For a leader who has been heckled by the Commonwealth of Nations, he appeared calm and collected.
He said that challenges never bothered him; instead, he took them head on.
He even joked and laughed during the two-hour exclusive interview, saying that his people were solidly behind him and that if the unexpected happened (in the ensuing general election), he could always spend more time with his family as a husband, as a father to his six children and as a grandfather to his 14 grandchildren.
“I take life as it comes and I care for people. That is why, we have managed to cleanse the administration that was rotten and corrupt,” he said.
That was Fiji’s Interim Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, talking exclusively to Indian Newslink, seated at the terrace of a hotel in Auckland on August 9, 2014.
It was a Saturday morning, bright and sunny, in contrast to the dull weather that we had endured the previous days.
“I seem to have brought sunshine,” he joked but added quickly, “I am thankful to the New Zealand Government for allowing me to come to this country and meet my people.”
He was also pleased that New Zealand had recently lifted the travel ban and economic sanctions placed on Fiji over the past almost eight years.
It was difficult to discern whether there was sadness or disappointment in his voice – that New Zealand and Australia failed to understand why he deposed the previous Government of Laisenia Qarase on December 5, 2006 and took charge of his country.
“These two countries are our most powerful neighbours and we have known each other for a very long time. Yet, they were the first to accuse me of having overrun a seemingly democratic Government,” he said.
It was a bloodless coup and Fiji was the least affected country. As we have mentioned in our earlier reports, Fijians went about their business and vocation without fear and contrary to the wrong propaganda by the ‘Western Media,’ soldiers were neither roaming the streets with machine guns nor searched people when they visited Government offices.
“The outside world did not know what was happening in my country. My own people were discriminated against each other because of race and ethnicity. The Government machinery had virtually stopped functioning. Corruption had become so endemic that nothing moved unless money changed hands,” he said.
There was passion, anger, anxiety and determination as he spoke about the challenges and problems that he encountered almost eight years ago. He was described by various leaders variously – as a dictator, tyrant, oppressor and as the military man who turned Fiji into one big army camp.
Then there was the charge that the media was muzzled, that journalists who broke “the strict censorship code” were thrown into jail.
None of them was true as I discovered during my visits to Fiji during the same month- August 2009 and 2013. Businesspersons, tourists and those with families and relatives continued to visit Fiji to strike business deals, enjoy the warm weather and socialise with friends. There were national and regional conferences held all the time – impossible if you were to buy the theory that the military was all over the place.
Mr Bainimarama said that he was confronted with a number of challenges as he took charge of the Government on that fateful day in December 2006.
“Fiji was in its worst shape ever; there were increasing complaints from people that they had lost out on their land leases and that they were forced to visit three to five times the offices of the ILTB (iTaukei Land Trust Board). There were inordinate delays in obtaining service from Government departments and agencies. Corruption had become rampant and people had lost faith in the administrative machinery,” he said.
His single largest and immediate challenge was to make the Government employees realise the purpose of their jobs, namely to render service to the people. He had to make them understand that he meant business and that any form of graft would be punished.
It began to work. A few erring officials became examples and there was a gradual improvement, accelerating which was the public realisation that they could complain and have their grievances addressed.
The Fijian Government is today staffed by people who know that their performance and behaviour is constantly watched and that the time to play around was over.
Mr Bainimarama said that the old slogan, “Fiji, the way the World should be,” will be revived through a new phase, “Fiji will be the way the World should be.”
Bainimarama with (from left) Bobby Sharma, Ken Lu, Surend Sharma and Niko Koroi
Song in praise of Motherland- an artiste at the Fiji First Party