Papua PM forced to resign as army leader wins their battle of wits

Click to follow
Brigadier General Jerry Singirok has achieved what he set out to when he demanded that the Papua New Guinea Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, resign over the employment of mercenaries to solve the 11-year conflict on the island of Bougainville.

Yesterday, Sir Julius and two of his ministers - the Deputy Prime Minister Chris Haiveta and Defence Minister Mathias Ijape - stepped down to await the outcome of the judicial inquiry into the Sandline contract. The chief executive of Sandline, Tim Spicer, has been subpoenaed to give evidence at the inquiry.

News of Sir Julius's departure was greeted with a huge roar of approval by thousands of protesters and soldiers loyal to General Singirok who were besieging the parliament building. As Sir Julius spoke, an army helicopter could be heard buzzing the building. Protesters cheered and lifted soldiers into the air. Dropping their chants of "Chan resign!", they began to sing the national anthem.

To many, the General is seen as a martyr, his stance one of principle adopted out of concern for the soldiers in his force (the PNGDF) and the "people of Papua New Guinea". But his past actions and early involvements suggest other motives. He was desperate for the capability and morale of his army to be improved. Poorly led, ill disciplined and suffering from a deep-seated malaise over the years of defeats by the rag- tag rebel army, the army was reaching crisis point.

Amnesty International had accused it of human rights abuses and with a general election due, there was increasing pressure for the government to sort out the defence force and solve the Bougainville problem.

General Singirok's attempts to crush the rebel leadership were met by catastrophic failure. Operation High Speed 2, designed to "decapitate the rebel leadership", was a disaster and resulted in the capture of five PNGDF soldiers, who are still being held by the rebels. Furthermore, the $10m (pounds 6.25m) put aside for the week-long operation (one-quarter of the Sandline contract) provoked a public outcry. When the military failed to justify the funds, the government appointed an audit team to investigate. It is yet to publish the results.

In short, the reputation of the General and the army was at its lowest ebb for years.

The first port of call for assistance was Papua New Guinea's old master and largest trading partner, Australia. But Canberra was reluctant to get involved in what it saw as another Vietnam, and - with an eye on public opinion - would not have been happy working with an army with a poor record on human rights and discipline. With no other assistance forthcoming, Sir Julius claimed: "I had no choice but to go to the private sector."

Negotiations began with the London-based security company Sandline International last year in London, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea. As the minutes and paperwork show, General Singirok was a principal negotiator from the start. When talks started to falter over funding, he made a personal representation to Sir Julius to endorse the contract.

Over Christmas and the new year, Mr Spicer completed a strategic assessment, development plan and strategy. It was on the basis of this and the past success of Sandline's sub- contractor, the South African-based Executive Outcomes, in assisting the peace process in Sierra Leone, that Sir Julius gave the deal the green light.

The three-month contract was signed last January and was worth $36m, of which 80 per cent was to be spent on equipment and weaponry for the PNGDF. Sandline's mandate was to provide specialist military training for counter-insurgency teams that would "harass the rebel patrols and deny them freedom of movement", a company spokes-man said. Sandline personnel would also be placed within the command and control hierarchy of the special forces unit.

Three days before General Singirok's "address to the nation" that instigated the crisis in PNG, the first phase of the initial training package was complete.

The reasons for the General's volte-face on 17 March, when he turned on Sir Julius, demanding that he quit and expel the mercenaries, are surprising considering his early involvement in the contract. His claim that he could not see such vast sums of money spent on mercenaries when the PNGDF was badly equipped and poorly paid, strikes hollow when his spending on previous operations is considered. Of the funds paid to Sandline, $28.5m was spent on equipment for the defence force. The $7.5m spent on Sandline for the three-months was less than he spent in a week during High Speed 2.

It is true that the employment of Sandline puts General Singirok into an increasingly difficult position with his own army. Because of the shroud of secrecy over the contract, there was and still is a great deal of ignorance of what part Sandline was to play. Many assumed it was a simple "cash- for-hired-killer" deal. Little mention was made of the equipment and training. To many senior officers not party to the details of the arrangement, the employment of Sandline signified a lack of faith and commitment by the government in their capability.

As commander of the defence force, the General was aware of these problems. He was also aware of rumours that Sir Julius was looking to move him from his position. After two disastrous military blunders, one of which was being investigated for financial irregularities, and with a general deterioration of discipline and morale in the army, Sir Julius increasingly thought of his defence force commander as a political liability. General Singirok was a symbol of what the PNGDF used to be, not what Sir Julius thought it was going to be.

On seeing his position and status undermined and believing that he was about to be moved sideways, General Singirok managed in one deft move to turn the tables on the Prime Minister. He capitalised on the general feeling of discontent in the army and gave his soldiers an opportunity to vent their considerable frustration on the government.