Josefa Iloilo, the former Fijian president whose scrapping of his island nation’s constitution and sacking of its legislature cemented the grip of a 2006 military coup that isolated his country and enraged regional powers Australia and New Zealand, has died aged 91.
Canberra and Wellington have reacted to the death of Iloilo – described by many as a good man caught in a bad situation – with deafening silence. This is a bad sign for the already-dismal relations between the countries, who have been at odds since his 2009 moves effectively legitimised the military government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who then began Fiji’s recently accelerated drift away from their sphere of influence.
A gravely ill Iloilo stepped down as president in 2010 and although it is unlikely that his death will have any immediate impact on the government, Australia and New Zealand’s reaction to his death will not likely help their ongoing attempts to engage with Fiji, said Brij Lal, a professor of Pacific and Asian History and Fiji expert at Australian National University in Canberra. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs did not answer a request for comment on his death.
“What Australia wants is to have a meaningful dialogue with those in power in Fiji, and that the military is not prepared to do,” says Lal. “They really want monologue, not dialogue.” Fiji, a former British colony which comprises about 330 islands in the central Pacific Ocean, was placed under military rule after a 2006 coup, but did not formally reject its constitution as a republic until Iloilo’s 2009 actions. These include declaring himself president and assuming similar power to that of a king or queen in a constitutional monarchy.
Iloilo defended his decision to suspend democracy as necessary to save Fiji’s government, but was slammed by many as a puppet of the military junta. The international community was not moved by his explanations, and Fiji was suspended from the 53-nation Commonwealth Group, publicly blasted by Ban Ki-moon and slapped with sanctions by the European Union, United States, Australia and New Zealand.
Interestingly, the military withheld news of the popular former leader’s death – a decision that almost certainly came from the top levels of government and could indicate weakness or indecisiveness – for a still unknown period of time before it was leaked by bloggers. Iloilo died on 6 February, according to official government information.
”When you have this kind of situation in Fiji with no freedom of information, everyone is afraid to say anything unless it comes from the top. One does not know the reason for the delay… but the reason would have to lie at the top,” he said.