Ratu Sukuna’s three-legged stool concept – its value for the 21st century

Queen Elizabeth II is accompanied by Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna at Albert Park during her visit to Fiji in 1954. Picture: FILE


Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna’s life story — his personal background and upbringing, his education, military service, work and contribution as a senior officer in the British colonial Administration in Fiji — are generally well known.

In my readings and research on Ratu Sukuna, there was one particular feature of him that stood out. Of all our local leaders during the colonial period, he was the first to publicly acknowledge that Fiji had become a multi-ethnic country.

And in particular, the rapid growth in the Indian population, and with that, the need for land. According to his biographer, Dr Deryck Scarr, Ratu Sukuna saw Fiji as being akin to a “three-legged stool”.

And it was this imagery he shared with the Great Council of Chiefs when he addressed them in 1936. Ratu Sukuna convened this special meeting of the Council to seek its support for a proposal by him for legislation to reform the management of native land.

The purpose of the reform was to facilitate the leasing of native land, surplus to the needs of the landowning mataqali, to all citizens of Fiji who needed land for their livelihood. All would benefit from this: the landowners, the tenants, and Fiji as a whole in its economic progress and social stability.

So, with this in mind, Ratu Sukuna stressed to the gathered chiefs that the Fijians were no longer the sole inhabitants of Fiji. The country now had three main communities: Fijians, Europeans and Indians.

It was, therefore, important for the chiefs to recognise the crucial importance of promoting harmony and co-operation among these groups.

As we know, Ratu Sukuna himself took the lead and set the example in this. He was the principal author of the Native Land Trust Board Act passed by the Legislative Council and promulgated by the British colonial Government in 1940.

Dr Scarr, in his biographer, explained that after securing the support of the chiefs in the GCC, Ratu Sukuna then travelled to all 14 provinces of the iTaukei, convened meetings in their villages and explained to the people the purpose of the reform of management of their native land.

This was national leadership by building consensus through direct consultations with those who would be affected by a government proposal.

So, it is Ratu Sukuna’s role in initiating the reform of management native land for the benefit of all communities in Fiji, and the way he went about to consult the iTaukei landowners to obtain their support, that entitles him for us to honour him today as an outstanding visionary leader and statesman.

According to Dr Scarr, this native land management reform was the best example of Ratu Sukuna’s own application of his “three-legged stool” concept of good governance.

Central to it was the belief that those in charge of Fiji should always be conscious that the country was populated by these three main communities: Fijians, Europeans and Indians. And the purpose of governing was to serve the best interests of all.


For the rest of this presentation, I shall adopt a case study approach and focus on examining how Ratu Sukuna’s “three-legged stool” concept of governance was applied, and its relevance and value in Fiji today.

I begin, first, by examining how the British colonial Government applied the “three-legged stool” model in its administration of Fiji. And then, secondly, how the concept was used in postindependent Fiji in the representation of the people in the House of Representatives, and especially under the 1997 Constitution.

Finally, from our analysis of the outcomes of the three general elections held under the 2013 Constitution, we should ponder the question: what system of parliamentary representation would best ensure the just, fair and inclusive representation of all communities in Fiji.

And in this, whether there is value in considering Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna’s “three legged stool” concept or approach.


Let me now give you some historical background. Fiji became a Crown colony of Great Britain following the Deed of Cession of October 10, 1874. This was when Ratu Seru Cakobau and other high chiefs ceded sovereignty and dominion over Fiji to the British Crown. This offer was accepted by the British Government.

From 1874 to Fiji’s independence in 1970, the British colonial Government comprised the Governor, his Executive Council and the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council comprised two categories of members: official members drawn from senior officials in the colonial Administration, and unofficial members drawn from Fiji’s three main ethnic communities; the Europeans, the iTaukei and the IndoFijians.

The Legislative Council served as an advisory body to the Governor. The population census in 1881 recorded that there were 588 Indians in Fiji. Their numbers increased rapidly with the arrival of those who came under the British Government-authorised indentured labour scheme to work in the sugar industry, in the planting of cane, and in the mills.

By 1916 more than 60,000 Girmityas had arrived. And by 1920 when the indenture agreements were formally terminated, more than half the Girmityas opted to settle in Fiji. They were then joined in the 1920s by free settlers mainly from Gujarat and the Punjab.

In 1925, Indo-Fijians were granted three representatives in the Legislative Council, all elected by their community. The Europeans were represented by six members: four elected by them, and two nominated for appointment by the Governor.

The iTaukei representation was by five members, all nominated by the Great Council of Chiefs, and formally appointed by the Governor. Invariably, all were high chiefs. From 1937 to 1963, the Legislative Council’s “official members” comprised 17 senior colonial officials.

