By the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
Out in the open
The press release and onboard PR adviser have become tools of the PMCs, as have public relations generally. SCI, Trident and Sandline, like many of their U.S. and British counterparts, no longer operate in total darkness. Each company has established elaborate, even flashy Internet sites. The sites are long on capabilities and moral principles, short on details of their failed operations. Sandline International’s Web site stipulates “the company only accepts projects which … would improve the state of security, stability and general conditions in client countries.” To this end, Sandline added, “the company will only undertake projects which are for internationally recognised governments” – governments that are “preferably democratically elected.”
Prospective clients are told in brochures and presentations that “Sandline policy is to only work with internationally recognised governments or legitimate international bodies such as the U.N.” This was a key “operating principle” for the new age mercenaries. In an article for Britain’s Daily Telegraph in May 1998 Spicer wrote, “At Sandline, we maintain a strict, self-imposed code of conduct. We will only work for legitimate governments, those recognised by the U.N. We then apply our own moral template.” The template was firm. “The real problem comes when you get to a country where the insurgents are in the right. We can’t work for them because if we did we would be helping to overthrow recognized governments,” he wrote.
Spicer’s position appears now to have changed. On publicizing his new companies in 2001, Spicer told the Financial Times that SCI “would look carefully on a case-by-case basis at working for liberation movements in overseas countries,” the paper reported. Asked at a conference in 2002 on “Europe and America – a New Strategic Partnership – Future Defense and Industrial Relations,” sponsored by the prestigious Royal Institute of International Affairs, how he would resolve his contradictory pronouncements, Spicer replied:
“I don’t think anyone would object if a private military company, American, British or whatever – was to become involved at the behest of the international community with the Iraqi resistance. I don’t think people would have objected if a PMC was working with the Northern Alliance. Other countries, it’s more complicated. Sudan is a complicated issue. I suppose the question of Zimbabwe has been raised, but it’s not at that stage yet. So I would duck that particular question at the moment.” Asked how he reconciled this with his 1998 position that he could not work for a resistance movement even in “a country where the insurgents are in the right,” Spicer did not answer.
Plainly, there was business to be had in supporting the right sort of rebels, as seen from Washington or London. Other British companies employing former SAS members were hired in Afghanistan to assist the mujaheedin in the 1980s, and in the 1990s were contracted to train members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which opposed Serbian forces in the troubled Yugoslav province of Kosovo. Spicer’s post-Sierra Leone public relations campaign has also loudly beat the drum for “total transparency” of mercenary companies, in the hope of seeing the United Kingdom and Europe introduce licensing regimes that might allow them official recognition. Spicer told the Financial Times in 2001 that SCI was to be a different sort of business. “One that is totally transparent, registered in the U.K. with nothing to hide overseas.”
But Spicer’s commitment to “total transparency” is unconvincing. During the Papua New Guinea judicial inquiry into the Bougainville affair, for example, Judge Warwick Andrew commented that Spicer’s claim that Sandline Holdings, set up for the Papua New Guinea operation, was entirely separate from Executive Outcomes “cannot be true, but the exact nature of their relationship seems clouded behind a web of interlocking companies whose ownership is difficult to trace." Further, Andrew made no distinction between the South African and British incarnations of Executive Outcomes. From the beginning, Spicer offered inaccurate statements about what Sandline was, who had created and backed it, and whether it was linked to Executive Outcomes. He told journalists, judges and parliamentarians that “we [Sandline and Executive Outcomes] are completely separate organizations who operate our own businesses … We don't have a corporate relationship.” He and Buckingham made similar statements when asked about the links between the mercenary companies and the associated Heritage Oil, Branch Energy and DiamondWorks companies, in all of which Buckingham has a substantial interest. He told the British parliamentary inquiry that he didn’t know who owned the company (Sandline International) for which he was prepared to risk his life.
Andrew dismissed some statements by Spicer as evasions. “The controllers of Sandline International are obviously Mr. Buckingham, Mr. Grunberg” – a director, as is Buckingham, of Canadian company DiamondWorks – “and at least to some extent Mr. Spicer. There is a strong inference that Sandline Holdings Limited may be something of a joint venture between the interests of Mr. Buckingham and the interests of Mr. Barlow and Executive Outcomes.”
