Melanesian and Polynesian peoples settled the Fijian islands some 3,500
years ago. European traders and missionaries arrived in the first half
of the 19th century, and the resulting disruption led to increasingly serious
wars among the native Fijian confederacies. One Ratu (chief), Cakobau,
gained limited control over the western islands by the 1850s, but the continuing
unrest led him and a convention of chiefs to cede Fiji unconditionally
to the British in 1874.
The pattern of colonialism in Fiji during the following century was
similar to that in many other British possessions: the pacification of
the countryside, the spread of plantation agriculture, and the introduction
of Indian indentured labor. Many traditional institutions, including the
system of communal land ownership, were maintained.
Fiji soldiers fought alongside the Allies in the Second World War, gaining
a fine reputation in the tough Solomon Islands campaign. The United States
and other Allied countries maintained military installations in Fiji during
the war, but Fiji itself never came under attack.
In April 1970, a constitutional conference in London agreed that Fiji
should become a fully sovereign and independent nation within the Commonwealth.
Fiji became independent on October 10, 1970. Post-independence politics
came to be dominated by the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The
Indian-led opposition won a majority of House seats in 1977, but failed
to form a government out of concern that indigenous Fijians would not accept
Indo-Fijian leadership. In April 1987, a coalition led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra,
an ethnic Fijian supported by the Indo-Fijian community, won the general
election and formed Fiji's first majority Indian government, with Dr. Bavadra
serving as Prime Minister. Less than a month later, Dr. Bavadra was forcibly
removed from power during a military coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka
on May 14, 1987.
After a period of deadlocked negotiations, Rabuka staged a second coup
on September 25, 1987. The military government revoked the constitution
and declared Fiji a republic on October 10. This action, coupled with protests
by the Government of India, led to Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth
of Nations and official nonrecognition of the Rabuka regime from foreign
governments, including Australia and New Zealand. On December 6, Rabuka
resigned as head of state and Governor General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau
was appointed the first President of the Fijian Republic. Mara was reappointed
Prime Minister, and Rabuka became Minister of Home Affairs.
The new government drafted a new Constitution that went into force in
July 1990. Under its terms, majorities were reserved for ethnic Fijians
in both houses of the legislature. Previously, in 1989, the government
had released statistical information showing that for the first time since
1946, ethnic Fijians were a majority of the population. More than 12,000
Indo-Fijians and other minorities had left the country in the 2 years following
the 1987 coups. After resigning from the military, Rabuka became prime
minister under the new constitution in 1993.
Tensions simmered in 1995-96 over the renewal of land leases and political
maneuvering surrounding the mandated 7-year review of the 1990 constitution.
The Constitutional Review Commission produced a draft constitution that
expanded the size of the legislature, lowered the proportion of seats reserved
by ethnic group, and reserved the presidency for ethnic Fijians, but opened
the position of prime minister to all races. Prime Minister Rabuka and
President Mara supported the proposal, while the nationalist indigenous
Fijian parties opposed it. The reformed constitution was approved in July
1997. Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth in October.
The first legislative elections held under the new constitution took
place in May 1999. Rabuka's coalition was defeated by the Fiji Labor Party,
which formed a coalition, led by Mahendra Chaudhry, with two small Fijian
parties. Chaudhry became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister. One year
later, in May 2000, Chaudhry and most other members of parliament were
taken hostage in the House of Representatives by gunmen led by ethnic Fijian
nationalist George Speight. The standoff dragged on for 8 weeks--during
which time Chaudhry was removed from office by the then-president due to
his incapacitation. The Republic of Fiji military forces then seized power
and brokered a negotiated end to the situation. Speight was later arrested
when he violated its terms. In February 2002, Speight was convicted of
treason and is currently serving a life sentence.
Former banker Laisenia Qarase was named interim prime minister and head
of the interim civilian administration by the military and Great Council
of Chiefs in July. The Supreme Court reaffirmed the validity of the Constitution
and ordered the Chaudhry government returned to power in March 2001, after
which the President dissolved the Parliament elected in 2000 and appointed
Qarase head of a caretaker government until elections could be held in
August. Qarase's newly formed Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party
won the elections. The SDL declined to include the largely Indo-Fijian
Fiji Labor Party (FLP) in the Cabinet on a legal technicality. The 1997
Constitution states that any party receiving 10% or more of the seats in
Parliament must be given an opportunity to be represented in the Cabinet
in proportion to its numbers in the House of Representatives.