Apisai Tora, a scion of the old guard of Fiji’s politicians, who dominated Fiji’s political stage for almost five decades, passed away on August 6.
Variously described as a political maverick, a chameleon and a nationalist, Apisai Vuniyayawa Tora first entered the public domain in 1959 as a 25-year-old veteran of the Malayan campaign.
Together with fellow unionists, they organised the oil strikes of 1959 which led to widespread rioting under British rule. To some observers, this period in Fiji’s history symbolised a kind of Fijian Spring and the nascent stirrings of Fijian political consciousness.
Around the world, other political movements and voices were also rising to assert their rights and challenge European colonial and corporate domination.
In Algeria, the war for independence continued to rage. In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser triggered a crisis when he announced plans to nationalise the Suez Canal. And in racially segregated America, Martin Luther King was about to take up the leadership mantle for the Civil Rights movement.
Traditionally from Sabeto in Fiji’s west, Tora admired the way Egypt’s Nasser wrested the Suez Canal from British/French corporate hands, prompting him to pen a letter to Time Magazine. In it, he described Fiji as “a white man’s paradise and a black man’s hell”.
Not expecting it to get published, he was delightfully surprised when it was.
The letter, however, underscored the anger brewing within, over the inherent injustices in the class and racial divide. It was a divide that rewarded those born into privilege and emasculated those with the misfortune to be born poor, black or both.
In the early years of Tora’s public life, it was this anger that fuelled and drove him into fearless action, often triggering incidents that landed him in trouble. He didn’t think too kindly of a number of prominent chiefs, believing they lacked intellectual leadership and questioned what he perceived to be their lack of accountability to the iTaukei.
Similar views were held of some of the white colonial masters.
There is a well-known story of a time in the 1950s, when he was working for the District Officer [DO] in Ba in Fiji’s West, and serving behind a counter. In front, was a long queue of people patiently waiting to have their documents processed. In the middle of this scene, a senior white official from the Colonial Sugar Refining Company walked into the room, bypassed the queue, pushed his way through to the front counter and demanded to be served.
Tora looked him directly in the eye and told him to take his place in the queue –just like everybody else.
The official was astonished that a mere native had just ordered him to wait in the queue. When he refused to budge, Tora stood firm.
The official complained to the DO – Ratu Kamisese Mara, (Fiji’s first post-colonial Prime Minister). What happened after that is unclear.
But as one academic recently shared with this scribe, Mara himself was known to have harboured his own resentments against colonialism and might have even been smiling quietly at the viavialevu attitude of the underling in his command.
It therefore comes as no surprise that Tora looked up to figures like Nasser, Fidel Castro and the great Martin Luther King for inspiration. He could relate to their struggles for equality and justice. I remember him being quite upset the day King was assassinated.
A spark of the wilful spirit within was evident from early on.
At Fiji’s elite Queen Victoria School [QVS], there was a story about Tora that had evolved into legend by the time Savenaca Siwatibau (former Reserve Bank Governor of Fiji) arrived at QVS in the sixties.
During a family visit to my home in Melbourne, Siwatibau regaled me on the following tale. Tora was rostered on dining room/kitchen duties one day. His supervisor was the formidable martinet, Semesa Sikivou – later Fiji’s Ambassador to the UN. Master Sikivou issued strict instructions – the tables and chairs had to be cleaned and put in place by the end of the day.
Instead of attending to his duties, Tora picked up a bucket and fishing rod and headed for a nearby river.
He did not return until long after dark – bucket brimming with fish. Sikivou, who had been waiting for him, pounced on the boy, with a furious reprimand: “Did I not tell you, you were to finish your job by the end of the day?”
To which the boy replied firmly: “Sir, you said the end of the day and it’s not the end of the day. The day ends at midnight and I still have a few hours left.”
Not surprisingly, Sikivou wasn’t exactly enamoured with the boy’s logic and roundly sent him off to detention.
In the general election of 1963, Tora ran as the youngest candidate against one of Fiji’s Paramount Chiefs, Ratu Penaia Ganilau, later to become Governor-General and Fiji’s first post-coup President. Ganilau ended up defeating him by six thousand-plus votes.
Tora had laboured long and hard during the campaign period. He would walk on foot from village to village in the western part of Fiji where, in a number of villages, he was violently ejected. As he recalled in a conversation I had with him, some villagers literally stoned him, infuriated over his audacity in challenging a Paramount Chief.
