Since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1970, tensions between the indigenous Fijian and Indo-Fijian ethnic groups (comprising an estimated 46% and 49% of the 1987 population, respectively) have continually manifested themselves in social and political unrest. Democratic elections in April of 1987 resulted in the replacement of the Fijian-dominated national leadership with a multi-ethnic coalition supported mostly by the Indo-Fijian majority, and Rabuka claimed ethnic Fijian concerns of racial discrimination as his excuse for seizing power. Many authorities doubt the veracity of this, however, given existing constitutional protections; indeed, legislation enacted by new administration limiting the rights of ethnic Indians resulted a substantial Indo-Fijian exodus, and the group was a minority by 1994.
On the morning of May 14, a squad of ten masked, armed soldiers entered the Fijian House of Representatives and subdued the national legislature, which had gathered there for its morning session. Rabuka, dressed in civilian clothes, approached Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra from his position in the public gallery and ordered the Members of Parliament to leave the building. They did so without resisting. The coup was an apparent success, and had been accomplished without loss of life.
The matter was not settled there, however. As a Commonwealth Realm, Fiji's Head of State was the British Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The Fijian Supreme Court ruled the coup unconstitutional, and the Queen's representative, Governor General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, unsuccessfully attempted to assert executive power. Rabuka finally gained full control on September 28 in a so-called "second coup".
The theory has been put forth that the United States, worried for the future of nuclear testing in the Pacific, had the Central Intelligence Agency orchestrate the revolt against Bavadra, an outspoken opponent of nuclear proliferation. No evidence has been presented to substantiate this theory, however, and it has no support among educated commentators.
Australia and New Zealand, the two nations with foremost political influence in the region, were somewhat disquited over the event, but ultimately took no action to intervene. They did, however, establish a policy of non-recognition regarding the new government, suspending foreign aid along with the United States and the United Kingdom.
The United Nations immediately denounced the coup, demanding that the former government be restored. On October 10 the new regime declared Fiji a republic, revoking the 1970 constitution; the Commonwealth of Nations responded with Fiji's immediate expulsion from the union.
A new constitution was ratified in 1990, establishing a policy often compared to apartheid: the offices of President and Prime Minister, along with two-thirds of the Senate, a substantial majority of the House of Representatives, and no fewer than 50% the judiciary, were reserved for ethnic Fijians. These discriminatory provisions were eventually overturned by a constitutional revisision in 1997, but not before the emigration of thousands of skilled Indo-Fijians, the backbone of the nation's workforce. Even today, Fiji still struggles to recover from a over a decade of economic distress.