coups d'essai

1987 Fijian coups d'état

The Fiji coups of 1987 resulted in the overthrow of the elected government of Fijian Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra, the deposition of Elizabeth II as Queen of Fiji, and in the declaration of a republic. The first coup, in which Bavadra was deposed, took place on May 14, 1987; a second coup on September 28 ended the Fijian Monarchy, and was shortly followed by the proclamation of a republic on October 7. Both military actions were led by Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, then third in command of the Royal Fiji Military Forces. Depending on perspective, one may view the event either as two successive coups d'etat separated by a four-month intermission, or as a single coup begun on May 14 and completed with the declaration of the republic.


Both before and after Fiji gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1970, tensions between the indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian ethnic groups (comprising an estimated 46% and 49% of the 1987 population, respectively) continually manifested themselves in social and political unrest. Parliamentary elections in April 1987 resulted in the replacement of the indigenous-led Conservative government of Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara with a multi-ethnic Labour-led coalition supported mostly by the Indo-Fijian plurality, and Rabuka claimed ethnic Fijian concerns of racial discrimination as his excuse for seizing power. Many authorities doubt the veracity of this, however, given existing constitutional guarantees.

Coups d'etat

On the morning of May 14, a section of ten masked, armed soldiers entered the Fijian House of Representatives and subdued the national legislature, which had gathered there for its morning session. Rabuka, dressed in civilian clothes, approached Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra from his position in the public gallery and ordered the Members of Parliament to leave the building. They did so without resisting. The coup was an apparent success, and had been accomplished without loss of life.

The matter was not settled there, however. As a Commonwealth Realm, Fiji's Head of State was the Queen of Fiji, Elizabeth II. The Fijian Supreme Court ruled the coup unconstitutional, and the Queen's representative, Governor-General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, unsuccessfully attempted to assert executive power. He opened negotiations known as the Deuba Talks with both the deposed government, and the Alliance Party, which most indigenous Fijians supported. These negotiations culminated in the Deuba Accord of 23 September 1987, which provided for a government of national unity, in which both parties would be represented under the leadership of the Governor-General. Fearing that the gains of the first coup were about to be lost, Rabuka staged a second coup on September 25.

International involvement

Australia and New Zealand, the two nations with foremost political influence in the region, were somewhat disquieted by the event, but ultimately took no action to intervene. They did, however, establish a policy of non-recognition regarding the new government, suspending foreign aid in concert with the United States and the United Kingdom.

The Australian labor movement, taking the ousting of a Labor Party-led government as an affront to the worldwide labor movement, instituted an embargo against shipments to Fiji. As Australia was Fiji's largest foreign trading partner, this resulted in a large diminution in Fiji's international trade.


The United Nations immediately denounced the coup, demanding that the former government be restored. On October 7 the new regime declared Fiji a republic, revoking the 1970 constitution; the Commonwealth responded with Fiji's immediate expulsion from the association.

A new constitution was ratified in 1990, in which the offices of President and Prime Minister, along with two-thirds of the Senate, a substantial majority of the House of Representatives were reserved for indigenous Fijians. These discriminatory provisions were eventually overturned by a constitutional revision in 1997.

The coups triggered much emigration by Indo-Fijians (particularly skilled workers), making them a minority by 1994. Even today, Fiji struggles to recover from this loss of necessary skills.


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