The average iTaukei at that time believed and, I would suggest, even now to a degree, still subscribe to the notion of the divine right, or Mana, of the Chiefs to rule.
In her book, Caste – the Lies that Divide Us, Isabel Wilkerson writes that caste “embeds into our bones an unconscious ranking” of human beings and lays down the “rules, expectations” of where one fits in society’s ladder.
When that status quo is challenged, it can be deeply disturbing – even for the subordinate class at the bottom rung of the ladder. Wilkerson writes, it is not uncommon for this class to defend the same hierarchy that oppresses them.
Apisai Tora was a man who elicited only two kinds of emotional responses from people. They either reviled him with a murderous passion or they admired him with nauseating sycophancy. There was no middle ground.
This effect on fellow human beings was, by equal measure, a reflection of an unyielding application to everything in life and a brutally forthright approach which did not endear him to Fijian sensitivities.
It would be too simplistic to throw labels such as ‘racist’ at him for here was a creature of contradictions – an intriguing paradox that defied a templated stereotype.
An iTaukei activist, custodian of a traditional status within his Vanua (traditional area) and, for good measure, a Muslim convert, he numbered among his closest friends and associates a diverse and varied group.
Former Leader of the Indo-Fijian-dominated National Federation Party and Lawyer, Siddiq Koya, was a trusted mentor and lifelong family friend.
Following Koya’s passing in 1993, the bonds of friendship continued with Koya’s children — Shainaz, Faizal and Faiyaz – and widow, Amina, who he would take the time to visit with bundles of dalo and render what assistance was needed.
In his eulogy at Tora’s funeral on August 14, Faizal Koya took Tora’s critics to task, rebuking their familiar refrain that Tora was a racist.
The Indo-Fijian communities, he said, particularly in the Fiji’s West where Tora hailed from, embraced him as a generous individual – possibly a fellow traveller in the struggle for equality.
To his detractors however, Tora’s principal role in the iTaukei Movement and the coup of 1987, puts paid to any such redemptive notion.
But as retired ANU [Australian National University] academic Professor Brij Lal, reminds us, to put things in perspective, the coup was not the work of any one individual.
There is little doubt the grassroots base behind the coup was bolstered by the silent blessing, and even the active participation, of the autocrats at the very top of their hierarchy.
The above notwithstanding, Tora's role in the '87 coup and his subsequent volte-face in embracing multiracialism, continues to overshadow any discourse on his legacy.
In a similar vein, any narrative on Fijian politics is forever sullied by a coup culture that robbed a nation of its potential at independence, relegating it to a tinpot republic status.
Engaging with the iTaukei
When it came to Tora’s engaging with the iTaukei, it was primarily through the prism of the Vanua at which time, the traditional hat was donned along with its customary expectations and responsibilities.
Tora was never under any illusion about what he viewed as the communities' challenges.
As a landowner in the Sabeto sugarcane belt, he employed sugarcane workers to harvest and cut the cane for him. This was backbreaking work that began before dawn and continued through the blazing heat of the day to sundown.
He once told me that when he hired Indo-Fijian workers and instructed them to meet him at his home at 5 o’clock in the morning, they arrived several minutes before the appointed hour. And for as long as they were employed, they would continue to do so on a consistent basis.
To his mind, it spoke volumes about their reliability, their discipline and their commitment to the task at hand.
As for the iTaukei workers, he said, some would turn up late and some wouldn’t turn up at all.
iTaukei he felt, needed to cultivate the patience of the Indo-Fijians, who had the capacity to save their hard-earned cash, and persevere through long periods of time towards an uncertain future.
As a general rule, the iTaukei live in the present, and when you are preoccupied with the present, there will be little incentive to invest in a future that you can neither see nor imagine.
Indo-Fijians, by contrast, live for the future. They can defer immediate gratification and sacrifice the present for an imagined future brimming with opportunities and the promise of a more prosperous life. It is this imagining and goal setting which motivates their work ethic and drives their commitment to bettering their lot in life.
Historically, it is made even more urgent by their perceived status as outsiders and the festering sense of insecurity that stems from it.
This has been one of the essential differences sitting at the core of the iTaukei -Indo-Fijian cultural divide – and one which Tora would have been acutely conscious of.
That said, he was painfully aware of the cultural obligations – or kerekere to which Fijians seem perpetually yoked. The Vanua’s expectations for its constituents to contribute cash in the never-ending cycle of human events – from births, deaths and weddings – is the enduring narrative of the iTaukei.
Tora believed this cultural obligation effectively precluded the iTaukei from full economic participation.
Throughout the 1990s, Tora ran unsuccessfully in a number of elections, signalling what political commentator Bimal Chaudhry, so fittingly describes as “the beginning of his fate as a star outside the galaxy – out of Parliament yet pulling the strings”.
Tora did indeed morph into a star out of the galaxy but his status in the Vanua ensured he had a full schedule and a constant stream of human traffic that approached him for traditional advice, referrals, money to pay for school fees, transport costs, tabuas for a reguregu or mats for a wedding. Other times, the people he had helped would return their gratitude with gifts of food – the fruits of their labour – cooked yabbies packed in cardboard boxes, fish, taro and sumptuous other delights.
In later life, Tora assumed a status as a kind of go-to guru as politicians and activists sought his advice.
I was always touched by the villagers who, over the years, trekked long distances from remote areas of Viti Levu to see Tora and unburden their troubles on him.
I remember distinctly one afternoon back in 1979, when a young Fijian boy had travelled a fair distance from his home to deliver a handwritten note to him in his home in Natalau Village.
It was a letter from his grandmother telling the old man that she had run out of food and money and had nothing left to feed her numerous grandchildren. Could he help her out?
None of us had ever met this woman.
Straight away, Momo instructed that we fill up the family car with bundles of dalo, an entire sack of rice, sugar, and sundry other grocery items.
And off we went in the car with the young boy navigating, to some unknown destination.
It seemed like the trek into a separate universe, the tarsealed road having long disappeared behind us as the car spluttered through rough terrain.
Finally we saw the house. A rundown shack that was barely standing.
When the grandmother saw us, she almost fell to her knees as she approached Momo, and thanked him over and over for this act of kindness. I lost count of the number of children who surrounded us that day but she was their sole caregiver.
This episode remains fresh in my mind as if it took place yesterday. It warms me to think that the old man spoke her language. He knew completely the troubles of her heart. He felt her pain and suffering – because he too had been there.
Tora is survived by 10 children, several grandchildren and great grandchildren.
May the old Lionheart rest in eternal love and peace.
This article was updated on 31/8 at the request of the author.
Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Bob Loughman prompted the congregation of Malasitapu Presbyterian Church in the suburbs of Port Vila to clap with joy recently when his new government’s cabinet was commissioned by the Vanuatu Christian Council (VCC).
The applause erupted when the PM advised the VCC Chairman, Pastor Alain Nafuki, to write to his Minister of Finance and Economic Management, Johnny Koanapo, to request that churches also be allowed to access the Government’s stimulus package, offered to certain companies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Replying to the sermon delivered by the VCC Chairman—who emphasised unity, restoration and success—the Prime Minister reminded his audience of the inseparable relationship between Custom and Christianity, as stipulated by the Preamble of Vanuatu’s Constitution.
Prime Minister Loughman said the Government is looking at how to strengthen its partnership with the Chiefs and Churches to take Vanuatu to the next level.
The VCC Chairman said God has blessed the human race with the power of reason, which allowed the former Presbyterian Church of the then-New Hebrides (in the 1970s) to relieve five pastors from their pastoral duties to join founding Father Walter Lini, in standing up for what was right for the country in fighting for political freedom from colonial rule.
Some 400 people have arrived on Vanuabalavu – a remote island on Fiji’s eastern sea borders – as they prepare to bury one of their favourite sons who became the country’s sixth prime minister.
They are the first of many people that Mavana village expects to host for Laisenia Qarase’s funeral, planned for tomorrow (Wed).
A delegation from the Fiji Government is expected to arrive later today aboard the government boat, the Veivueti.
Mourners underwent body temperature screening when they boarded last night, as Fiji’s medical officials continued their efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The body of Qarase will be flown in by chartered plane tomorrow, and driven to Mavana by road for a church service before burial. He will be accompanied by his widow, Leba Qarase and close family members.
Qarase was chief of Mavana, bestowed with the traditional Tui Kobuca title.
He rose to national prominence in 2000, when he was handpicked by then-military Commander Frank Bainimarama to head an interim government after the elected government of Mahendra Chaudhry was ousted in a coup in May of that year.
Qarase went on to contest and win the general elections of 2001 and 2006, before he was ousted by Bainimarama in a coup on 5 December, 2006. Prosecuted for a corruption- related offence when he was on the board of Fijian Holdings 16 years earlier, Qarase was jailed for a year in 2012.