The local component of “unofficial members” was increased to 15, with five from each ethnic community. For the European and Indo-Fijian members, two were nominated and three elected from communal rolls by their respective ethnic communities.

For the five iTaukei members, all were nominated by the Great Council of Chiefs. During the entire period from 1937 to 1963, all the iTaukei representatives were high chiefs. Not one was elected.

This then was the structure of the British colonial Government when Ratu Sukuna served in the colonial service in various capacities.

The most important were as Secretary for Fijian Affairs, as a nominated iTaukei member of the Legislative Council, and Speaker of the Council until his death in 1958.


As additional background, let me highlight some key points from tallying the results of selected national population census conducted every 10 years. From 1936 to 1956, the central period in Ratu Sukuna’s life and work, the distribution of Fiji’s total population by ethnicity was, on average, 43 per cent iTauke1, 47 per cent Indo-Fijians, and Europeans 1.8 per cent.

Against that, the allocation of seats in the Legislative Council by the colonial Government was five Europeans, five iTaukei and five IndoFijians. We see from this, that in terms of representation in the Legislative Council, the colonial Government treated the three communities differently and unequally.

The Europeans were given the most favourable treatment. Seats in the Legislative Council were not allocated in direct proportion to each community’s share of the total population. There was no equity and fairness.

And for the iTaukei, their representatives were all to be appointed through nomination by the Great Council of Chiefs, and not through democratic election by all indigenous Fijians. Obviously, the reason for this restricted approach was to ensure that representation of the iTaukei was to be through their traditional chiefs. Ratu Sukuna strongly supported this.


So, given this unequal and unfair allocation of seats in the Legislative Council, we need to examine why the colonial Administration acted in this way. We start with the iTaukei community. The British colonial Government’s protective policies towards the iTaukei could be understood and justified by undertakings given to their high chiefs through the Deed of Cession of 1874.

Ownership in common by the iTaukei of their tribal lands, by custom, usage and tradition, was recognised under the English common law doctrine of native title. It was then codified into the laws of the colony through the Native Lands Ordinance of 1892.

The authority of the High Chiefs over their people was also recognised and affirmed on the condition that it was exercised in accordance with the laws of the colony. Britain’s first resident Governor in Fiji, Sir Arthur Gordon, came with a mission to protect the native population from the unscrupulous land buying activities of European traders and settlers.

And he made full use of the Great Council of Chiefs, and the chiefs in their respective vanua and provinces, in the colonial Government’s management of iTaukei affairs. This was the classic colonial approach of governing indigenous tribal communities by indirect rule.

Now the Europeans. What was the justification for the colonial Government’s most favoured treatment of them? Presumably, it was because they were the key sources of investment capital, revenue income, and employment creation.

And also because they were the best educated. There was need for their services as lawyers, medical doctors or accountants. Many were appointed by the colonial Government to serve as chairpersons or members of statutory boards and advisory committees.

The only other explanation for the most favoured treatment given to the Europeans was that it was simply a reflection of the colonial officials’ pervading sense of superiority over non-Europeans.

What about the Indo-Fijian community?

For Indo-Fijians, what was so upsetting and disturbing about the British colonial regime’s divide and rule approach, was the grossly unjust, pernicious and discriminatory treatment meted out against their community.

This was specifically in their political right of representation in the Legislative Council, and in other areas and contexts.

Their political leaders accused the administration of completely ignoring the British Government’s undertaking in the Lord Salisbury Dispatch in March 1875, that all Indians who had chosen to make Fiji their home, would be treated as free settlers and granted privileges no less inferior to those granted to other British subjects in Britain’s colonies. (Brij Lal: 5-6) The most prominent and effective political leader emerging in the early 1930s to speak out for his Indo-Fijian community was A D Patel.


He had been educated and trained as a lawyer in England, arriving in Fiji in 1928. He established himself in Western Viti Levu with his working base in Nadi and Ba.

After getting elected as president of the Fiji Indian Congress and the Indian Association of Fiji, he assiduously applied himself from the early 1930s as the leading political activist for the Indian community. According to his biographer, Professor Brij Lal, A D Patel was to the Indo-Fijian community what the great chief Ratu Sukuna was to the iTaukei community.

A D Patel was angry and unrelenting in his criticism of the colonial Government. This is how Professor Brij Lal described it: “Colonialism and all it entailed — racial inequality, European superiority, and petty discrimination — was for him an unmitigated evil that had to be eradicated at all cost.”

