On Fiji, a crop of soldiers fuels economy
A. Craig Copetas, The New York Times, October 30, 2007
SUVA, Fiji — Since the 1970s, this impoverished and remote remnant of the British Empire has positioned itself as a discount-soldier surplus store. Its best customer has been the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations. Today, on the post-Sept. 11 battlefield, Fiji is marketing for hire its 3,500 active soldiers, 15,000 reservists and more than 20,000 unemployed former troops.
“Private armies became a viable commercial enterprise the moment America invaded Iraq,” said Sakiusa Raivoce, a retired Fijian colonel and director of Security Support, the biggest of the country’s six mercenary employment agencies. “The time is right, and our price is right.”
Raivoce’s cash-and-carry slogan is no corruption of paradise. Fiji is a martial culture with no problem in fashioning a gross domestic product that includes mangoes and mercenaries.
Fiji’s rulers unleashed their dogs of war shortly after independence in 1970 to reduce chronically high unemployment. The former civilian government of President Ratu Mara increased the military from 200 to more than 2,000 to protect a tourist destination with a population of 918,000 and no enemy other than sunburn.
Fiji, which has undergone four coups in the past 19 years, has the biggest military force among Pacific island nations and sends officers to study at war colleges abroad, including China, Malaysia and South Korea.
“We made a conscious decision to create an army bigger than we need to generate foreign currency,” said Lieutenant Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, 46, senior officer and private army sales liaison in the junta led by Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, a former UN peacekeeper.
“Our economy has no choice but to build armies, and it’s a good business. There are few other foreign investments. If we didn’t do this, our people would be in the street creating havoc.”
Fiji’s unemployment rate is about 8 percent. Its gross domestic product is $6 billion. Sugar is an important part of the economy, accounting for 20 percent of its exports, constituting 5 percent to 6 percent of GDP and employing 12 percent of the work force.
A 2007 report by the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries recognized “the important contributions of remittances from Fijian migrant workers in the field of security to the economy of the country.”
Those wages from returning soldiers, money from the UN for leasing peacekeepers – an estimated $300 million over almost 30 years – and fees from private security firms that hire active soldiers have helped the anemic economy, according to junta leaders.
Pulling a pen from the pocket of a lime-green shirt embroidered with banyan leaves, Tikoitoga makes some quick calculations:
Since 1978, Fiji has outsourced more than 25,000 troops to the UN, the British Army and independent mercenary contractors. In 2003, the mercenaries brought home about $9 million in wages.
Doug Brooks, president of the Washington-based International Peace Operations Association, a lobbying group for security companies that employ mercenaries, said, “Fiji is a vital part of the industry” – which he prefers to brand as “the peace and stability operations industry.”
Tikoitoga said more than 1,000 Fijians were stationed throughout the Middle East for private armies under the corporate command of Global Strategies, Triple Canopy, ArmorGroup International, DynCorp International, Control Solutions and Sandline International. More than 3,000 Fijians serve in the British Army.
Some of those mercenaries were active members of the Fijian Army. The government allows soldiers, particularly officers, to end their military service to join private security firms, which in turn pay it a fee.
Raivoce, a 58-year-old decorated veteran of numerous UN peacekeeping campaigns, is no snake-oil hustler. He can ship a special forces-trained Fijian soldier to a private army like Blackwater USA in Moyock, North Carolina, or the London-based Global Strategies Group for a salary of about $1,700 a month. That’s about 3 percent of the $50,000 a month those same companies will pay for a retired and similarly seasoned U.S. or British combat trooper.
As U.S. lawmakers continue to investigate the Sept. 16 shooting incident in Iraq involving the State Department security contractor Blackwater that left at least 11 people dead, Raivoce says he doesn’t turn out “cowboys.”
“My boys know when to shoot and who to shoot,” he said of the men available to security consulting companies like as Killology Research Group in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Instinctive Shooting International in Israel.
The UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the multinational force with an annual budget of $5.5 billion and about 100,000 personnel serving in 18 security actions globally, has 243 Fijian troops deployed in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. It sees Fijian soldiers as a cut-rate blessing. Eight Fijians have been killed in Iraq.
“Peacekeepers cost $1,030 per head per month,” said a UN spokesman, Nick Birnback. “That’s cheaper than fielding a NATO soldier.”
An additional 10,000 active Fijian soldiers are available exclusively for hire by the UN, and if it were to empower all of them, Fiji’s cash-strapped dictatorship would get more than $140 million a year, almost four times the country’s current military budget.
Although the global body has no definitive figure on how much it has paid Fiji since its first peacekeeping mission in 1978, the New Zealand foreign minister, Winston Peters, suggests it is about $300 million and growing.
Peters is a harsh critic of the UN’s employing the junta’s soldiers as peacekeepers, the Bainimarama regime and its mercenary-moneymaking strategy. “The UN has compromised the people of Fiji,” Peters said. “Macho economics is not what you base long-term growth on.”
Sitiveni Ratuva, a sociologist at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, is waiting for Fiji’s lock-and-load economy to backfire.
“It’s unsustainable,” Ratuva said. “Their training is geared for engagement on the battlefield. Normal economies don’t facilitate jobs that require mercenaries. Otherwise you’d have to manufacture war after war to keep the economy alive.”
At least 46 Fijian soldiers are known to have been killed during UN operations over the past 29 years.
“That’s a lot for a small country,” Tikoitoga said.