How the prime minister of a tiny group of Pacific islands has become an international power player.
Immediately after his election victory in November, Joe Biden received an ambitious invitation. Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama wasn’t wasting any time; he wasn’t concerned with the former president’s attempts to overturn the election, and he certainly wasn’t going to wait until the transfer of power was complete. Fiji is due to host the annual Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) this August, and Bainimarama desperately wants Biden there. After four years where the world’s most powerful person had disparaged and neglected the Pacific Islands’ most pressing issue—climate change—the ear of his replacement was now deemed essential.
There was a time when Pacific Island leaders would have considered making such a request above their station. Traditionally reserved and unassuming, they would have instead seen the path for advancing their interests as running through PIF heavyweights Australia and New Zealand. Yet with Australia’s continued recalcitrance towards climate change creating significant friction at the most recent in-person PIF meeting, Bainimarama has been compelled to try a different tactic, one that could go over Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s head, and restrain him from producing a repeat performance. The presence of a U.S. president who took climate change seriously would, therefore, do the trick nicely.
This inclination to seek creative solutions to Fiji’s problems has been Bainimarama’s defining feature over the past two decades. He is a man who bristles at constraints—whether they be democratic or geopolitical—which has not endeared him to many both domestically and internationally. Yet through sheer force of personality, a great deal of cunning, and some lucky global trends, Bainimarama has been able to gain an outsized international influence for Fiji that exceeds its reality as a group of geographically isolated islands of less than a million people.
Bainimarama came to political prominence in the aftermath of the semi-successful coup against Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, in 2000. A militia formed by businessman and Indigenous Fijian nationalist, George Speight, stormed the parliament building in the capital Suva and held Chaudhry and most of his cabinet hostage for 56 days. With Fiji’s mostly ceremonial president unable to seize control of the situation, Bainimarama, as the commander of Fiji’s armed forces, declared martial law, arrested Speight, and assigned himself the head of an interim military government. A month later he appointed a new civilian government, this time led by Indigenous-Fijian Laisenia Qarase.
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