By NETANI RIKA
FIJI’S prime minister ordered the removal of the country’s senior-most indigenous leaders from ceremonies accorded to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex last week.
Opposition Leader, Ro Teimumu Kepa, also blamed, Rear-Admiral Frank Bainimarama, for breaches in iTaukei customary protocol during the Royal Visit, labelling them as intentional.
Kepa – the Roko Tui Dreketi and head of Burebasaga Confederacy – said she was officially approached by Ministry of iTaukei Affairs officials prior to the visit, asking that her people participate in the ceremonies.
”I understood from the delegation that they had approached the Kubuna Confederacy which had accepted to be part of the Royal welcome,” Kepa said. “The Ministry officials indicated they were proceeding to make a similar presentation to the Tui Cakau as head of the Tovata Confederacy.”
But three weeks later the officials returned to withdraw the earlier invitation.
“Again, it was formal in procedure, however this time, they were visibly embarrassed,” Kepa said.
“It seemed to me they had their tails between their legs. To my surprise, I was told that the invitation extended to the Burebasaga Confederacy was now withdrawn. I would rather not disclose the rest of the conversation.
“I later learned that the Confederacies would not be mentioned in the Royal programme. They would be replaced by references to the President and the Prime Minister.”
Kepa said there was no explanation for this break from established tradition except that it came from “the top.”
Every Royal visit since Queen Elizabeth first visited Fiji in 1953 has been conducted by the heads of confederacies supported by their chiefs and people. And presentations – following cultural protocol – begin by invoking the titles of Vunivalu and Tui Kaba (head of Kubuna), Roko Tui Dreketi (Burebasaga) and the Matanitu Tovata.
Ratu Epenisa Cakobau, yet to be installed as head of Kubuna, support the Opposition SODELPA Party of which Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu – paramount chief of Cakaudrove and traditional leader of Tovata and Ro Teimumu are key members.
At the weekend Ratu Tevita Momoedonu of Vuda said his people had omitted mention of the three chiefly titles during the ceremonies and took personal responsibility for the traditional faux pas.
But Kepa rejected Momoedonu’s explanation.
“It was not Vuda which made that decision, it was iTaukei Affairs,” Kepa said in her statement. “The Permanent Secretary, Naipote Katonitabua, should stop misleading the people by passing the blame for what happened to Vuda. That kind of decision is far beyond his pay grade and that of Taukei Sawaieke Ratu Tevita Momoedonu of Vuda.
“It is clear to me that the Minister for iTaukei Affairs, Frank Bainimarama, made that unfortunate decision to exclude the Confederacies. Similarly, it must have been his decision to mention the President and Prime Minister instead.
“I believe it was Frank Bainimarama who also ordered the withdrawal of the traditional invitation extended to the Kubuna, Burebasaga confederacies.’’
Kepa’s outburst was a departure from the traditional approach of remaining silent about breaches of protocol.
“Those holding high chiefly titles sometimes choose not to talk publicly about certain things,” Kepa said. “But in this instance, speaking for Burebasaga, I feel it is my duty to comment on a most unfortunate episode.
“It has deeply hurt many of our people who also feel insulted by what happened. Bainimarama and his iTaukei Ministry should now tell the people why they felt compelled to act as they did.”
Kepa said the departure from protocol was an unprecedented move which undermined the traditional significance of the confederacies.
“I today give an assurance that our indigenous culture and traditions will remain intact,” she said.
“We are who we are. I am who I am. I trust in God, the wisdom of those who have gone before, and that resides in us still. I express my love for Fiji and all of its people.’’