Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara

First Prime Minister and second President of independent Fiji
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Kamisese Kapaiwai Tuimacilai Mara, politician: born Lomaloma, Fiji 6 May 1920; Member, Legislative Council of Fiji 1953-89, Member, Executive Council 1959-61; OBE 1961, KBE 1969; Prime Minister of Fiji (from 1987 Republic of Fiji) 1970-92, Vice-President 1992-93, President 1994-2000; PC 1973; GCMG 1983; married 1951 Adi Lala Tuisawau (two sons, five daughters, and one son deceased); died Suva 18 April 2004.

The 300 widely scattered islands of Fiji are the crossroads of two South Pacific island cultures: Melanesia in the west and Polynesia in the east. Polynesian physical attributes and social influences prevail in the eastern islands of Lau. It is here that you find the creamy-skinned and most elegant of Fijian women, arguably the finest dancers; and some of the best-educated and most articulate of Fijian men and women. Lakemba is the chief island of Lau and Kamisese Mara was its king.

From a quartet of Fijian high chiefs of influence, urbanity and education, and as the leading Roman Catholic in a predominantly Fijian Methodist world, Mara emerged in the 1960s as the front-runner. He became both the architect and advocate of greater involvement by Pacific islands people in national governments and regional institutions; of the political evolution of racial tolerance in Fiji; and of negotiated independence from Britain within the Commonwealth - subject, of course, to entrenched constitutional safeguards for indigenous Fijian land ownership and use.

Of noble birth, Mara was also of noble and imposing stature. An innate arrogance that never left him was offset in his early years in colonial government service by charismatic wit. He would at times shake with laughter at his own sallies. But he could lapse into sullen pique if obstructed; not least when he was being short-changed, as he later believed from time to time, by the colonial administration.

Initially he was destined for medicine and went - as did his future political rival Timoci Bavadra - to the University of Otago Medical School in New Zealand. Not a long way from qualifying, and already an overseas student of more than ordinary promise, he was called back to Fiji on the instruction of the Fijian leader, Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, to be prepared for wider fields of human, and chiefly, responsibility than that of medicine.

He was shipped across the world to Wadham College, Oxford, where Sukuna had been the first Fijian to read for and gain an Oxford degree. Mara became the second. He studied Modern History and distinguished himself in cricket and athletics. One of his happiest subsequent sporting successes was in leading the Fiji cricket team to an unexpected victory over Denis Atkinson's West Indians in a one-day match in 1956 on a sodden Albert Park in Suva. Later, he was despatched to the London School of Economics to be grounded in the Third World development principles and practices of the time.

Mara's early sensitivity and prickliness were to remain; and his short temper continued to shorten with the sustained stresses of public office. Money and the acquisition of wealth - untypical for Fijian commoners for so long but not for their chiefs - were to assume increasing importance in his life. He grew intolerant of the need for personal accountability; and could be predictably impatient with queries as to how public funds had been spent by him abroad.

The crucial year of change was 1965, when the colony of Fiji was granted a measure of self-government, as the dependent territorial toe was placed cautiously into the transitional waters which were to lead to the shores of multiracial independence five years later. Fijian chiefs found themselves obliged to make the transition from leadership by birth and inherited status to leadership by electoral qualification and popular consent.

Mara was appointed Member for Natural Resources and later Chief Minister. He founded, in 1964, and led the Alliance Party, which was based on its Malaysian predecessor. It was a loose federation of Fijian and General Elector (European, Part-European and Chinese) interests, with some Indian (mainly Gujerati) support.

At the Fiji Independence negotiations in London in April 1970, Mara as Prime Minister designate and the Indian Opposition leader S.M. Koya dedicated themselves to the democratic process through political parties which would "cut across race, colour and creed": a vain and empty hope, it may now seem to some. The success of the negotiations for the end of British colonial rule and the adoption of a new constitution with an imaginative electoral system devised to satisfy the varied interests within a multiracial society was, however, due - at least in part - to Mara's vision and his stated beliefs of the time. He thus received the Instruments of Independence from the Prince of Wales in Suva on 10 October 1970 with justified satisfaction.

Mara presided over the Alliance Party government of Fiji from 1970 until 1987. Initially, the economy surged ahead. Foreign investment poured in; while sugar, gold, tourism and general business enterprise played key roles in the burgeoning economy of a stable land. Except that the poor and the disadvantaged suffered, mostly in silence. By the time of the 1987 general election, widespread disenchantment had crossed customary and racial divides. There were rumbles of discontent about dynastic favouritism, while rumours of corruption touched some elected ministers and even the Prime Minister himself.

The Labour-Federation Coalition had campaigned against corruption and announced its intention, if elected to government, of prosecuting former ministerial offenders. Mara was to be the first. The case was never heard. A military coup conveniently intervened; and Mara's connivance in it was widely pondered but not publicly proven.

In his autobiography of 1997 (with Robert Sanders), The Pacific Way, Mara quotes the coup leader Lt-Col Sitiveni Rabuka as saying at a press conference that "neither I nor any foreign elements had knowledge of the coup or had played any part in it". Rabuka later changed his mind - or at least his story - when he said in a book published in 2000 that Mara had been privy to the plans for the 1987 coup. After all, they had played golf together the previous Sunday.

On 14 May 1987 the newly elected Prime Minister of Fiji, Dr Timoci Bavadra (an indigenous Fijian from the west), and his ministerial colleagues were forcibly removed by soldiers of the Royal Fiji Military Forces from a session of the Queen's Parliament and held in custody against their will. Mara, then Leader of the Opposition, was away at the time - conveniently, some said - both from the House and from the Fijian capital, Suva.

The following day, in what the New Zealand Herald described as "a contemptuous gesture to democracy and constitutional government", Mara accepted office as Minister for Foreign Affairs in a military-appointed Council of Ministers headed by Rabuka. He continued to deny complicity in or foreknowledge of the coup; but his failure to denounce the enforced overthrow of a democratically elected government was described by The Fiji Times as "deafening silence".

In his sunset years of public life, Mara grew increasingly intolerant of public criticism. He became an issuer of libel writs. Negotiation, dialogue, multiracialism and the voice of the people no longer figured in his statements. Impatient of opposing opinion and advice, he became difficult to approach other than through studied sycophancy and compliance with his will. From a rumbustious indulged youth, he veered towards vegetarianism, gave up alcohol and viewed with distaste the aberrations of his younger Fijian colleagues.

His relations with Rabuka became increasingly fragile. In 1992, Mara did not stand for re-election under a new controversial republican constitution. Rabuka did and became Prime Minister. Mara assumed the role of Vice-President although, constitutionally, the post did not exist. On the death of the first President, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, in December 1993, Mara succeeded him. His long wait to occupy Government House in Suva was over. He was in residence for nearly seven years.

Like all long-term public leaders, Mara seemed to have become indispensable, or so he and his chiefly supporters appeared to believe. He announced his intention to retire on several occasions; but never quite made it. Not, that is, until late in 2000, in the aftermath of another armed insurrection and incarceration in the parliamentary complex for 56 days of the Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry (the first Indo-Fijian head of government) and his multiracial elected colleagues together, initially, with two appointed women senators. Mara's daughter Adi Koila, Minister for Tourism in the Chaudhry government, was among the long-term hostages.

One of the objectives of the coup's leader, George Speight, was to see Mara out of office and into retirement. He succeeded. Having dismissed the captive Prime Minister, Mara was evacuated from his official residence by the military on 29 May 2000 and taken under naval escort to Lakemba and out of public life.

It was a sorry twilight to manifestly significant service and responsibility in the South Pacific and beyond.

Kenneth Bain