Fiji Overview: History

Polynesians presumably arrived in the islands more than 3,000 years ago; they were largely conquered and absorbed by Melanesian invaders c.1500 BC The first Europeans to visit Fiji were the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in 1643 and British Capt. James Cook in 1774. In the early 1800s the first European settlement was established at Levuka, which became an important whaling port in the mid-1800s. A Fijian national government, with a tribal chief as king, was established in Levuka in 1871, but in 1874, at the request of Fiji's tribal chiefs, Great Britain annexed the islands. The capital was moved to Suva in 1882. During World War II the islands were an important supply point.

In 1970, Fiji gained independence as a member of the Commonwealth with Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara as prime minister. In 1987, Col. Sitiveni Rabuka led two coups that wrested control of the racially divided nation's government from the ethnic Indians. Fiji was declared a republic; it also was expelled (1987–97) from the Commonwealth. In 1990 a new constitution granted nonurban native Fijians a disproportionate say in the government. Two years later Rabuka became prime minister, and in 1994 Mara was appointed president.

The constitution was amended in 1997 to give nonethnic Fijians a larger voice, and in May, 1999, Labor party leader Mahendra Chaudhry was the first ethnic Indian to become prime minister of Fiji, replacing Rabuka. A May, 2000, coup attempt led by Fijian businessman George Speight took Chaudhry hostage and demanded an end to Indian participation in Fijian politics; the crisis led the army to seek Mara's resignation and briefly take power. The army appointed (July, 2000) an ethnic Fijian–dominated government headed by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase; Ratu Josefa Iloilo became president. Speight, after releasing his hostages, demanded a strong influence in the new government but was arrested by the army, and his insurgency was quashed. In 2002 he pled guilty to treason and was sentenced to life in prison.

Qarase's government was subsequently ruled illegal by the courts, and Ratu Tevita Momoedonu was appointed prime minister of a caretaker government in Mar., 2001. New parliamentary elections in August–September resulted in a victory for the Fiji United party (SDL), which formed a Fiji-nationalist coalition government with the Conservative Alliance; Qarase again became prime minister. The post-coup period saw many Indo-Fijians forced off leased farms when ethnic Fijian landowners, who control roughly 90% of the land, did not renew leases.

In July, 2003, Qarase's government was ruled unconstitutional because it did not include members of the opposition Labor party. In September the Labor party refused to join the government when Qarase excluded Chaudhry, and the situation remained unresolved until late in 2004 when Chaudhry decided to lead the opposition. Also in 2004, Ratu Jope Seniloli, the vice president, was convicted on charges stemming from his appointment as president by George Speight during the attempted coup in 2000; he subsequently resigned after serving a shortened sentence.

A government proposal in mid-2005 to offer amnesty to persons involved in the coup sparked protests from the opposition and from the army, whose commander threatened to intervene if such a law was passed. The Great Council of Chiefs, however, supported the proposal. Tensions between the government and army continued into 2006. The military chief, Commodore Voreqe Frank Bainimarama , was accused in the spring by Qarase's party of illegally campaigning against it, and later in the year Bainimarama called for Qarase's government to drop ethnically divisive legislation or resign. Meanwhile, President Iloilo was reelected in Mar., 2006. Qarase's coalition won the May parliamentary elections, and the Labor party subsequently agreed to participate in the multiparty cabinet, although Chaudhry did not accept a post.

In November Qarase agreed to drop the coup amnesty proposal, but relations between the government and military remained tense; the preceding month Qarase had attempted to replace Bainimarama as military chief, but the proposed replacement refused the post. The military ultimately overthrew the government in December, and Bainimarama initially assumed the post of interim president. The Commonwealth partially suspended Fiji in response (and fully suspended Fiji three years later). Opposition from the Council of Chiefs led Bainimarama to restore Iloilo to the presidency in Jan., 2007, but at the same time the president announced that he supported the commodore and Bainimarama became interim prime minister. In April the Bainimarama's government suspended the members of the Great Council of Chiefs because of the lack of cooperation with the government. The move followed the council's refusal to approve the government's choice for vice president.

A people's charter, intended by Bainimarama to complement the constitution and to unify Fiji and end its racially divisive politics, was completed in Aug., 2008, and approved by the president in December. In Apr., 2009, after the courts declared Bainimarama's government illegal, he resigned as prime minister. President Iloilo subsequently abrograted the constitution, dismissed the judiciary, appointed himself head of state under a new legal order, and then appointed Bainimarama interim prime minister; judges aligned with the government were appointed in May.

In July, 2009, Bainimarama announced that work on a new constitution would begin in 2012 and democratic elections would be held two years later. A draft constitution was completed by a constitutional commission by the end of 2012, but copies of the draft that were disseminated were confiscated by the government, and the government announced that it would revise the draft.

Meanwhile, Iloilo resigned as president for health reasons in July, 2009. Vice President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau became acting president and then, in Nov., 2009, president. By early 2010, Bainimarama's government was taking increasingly repressive moves against its critics, including tight restrictions on the media. In Mar., 2010, a cyclone caused significant damage in N Fiji.

Bainimarama abolished the Great Council of Chiefs in Mar., 2012. The council, which had been established under British rule in 1875, had elected the president and consulted in the appointment of senators. Former prime minister Qarase was convicted of corruption in July, 2012; the charges related a company directorship he held in the 1990s. In Sept., 2013, a new constitution was finally adopted. Bainimarama resigned as Fiji's military chief in Mar., 2014, but he remained the country's interim prime minister. Former prime minister Chaudhry was convicted in Apr., 2014, of violating Fiji's Exchange Control Act. Bainimarama's Fiji First party handily won the Sept., 2014, parliamentary elections, and he became prime minister. Following the election, Fiji's suspension from the Commonwealth was lifted. In 2015 Jioje Konrote was elected Fiji's president. Many parts of the country suffered extensive destruction from a severe tropical cyclone (hurricane) in Feb., 2016.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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