Ex-Fijian PM jailed over university financial mismanagement

Long-serving leader sentenced after quashing investigation of former USP administrators

May 9, 2024
Court gavel

The legal dramas surrounding the University of the South Pacific (USP) have taken another turn, with a long-standing former Fijian prime minister jailed for suppressing a police investigation into financial management at the pan-national institution.  

Frank Bainimarama, who led Fiji for 16 years until his election defeat in 2022, has been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment following a High Court judgment in March. The court found that he had attempted to pervert the course of justice by telling the then police commissioner, Sitiveni Qiliho, to “stay away” from the USP investigation in mid-2020.

Qiliho subsequently instructed senior police to stop investigating complaints that had been lodged the previous year. He was convicted of abuse of office and has been sentenced to two years behind bars.

Both men were acquitted in the Suva Magistrates Court last October, but those judgments were overturned in March after state officials lodged an appeal. Bainimarama was given an “absolute discharge” and Qiliho a F$1,500 (£528) fine – penalties that were upgraded to custodial sentences on 9 May, after the state again appealed.

Bainimarama has reportedly appealed his sentence.

The saga stems from allegations lodged by vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia, who joined USP in late 2018, about financial abuse by previous USP management. In May 2019, local news outlet Islands Business reported that the claims against the former administrators included questionable appointments, contract renewals, leave payments and back pay.

Court documents show that Fijian government representatives on the USP council’s executive committee had been notified as early as March 2019 that the university’s audit and compliance arm was considering filing criminal complaints against current and former senior executives. A police report lodged in July sparked an investigation which a year later was “on track toward possible interview of suspects and very likely charges”.

Fiji funds USP to the tune of about F$34 million a year. The court documents say Bainimarama “knew or ought to have known about the mismanagement by senior officials at the USP council” and was legally obliged to “see that the F$34 million was used properly”.

But Fijian government representatives on USP governing bodies “had taken a stance against Professor Pal Ahluwalia”, the documents say.

Professor Ahluwalia’s actions precipitated a series of allegations against him by opponents in USP, culminating in his sudden deportation by Fijian authorities in early 2021. Since then, he has been running the institution primarily from Samoa.

The USP council recently voted to relocate him to the university’s main Laucala campus in Suva, after Fiji’s new government lifted the expulsion order against him last year. He said he was developing a timetable for his return, which necessitated a new work permit.

The news of his return has reportedly been welcomed by USP staff, who recently voted to strike over claims of inadequate pay and consultation by management.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles