Fijians of being dispossessed of their land which would be surrendered forever to a trust, a concept that was foreign to them.
It took many months for Ratu Sukuna to patiently explain to the Fijian people, the implications of surrendering the management and control of their land to a statutory body.
It is said that he walked the length and breadth of Fiji to achieve this.
In 1936, Ratu Sukuna advised the Council of Chiefs: “But if we obstruct other people without reason from using our lands, following the laggards, there will be no prosperity.”
Eventually, following an extended and robust debate, the Council of Chiefs approved the trust scheme that led to the establishment of the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB), in what Sir Philip Mitchell, then the Governor, described as “one of the greatest acts of faith and trust in colonial history.”
Drafted in 1937, the proposed Native Lands Trust Bill, captured Sukuna’s vision of what he considered would be the best arrangement for his people and the overall well-being and interest of Fiji.
The Native Land Trust Ordinance (NLTO) or law was passed by the Legislative Council (the forerunner to today’s Parliament) in February 1940, with the endorsement of the Council of Chiefs, acting on behalf of all Fijian customary land and resource owners.
NLTO prescribed transparent guidelines and rules for an integrated management and administrative for native land.
It created the Native Land Trust Board.
NLTB’s history shows that leasing is an instrument that can render the freedom of doing business on customary owned land (Boydell & Baya).
In the 1960s, the GCC agreed to what was legislated to become the Agricultural and Landlord Tenancy Ordinance (ALTO).
It required the minimum tenure of a lease to be 10 years.
In 1976, ALTO was amended by Parliament and became known as the Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act (ALTA).
This amendment provided 20-year renewals for the existing leases under ALTO, and all new leases were to have a minimum of 30 years.
Security of land tenure under ALTA delivered economic gains until the expiry of leases.
This came at a cost though.
A body of Fijian opinion resented the subjugation of the Native Land Trust Act to the provisions of ALTA.
While this afforded tenants a measure of security, it encroached on the proprietorial rights of landowners (Madraiwiwi).
The pivotal role of the GCC was recognised in Fiji’s 1970 (Independence) Constitution which provided that the Council could nominate eight of the twenty-two members of the Senate.
The subsequent 1990 Constitution gave the GCC increased powers, responsible for appointing both the President and Vice President.
In the review process that led to the adoption of the 1997 Constitution, National Federation Party (NFP) member of Parliament Harnam Singh Golian addressing the House of Representatives, commended the GCC “who have been a source of vision, inspiration, and a pillar of strength in the constitution review process, and to whom the whole nation looks……as a symbol of national unity and togetherness.”
Addressing the Great Council of Chiefs on 6 June 1997, Mr. Jai Ram Reddy, the former NFP and Leader of Opposition, said, “Chiefs of Fiji with the greatest of respect and humility I submit that you are chiefs not just of Fijians, but of all the people of Fiji.
“What we seek is partnership. We seek a country whose children of all races grow up with a deep understanding and respect for each other’s cultures languages and traditions.
“We seek a country which encourages the best and the brightest — indeed, encourages all its people, of all races — to work together”.
Under section 116 of the 1997 Constitution, the Council was formalized as the Great Council of Chiefs or Bose Levu Vakaturaga.
The rationale of the BLV lay in the collective wellbeing of the Taukei, rather than on individuals per se.
Rooted in the indivisibility of the turaga (chiefs) and their tamata (people) as reflected in the saying, “Turaga na turaga ni tamata, tamata na tamata ni turaga’ (i.e. Chiefs are chiefs of the people, people are people of the chiefs).
Commodore Bainimarama, who seized power in a coup d’état in December 2006, and overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Mr. Laisenia Qarase, rubbished the Council and said that the GCC was part of the country’s colonial past.
After the 2000 coup which ultimately displaced the elected government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, some elements of the GCC were perceived to support ethno-nationalist leaders, some of whom were regarded as extremists.
But any evidence that the GCC as a collective supported Speight is debatable and far from conclusive.
Mr. Bainimarama suspended the GCC in 2007 after it rejected the President’s nomination for the vice presidency.
