Rabi Pins Its Hopes On Teaiwa Appeared 7th December '96

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Rabi Pins Its Hopes on TeaiwaRows Over Woman Elder


by Jo Nata on Rabi

The following article appeared in the 'Fiji Times' Wednesday 17 December, 1996

New chairman John Teaiwa with interim administrator Bill Cruickshanks.

Picture: Jo Nata

Out of adversity springs hope, it is often said. In the case of Rabi nothing is more apt.

Out of the turmoil which led to riots on the island in December 1991, the Banabans have realised what a fickle and false world they have been living in.

"That had become a lesson because they have nowhere else to turn to but to help themselves," says new Rabi Island Council chairman John Teaiwa.

"It has been encouraging from that perspective; from all the negative things the previous council did, the people have got up to help themselves."

Teaiwa, as the new leader of his people, has not illusions about the task ahead of him.

The hope of the Banaban people is pinned on him and, in the light of the sad history of mismanagement of Banaban affairs, much is expected of the former civil servant.

His election to the council and then as chairman is an unequivocal statement by the people that the era of skulduggery must stop.

Significant in that, as a career public servant and having lived away from Rabi in most of his adult life, Teaiwa could be considered an outsider.

But having suffered the follies of his leaders, he has something in common with his people.

Further, to be selected chairman from the smallest village - Tabiang, which now has three representatives on the council - speaks volumes about the mood of the people.

"It is fair to say that they will want a fairly clean, fair and honest administration," Teaiwa says.

"A clear direction is what the Banaban is dying to see from their council."

"It is our intention to take them in that direction."

While the hope is on him to lead his people to Canaan, Teaiwa does not want his people to have any illusion about the path ahead.

He wants handouts discouraged and that is why the annual bonus and allowances system called 'te roo' is unlikely to last.

"We have to make them understand that things do not happen instantly," he says.

"It takes sweat and toil to achieve things."

"They (Banabans) are expecting a lot of good things, some may not be realistic, it is for us to tone down those aspirations into reality.

They have always relied on handouts. If we have any money that we should use, it should be for something that will benefit the whole community; facilities that will enable the people to pursue their interests."

The 50 year history of the Banabans in Fiji has been littered with unparalleled and unchecked financial debauchery.

Years of shenanigans and arrogant high-handedness by elected council leaders and an unmitigated dereliction of the Government's duty to properly supervise the banaban affairs has left a once perceivable rich and proud race almost destitute and reduced to begging.

To say that the Banabans feel disgusted is an understatement. They feel cheated.

The new chairman is aware that leadership has always been a problem among his people. Not that Banabans are not capable of being good leaders. With a distinguished career in government as Permanent Secretary, Teaiwa is a testimony to that.

Banaban leaders, though, have a propensity to abuse and transgress. Sadly the transgressions were mainly against their own people. "Yes, leadership had been one of our weakest points in our history," he says.

"I am more ashamed that my own people can do that to us more than anything else. We can excuse outsiders for doing that but not our own people."

It was the disillusionment of the people on the council in what they considered a blatant disregard and insensitivity to their plight that led to the riots.

"the previous councils have really been a very powerful little group in the sense that they have total control of Banaban affairs," Teaiwa said.

"They use the trust fund they way they see fit. It boils down to simple things like setting a budget and not sticking to it. They spend money on things that suit them. Going on and expensive overseas trip and taking the whole council and advisers."

"Why do they have to take a whole rugby team? It boggles the mind."

"One of the things councils were fond of was making decisions and not following them. They were exclusive; and island and I mean exactly that. They isolate themselves from the machinery that was set up to help implement things, to control budget and to account for every dollar and cents. Now there is no record."

"Maybe if there was close supervision it could have helped minimise the extent of the problem."

The bitterness of the Banabans in recent years have reached a height that positive contributions of previous councils and leaders have almost been disregarded.

Even to the extent that almost 50 years of leadership by the Rotan family on Rabi and their spiritual homeland of Banaba has been branded as one of pursuit of interests other than those of the people.

Rotan Tito was undisputed leader of the Banabans on both islands.

In Banaba he had led the opposition to the British Phosphate Commission. The Banabans had wanted more money for the destruction of their homeland.

On Rabi, with his son Reverend Tebuke, he led the legal action against the commission and the British Government to compensate for the permanent destruction. Old man Rotan was chairman of the council for over 30 years before Tebuke took over.

Another son, Tekoti, was chairman and managing director of the now defunct Rabi Holdings Ltd. A nephew, Tomasi Teai, was for many years secretary to the council.

Teaiwa, however, does not want to be dragged into discussion about personalities.

"It is not unusual to have leaders who have abused their power," he says.

"No one is immune to those kinds of things."

He feels that people may have been unduly unkind to the Rotans although he is aware of the hostile attitude towards the end of their rule.

"I would like to remember old man Rotan as a shrewd leader," he says.

"From Ocean Island to Rabi he was the main figure. I think they have done the best they could in the face of all our problems."

On Rabi Holdings, he feels that perhaps it expanded too quickly.

"We reached a level where we did not have the expertise to manage the expansion," he says.

"Certainly we have to think carefully before we get into something like that again."

Teaiwa decided to contest a place on the council because he felt he had something to contribute to his people.

"The desire to go back and do something for my people has always been there," he says.

"The time is right for me to offer my services now that I am retired from government."

Like many of his contemporaries and many who followed, Teaiwa asked for financial assistance from the council to pursue further education but was refused.

His secondary studies at St. John College, Cawaci, and tertiary education at the University of Hawaii had to be funded from sources outside Banaban resources.

"It has been an unfortunate decision on the part of the council that not much emphasis was put on education," he says.

But this will change. While the immediate priority of the council will be "bread and butter issues", education will be a long term one.

Teaiwa, along with the only woman councillor Makin Karoro, are keen to see that Banabans are given the opportunity to pursue higher education.

The thrust of Teaiwa's programme will primarily evolve around the community. Projects would be community or individual based with the council providing a facilitating role.

Revenue generation is the focus. He is mindful of the need to be accountable. "Like any responsible body there is need for more transparency," he says.

"There should be a code to guide our members. It is important that the council understands the limitations of its powers. Often it tends to go off track."

The ultimate optimist, Teaiwa sees good times ahead. "We shape the future." Teaiwa says.

"In that regard the future of Rabi is bright."


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