Fiji strongman Bainimarama tightens grip on island state

Other News Materials 19 February 2008 08:12 (UTC +04:00)

( dpa ) - Fiji military strongman Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, who seized power in a bloodless coup that ousted the elected government 14 months ago, has tightened his grip on the Pacific island state by appointing himself chairman Tuesday of the influential Great Council of Chiefs, news reports from the capital, Suva, said.

Bainimarama made himself head of a new 52-member council in a government gazette notice that said politicians and anyone who had held public office or contested an election in the past seven years would be excluded, the independent Fijilive website said.

Bainimarama, the head of Fiji's military forces, had disbanded the chiefs council last year after he took power in December 2006, appointing himself prime minister. At the time, he accused the council of threatening racial harmony by favouring the indigenous Fijian majority over ethnic Indians.

The 62-member council was the country's highest and most powerful traditional institution and wielded enormous political influence in the country of about 920,000 people, 55 per cent of whom are Fijian and 37 per cent Indian.

Reports said members of a task force Bainimarama set up last year to review membership and operations of the council were not consulted ahead of Tuesday's announcement.

Ro Teimumu Kepa, a high chief and former education minister, who was on the old council, told the online newspaper Fijilive, "His self-appointment will see him manipulating and controlling the country. It will bring about dictatorship.

"He will put there people of his own choosing so he will be able to manipulate them."

The European Union, a major aid donor to Fiji; New Zealand; Australia; and the British Commonwealth have been urging Bainimarama to hold new elections to restore democracy.

But, noting slow progress following months of emergency rule last year, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said, "It is hard to avoid the conclusion that his intention is to delay the election until he is confident he can gerrymander the outcome."