Internal documents from the King’s Road offices and documents inspected during inquiries into Sandline confirmed the judge’s observations. A July 1996 memo circulated inside King’s Road about a BBC news broadcast on Sierra Leone referred to “SL/EO” as a single entity. The note was sent to Buckingham, Mann, Spicer and others, on the notepaper of Buckingham’s umbrella company, Plaza 107. An August 1996 letter sent by Spicer to Rilwanu Lukamn, the general secretary of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, records a meeting with Spicer accompanied by “my colleagues from Heritage Oil.” A brochure accompanying the letter identified Sandline as “part of a group of companies which includes Heritage Oil and Gas and Branch Minerals.”
A November 1996 memorandum from Buckingham announced the appointment of retired U.S. Special Forces Col. Bernie McCabe as director for the Americas. His task was “to develop Sandline business, and exploit opportunities for other group companies where appropriate in North, Central, and South America. He is also to develop our image/contacts with U.S. government agencies.” The memorandum was copied to Spicer, Mann and Grunberg of Sandline, and also to Barlow, Luitingh and van den Bergh, the South African contingent of Executive Outcomes.
Documents found by the Papua New Guinea commission of inquiry unearthed a similar pattern. The commission located a Hong Kong bank account in the name of Sandline Holdings. The signatories were Mann, Buckingham, Luitingh and Barlow. Sandline International still exists, its Web site was updated as recently as August 2002 with new information and reports on the campaign to license PMCs. Buckingham has moved his network to new offices a short distance away at Harbour Yard, Chelsea Harbour. His modern, glass fronted and terraced suite offices overlook a yacht basin and marina.
The true owners and directors of Sandline International remain hidden. But the key players remain the same. At a British conference held in June to discuss possible new laws affecting PMCs, Sandline International’s delegates were two of the original South African Executive Outcomes leaders, van den Bergh and Luitingh. The third was Buckingham’s financial director, Grunberg. Spicer, who has not been part of the Executive Outcomes/Sandline International operation since 1999, attended separately. Their presence confirmed that the core of the old Executive Outcomes was still in being. Under new names, the group is still believed to be involved in protecting Buckingham’s diamond, mineral and oil assets in Sierra Leone and Angola.
Sandline International continues to employ South African and other mercenaries in a range of African countries. Although the company dislikes discussing current clients, Grunberg, the Sandline financial adviser, told ICIJ that the company had considered new business in the Ivory Coast, Sudan and Liberia. Meanwhile, the larger business of private intervention in wars appears to have died down. Although Spicer has continued to lobby for his companies’ stake in the new age of PMCs, inquiries suggest that most of the work now available in Britain is being taken by his less controversial but larger rivals, ArmorGroup Services (formerly Defence Systems Ltd) and Saladin Security network. According to some sources, in an ironic post-Cold War spin on events, the British ex-SAS companies have been contracted to provide perimeter security defenses for vulnerable Russian nuclear weapons sites.
A successful outcome?
The public relations campaign may have finally paid off. In February 2002, the British Foreign Office published a long-delayed response to parliamentary criticism of Spicer and the mercenary trade. The conclusion of the British government’s “green” paper – essentially, a proposal for legislation – on “Private Military Companies: Options for Regulation” was almost all that Spicer had wanted. The government opined that PMCs should be legalized and licensed. Spicer told his business colleague Professor Blankenship (inaccurately) that “the British government has changed the law on private military companies,” calling it “a significant event,” according to Blankenship.
Spicer’s record of sanctions-busting and political embarrassment seemed to have been forgotten. He had welcomed television appearances since leaving Sandline. “But only serious comment [shows],” his PR adviser, Pearson said. Spicer appeared again on a BBC current affairs show in February 2002 to discuss the green paper on private soldiers, looking pleased and dubbing himself the “proper end of the spectrum.” A week later, speaking on Feb. 19 at the Royal Institute of International Affairs conference at Chatham House, Spicer told the international audience that he welcomed the government’s proposal to license private military companies.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose immediate predecessor, Robin Cook, had been humiliated by Spicer’s conduct, was now toeing the PMC line. Straw announced “states and international organizations are turning to the private sector as a cost effective way of procuring services which would once have been the exclusive preserve of the military.” Straw prophesied that “the demand for private military services is likely to increase. … The cost of employing private military companies for certain functions in U.N. operations could be much lower than that of national armed forces.” But he added, “clearly there are many pitfalls.”
There were pitfalls in such proposals – and the British Foreign Office’s green paper had ignored nearly all of them. The conclusions the foreign secretary so readily endorsed drew nothing from British diplomatic expertise or private knowledge of (or involvement with) mercenary companies. Instead, it relied on such unofficial sources as a recently published book, Mercenaries: an African Security Dilemma, edited by Abdel-Fatau Musah and J’Kayode Fayemi. The British government paper also failed to mention that the Foreign Office, itself, had hired bodyguards for more than 20 years from companies that also promoted and provided mercenary activities around the world. Nor did it say that some of these companies had been and were being employed by U.S. and British intelligence agencies for secret operations in Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Kosovo – or that the explicit political purpose of doing so was official deniability.
