National Armies for Sale
to the Highest Bidder

by Pratap Chatterjee

Covert Action Quarterly magazine Fall 1997


The phenomenon of hiring private armies is only one of the strategies used by corporations and governments to protect their assets. National armies that were once set up to defend a country from pillage by foreign interests are today working directly for almost the opposite cause: foreign expropriation of domestic minerals. In at least three countries- Nigeria, Indonesia and India-multinationals have paid directly for services from the local army to harass anybody who protests against the environmental impact of mineral exploitation operations.

In Nigeria, which is now run by brutal military dictator Sani Abacha, the Anglo Dutch multinational Shell has caused major pollution in the Niger delta during its 38 years of drilling for oil. Ogoni people and other indigenous communities have endured hundreds of oil spills annually, as well as massive flaring from the extraction operations. The typical village in this former British colony still lacks working roads, electricity, running water, schools, and medical facilities. Meanwhile, thousands of the indigenous peoples of the Niger delta have been massacred by the army and police throughout this oil drilling region.

After London's Observer newspaper published copies of the transaction documents, Shell admitted supplying the Nigerian military government with arms. In a May 12, 1994 internal memo, Major Paul Okuntimo of the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, a special military agency, wrote: "Shell operations are impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence."

Ten days later, Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested; less than six months later he and eight others who had protested government policies were executed.

In December 1995, Humanitex Nigeria Limited, an arms dealer, sued Shell for $1.2 million for breach of contract to upgrade weapons for the Nigerian military, where upon Shell admitted to having purchased 107 Beretta pistols on behalf of the military 15 years previously.

In April 1997, four former Shell staff members anonymously provided Steve Kretzmann of Project Underground with information about the existence of three Shell armories at Bonny, Wam, and Port Harcourt, "located within the police stations or offices attached to the relevant Shell premises" that contained Beretta pistols, "pump action shotguns, automatic rifles, and revolvers."

Shell admitted that the company directly employs an elite detachment of Nigerian police personnel known as Shell police. Former members of this force told Kretzmann about the existence of a special strike force" to intimidate and harass peaceful protesters with tear gas and gunshots.



In Indonesia, a US company, Freeport McMoRan of New Orleans, was the first major foreign investor in that country after the current dictator Suharto came to power in the mid 1960s. Currently, according to the company, Freeport has "contracts of work" with the Indonesian government to protect a copper and gold mine in Irian Jaya. Corporate documents confirm that its operations dump more than 110,000 tons of mining waste into local rivers every day. The pollution and heavy sedimentation caused by the dumping of this waste have destroyed local forests along the river banks. When the populace protests the devastation and lack of compensation, Indonesian troops in the region around the mine routinely move in to crack down on the troublemakers. The latest incident occurred in August 1997, despite Indonesian tribunals early last year that found local army personnel guilty of killing several local people and sentenced them to prison. Human rights groups estimate that the army has killed some 2,000 people in the region in the two decades that the company has mined for copper and gold there.

According to a reports prepared by the local Catholic bishop, people from three churches in the villages of Arwanop, Bami, and Waa held a peaceful demonstration on Christmas Day 1994, protesting the mine in Waa. After a prayer ceremony, a group of 15 people left to go to Tembagapura (the Freeport company town) but was arrested by a group of soldiers from a local battalion who accused them of being GPK (security disturbing gang) rebels.

One of the 15 told the bishop that they were all beaten and locked in a Freeport shipping container on Christmas morning. For four hours, "the 15 of us were beaten with sticks and rifle butts and were kicked with boots by the troops....They stripped us stark naked and took our belongings such as beads and money," said the eye witness.

The group was released from the container and escorted by soldiers onto a Freeport company bus heading to the lowland town of Timika. One of the group- Wendi Tabuni, a 23-year-old man from Timika- tried to jump out of the window but one soldier quickly jumped up and stabbed him in the belly with his bayonet .. . [but he] still jumped out of the window and ran away," said the eyewitness. "The bus stopped at once and a number of soldiers jumped down and without warning shot Wendi in the head. The soldiers took his body and threw it in a ravine near Mile 66," he added.

The other 14 were taken to the Freeport workshop in Koperakopa at about two o'clock in the afternoon where "we were beaten and tortured one by one by the soldiers.'' With their eyes taped shut, three people-Yoel Kogoya, 27, Peregamus Waker, 28, and Elias Jikwa, also 28-"were tortured by being beaten with sticks on the neck from behind, left, right and from the front, till their necks were broken and they died," says a survivor.

The following day, Yunus Omabak, a 33-year-old Amungme tribal chief from Waa, was summoned to a military post in Tembagapura, together with three other elders from his tribe, to report on the religious service. Omabak says he was put in Freeport bus number 404 and taken to a Freeport "security cell." There solders accused them of raising an Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement) flag at the Christmas day protest and supplying the rebels with rice and cigarettes. "They hit me over the head with a big stone till blood streamed over my body They put an iron bar in the hollow of my knees and forced me to squat and lean against a chest for hours. I was screaming in pain,'' he said.


Burma and India

In Burma, the military forces local people into unpaid service for Unocal and Total, two oil companies from California and France respectively These companies set up a joint venture with Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which is controlled by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the military government of Burma. Unocal, Total and MOGE are working together to build a $1.2 billion 40-mile-long pipeline that will deliver natural gas from the Yandana gas field in the Andaman Sea to an electric power plant in Thailand. (Officials from the government-in-exile say that the Burmese army rounded up villagers to build the railway, roads, airports, and other facilities.

No official figures exist, but some observers estimate that 500,000 people provide unpaid, forced labor on any given day. The situation is arguably worse that in Nigeria and Indonesia because not only does the army provide protection for the mineral multinationals, but additionally, it can force the local community to provide dirt-cheap or slave labor.

That's not all. "People in the region where the gas pipeline will be constructed have been relocated to areas where they have no means of earning a living. Villages that have existed for decades have been burned and destroyed," said Sein Win, the leader of the government-in-exile.

In India, a far more democratic country than Burma, Nigeria, or Indonesia, armies have recently become available to multinational corporations for a pittance. This January, following a series of major protests Enron, a natural gas multinational from Texas, reportedly paid policemen about $3.50 a day for a battalion to guard a power plant recently under construction. Since then, Amnesty International has recorded several incidents of police violence.

The Cold War kept national armies throughout the Third World well supplied with weapons as the superpowers vied for control of almost every country on the planet. With the new international configuration comes a new-or perhaps only more overt-function and source of funding for the world's militaries: to protect multinational mineral industries from the wrath of the local people.

New World Order