Ironically, Qarase was instrumental in the creation of Fijian Holdings as the main investment vehicle for Fiji’s indigenous community.
Following his release, and barred from contesting the 2014 elections, the 79-year old banker plunged himself into the affairs of his home island, successfully uniting what used to be two divisive districts into forming one united investment company.
Vanuabalavu Vision Limited was registered in 2018, and now has a paid up capital of $3.5 million and an asset portfolio valued at $10m.
Qarase died Tuesday last at a private hospital in Suva after suffering from a mild stroke.
An honest and critical appraisal by donors, recipient nations and other stakeholders is critical if the region is to take advantage of every donor dollar and show growth that truly impacts Pacific people’s daily lives say some of the region’s leading development thinkers and workers.
The “poor performance” of aid to the Pacific has again been in the spotlight. Development Economist and the ANU’s Development Policy Center Director, Stephen Howes has demonstrated that based on annual DFAT performance reports, aid to the Pacific achieves less than aid to other regions. Howes cautions against increasing aid to the region, saying this will further erode aid effectiveness.
Carolyn Hunt an engineer and infrastructure adviser with 22 years’ international development experience says she has seen wastage of aid money firsthand.
Writing for Australian media, she said while the governments of many Pacific island nations gladly accept aid funding, there is often little buy-in to assist with the implementation of aid projects, and that “decades of aid has done little to filter down to the way most Pacific islanders live.”
The blame she attests, does not rest entirely with aid recipients. “Infrastructure projects funded by donors in the Pacific are notoriously devoid of well-thought-out motives, good planning and follow-up maintenance programs and are all too frequently of poor standard. Donors often give scant attention to follow-up surveys, value-for-money considerations, reciprocal and tangible inputs by recipient governments, and to holding recipients accountable. The general attitude by donors and by recipients is to build it, watch it decay, then rebuild it – all with aid money”.
Shamima Ali, who heads the Fiji Women’s Crisis Center (FWCC), says such conclusions call for a different way of doing development in the Pacific. FWCC has received direct Australian aid for almost two decade, and Ali was the recipient of the 2018 Mitchell Humanitarian Award: “There are issues around corruption and wastage but if the Pacific people were to have a greater say in programming and aid we received, we can then be held entirely responsible for it.”
She adds that any development assistance given to the Pacific needs to take into consideration the cultural and religious beliefs and contexts within which Pacific lives exist, including the gendered rules under which people live.
In her analysis, if development assistance shows poor returns, it’s often because of a poor knowledge of the Pacific by some of the expertise provided by donor partners, who she says, are often young persons who have done “some gender studies courses at University level”. Overcrowding in the funding field with numerous donors funding an existing area of work means donor dollars are dispersed in a “haphazard manner” Ali says.
“There is a great need for aid coordination in the Pacific.Even among funding agencies and organisations there is a lot of competition in terms of who is in which space, so there is much duplication and while this goes on, problems remain”.
Former Head of Parties to the Nauru Agreement, and Solomon Islands’ new Permanent Representative to the UN, Dr Transform Aqorau contends that ‘smart’ aid rather than more aid, is needed. “Aid has to be targeted. that we need is not aid for development, rather proper economic policies that empowers people to improve their social and economic conditions.
”Dr Aqorau contends if aid in the Pacific is performing poorly, its real destination needs to be looked at. “If 60 per cent or a good proportion ends up with Australian consultants and contractors, then it really begs the question of what is happening in our aid sector? If development assistance in the Pacific is failing, it’s the donor that has to be held accountable as most M&E [monitoring and evaluation] frameworks, transparency and accountability mechanisms are drawn up using Australian expertise.”
The discussion comes as submissions to the Australian International Development Policy Review have come to a close. While the FWCC has not made a submission, Ali says three priority areas could lift Pacific development; continued support for women’s development including around women’s oppression and violence against women, an area she says “DFAT has done good work in”, plus women’s political and economic empowerment. But Ali says Pacific women need to take leadership in implementing these programs.
Both Ali and Aqorau place the building of Pacific expertise and capacity as extremely important factors. Ali says even when Pacific expertise is available, “people with poor understanding of the Pacific are brought from outside.”
She questions the re-emergence of international INGOs and contractors, saying in some cases development dollars are going to these organisations, and that local, regional organisations need more autonomy to operate without interference. “No aid is bad aid if it is properly thought out and if the interest of the Pacific people is at the heart of development… Pacific leaders and donors need to talk openly and donors need to tell Pacific people where they are going wrong. On our part we need some soul searching by Pacific Government and NGO leaders who are aid recipients. At the end of the day aid effectiveness and frameworks to guide it are a partnership between donors and recipients with both playing equal roles here” she added.
