THE FIRST President of the Republic of Fiji and before that Fiji's second indigenous Governor General, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau was one of the four great chiefs who emerged in the Fifties and Sixties as potential successors to Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, the first national leader of the Fijian people in modern times.
The other chiefs were Ratu Sir George Cakobau, the paramount chief and Vunivalu of Bau, the great-grandson of Ratu Seru Cakobau, the pre-colonial Tui Viti or King of Fiji; Ratu Edward Cakobau, widely accepted as the extramarital son of Adi Cakobau, Ratu George Cakobau's mother, and King George Tupou II of Tonga; and Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, on whom the mantle of choice was ultimately to fall.
Like Mara, Ganilau was appointed, in 1947, an Administrative Officer in the Fiji Colonial Service, but was equally at home in the army. He commanded for a time the Fiji Battalion in Malaya and latterly paid regular visits to the Fiji military detachment in the Lebanon.
A genially generous-hearted man, Ganilau was in a sense a reluctant politician, not perhaps ambitious or single-minded enough for the highest office and not an enthusiast of the electoral hustings. Not infrequently he found it hard to resist the call of village life in the island of Taveuni, his birthplace. He was, none the less, an influential figure in the formation of the Alliance Party; and years before his elevation in 1983 as the Queen's representative in independent Fiji, he was Deputy Prime Minister in the Mara Alliance Government.
If there had to be a choice of the most popular and respected of those four Fijian high chiefs, the gregarious Ganilau might well head the list. One colonial governor's wife had been known to describe him as 'a great big adorable teddy bear', although he was not quite that in the scrum of the national rugby team on the 1939 rugby tour of New Zealand. For all his life - or nearly all of it - he remained secure in the dignity of inborn leadership. His family links with the Crown began with the first visit to Fiji of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1953; and until 1987 were apparently enduring. His honours, both civil and military, came with prolific regularity between 1956 and 1983. The Queen called him 'Peni'.
A change was presaged with the electoral defeat of the 17-year Alliance Government, led throughout by Ratu Mara, in April 1987. As Governor General, it was Ganilau's duty (a distasteful one, so the new Prime Minister, Dr Timoci Bavadra, a Fijian, perceived it) to swear in the victorious multiracial coalition made up of the Fiji Labour Party and the Federation Party, the latter predominantly the descendants of indentured Indian labourers who had come to work in the Fiji sugar industry and make up half the country's population. Four weeks later, the first of two military coups that year spelt the end of an era of parliamentary democracy and racial tolerance in Fiji.
After his initial condemnation of the coup, Ganilau's statements and reactions bordered on the ambivalent. The prospective implications of his kinship with the leader of the coup, Sitiveni Rabuka, were widely discussed. His roles as the Queen's representative and as a high Fijian chief to his people came under severe strain and were not for long to remain compatible. One professional colleague said:
There was a period in my life, when I got to know him well - the real man behind the public image. I am in no doubt that if, in the first 24 hours after the coup, Ratu Penaia had gone out into the streets, to Albert Park, to the crowds and ordered the soldiers to return to their barracks, then his prestige, popular influence and mana would have prevailed and the coup would have been over. But, he didn't and I believe I know why . . . We were sailing together in the outer islands. One night when we had been drinking and talking about Fiji and drinking again, he suddenly went silent, grabbed my wrist, firm and hard, and said in a resolute voice: 'One day we Fijians will throw all the bloody Indians into the sea.'
So it came about that the image was tarnished. Ganilau dissolved the Queen's Parliament after the coup: unconstitutionally, some lawyers contended. He assumed executive authority - in name mainly, it soon became clear, as regional governments and the Commonwealth rallied in support of his legitimate but illusory powers. The real force in the land that year was Rabuka: promoted post-coup by the Governor General, pardoned, sworn in as head of government, and later proclaimed by decree as immune from prosecution for his treasonable acts.
It was a year of uncertainty, fear, violence and brutality inflicted by the security forces on the ordinary people of all races in Fiji. With a wavering and seemingly insecure sense of purpose, Ganilau sought to bring about a political rapprochement. On the brink of the rapprochement's apparent success, Rabuka launched his second offensive and declared Fiji a Republic, so overthrowing the Queen as Head of State and effectively discharging Fiji from membership of the Commonwealth.
Health impaired and resolution all but lost, Ganilau resigned his office as Governor General and accepted appointment by Rabuka as the first President of the Republic of Fiji. He, in turn, appointed Mara, the former Prime Minister, as the first, so-called interim, Prime Minister of the military-controlled new Republic.
One of Ganilau's sons, married to a daughter of Mara, later succeeded the pre-coup Chief of Staff and is now himself Commander of the Fijian army. It was but one of the dynastic and military links which became of nepotic influence in Ganilau's later years and helped to bolster the impaired structure of Fijian chiefly society. Rabuka became prime minister following the controversial general elections in May 1992, as Mara, who did not stand, waited with increasing impatience to succeed Ganilau as President of Fiji.
So the political wheel turned full circle. Double standards were entrenched. A man of courage and dedication to public duty had fallen short on principle: a man faced with a nationwide crisis of awesome complexity who perhaps got out of his depth and swam in the end where his heart led him. Ganilau was married three times, his first two wives predeceasing him. There were five sons and two daughters by his first wife, Adi Laisa Delaisomosomo Yavaca.
For many years Ganilau suffered from leukaemia. He made a number of journeys for treatment outside Fiji. It was in the course of the last that he died in Washington DC.
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