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Colonel Aziz Mohammed created history of sorts by recently becoming the first Indian to be appointed Commander of the RFMF,

albeit in an acting capacity. The RFMF chief of staff, and head of legal services, is a former headboy of Gospel High School, unlike most top officers in the RFMF who have come from Marist Brothers High School, Ratu Kadavulevu School, Queen Victoria School and Suva Grammar. Colonel Mohammed is one of 8 children from a Raiwaqa, Suva family, and always wanted to join the disciplined forces. He is but one of the officers in the top echelons of the Fiji military who are not only career soldiers, but have Masters degrees (Law in his case) in Strategy, International Economic, Business Administration, and other fields. A loyal officer, he has stood by Commander Voreqe Bainimarama even as officers senior to him have fallen by the wayside for thinking about or even wanting to commit a mutinous act by deposing their boss. Colonel Mohammed spoke with FijiLives Farzana Nisha on his appointment, his 23 years in the army, why the army had to take charge and the armys vision for Fiji: At the United Nations, the Commander offered the RFMFs services for peacekeeping tours. Has there been any development on this? There have been some representations made to the UN for extending our participation in other regions. The Permanent Representative at the UN has been liaising with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. We have basically voiced our support for providing more peacekeepers and stand committed for that. There hasnt been any development but hopefully there will be some news coming soon. We have also expressed our special interest in providing troops in Iraq and the African region. There are a lot of senior officers who have left for various reasons. Are you up-scaling your training or how are you replacing that loss of seniority? You have to know how our arm forces work. We train our officers at three levels. In terms of training, we train our officers to take up responsibilities at command levels. From 2006 onwards there has been some attrition in terms of officers and soldiers. They have left for various reasons some have reached retirement age, some have got lucrative positions outside and some have been seconded to other govt departments where their skills will be better used. We have fulfilled our own requirements in the camp. In terms of training, we have three officer training programmes. One is the junior staff officers level where we train them on staff duties, the second one which is scheduled for next week is the staff and tactics course which is for company commander level, and at the end of the year we will have another course which will be aimed at the battalion level. Associated with this, we have got a running programme of sending our officers overseas. Although the doors have been shut with Australia and New Zealand, we have opened new arrangements with India and China where officers are receiving as good a training that used to be previously given by Australia and New Zealand. We are fortunate that India for the first time has offered us a position in the Higher Defence College from where an officer would be returningsoon Lt Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga (Land Chief of Staff) and Lt Col Sitiveni Qiliho is in India attending a staff officers course. We expect him back next year. So is the army aligning itself with China and India? Think of what we would gain in terms of development and training from them. The alliance is not only for military training it is also for agriculture development, infrastructure development, etc. These are two very well developed countries and they have a lot of potential to contribute to the development of our nation. We should see it in a positive manner and how best we can capitalise their offerings and utilise it for the betterment of our society.

Is it only because certain western powers have snubbed us? Yes, because they have closed their doors on us. When they closed their doors, we had to look for alternatives countries who were willing to support our country and its development. It is very unfortunate that Australia and New Zealand and other countries have imposed sanctions and restrictions. It would have been more prudent if they would have assisted us in trying to bring about reforms. Having said that I think the working relationship with Australia and New Zealand is still there, it will never go away. The partnership with Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific countries has to remain. We have to come together for the common good and when all these things pass, hopefully we can sit around and work towards how we can support one another in our endeavours. How many senior officers do you have holding the rank of Lt Colonel or Colonel as compared to before? In the military, we dont promote people for the sake of promotion. There are individuals who are already doing the work but are not necessarily holding the rank. An appointment of a battalion commander will usually be reserved for a Lieutenant Colonel but a Major can equally do the job. For us we have to be satisfied that the officer has had the appropriate training, qualifications and has passed the required physical level test to be given that position. How many officers have been deployed to the civil service? In total, those on secondment and those that have been posted out, would be around 60. Is that a strategic move? Its done on the basis of requirement. We have identified the ministries or departments where there is an urgent need to boost the performance. We saw individuals in the military who would be best placed to do the work, hence we allowed them to move out and assume those positions good examples are the Commissioner of Prisons, Commissioner of Police and Director of Immigration. Those three are very key positions. But apart from those, what about the other 60 or so? There are some in the junior ranks who are supporting the senior officers, not necessarily in the police and prisons but in the government departments. There are 15 who are seconded to Immigration. How many more is the army you thinking of seconding? We dont see the need as yet to second any more to the civil service. Were these people seconded or posted because the army was unhappy with the way the civil service has been supporting your cause? I think the word is not unhappy. We wanted to bring about reforms at a faster rate. We want to expedite things so that we could move faster to benefit the people and what they are supposed to be given. So would you say some people in the civil service have been uncooperative because they are politically unhappy? They may be. There may be some individuals trying to undermine our work, but it hasnt been brought to light. We made it clear from the outset that if they cant work with the interim regime or the military, then they have options. But the efforts of the interim Govt will continue.

