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
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
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
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.