Discount dogs of war fuel military boom

By A. Craig Copetas

The mercenary harvest begins with a bang and a splash of 500 soldiers quick-stepping through puddles of monsoon mud.

Atop the Republic of Fiji parade grandstand in the capital, Suva, hired-gun brokers deploy umbrellas to combat the torrential rain and clouds of sulphur that spew from artillery to salute the country's independence day.

As the marching band plays on, buyers and sellers in the annual US$100 billion ($130 billion) global trade for mercenaries appraise the bargain-basement merchandise on display at the October 6 celebration.

Since the 1970s, Fiji has positioned itself as a discount-soldier surplus store. Its best customer has been the United Nations' peacekeeping operations.

Today, on the post-September 11 battlefield, Fiji is marketing for hire its 3500 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," says Sakiusa Raivoce, a retired Fijian colonel and director of Security Support Ltd, 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.

The country's most ancient national symbol, for instance, is a 1.2m-long war club in the shape of a Y. As thick as a half-dozen baseball bats strapped together, the splay is thrust into an enemy's neck and the head is snapped off in one quick jerk.

Fiji's rulers unleashed their dogs of war shortly after independence in 1970 to reduce chronically high unemployment. The then-civilian Government of President Ratu Mara increased the military from 200 to more than 2000 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," says 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 per cent. Its gross domestic product (GDP) is US$6 billion. Sugar is an important part of the economy, accounting for 20 per cent of its exports, constituting 5 per cent to 6 per cent of GDP and employing 12 per cent of the workforce.

A 2007 report by the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries recognised "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 US$300 million over almost 30 years - and fees from private security firms that hire active soldiers have helped the anaemic 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 some US$9 million in wages.

Tikoitoga says he strives to bring to Fiji such private security firms as those whose agents joined UN, US and British officials in the parade-viewing stands. "We specifically train our forces for them," he says.

Doug Brooks, president of the Washington-based International Peace Operations Association, a lobbying group for security companies that employ mercenaries, says "Fiji is a vital part of the industry" - which he prefers to brand as "the peace and stability operations industry".

Tikoitoga says more than 1000 Fijians are stationed throughout the Middle East for private armies under the corporate command of Global Strategies Group, Triple Canopy Inc, ArmourGroup International Plc, DynCorp International Inc, Control Solutions and Sandline International.

More than 3000 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 US$1700 a month. That's 97 per cent less than the US$50,000 a month those same firms will pay for a retired and similarly seasoned US or British combat trooper. As US politicians continue to investigate the September 16 shooting incident in Iraq involving State Department security contractor Blackwater that left 17 people dead, Raivoce says he doesn't turn out "cowboys".

"My boys know when to shoot and who to shoot," he says of the men available to security consulting firms such as Killology Research Group in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Instinctive Shooting International in Israel.

"The US deeply values and appreciates the support Fiji and so many of its citizens are providing to international efforts to bring peace, freedom and democracy to the people of Iraq," is America's official stance on the junta's export venture, according to a 2005 statement from the US Embassy in Suva. Eight Fijians so far have been killed in Iraq.

The UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the multinational force with an annual budget of US$5.5 billion and some 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.

"Peacekeepers cost US$1030 per head per month," says 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 US$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, Foreign Minister Winston Peters suggests it's about US$300 million and growing.

Peters is a harsh critic of the UN employing the junta's soldiers as peacekeepers. He also speaks out against the Bainimarama regime and its mercenary money-making strategy.

"The UN has compromised the people of Fiji," says Peters. "Macho economics is not what you base long-term growth on."

Sitiveni Ratuva, a sociologist at the South Pacific University in Suva, is waiting for Fiji's lock-and-load economy to backfire.

"It's unsustainable," Ratuva says. "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 says.

Yet the recruits keep coming.

Alefoso Yalayalatabua, a member of the flying Fijian national rugby team and a former armoured car gunner with UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, says he's eager to recycle his talent in Iraq.

"There are tens of thousands of men who want this," Yalayalatabua says. Raivoce nods approvingly. "We enjoy the work," he says.

Cut-price combat

* 25,000 Fijian troops used by the UN, the British Army and mercenary contractors

* 3000 Fijians serve in the British Army

* 8 Fijians killed in Iraq

* US$1700 a month earned by Fijian mercenaries

On un duty

* 243 Fijian troops deployed as UN peacekeepers in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia

* 10,000 Fijian soldiers available for hire by the UN

* 46 soldiers killed during UN operations over three decades

* US$300 million estimated to have been earned since 1978

- Bloomberg

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