In 2008, he appointed himself as chairman of the Council.
The appointment was announced in the government gazette on 13 February, and signed by Commodore Bainimarama himself.
The GCC was formally dissolved in 2012 after Mr. Bainimarama infamously told the chiefs “to go and drink home brew under the mango tree”.
The arbitrary way in which the GCC was removed was met with hurt and bewilderment by the iTaukei.
It smacked of unprecedented arrogance.
Mr Bainimarama claimed the Council perpetuated elitism, engaged in divisive politics and had little relevance to the needs and aspirations of
The allegation of the GCC being an elite body was an over simplification.
By the late 1970s, close to half of its members were either commoners or persons of modest chiefly rank.
While there was a certain prestige associated with membership of the GCC, the monetary and other benefits were derisory.
Under the 1997 Constitution, the GCC nominated 14 of the 32 senators and acted as an electoral college for the selection of the president and the vice president.
The GCC had tried to help resolve the 2000 “Speight” coup in which the government of Mr Chaudhry was held hostage for 56 days.
Its efforts failed.
Opening a new session of Parliament on February 3 this year, the President Ratu Wiliame Katonivere announced the new government’s intention to reestablish the GCC.
For over a century, the GCC has existed as part of the political landscape.
It has not been a model of perfection, but for all of its lapses, it has been overall, a force for good.
Ratu Sukuna in many respects was the very embodiment of chiefly virtue, humility and generosity.
The magnanimity of the chiefs of Fiji is displayed in this speech by Ratu Sukuna to the Legislative Council in 1933, upon a motion on land for
settlement by Indians, when he said: “[W]e regard the Indian desire for more permanent tenancy as a natural and legitimate consequence of an agricultural community settling in any country.”
At times, various political leaders as well as the army have looked to the GCC for legitimation of their actions.
Throughout its history, the Great Council of Chiefs has largely been a positive and stabilising influence, but occasionally, a bastion of ethnonationalism, not always benign.
The Council has demonstrated a capacity for crisis management and sometimes been called upon to adjudicate on matters of national interest.
It is easy to forget that the GCC’s support for the creation of the NLTB was visionary, and that the benefits of that leadership continues to this day.
In the final analysis, I believe that it is for the indigenous people of this country to decide whether a body which was devoted to their “protection”, should remain or be permanently shelved.
Those that applauded its removal fail to understand the importance of symbolism in the Fijian social structure.
Introducing the Fijian Affairs Ordinance in 1938, Sir Phillip Mitchell said its underlying policy was to build “on the existing organisation and ideas of the [Fijian] people, leaving it to the people themselves….to devise and develop their own institutions”.
The Great Council of Chiefs offers a forum for the indigenous people of Fiji to discuss issues that are important to them (like greater Fijian participation in the national economy, public health, education, cultural practices and so on), and to suggest solutions to problems confronting them.
Just as the people of Rabi had a Council of Leaders and Elders (dissolved by Fiji’s military regime in June 2013), and the Rotumans, their own Council of Rotuma, there remains significant sections of the indigenous population whether for reasons of nostalgia or otherwise, are happy with the decision to reinstate the GCC.
If the GCC is able to avoid the pitfall of descending into a vehicle that champions the fortunes of any one political party, ethno-nationalism or
racial extremism, it has the potential to build cross cultural bridges and understanding between Fiji’s different ethnic communities, contributing to the long term peace and security of the country.
Its advocates maintain that the restoration of the Great Council of Chiefs does not seek to place indigenous rights above those of other communities.
Nor does it seek special privileges or entitlements.
It is merely about returning to the indigenous people of this country an institution which is close to their heart.
A reformed GCC should be above partisan party politics, and be nonaligned.
Any reform could consider the ways in which the GCC might create pathways for participation by, and consultations with other races, interest groups and communities, as well as strengthening its autonomy from government.
• GRAHAM LEUNG is a former president of the Fiji Law Society and a Suvabased legal consultant. He is a past member of the Fijians Trust Fund Board and the Board of Kadavu Holdings Ltd. The views expressed here are his alone and not necessarily shared by this newspaper.