He was an ardent champion of liberal democracy, individual rights, and personal freedom, and uncompromising in demanding social and political equality for all. He argued that the system of separate communal representation and communal franchise only served to accentuate divisions and differences among the communities.


In direct contrast, Ratu Sukuna, born into privilege as a high chief, and who, like Mr Patel, was educated in England, was essentially a traditionalist. He saw in the colonial regime a means of preserving native Fijian chiefly leadership, the iTaukei’s communal way of life, and thwarting the political aspirations of the Indo-Fijian community.

His fears about Indo-Fijan political domination were shared by fellow iTaukei chiefs.

These fears were deliberately exploited and stoked by the European members of the Legislative Council to protect their own vested interests. For Ratu Sukuna, democracy, with the people electing their representatives, would be disastrous for the indigenous Fijians.

It would lead to the displacement and undermining of chiefly authority and social stability in the villages and the vanua. And further, equal political rights and racial equality would lead to loss of control of Fiji to the rapidly growing population of the Indo-Fijian community.


The British colonial Government’s unequal and discriminatory treatment of the three main communities extended to social policies, in particular education and housing. Special schools were built for Europeans and Part-Europeans such as the Boys Grammar School and Girls Grammar School in Suva.

Adi Cakobau School, Queen Victoria School and Ratu Kadavulevu School were constructed for the children of chiefs and other iTaukei students. The Indian community (and Chinese) were left to build their own schools. We see the consequences and evidence of this today.

More than 90 per cent of all primary and secondary schools are owned by their cultural and religious organisations, and by various Christian denominations. On housing, in Suva the Domain area was reserved for colonial officials.

Nasese and Muanikau were designated as exclusive residential areas for Europeans. Indo-Fijians were consigned to Muanivatu and Samabula and other peripheral areas. One can observe this in original crown land lease documents.

The iTaukei were required by regulations to live together as a community in their villages, or special urban housing projects such as the one at Nabua. This discrimination in housing was also practised by large expatriate commercial operations.

In Lautoka, the European managers of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company were housed in big timber homes at the top of CSR hill; the Part-Europeans and Rotumans, working as supervisors or tradesmen, were housed in homes on the slope of the hill, or in special areas such as Navutu.

The iTaukei and Indo-Fijian workers were relegated to the bottom of the pile, and housed in long wooden barracks at the “Topline” and the “Lowline”.

Race-based allocation of housing was replicated at Vatukoula by the Emperor Gold Mining Company. The vertical and hierarchical pecking order was Europeans at the top, and then the PartEuropeans and Rotumans. As always, the worst treatment was reserved for the iTaukei and Indo-Fijian mine workers.


British colonial administration of Fiji ended when we became independent as a sovereign state from October 10 1970. However, even after independence, the 1970 Constitution and the 1987 Constitution continued the colonial policy of allocating seats in the Legislature based on separate representation of Fiji’s ethnic communities: the iTaukei, Indo-Fijians, and the General Electors. A separate seat for Rotumans was added under the 1997 Constitution.

The General Electors were not confined to Europeans. They now include Part-Europeans, the Chinese and any other group not included among the iTaukei, Indo-Fijians and Rotumans. Clearly, this was recognition of the importance of ensuring that all communities were represented in the House of Representatives.

Allocation of seats was now fairer and more equitable. Each ethnic community’s allocated number of seats was to be determined in direct proportion to its share of Fiji’s total population. For the iTaukei, all their members in the House of Representatives were to be elected by indigenous Fijians.

This change had a profound impact. It opened up opportunities for any iTaukei to compete for seats in the House of Representatives, and through that, for appointment to Cabinet as ministers.

The election of Sitiveni Rabuka as president of the SVT party, established by the Great Council of Chiefs in 1991, and his subsequent appointment as Prime Minister, following the SVT’s success in the 1992 general elections, was groundbreaking.

Any Taukei could now aspire to high positions of political leadership, such as the office of Prime Minister and Head of Government. Finally, the long tradition and expectation that political leadership of the iTaukei was the exclusive privilege and domain of the high chiefs, had ended.


The continuation of ethnic community-based representation in the House of Representative under the 1997 Constitution is of particular interest. This Constitution, out of all of Fiji’s Constitutions, was the outcome of extensive Fiji-wide consultations with the people by an independent Constitution Review Commission.

The Commission comprised Sir Paul Reeves, a former Governor- General of New Zealand, Tomasi Vakatora, a iTaukei with extensive public service experience as a former senior civil servant and senior Minister in Cabinet, and Professor Brij Lal, an outstanding scholar with unmatched knowledge of Fiji’s history and constitutional development.

