Commodore Frank Bainimarama tried and failed three times to seize power in Fiji before his 2006 coup. Victor Lal and Russell Hunter reveal how the warning signs went ignored
It was February 2007 - two months after Commodore Frank Bainimarama seized power in Fiji - when Time magazine's Australian editor Steve Waterson arrived in Suva to assess the situation.
The coup leader, aware that his image abroad needed serious repair, immediately granted an interview and launched a charm offensive.
"Just call me Frank," he told Waterson, and later added, "I didn't want this job." He explained he was needed to clean up corruption and put the nation on a path to prosperity.
A series of documents smuggled out of Fiji tell a vastly different story. Bainimarama not only wanted the job but had tried three times previously to seize control of the nation.
His first attempt occurred during the negotiations to end the George Speight hostage crisis in August 2000. Several of those present confirmed that the Commodore - who had tacitly supported the Speight coup - declared that the military should lead the nation "for the next five, 10 or 50 years".
A heated argument between Speight and Bainimarama ensued, ending only when President Ratu Josefa Iloilo said a democratic solution was the only way forward.
Bainimarama proposed that banker and businessman Laisenia Qarase should lead an interim government with elections after one year. But to his frustration he found his "advice" to the interim government was routinely shunned.
By December 2003 the Qarase government - tired of the Commodore's constant and often public interference - was reluctant to renew his term, due to expire in April the following year.
When Bainimarama got wind of this, he flew into a rage and ordered his senior officers to start planning a coup. But he reckoned without senior officers who counselled against such action and finally refused to implement his orders.
On January 5, 2004, secret advice to Bainimarama not to stage a coup warned of the chaos and damage that could follow.
The document, composed and signed by Lieutenant Colonel Jeremaia Waqanisau, Colonel Alfred Tuatoko, Colonel George Kadavulevu, Colonel Samuela Raduva and naval commander Timoci Koroi, reads in part:
"We feel that the interests of the RFMF (Republic of Fiji Military Forces) and the nation have been overridden by your personal wishes ...
"Under the circumstances there is no way you can justify your intent and impending action. On the other hand the consequences of such action would be catastrophic for Fiji. The despair and suffering will be unbearable and longer lasting than that experienced after 1987 and 2000."
None of the officers agreed to be interviewed.
However, the later "redress of wrong petition" also contains a statement by Tuatoko, who wrote: "In my interview with [Bainimarama] he stated that he would forcefully remove the present government if his term as Comd RFMF was not renewed.
"I advised him that such an act was illegal and amounted to treason. I advised him that there are legal ways to settle his disagreement with government and that he must follow that legal path. Comd said that doing so would take too much time. He said that removing the government would be legally wrong but was morally correct."
This document was sent to the Minister for Home Affairs, Joketani Cokanasiga, and is likely to have been seen by Qarase. Incredibly, nothing was done. A senior minister told Hunter at the time: "We're not too worried about him [Bainimarama]. He doesn't have the support at the camp that he thinks he has."
The aborted coup of January 2004 persuaded the Government that the soldiers would not obey their commander if he ordered them to commit treason by removing it.
In December 2005, Bainimarama decided to try for a third time. He had been reappointed, so his job was no longer an issue, but he knew Police Commissioner Andrew Hughes had no intention of backing off a murder inquiry into the deaths of five members of the elite Counter Revolutionary Warfare unit, kicked to death by loyalist soldiers after the November 2000 mutiny.
There was also anger in sections of the officer corps (by now mostly hand-picked Bainimarama men) that the Qarase Government was "soft" on those involved in the 2000 coup.
Bainimarama had sacked the five officers who refused to carry out his first attempted coup and appointed Lieutenant Colonel Jone Baledrokadroka as Land Force Commander - effectively his deputy. He told Baledrokadroka to prepare plans for a military takeover.
Like his brother officers before him, JB (as he was known) refused to be involved in treason. He was told to take leave and not come back but again the coup had to be postponed.
JB told Hunter on the day of his dismissal: "I saw an order that I deciphered as treasonous and I could not accept it."
By May 2006, in the full realisation that Bainimarama's reappointment had not bought off its troublesome military commander and with a fresh election victory under its belt, the Cabinet wanted him gone.
There was talk of surcharging him for the blatant abuse of military funding in the army's "Truth and Justice" campaign that sought to influence voters during the 2006 election. It came to nothing - but Bainimarama was to hear of it and it fanned the flames of his fury.
With the dismissal of JB he was able to surround himself with an officer corps that owed their positions to him alone. His coup would take place within a year.
Claim strongman threatened to kill officer
Fiji leader Frank Bainimarama threatened to kill a former top army officer who challenged his 2003 coup plan, according to the officer's written testimony.
The late Lieutenant-Colonel Jeremaia Waqanisau refused to carry out the Commodore's coup order and took a new job as CEO at the Ministry of Home Affairs.
In a file note at the time he recalled in January 2004 the Commodore barged into Home Affairs Minister Joketani Cokanasiga's office with several bodyguards, accusing Waqanisau of raising an army against him.
"Bainimarama further said had it not been for the minister I would have been dead already, and next time the military came back to finish what they started he would personally lead [them] to town and make sure I would be the first to die.
"I told Bainimarama when he came down next time he should come alone, without his weapon and his armed body guards and then try to kill me. He became furious challenging me to a fight taking off his [weapon] and posing for a fight... I said I didn't want to fight him and he should go away. The minister was holding him back and eventually pushed him out the door."
* Russell Hunter is former editor-in-chief of the Fiji Sun and was deported from Fiji in 2008. Victor Lal is an Oxford-based academic researcher and a former Fiji journalist and human rights activist. Last week they revealed how former Fijian police chief Andrew Hughes tried unsuccessfully to persuade his New Zealand counterpart Howard Broad to arrest Bainimarama on his visit to New Zealand a few weeks before the 2006 coup.