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Great Council of Chiefs

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The Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga in Fijian) is a now dormant 1997 constitutional body in the Republic of the Fiji Islands. In April 2007 the council was suspended, due to an unworkable relationship with Frank Bainimarama, leader of an "interim government" which came to power through a military coup in December 2006.[1] Many prior members may now face criminal prosecution and imprisonment.[citation needed]

It is not to be confused with the House of Chiefs, a larger body which includes all hereditary chiefs, although membership of the two bodies overlaps to a considerable extent. The Great Council of Chiefs in its most recent form was established under Section 116 of the 1997 Constitution (now defunct), but it actually predates the Constitution by many years, having been established by the British colonial rulers as an advisory body in 1876, two years after Fiji was ceded to the United Kingdom.


Institutional history

The Council was established in 1876 under the governorship of Sir Arthur Gordon. The decision was taken following consultations with chiefs, who advised Sir Arthur on how best to govern the colony's indigenous population. In the words of anthropologist Robert Norton, it "embodied the privileged relationship of trust and protection established between the Fijians and the British".

During the colonial era, meetings of the Great Council of Chiefs were held every year or two, "with rich ceremonial protocol", and chaired by the British governor. Council members advised the governor with regards to policy on indigenous affairs, and, until 1963, selected indigenous representatives for the colonial Parliament. Among its nominees to Parliament in the 1950s and early 1960s were Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, Ratu Kamisese Mara, Ratu George Cakobau, Ratu Edward Cakobau and Ratu Penaia Ganilau, who were to ascend to positions of leadership or significant influence in government. In 1963, this function of the Council was abolished as indigenous Fijians obtained the right to elect their representatives to Parliament.

In the 1950s, the Council ceased to be reserved for chiefs; its "membership [...] was broadened to allow representation of trade unions and other urban organizations". All members remained indigenous, however.

Fiji's first Constitution, adopted upon independence in 1970, gave the Council the right to appoint eight of the twenty-two members of the Senate.

Following the 1987 military coup conducted by Sitiveni Rabuka, the Council reverted to being an exclusively aristocratic body, its membership reserved to high chiefs. Rabuka argued that hereditary chiefs should retain paramount decision-making power.

The 1990 Constitution thus enhanced the Council's power. It was now authorised to appoint 24 of the Senate's 34 members, making the Senate a GCC-dominated body. The Council would also, henceforth, appoint the President of Fiji and the Vice-President.

The 1997 Constitution reduced its representation in the Senate to 14 members (out of 32), but recognised its right to name President and Vice-President.[2]

Recent history of the Council

From the late 1980s onwards, the Great Council of Chiefs was compromised by manipulation from the government. Since the coup of 2000, however, it has worked, with mixed success, to regain its independence. In 2001 it dismissed 1987 coup leader and former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka from the chairmanship, in the midst of allegations about his possible involvement in the coup of 2000. It has also cut its former ties with the Fijian Political Party (which it originally sponsored in the early 1990s), and declared its intention to eschew party politics in the future, although individual members of the Council will, of course, remain free to participate in politics as individuals.

In June 2004, the Great Council of Chiefs was plunged into crisis when the government decided not to reappoint Ratu Epeli Ganilau as one of its six representatives on the Great Council; the Cakaudrove Provincial Council did not give him one of their three seats either. These decisions had the effect of prematurely ending Ganilau's term as Chairman of the Council, as its regulations require the Chairman to be a member. It is thought that Ganilau's open disagreement with several senior government figures, including Vice-President Ratu Jope Seniloli and Information Minister Simione Kaitani, along with fears that he was undermining the neutrality of the Great Council to use it as a platform from which to advance his own political ambitions, were factors in the Cakaudrove Provincial Council's decision. He was replaced by Ratu Ovini Bokini, who was thought to be more sympathetic to the government. Bokini was reelected to a full three-year term on 27 July 2005, and Sakiusa Makutu of Nadroga-Navosa was chosen as his Deputy, succeeding Ro Jone Mataitini, who decided not to seek reelection.