The Commission’s report and recommendations were considered and deliberated upon in the House of Representatives by an all-party Joint Select Committee.

The Committee included the three party leaders: Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka for the SVT, Opposition leader Jai Ram Ready for the NFP, and leader of the FLP, Mahendra Chaudhry. The draft Constitution prepared by this Joint Select Committee was then tabled in the full House of Representatives.

The House of Representatives unanimously approved it and so did the Senate. The 1997 Constitution provided for representation in the House of Representatives through a system of open seats and ethnic community based seats.

In a House of Representatives of 71 members, all members were to be elected from single member constituencies. Twenty-five were to be open seat members. All were to be elected by voters from all communities, registered in an open electoral roll.

This was significant because it was recognition that Fiji needed to move towards a non-ethnic based system of electing its parliamentary representatives. But 46 seats were to be allocated to four ethnic communities, elected by voters in four separate communal-based electoral rolls.

The significance of these communal seats was not only that the allocation was based on a community’s share of Fiji’s total population. But in addition, and most importantly, it guaranteed for each community a minimum number of seats in the House of Representatives

In retrospect, the mistake in the system of representation under the 1997 Constitution was the use of the preferential system of voting known as the alternative vote.

Its application in the general elections in 1999 resulted in the defeat of the two principal authors of the 1997 Constitution: Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka and Leader of Opposition, Jai Ram Reddy. The other parties deliberately used their exchange of preferences to target their removal from Parliament.


The 2013 Constitution, prepared and promulgated by the Military regime of Bainimarama, fundamentally changed Fiji’s system of government, including the way the people are to elect their representatives in Parliament.

Fiji is to be governed as a liberal democracy. All vestiges of communal democracy were removed. All communal based allocation of seats in the people’s House of Representatives have been totally abolished.

Instead, all seats are allocated on a political party basis after a general election. Ethnic-based parties are prohibited. A party that wins at least 5 per cent of the valid votes cast is entitled to be allocated seats.

The number of seats allocated to an eligible party will be in direct proportion to the total number of valid votes received by that party. Under the 2013 Constitution, all eligible voters are registered in a single common roll. And voting is by the open universal franchise system of one-person, one-vote, and with all votes being of equal value.

All representatives are to be elected not from single member constituencies, but from a single multi-member constituency. The whole of Fiji is the constituency. As a political community, Fiji is to be wholly considered as a polity of individual persons with equal fundamental rights and freedoms.

The foundation of our national unity is our common citizenship of Fiji and our common identity as Fijians. Liberal democracy was the system of Government envisioned and advocated by A D Patel from the early 1930s. And it was championed by the National Federation Party he established in 1968.


Where to from here? The question for us to deliberate on is: what is the best system of ensuring the just, fair and inclusive representation of the people of Fiji in the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives is the representative body of the people in a parliamentary democracy.

The 2013 Constitution, in its Preamble, defines “WE, THE PEOPLE OF FIJI” as comprising the iTaukei and Rotumans as Fiji’s indigenous communities, and in addition to them, the descendants of those who came to Fiji as indentured labourers, settlers and immigrants.

We can discard the “three-legged stool” approach in the form it was adopted and applied by the British colonial Government because of its unequal, unfair and discriminatory treatment of the three communities. The colonial Government used the concept as an instrument to discriminate.

But what about the system of parliamentary representation under the 1997 Constitution and the 2013 Constitution? Which of the two is better for Fiji?


As I have explained, the 2013 Constitution provides for the election of members of the House of Representatives through a single common roll and the universal franchise of one-person, one-vote with each vote of equal value.

This was touted as the best system for Fiji because it removed all forms of ethnic or race-based representation. Liberal democracy, as a system of Government, is founded on the principle of the equal fundamental rights of every individual person regardless of race or ethnicity.

On the representation of the people in their Parliament, the primary consideration in a liberal democracy is on ensuring the equal right of eligible individual voters to choose their representatives.

This is different from a communal democracy where the focus is on the representation of the various ethnic communities. Three general elections have been held under the 2013 Constitution.

These were in 2014, 2018 and 2022. The following are the important outcomes and consequences we can see from the results:

[1] Representation in the House of Representatives by the ethnic minority communities of Rotumans, Europeans, Part Europeans, Chinese and others has been totally eliminated.

[2] The number of Indo-Fijian members has remained at between 16 and 18.

[3] The biggest gainers are the iTaukei. Their numbers in the House of Representatives have increased from 34 in 2014 to 36 in 2022 and are expected to continue to increase.

