By Christiane Oelrich — THE driver takes a pragmatic view. “We have our jobs. We like Frank. Life is OK as long as you keep your mouth shut,” he says as he manoeuvres a school bus around potholes on the road in Fiji from Nadi to Suva. Frank Bainimarama, 58, is the naval officer who has twice led coups on the Pacific island nation, seizing power for the second time in 2006.
Businessmen and tour operators tend to have a similar view, giving the military strongman good marks in the face of criticism by international human rights organisations.
“Frank has reduced corruption by 90 per cent,” says a European diving tour operator on the main island of Viti Levu.
A local businessman sings Bainimarama’s praises: “He is very straightforward. He has marginalised the troublemakers, and tensions have eased considerably as a result.”
And a restaurant owner in Sigatoka serving traditional Indian food adds: “If Frank runs for office in the elections he has promised for 2014, I think he will win.”
For decades, tensions between the indigenous Melanesian inhabitants and the large Indian minority brought in by Fiji’s British colonial rulers inhibited economic growth. The military has seized power four times since independence in 1970.
The Melanesians fear being overtaken by the Indians, who largely run the economy, and so have resorted to entrenching Melanesian hegemony in the constitution. Corruption and nepotism flourished as a result. Political leaders on both sides used the resulting tensions to foment animosity.
“Fijians and Indians actually co-operate in daily life quite well living side-by-side as they do,” says Manfred Ernst, who heads the social research centre at the Pacific Theological College in Suva.
The bus driver agrees: “The power-hungry and the greedy cause problems while the others get along well.”
What the businessman referred to as “troublemakers” are the Indian-dominated trade unions and the Methodist Church. Many people in Fiji believe that church has used the pulpit to whip up emotions among indigenous Fijians against people of Indian origin.