Melanesian and Polynesian peoples settled the Fijian islands some 3,500 years ago. European traders and missionaries arrived in the first half of the 19th century, and the resulting disruption led to increasingly serious wars among the native Fijian confederacies. One Ratu (chief), Cakobau, gained limited control over the western islands by the 1850s, but the continuing unrest led him and a convention of chiefs to cede Fiji unconditionally to the British in 1874.
The pattern of colonialism in Fiji during the following century was similar to that in many other British possessions: the pacification of the countryside, the spread of plantation agriculture, and the introduction of Indian indentured labor. Many traditional institutions, including the system of communal land ownership, were maintained.
Fiji soldiers fought alongside the Allies in the Second World War, gaining a fine reputation in the tough Solomon Islands campaign. The United States and other Allied countries maintained military installations in Fiji during the war, but Fiji itself never came under attack.
In April 1970, a constitutional conference in London agreed that Fiji should become a fully sovereign and independent nation within the Commonwealth. Fiji became independent on October 10, 1970. Post-independence politics came to be dominated by the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The Indian-led opposition won a majority of House seats in 1977, but failed to form a government out of concern that indigenous Fijians would not accept Indo-Fijian leadership. In April 1987, a coalition led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra, an ethnic Fijian supported by the Indo-Fijian community, won the general election and formed Fiji's first majority Indian government, with Dr. Bavadra serving as Prime Minister. Less than a month later, Dr. Bavadra was forcibly removed from power during a military coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka on May 14, 1987.
After a period of deadlocked negotiations involving the Governor-General, who had denounced the coup, Rabuka staged a second coup on September 25, 1987. The military government revoked the 1970 constitution and declared Fiji a republic on October 10. This action, coupled with protests by the Government of India, led to Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth of Nations and official non-recognition of the Rabuka regime from foreign governments, including Australia and New Zealand. On December 6, 1987, Rabuka resigned as head of state and Governor-General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau was appointed the first President of the Fijian Republic. The interim government that governed Fiji from December 1987-1992 was led by former Prime Minister Mara who was reappointed interim Prime Minister, and Rabuka became Minister of Home Affairs.
The new government drafted a new constitution, effective July 1990. Under its terms, majorities were reserved for ethnic Fijians in both houses of the legislature. Previously, in 1989, the government had released statistical information showing that for the first time since 1946, ethnic Fijians were a majority of the population. More than 12,000 Indo-Fijians and other minorities had left the country in the 2 years following the 1987 coups. After resigning from the military, Rabuka became prime minister in 1993 after elections under the new constitution.
Tensions simmered in 1995-96 over the renewal of land leases and political maneuvering surrounding the mandated 5-year review of the 1990 constitution. A Constitutional Review Commission recommended a new constitution that expanded the size of the legislature, lowered the proportion of seats reserved by ethnic group, gave to the unelected Council of Chiefs authority to appoint the president and vice president, and opened the position of prime minister to all races. Ethnic Fijians and Indo-Fijians were allocated communal seats proportional to their numbers in the population at the time. Twenty-five seats were "open" to all. Prime Minister Rabuka and President Mara supported the proposal, while the nationalist indigenous Fijian parties opposed it. The constitution amendment act was unanimously approved by parliamentarians in July 1997. The new constitution mandated the formation of a multi-party cabinet (each party with 10% of members of Parliament was entitled to nominate a cabinet minister). Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth.
The first legislative elections held under the new constitution took place in May 1999. Rabuka's coalition was defeated by the Fiji Labor Party (FLP), which formed a coalition, led by Mahendra Chaudhry, with two small Fijian parties. Chaudhry became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister. One year later, in May 2000, Chaudhry and most other members of Parliament were taken hostage in the House of Representatives by gunmen led by ethnic Fijian nationalist George Speight. The standoff dragged on for 8 weeks--during which time Chaudhry was removed from office by then-president Mara due to his inability to govern while a hostage. The Republic of Fiji military forces abrogated the constitution, convinced President Mara to resign, and brokered a negotiated end to the situation. Speight was later arrested when he violated the settlement's terms. In February 2002, Speight was convicted of treason and is currently serving a life sentence.
In July 2000, the military commander Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama and the Great Council of Chiefs appointed former banker Laisenia Qarase interim Prime Minister and head of the interim civilian administration. The Vice President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, was named President. The Court of Appeal in March 2001 reaffirmed the validity of the constitution and ordered the President to recall the elected Parliament. However, the President dissolved the Parliament elected in 2000 and appointed Qarase head of a caretaker government to take Fiji to general elections that were held in August. Qarase's newly formed Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party won the elections but did not invite into the cabinet representatives of the FLP as required by the constitution. In May 2006, the SDL was re-elected to a majority in the Parliament. Qarase continued as Prime Minister and formed a multi-party cabinet, which included nine members of the FLP.
In the lead-up to the May 2006 election and beginning again in September, tensions grew between Commander of the Fiji Military Forces Commodore Frank Bainimarama and the Qarase government. Bainimarama demanded the Qarase government not pursue certain legislation and policies favorable to the former mutineers and indigenous interests. On December 5, 2006 Bainimarama assumed executive authority, removed elected Prime Minister Qarase from his position, and dissolved Parliament in a military coup d'etat. Qarase was exiled to an outer island. On January 4, 2007, Bainimarama reinstated President Iloilo, who stated the military was justified in its behavior and promised them amnesty. The following day Iloilo appointed Bainimarama interim Prime Minister. Over the following weeks Bainimarama formed an "interim government" that included, among others, former Prime Minister Chaudhry and former Republic of Fiji Military Forces heads Epeli Ganilau and Epeli Nailatikau. On January 15, 2007, President Iloilo decreed amnesty to Bainimarama, the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), and all those involved in the coup from December 5, 2006 to January 5, 2007, and he claimed to ratify all the actions of Bainimarama and the RFMF.
The coup was widely condemned by regional partners, including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and the European Union. In April 2007, the interim government suspended the Great Council of Chiefs after the council declined to appoint the interim government's choice as vice president. In October 2007, the interim government launched a "People's Charter" initiative, ostensibly to remove communal or ethnic voting and improve governance arrangements. There was little progress made toward elections. In October 2008, the High Court ruled that President Iloilo’s January 2007 appointment of Bainimarama as Prime Minister, the granting of amnesty to coup perpetrators, and rule by decree, was not unconstitutional. However, on April 9, 2009, the Court of Appeal ruled that that the 2006 coup had been illegal. The following day President Iloilo abrogated the constitution, and removed all officials appointed under the constitution including all judges and the Governor of the Central Bank. He then reappointed Bainimarama as Prime Minister and imposed a "Public Emergency Regulation" (PER) that allowed press censorship.
Sources:CIA World Factbook (February 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( February 2012)