Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka’s state visit to Kiribati yesterday started with a handshake with Kiribati President, Taneti Maamau, and ended with an embrace.
This morning Rabuka described the visit, his first international trip since being voted into the role by parliament on Christmas Eve, as “very successful”.
While the Prime Minister told journalists, “the overall objective was to get Kiribati coming back into the Pacific Islands Forum,” neither he nor President Maamau said outright that this was the outcome. However given the warmth with which they spoke of each other and of yesterday’s program and discussions, that return appears likely.
Kiribati withdrew from the Forum last year.
At a state dinner attended by the Fiji delegates, local dignitaries and the Fijian community in Kiribati last night, President Maamau stated, “our meeting today was a very successful one. The underlying issues addressed amicably well and well received.”
He thanked Prime Minister Rabuka for “taking a bold but humble step to restore the Pacific way of trust, respect and understanding within the region.”
“I see you”
A critical moment of the yesterday’s visit was the participation of the entire Fijian delegation, in the traditional ceremony of the “boka”.
Before their presentation of the tabua (whale’s tooth) and yaqona, Kiribati’s President was told that the boka is the Fijian ritual practice to acknowledge the deep sense of grief, usually reserved for the passing away of a loved one.
“The boka, therefore, is especially observed and practiced by close relatives to acknowledge deep and sincere regret for not being present in the ritual ceremony and period of mourning during a funeral rite of passage,” the delegation said in its introduction to the ceremony.
It is also an “affirmation of one’s commitment to kinship and solidarity.”
In Lauan, “boka” translates to “I see you”.
“In this ceremony, Fiji is saying: ‘Kiribati, I see you, and we therefore recommit our obligation to you as an integral part of the Fijian family and our Pacific community’.”
This morning, Prime Minister Rabuka described the ceremony, and the events of yesterday as the ‘Pacific Way’ in action. “When you deviate from that, and adopt other ways of thinking that are not regional, we tend to easily offend one another, but when we think alike, we think the Pacific way, it is so easy to repair damages and straighten paths that perhaps would lead us astray or away from the Forum.
“It was significant and I intended it to be significant. That’s why I preferred to have the Fijian ceremonies of boka and the sevusevu and the apology; those are our way.”
President Maamau last night stated, “Kiribati as a Pacific nation has truly felt that brotherly love that translates into the Pacific way of acceptance, reconciliation, peace and unity. These values and principles have not only been the shared building blocks of our histories and cultures but will also be the pillars of the future that we aspire towards as a blue Pacific region.”
President Maamau said the fact that Kiribati was Prime Minister Rabuka’s first international engagement, made the visit ‘all the more special.’
He commended Rabuka for “fostering love and compassion”, continuing: “This speaks prominently of your quality as a prominent and humble Pacific Island leader and moreover your ability to lead your flock of 99 sheep and to look for the lost one who has left the collective mainstream over a disorientation of shared principles and values.”
Kinsman and family
The history of Banaba and its people, and how they connect Kiribati and Fiji, was also spoken of during the visit. From 1945, British authorities relocated many Banabans to Rabi island in Fiji. Great Britain mined phosphate on Banaba, stripping most of its surface in the process. After mining ended, a small number of Banabans returned home; they now face consistent water shortages amongst other challenges.
At last night’s state dinner, Rabuka described how he was personally “deeply moved to be here, the ancestral home of our Banaban people on Rabi Island displaced and moved, probably against their will, to be on Rabi Island in Cakaudrove, which is my home province. They have played a major part in the affairs of Cakaudrove Province.
“Many of the original inhabitants of Banaba never saw their homeland again but I believe they are with us in spirit tonight, I believe all smiling because we continue with the rich tradition of the Pacific and our family connections. They have become my kinsfolk; they have become my family. You therefore are my kinsman and also my family,” he continued.
Fiji’s previous government suspended the Rabi Council of Elders over unaudited accounts and allegations of improper use of government funds over a decade ago.
This morning, Prime Minister Rabuka said he had an interim administrator in his office working to ensure compliance, and that audits are completed quickly, so that funds could be released from the Prime Minister’s office.
“We’ll just go from there and give them the funds required for the upgrade of their hospital or health centre, their schools and all the things that are normally funded from the funds given by the Prime Minister’s office.”
He also said the Rabi Council of Elders will be reinstated.
“They have a very important role in sending a member of parliament to the parliament of Kiribati; that will have to continue, and its part of the manifesto of the People’s Alliance to bring back the government and city council and town council elections.”
Rabuka says this will go through the usual cabinet and parliamentary pathways if legislation needs to be amended.
Embracing the future
As Prime Minister Rabuka left last night’s state dinner, he and President Maamau exchanged a warm hug.
Rabuka had earlier told guests, “This is our unique opportunity to make peace and progress as a Forum family. But we must be diligent about it, we cannot work in isolation, we must work together in unity.
“As we presented the tabua this afternoon, there were words of apologies in the presentation, we apologised for how Fiji had acted in the time of the crisis in our association – in our family.
“When you accepted it, you accepted our apology. We thank you and we look forward to seeing you in Fiji in the near future.”
The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the Forum’s members can be optimistic that after yesterday’s events, they can also embrace a revival of regionalism.