There are two explanations for this projected continuing increase in the number of iTaukei MPs. The first is the continuing increase in their population. They now comprise 62 per cent of Fiji’s population. This is projected to increase further reflecting their high birthrate.

The Indo-Fijians are now about 32 per cent. This is a decline from 38 per cent in 2007. It is projected to fall further because of the low birth-rate among Indo-Fijians. The second explanation for the projected continuing increase in iTaukei members in the House of Representatives is the iTaukeis’ very deep sense of common identity and common interests. They derive this from their collective and common ownership of their customary land.

Every iTaukei has a deeply ingrained dual sense of identity. The primary identity is as iTaukei. They draw their deep sense of security from registration in the iVola Ni Kawa Bula (VKB) as a customary landowner through a mataqali. The VKB is like a Charter.

For an iTaukei, identity as a Fiji citizen or Fijian, is secondary. It applies mainly when cheering on the Fiji Sevens or 15s rugby team, or when seeking a passport to travel overseas. Nevertheless, being a Fiji citizen is very important in terms of one’s rights under the laws of Fiji.

It is this iTaukeis’ fundamental sense of common identity and interests that iTaukei political candidates in general election campaigns appeal to, and exploit. When an iTaukei voter enters the voting booth, the greatest influence at work in his or her mind is not much the political ideologies of a Democrat, a Republican, a Conservative, Liberal or Labour. It is his or her interests as an iTaukei.

So, when you hear of the iTaukei talk about the primacy of their interests, this is what they mean. This would explain the more than 80 per cent of iTaukei voters who voted for Mr Laisenia Qarase and his SDL party in the general elections in 2006. It also explains the big iTaukei support for Mr Rabuka in the general elections of 2018 and 2022.

The decline in voter support for Mr Bainimarama and his political party, the FijiFirst party, from 59 per cent in 2014 to under 47 per cent in 2022, can be explained by two phenomena: the decline in Indo-Fijian voter support, and iTaukei voters moving to support Mr Rabuka.

In future elections, we will see the “scissors effect” of the continuing growth in the iTaukei population and the continuing decline in the Indo-Fijian population.

This trend for the Indo-Fijian population underlines the critical importance to them of the approach adopted in the 1997 Constitution of guaranteeing a stipulated minimum number of seats for each of the four ethnic-based communities.


After all this analysis, I have come to the following conclusions. First, as I have said, the “three-legged stool” approach by the British colonial Government in the representation of the people in the Legislature has absolutely no value for us in Fiji today.

This is because it was used negatively to treat the three communities differently and unequally. It was used to favour one particular community; the Europeans. The worst treatment was accorded to the Indo-Fijians.

It was government by unequal treatment and discrimination. Second, in theory, the system of electing the peoples’ representatives in the House of Representatives under the 2013 Constitution would appear to be the best.

There is no allocation of seats based on ethnicity. All voters, as individual persons, are treated equally. And voting is by the universal franchise of one person, one vote, and every vote is given equal value.

In reality, however, as we have seen from the results of three general elections held under the 2013 Constitution, Fiji’s minority communities of Rotumans, Europeans, Part-Europeans and Chinese today have no representatives in Parliament. Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, from his “three-legged stool” perspective, would have been concerned about this.

If the present system of electing the peoples’ representatives in Parliament under the 2013 Constitution is maintained, the iTaukei’s dominance in Parliament and Government will be further entrenched. Is this good for our country? Will the minority communities still have confidence about their security and future if they have no direct voice in Parliament and Cabinet?

Ratu Sukuna’s “three-legged stool” concept remains relevant today in that it serves to remind us that even general elections under liberal democracy cannot be considered to be just and fair if they result in the exclusion of minority ethnic communities from representation in Parliament.

The system of elections under the 2013 Constitution has to be fundamentally changed if representation of all communities is to be enhanced. The single multi-member nation-wide constituency has to be replaced by single member constituencies.

This will also obviate the need for the 5 per cent vote threshold for eligibility for an allocation of seats. This will be fairer to Independents and small parties. General elections will no longer be a popularity contest among the leaders of the competing parties.

Members of Parliament will win their seats only through the votes they receive, and no longer with the help of votes amassed by their party leader.

And most importantly, people will know who their representatives are. What we have seen from the implementation of the current system of representation and voting under the 2013 Constitution should be a reminder to us all that there is no perfect Constitution.

A country must always be prepared to review its Constitution in light of changed circumstances, to better serve the needs of its people to be governed through a just, fair and inclusive approach.

• Jioji Kotobalavu lectures in public law and in international relations and Diplomacy at the University of Fiji’s JDP School of Law. The views he expresses are not necessarily of this newspaper.

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