Dr Aqorau feels it is time the region went back to basics with the development assistance it seeks. “Education in the Pacific is not compulsory, so not mandatory for everyone. As a vision, our leaders should say we want assistance with achieving 100 per cent literacy and numeracy for our populations. No Pacific government has a policy that says it wants 100 per cent literacy or numeracy rates. Also it is rather ironic in some of our villagers we don’t have running water. If you want to develop the Pacific let’s get the basics right before bringing in all these grandiose development ideas. People have gone back to digging wells and using nearby streams for drinking water and washing. We need to identify our basic needs and let the donors know what we want and not have the donors tell us what they need to do for us.”
Ultimately he says, Pacific Leaders should seek assistance which will help us move out of our aid dependence. “In the Pacific our regional organisations, an important part of our regional architecture are beholden to Australia and would never survive without Australia. It is the same with some of regional governments.”
“For the Pacific to retain its sovereignty while taking development assistance from its numerous partners, it should know what it wants. Has any government in the Pacific shown a real vision in what it wants for its people? The Pacific Framework for regionalism is rather fancy…. but look at the percentage of people around the Pacific with no clean water to drink and who need to improve their literacy. The Framework doesn’t address the critical development needs of the majority of people in the Pacific and requires a rethink if the Pacific is to truly grow.”
DFAT is a major donor for numerous regional organisations, including the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and The Pacific Community. The newly appointed head of the Secretariat of Pacific Community, Australian Stuart Minchin says the responsibility for aid effectiveness is a shared one. “From planning with our members, to donor contribution, to coordination and management, to implementation, to monitoring and evaluation and even he end user. Each plays a part in ensuring that development funds are effectively serving their intended purpose, and that the intended purpose is in line with the development objectives, regional aspirations and national priorities of our members.”
Dr Minchin says the SPC has clear accountabilities. “We are ultimately responsible to our members- which obviously includes Australia. Each and every project/program is carefully examined to ensure it is in-line with the declared priority areas of SPC, that it is viable within our budget, that its outputs and objectives are clear and that it will have a measurable and positive impact.”
“We are an organisation that stresses the importance of innovation, and innovation requires some level of risk. But even the projects that don’t ultimately achieve the ideal results still provide valuable lessons that enable us to continuously improve,” he says.
Australian Assistant Minister for Defense, International Development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke has told Islands Business that the Australian Government won’t apologise for making the Pacific its priority in granting development assistance. “This doesn’t come at the expense of other regions…South East Asia is also a priority, a different region with different features. The Pacific is certainly our first approach”.
Hawke expects Australia’s International Development Policy Review to suggest how to better collaborate with Pacific Island countries to measure outcomes. “We have heard through partners and NGOs about these measurements and making sure that when we spend money, we capture outcomes. Sometimes it’s harder than it sounds. Long-term programs have long-term benefits, so we don’t want to be too brutal about it. But we also need to ask hard questions of where money is best spent.
Minister Hawke says monitoring and evaluation frameworks are a partnership. “DFAT does not set them arbitrarily, we do work through our missions and partner governments. However governments do change and priorities do change, things do shift in program lives… we need to be honest when programs do succeed or when they are not working and can be.”
Sen is an independent regional development, governance and communications consultant.
The Chairman of Transparency International PNG, Peter Aitsi, expects the Marape government to establish an oft-promised anti-corruption commission to be set up by the end of 2020, paving the way for an improvement in the country’s reputation, a boost for the economy and its people.
Last month (January), Papua New Guinea was once again listed as the most corrupt Pacific country, in Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index. PNG now ranks 137 out of 180 countries, putting it in the 20 bottom countries that were ranked as having the highest perceived levels of corruption.
By contrast, Solomon Islands is ranked 77th.
The head of TIPNG, Peter Aitsi, says corruption has a “significant impact on our country in many areas”, a reflection of a steady deterioration of the public service since independence.
“These are the government systems that should be in place for the public to be protected and for the separation of political influence over the bureaucracy,” Aitsi told Islands Business.
Perhaps the best example of corruption is the District Services Improvement Programme (DSIP), whereby each of the country’s 111 Members of Parliament is allocated money from the annual national Budget to spend as they see fit.