But to Spicer, it must have seemed that his transformation to respectability was complete. Within two years of his book, his image had been transformed from law-breaking buccaneer to respectable commentator, a minor celebrity to include in chat shows and TV quizzes. Less than five years after the debacles in Africa and the South Pacific, while speaking to a conference on military cooperation, Spicer seemed confident that the British establishment had been won over. He enthusiastically endorsed the future role of mercenary companies and stated that the world was waiting for “the speed and flexibility with which they [PMCs] can deploy – rather than wait for the U.N. to form a force.”
But just as his PR initiatives for PMCs seemed to have succeeded, Spicer’s new PMCs set up since he left Sandline faltered or fell. Sandline Consultancy Ltd. was dissolved by official order on March 26, 2002, having failed to file documents. Spicer’s second new company Strategic Consulting has withdrawn almost all of its Web site, replacing it with a single message “for further details contact SCI,” giving phone and fax numbers, but no address. His co-director and fellow shareholder Pearson has sold out and left the company.
His third new company, Trident Maritime, which continues to boast on its Web site of its network of global command centers, has also “failed,” according to co-director Blankenship. “It has closed,” the University of Maryland professor said, “we’ve had to stop the operation just in the last couple of weeks … [Trident] is essentially out of business.” Spicer said that his U.S. partners in Trident have, like Pearson, disinvested in the company, and have turned their shares over to him. He claimed that he was “restructuring the company” and planned to carry on in the maritime security business.
“It wasn’t managed particularly well – that’s pretty much why the company failed,” Blankenship said of Trident’s troubles. “All we ever really did was install some recording equipment on two ships – in effect prototypes. We did training for some ship companies, but nothing interesting, [and] security audits of ports in two countries. That’s the sum total.”
Questioned in the summer of 2002 by members of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee about the private military companies used by the British government, the government refused to provide information, even about security guards, on the basis that records were “managed locally and details are not held centrally.” The committee found this excuse “unacceptable” and asked the government to “take immediate steps to collect such information and to update it regularly.”
The moral dilemma of addressing what to do about mercenaries in a democracy when they have been integral to secret and unaccountable foreign policy activities was one the British government was unwilling even to acknowledge. These difficulties were set aside in favor of debating the superficial merits of the PMC campaign for legal recognition that Spicer and Sandline International had promulgated, and which had focused almost entirely on reviewing the Papua-New Guinea, Sierra Leone and Angola engagements.
United Nations workers and the NGO community do not feel so enthusiastic about the work of Executive Outcomes or PMCs as the British government or Spicer. In October 1999, the British government’s Department for International Development backed a high-level conference to discuss the issues. Sandline and its supporters were excluded. Speaking particularly about Sierra Leone, Lord Judd, head of the aid organization International Alert told attendees, “From our perspective, the presence of external actors, who were able to sell their military wares to the warring factions, was one of the main stumbling blocks in forwarding the peace process. …[T]hose that fight for financial gain are an anathema to much of what we strive for.”
4. Greasing the Skids of Corruption <!--
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On July 15, 2000, the Marathon Oil Company sent $13,717,989.31 to an account in Jersey, an island in the English Channel with stringent bank secrecy laws. The owner of the Jersey account was Sonangol, Angola’s state oil company. The sum represented one-third of a bonus that the Houston, Texas-based company agreed to pay the Angolan government a year earlier for rights to pump the country’s offshore oil reserves. That same day, Sonangol transferred an identical sum of money out of Jersey to another Sonangol account in an unknown location. Over the course of that summer, large sums of money traveled from the Jersey account to, among others, a private security company owned by a former Angolan minister, a charitable foundation run by the Angolan president, and a private Angolan bank that counts an alleged arms dealer among its shareholders.
Angola’s byzantine political and financial dealings are no secret; the country falls among the lowest rankings in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Still, oil companies from the United States and other countries continue to do business with the Luanda government and Angola’s state-owned oil company. A variety of groups, from human rights organizations to diplomats, have raised concerns that oil revenue goes to government ministers’ pockets or to buy arms to fight the country’s recently ended civil war. But not even an International Monetary Fund monitoring program has been able to produce hard evidence of such activity. The cost in human lives of this misdirection of the nation’s wealth is incalculable, and far beyond the estimated 500,000 killed in the 25-year-long civil war. For years, Angola has scraped the bottom of the United Nations’ social indicator indexes: 30 percent of its children die before the age of five, and average life expectancy is just 45 years.