Despite Fiji's membership at that time as a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations, the Great Council recognized Queen Elizabeth II as its traditional Queen or paramount chief.

On 20 April 2005, the Fijian government announced plans to grant greater formal powers to the Great Council. This proposal was immediately opposed by Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry, who said it would lead to "dual government," in Fiji, and also drew criticism from Ratu Epeli Ganilau. The former Chairman of the Great Council, now the interim president of the National Alliance Party, said that he believed that the powers of the Council were already sufficient.

In a controversial move, the Great Council decided on 28 July 2005 to endorse the government's Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity Bill, which aims to establish a Commission empowered to compensate victims and pardon perpetrators of the 2000 coup. Opponents, including former Great Council Chairman Ganilau, say that it is just a legal device to free government supporters who have been convicted and imprisoned on coup-related charges.

Suspension, and projected revival

The Council was suspended in April 2007 by Commodore Frank Bainimarama, author of the December 2006 military coup.[3] It was not, however, abolished. In February 2008, the interim government announced that Bainimarama, as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, was appointing himself chairman of the Council. As chairman, he would appoint all other members, acting on the recommendation of the provincial councils, and would have the authority to discipline, suspend, or dismiss any member.[4][5]

The interim government has asked provinces to submit nominees for the Great Council of Chiefs by July 15, 2008. If certain provinces do not provide nominees, Bainimarama will name GCC members to represent those provinces himself.[6]

On August 5, 2008, it was announced that the Great Council of Chiefs was ready to reconvene. It would be composed of three chiefs from each of the fourteen provinces, and would be chaired by the Minister for Fijian Affairs - namely, at present, Commodore Bainimarama.[7]

Composition of the Council

The Great Council had most recently consisted of 55 members, mainly hereditary chiefs along with some specially qualified commoners. The composition was as follows:

These arrangements came into being on 9 June 1990. Previously, 22 parliamentarians holding seats allocated to indigenous Fijians held membership ex officio in the Great Council of Chiefs, along with 2 or 3 representatives from each of the 14 provincial councils. In addition, there were 8 chiefs and 7 commoners chosen by the Minister for Fijian Affairs. Following two military coups in 1987, the Council decided to abolish the right of elected parliamentarians to hold ex officio council membership, and to reduce the number of government appointees.

Except for the life member, all members serve four-year terms.

The Council also recognises Elizabeth II, former Queen of Fiji, as Paramount Chief, but she is not formally a member of the Council.[8][9]

Constitutional role

According to the Constitution, the Great Council of Chiefs has two major powers:

In addition to these constitutionally mandated functions, the Great Council of Chiefs has other roles that may from time to time be prescribed by law. In addition, it is considered almost compulsory for the government to consult and secure the approval of the Council before making major changes to the Constitution, although nothing in the Constitution requires it to do so.


  1. ^ "Fiji soldiers sent to close Council of Chiefs", Samisoni Pareti, ABC News, April 13, 2007
  2. ^ "The changing role of the Great Council of Chiefs", Robert Norton, in Jon Fraenkel, Stewart Firth and Brij V. Lal (eds.), The 2006 Military Takeover in Fiji: A Coup to End All Coups?, April 2009, ISBN 978-1-921536-51-9
  3. ^ "Address by PM Bainimarama after the Great Council of Chiefs Meeting", April 13, 2007, Fiji government website
  4. ^ "Bainimarama is GCC head", Frederica Elbourne, Fiji Times, February 19, 2008
  5. ^ "Fiji’s interim Prime Minister appoints himself chairman of Great Council of Chiefs", Radio New Zealand International, February 18, 2008
  6. ^ "Provinces given deadline", Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, July 10, 2008
  7. ^ "Fiji Great Council of Chiefs ready to convene", ABC Radio Australia, August 5, 2008
  8. ^ "Fiji votes to make Queen `supreme tribal chief'", Robert Keith Reid, The Independent, July 20, 1998
  9. ^ "Fiji chiefs say Britain’s Elizabeth still Queen of Fiji", Radio New Zealand International, November 19, 2002

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