by Listener Archive / 20 June, 2011
Fiji’s leader talks openly about coups, censorship, the World Cup and Bananarama.

[Murray] McCully said he had told the new chairman of the Fiji Rugby Union, Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, that … New Zealand had no intention of relaxing sanctions against Fiji until the Government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama took steps to restore democracy. – NZ Herald

While I’m standing in the opulent ballroom where I am to interview Bainimarama, a beefy guard with huge hot hands squeezes every part of my body. Aides bark a list of topics I’m not to broach with the dictator. “Never mention 1980s girl group Bananarama” is their most stern warning. Bainimarama speaks before I even know he’s there.

BAINIMARAMA: So, this will be a friendly piece in your Woman’s Idea magazine? Something like “Bainimarama’s a dad again at 57”?
BRIDGES: Oh, hello …
FB: Write it or I’ll have you killed.
JB: But …
FB: Just jokes. “Bainimarama’s seven secrets for a great tan”? “How I outlawed weight gain”? “The commodore’s love coup”?
JB: Love coup? Why did you say it like that?
FB: Say what?
JB: Coup. With a “p”.
FB: What do you mean? How are you supposed to say it?
JB: You don’t pronounce the “p”.
FB: Coup? Haven’t I been the prize idiot? This whole time! You’re joking?
JB: I’m …
FB: That’s the trouble with being a ­dictator; everyone’s too chicken to tell you anything. Heads’ll roll for this!
JB: Oh, god …
FB: I’m kidding, nobody’s head will roll.
JB: Course not.
FB: I’ll catch them in buckets …
Bainimarama lets loose with thunderous laughter, but his dark eyes watch me. A two-year-old boy runs in and leaps into the Prime Minister’s lap. He thrusts a piece of paper into his father’s hand. Baini­marama reads the paper, rubbing the boy’s head.
FB: Good boy. Arrest the bad journalist.
The boy runs off laughing. Bainimarama looks at me, his eyes shining.
FB: That boy is so advanced. How many other kids at two-and-a-half are censoring the media? I told them at playgroup, he’s so advanced.
JB: I wanted to ask you about Tevita Mara who has left Fiji and is campaigning to end your regime.
FB: Honestly, he’s dead to me. I’m so miffed, I can’t even tell you.
By now the Prime Minister is playing tennis against an old woman on the court that forms part of the ballroom – running her ragged with a series of brilliant forehands.
FB: If that guy gets into New Zealand in time for the World Cup, I don’t know what! He bet me he could, but I said John Key would see straight through it. What’s with John Key’s accent, anyway? Match point, old poor lady!
JB: Nice shot.
FB: (jogging back with a couple of Tom Collinses in tall glasses) Honestly, what would you say it would take to get me into your country to watch the World Cup?
JB: An election maybe?
FB: It doesn’t matter, I’ve got MySky. Have you got MySky? Amazing. All the Grand Designs I’ve saved, then my wife deletes them. I just love that Kevin McCloud. Who would you turn gay for? I would turn gay for Kevin. How old do you think I am?
JB: 57?
FB: Go on, have a guess … 57! I’m 57 years old. Do you know the worst day of my 57 years, journalist?
JB: Getting kicked out of the Commonwealth?
FB: Nice try. No, it was June 14, 1986, the day that a song called Venus reached ­No 1 in the US after receiving heavy airplay on MTV … Do you know who recorded that song?
JB: Ummm … originally I think it was …
FB: Not originally!
JB: Umm …
I look around in desperation. The flatterers, pool-boys, waiters and hired sportsmen who had been in attendance have suddenly all disappeared. Silence fills the vast room.

JB: Bananarama.
FB: Right, now I will kill you.
JB: But …
FB: Just jokes. I love Bananarama. So flattered they named themselves after me. “Summit of beauty and love, and Bainimarama was his name!”

I like to think we will both remember this warm afternoon as one of the best of our lives.
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