According to the Angolan Petroleum Ministry, Angola exported $6.9 billion worth of oil in 2000, $2.9 billion of that exported by Sonangol. Economists estimate that up to $1 billion in oil revenue flowed out of the country and into private bank accounts in 2000 alone, despite a national law that gives ownership of Angola’s oil – and, presumably, the wealth it produces – to its citizens.
Now, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists provides a glimpse into this system where money from multinational oil companies moves through labyrinths of international bank accounts, avoiding national budgets and banks. It shows how national and international laws governing corporate behavior—including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, enacted by the United States in 1977 after revelations of bribery by U.S. companies—have failed to prevent this movement of money from corporate accounts to private ones. And it reveals that oilcompanies around the world devote millions of dollars to influencing international policies toward the countries where they pump oil, often attempting to block the efforts of first world governments to sanction Third World countries where corruption flourishes and bloody conflicts rage.
Angola is certainly not unique as a country where conflict and corruption are fueled by petroleum dollars. In Sudan, where oil revenue from Chinese, Canadian and Malaysian petroleum companies reportedly doubled the government’s defense budget between 1998 and 2000, government forces have been accused of displacing tens of thousands of villagers to make way for oil concessions, often by bombing villages, burning homes and killing resisters. In 1993, Shell Oil became the focus of an international boycott when activist Ken Saro-Wiwa led thousands of Nigerians to protest the oil industry’s impact on Nigeria’s environment and culture. The late dictator Sani Abacha had Saro-Wiwa and seven other activists hanged for their temerity. Abacha is accused of stealing some $3 billion in state revenue during the five years he ruled Nigeria, money which that country’s current government is now trying to extricate from Swiss banks. And attempts by the newest petroleum hot spot in West Africa, Equatorial Guinea, to enter into an IMF loan program were put on hold by the institution out of concern for the government’s “lack of fiscal discipline and transparency.”
Some oil companies contribute to the problem directly by hiring corrupt government militaries to provide security for their operations. In Indonesia, Mobil Oil admitted to supplying food, fuel and equipment to soldiers hired to protect oil installations. The soldiers were later implicated in massacres in the breakaway province of Aceh and reportedly used Mobil’s equipment to dig mass graves, though Mobil denied knowledge of any abuses. In June 2001, the U.S.-based International Labor Rights Fund filed suit against ExxonMobil (the corporation formed of the merger between Exxon and Mobil) on behalf of Aceh villagers who suffered abuses at the hands of these soldiers. A similar situation occurred in Burma, where the ruling military junta is so brutal that nearly all foreign investment has pulled out of the country. In 1995, a Unocal official admitted not only to hiring Burmese troops to protect two natural gas pipelines but to supplying them with intelligence such as aerial photographs; a California court recently gave the go-ahead to a 1997 lawsuit filed against Unocal by Burmese citizens seeking compensation for the abuses they suffered by soldiers working for the company. Unocal has denied culpability. Unocal’s French partner, Total Oil, hired its own Burmese troops and supplied them with food and trucks, according to human rights groups and media reports.
Oil companies insist their job is to pump oil and not get involved in the politics of the countries where they do business. “The problem is that the good Lord didn't see fit to always put oil and gas resources where there are democratic governments,” Vice President Dick Cheney remarked in 1996 when he was the CEO of the global oil services giant, Halliburton Company. But in countries with unstable governments, rebel insurgencies, and widespread corruption, such official distance can be hard to maintain.
‘Turning a Blind Eye’
The motor of Angola’s economy floats 100 miles off Africa’s Atlantic coast on a ship the size of a football field. Rigs rise hundreds of feet in the air from a steel platform moored to the ocean floor 440 feet [1,360 meters] below by steel chains and flexible pipes that suck oil from the sea bed into the ship’s gigantic hull. Costing $2.6 billion, the ship that pumps oil from the Girassol field (Girassol is the Portuguese word for sunflower) is the biggest and most expensive of its kind, capable of storing 2 million barrels of oil, housing 140 people and generating enough electricity to light a city of 100,000.
