SUVA, Nov 7 – Fiji’s military strongman Voreqe Bainimarama has accused the academic charged with drafting the Pacific nation’s new constitution of “hijacking” the reform process and overstepping his role.
But Bainimarama, who seized power in a 2006 coup, denied harassing Constitutional Commission chairman Yash Ghai and called on the Kenyan scholar to consider his future as the country prepares for elections in 2014.
“No one person is more important than the task of producing a constitution for the Fijian people,” he said.
“Yash Ghai can decide for himself whether he wants to be a part of this process,” he added in a statement issued late on Tuesday.
Bainimarama was responding to an interview Ghai gave to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Tuesday, in which he complained the regime had backed away from a commitment to public consultation on his constitutional blueprint.
Ghai, a legal expert who has previously helped frame constitutions in Kenya and Nepal, also accused Bainimarama of undermining his independence.
“There has been massive interference,” he said. “Now I get emails from the PM (Bainimarama) to do this or not to do that, and this is a kind of harassment.”
Ghai has a reputation for fiercely protecting his autonomy. He resigned as the US special envoy on human rights to Cambodia in 2008 after a war of words with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Bainimarama dismissed the harassment allegation as “totally without foundation” and said Ghai’s role was to produce a draft constitution for the government, not to dictate what public consultations subsequently took place.
“It is not for the commission chairman to hijack the constituent assembly process,” he said. “Professor Ghai seems to fundamentally misunderstand the process.”
Fiji is preparing a new constitution after experiencing four coups since 1987, largely stemming from tensions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians descended from labourers brought in by the British in the colonial era.
Bainimarama tore up Fiji’s previous constitution and replaced all judges with hand-picked officials in 2009, after a court ruled his coup was illegal.
He has said the new constitution would enshrine principles such as one-person-one-vote, an independent judiciary and transparent governance, as well as concentrating on establishing a secular, corruption-free state.
The military leader appointed Ghai earlier this year, hailing him at the time as an “internationally renowned constitution and human rights expert”.
But the pair have clashed on a number of occasions. Ghai called on the regime in August to allow greater freedom of speech and assembly ahead of the 2014 elections, prompting Bainimarama to tell him to stay out of politics.