There is criticism that there is a militarisation of the public service. People have a misunderstanding of the word militarisation. In Fiji if you realistically look at the practices, its not militarisation. Every extended family in Fiji has some part of them in the military uncle, grandfather or somebody has served in the military. A better word is kinship. The development of the military is the development of the nation. Its nation building. The military is trained to look after the welfare and well-being of this country. Some individuals perceive it differently, all in an attempt to undermine the work of the interim Government. We have to accept that in Fiji there is this feeling among the community whereby the military is seen with pride and everybody wants to be associated with it. When we call for a recruitment drive, wanting 100 soldiers, thousands will turn up. So you can see how interested they are in being associated with the military. We have so many territorial reserves out there and these people are employed in the government departments and private sector. Once a military person, always a military person and you will be a soldier and an officer until you die. How do you explain the recent leave payout? Leave in the army by law is of right. Its the right of every officer and soldier to enjoy leave. Leave is of right and cannot be forfeited whether you have a day or 100 days of leave, the law does not permit forfeiture. The PSC has no function or say in how the RFMF is to exercise its leave provisions. PSC regulations do not govern the RFMF, hence they have no say in the way we manage our leave. The practice of leave compensation is not new. This has been done since the inception of the forces. There have been times when officers and soldiers have been compensated for the leave. This is where officers and soldiers had wanted to go on leave but due to their commitments in the force they have been recalled or they were not able to go on leave. Hence they were compensated for it. Since 1978 the RFMF has been participating in numerous peacekeeping missions we were in Lebanon, Sinai, Iraq, and East Timor. With the number of service personnel we had in the army, turnover from one mission to another is very quick. We had some officers and soldiers coming back and staying in Fiji from 3-6 months when they were rotated back into a mission. For them having the opportunity to be in Fiji and take leave was not there. We made the decision to compensate the officers who have gone out of the military on secondment. We made the decision to ease the burden of the RFMF. We took it as an opportunity that if we pay these officers, and at that time when we did the payment, we would be saving money - there was a five per cent pay reduction. We should not be accumulating leave but the exigencies of service in the RFMF were such that we had to do that. Unfortunately we had allowed this to happen we should have stopped it a long time ago. We have taken remedial actions to stop accumulation of leave. And the payment is one way of trying to rectify this problem. Another way is we are trying to send service members on leave. We have been liaising with the Auditor-General on this. We have had three meetings already. They have indicated to us the documents they want. Documents are being collated. We have had some sharing of documents. We will meet next week to go through the files and submit to

them all the remaining documents. We have nothing to hide, we will be very transparent. We will show them everything we have done. In fact, we will go to the extent to show them all the documents in the personal files of the commander, some senior officers and some other ranks in the military who have been paid. All these funds paid to them are coming from our budget. This will not be an extra provision from the Government. When did the military realise that the nation building was not going the way it should be going? The military has been at the forefront of nation building. We had the incident of 2000. The whole social fabric of the society was basically destroyed. The military stepped in, and although we came in with good intentions, we were criticised although we showed that the military had no intention of keeping power. At the first opportunity we handed back power. However, we had asked that this countrys well-being be paramount and good governance should be practised and protected and that nobody should derail it for their personal agenda. In 2000 we were quite vocal in terms of prosecuting individuals who tried to destabilise the society, good governance and the law. But there were elements within our society and within the government circle at that time, who had other intentions. We started telling political parties not to bring in an agenda which basically undermined the society. The introduction of the Qoliqoli and many other bills were not in the best interest of the country. When did this realisation that enough was enough come about? The impasse in 2006 between the SDL government and the military was the catalyst. There were several attempts to remove the Commander. This was the thing we were saying to stop. In all, there were about 14-16 attempts to remove the commander. And it all started because he did not agree to support the agenda of the SDL, whatever they did. They saw him as an obstacle. What gave the SDL government the confidence to do that? Did they feel they had their men in camp? At that time there were some renegade officers who actually stood against the commander and actually rebelled. There were officers who tried to remove the Commander and take up appointment as Commander when the Commander was away ( which resulted in their removal). More than once ? Yes, and most of this was propagated by the political parties. We think their understanding was that the military was fragmented. They were misguided. It was a rude awakening when they suddenly realised that the army stood by the commander and was united. We are confident in saying that the military is 100 per cent behind the Commander. The Commander has the full support of all the officers and soldiers in the camp. We are all together and in support of the vision of what military represents. We all support what the President has mandated. So does that mean elections are far from you mind? No, its not far from our minds. What we are saying is that all the political parties in Fiji have to come on board and work together with the interim govt in what they want to achieve - in terms of political reforms, electoral reforms, and other changes that may be warranted in moving our country forward. We want to have a vibrant and peaceful society before we go to

elections. The elections, as stated by the Interim Government, is all dependent on the completion of the reforms. So if you get a government which is not pro military ? As long as we are able to put in all these reforms to basically better our society, to enhance the well-being our people, what government we get will be up to the people. Your appointment as an acting commander is a first Its at the discretion of the commander who advises the minister on who is to act in the position. Are the number of Indians in the army growing? There number of Indians in the military is growing. There is more interest shown now then before. More are now staying back compared to what we previously experienced where after a year or so of training, they moved to greener pastures. We have more Indian soldiers trying to stay back and support the military. We are also getting more educated individuals joining the military than previously and we have a lot of people expressing interest in the army and willing to commit a longer time in the military than previously. Did the event of 2006, to quote your words, had to happen? It has happened Or to paraphrase Rabuka , There was no other way? Those are the Major-Generals words Is the Military Council united? The Military Council is united as one. At any stage of your life, did you ever think you would one day be army commander? No, not in my wildest dreams. Initially I came into the army for a year to do officer cadet training after a year I went and did peacekeeping duties. I was scheduled to revert back to the civil service where I was working before enlistment. But things at that time (1987) in Fiji had changed and I was absorbed into the regular force at the camp. I ascended through the ranks. I have taken leadership roles throughout my career - command and staff appointments. I have studied military tactics and non-military courses and more. It has been a challenging period. Military life has been good to me although I had thought I would reach a Captains rank but the current rank and the current appointment was never in my mind. Im just thankful to the almighty for giving me this opportunity. Why did you join the RFMF? I had members of my family who had served in the disciplined forces. I was always very impressed by the discipline in the military. I saw it as a challenge and wanted to experience what it offered and represented. And I ended up staying with the army for 23 years.