Since the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks, Western corporations and governments alike have sought supplies of crude oil beyond the Persian Gulf. Already, one in every seven barrels of oil that the United States imports comes from Africa, and that figure will likely increase as the United States continues to diversify its oil sources, especially following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. By 2015, a report by the National Intelligence Council predicted, a quarter of all the oil America imports will come from West Africa. Angola will be one of the prime beneficiaries of that diversification. The country lies on the southern curve of the Gulf of Guinea, anchoring an oil-rich geologic shelf running across the Atlantic from Brazil that has turned Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon into major crude exporters.
Angola’s oil resources were first developed in 1956 when the country was a colony of Portugal, which ruled Angola until 1975. Immediately after the Portuguese pulled out of Angola, an armed struggle for control of the country flared among the Marxist-based Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the Front for the National Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and the National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The MPLA managed to establish a functional government in Luanda and in 1976 created a national oil company, Sociedade Nacional de Combustiveis, known as Sonangol, to manage the burgeoning oil industry. From the start, Sonangol’s revenue was appropriated as a war chest to fund the long fight against UNITA, which was funded by sales from diamonds and timber as well as South Africa’s apartheid regime and the U.S. government. The FNLA, the MPLA’s other rival, had disintegrated as a movement by the late 1970s.
The war barely touched Angola’s oil production, largely because the bulk of the reserves are offshore. Angola produced an average of 742,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) in 2001. The massive Girassol field, which began producing oil in December 2001, boosted that figure to 860,000 in January 2002, and is projected to increase Angola’s output to nearly 1 million bpd by the end of 2002. As more fields begin producing, oil industry analysts expect Angola to reach 2 million bpd by 2007, generating up to $14 billion annually for the Angolan government.
Oil provides the bulk of the Angolan government’s revenue; in 2002, oil money will account for more than 90 percent of Angola’s $5 billion budget. The government has traditionally devoted a large portion of its budget to military spending, ranging from 27 percent to 41 percent between 1995 and 1999. The combined spending on health and education accounted for less than 11 percent during the same period. Yet the same 1978 law that established Sonangol names Angola’s people as the sole owners of its petroleum.
The cause of this gap between resource wealth and terrestrial poverty, familiar in many oil-producing states, is the topic of much study and debate. Angola has fallen prey to a common ailment of oil-rich countries in which they become over-reliant on mineral wealth and fail to develop other sectors of their economy. However, its government has also earned a reputation as one of the world’s most corrupt, with its lopsided military spending, budgetary mismanagement and resistance to external supervision. The IMF discontinued a program designed to prepare the country for debt-relief structuring in August 2001 after Angola failed to meet benchmarks like lowering inflation and increasing fiscal transparency. In July 2001, Médecins Sans Frontières released a damning report accusing the government and UNITA of “turning a blind eye to the obvious, serious and often acute humanitarian needs of the
By the late 1980s, the Angolan government’s fight against UNITA had become so costly that it began racking up debt from foreign lenders it couldn’t pay back. The resulting poor credit ratings, combined with exploding inflation, gutted the country’s economy and central bank. To maintain foreign investment, the government opened up a series of bank accounts outside Angola as a safe arena in which to conduct business, said Sonangol CEO Manuel Vicente. A complex system of offshore accounts and trusts emerged that allowed oil money to move directly to foreign creditors without passing through the government’s budget or banks, according to Global Witness, a London-based advocacy group that examines conflicts linked to natural resources.
Those with experience in Angola, from business executives to workers with non-governmental organizations to members of Angola’s opposition parties, acknowledge the system’s existence. However, the diplomatic and business worlds have been loathe to raise their voices in protest because of their stake in Angola’s oil wealth. Even financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank avoid direct implication of the Angolan government in their reports, pointing out in private that their agencies are tasked with restructuring economies, not investigating them. Yet all acknowledge the system’s draining effect on the country’s economy.
In 2000, the IMF asked Sonangol to conduct an analysis, or “diagnostic,” of its accounting practices, one of a list of benchmarks the government had to meet in order to qualify for the debt-restructuring program. The accounting firm KPMG, which won the contract for the diagnostic, was tasked with comparing payment records and production figures for 1999 and 2000 to government budgetary figures. The diagnostic did not, however, examine how past revenue was spent; in fact, the government of Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos insisted that the diagnostic extend no further back than fiscal year 1999. It is up to the Angolan government whether the diagnostic’s July 2002 final report will be released to the public. Two interim reports have been kept confidential. “We're trying to work out where all this money is going,” an accountant familiar with the diagnostic told ICIJ. “Most or all of the money goes to offshore bank accounts and disappears somewhere. (Sonangol) is bypassing the central bank, dollars are going outside the purview of the bank, and the bank is not aware of what’s going on.”
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