When on my second day in my new office I received a friendly phone call from Lt.-Col Tim Spicer saying he wished to come and see me, it rang no alarm bells with me. The defence industry is full of newly retired military personnel, and we provide military training to governments all around the world. I should confess that I didn’t yet on 6 January 1998 mentally attach the word “mercenary” to Sandline, and I did not connect Sandline with Executive Outcomes during that initial telephone conversation with Spicer.
As Spicer briefly explained it, Sandline were involved in providing security to expatriate companies in Sierra Leone and training to forces loyal to the legitimate government of Sierra Leone. Spicer asked if he could come to see me and brief me on what his company was doing, and I readily agreed. I felt I could do with all the briefing I could get.
The next day I mentioned Spicer’s call to John Everard, my predecessor as Deputy Head, who was engaged in a week’s handover with me. John asked if I was sure I wanted to meet Spicer. He said that as our policy was to avoid further military conflict in Sierra Leone, he had thought it best to avoid direct contact with Spicer, and to have only telephone contact with him.
It had not occurred to me that there could be a problem, and I was a bit taken aback by what John had said. But it would be difficult now for me to cancel the appointment I had agreed.
I thought it through, and decided that I really couldn’t see the moral difference between having a conversation on the telephone, as John Everard did, and having it face to face. Indeed you could sum someone up much better if you could see their body language rather than just hear their voice. I spoke to Tim Andrews, head of the section which included Sierra Leone, who told me that it was indeed very sensitive, but that Spicer had been chasing a contract to train forces loyal to President Kabbah. Tim agreed with my suggestion that we should see Spicer, as we needed to know what was happening. But Tim did mention he believed Sandline were connected to Executive Outcomes. That put me on my guard.
Perhaps I should have researched further. But I was in just my second
day in a big new job. I had 21 new countries to update myself on, involving thousands of pages of material to read through. I worked over a hundred hours that first week. I decided Spicer could wait until I met him. I didn’t particularly see him as a danger to me.
I underestimated Spicer. That was a bad error of judgement. 19 January, the day that Tim Spicer arrived, was extremely busy. We had ministerial briefings and parliamentary questions on Sierra Leone and a consular crisis in Nigeria. So when I was informed that Colonel Spicer was here to see me, it took me a few seconds to recall who he was.
As he was shown up, I asked Tim Andrews to come and sit in with me and take a note of the conversation. You would normally only do this for important visitors – otherwise you would just make a brief note yourself after the meeting – but given John Everard’s words of caution, I thought it was probably wise to have Tim Andrews present. Besides, he knew the subject much better than I yet did.
Tim Spicer was short for a soldier, but well built and exceedingly well manicured and coiffured. His conventional good looks were marred by a slight hooding of the eyes or squint. He wore the thin, inch apart pinstripes that seem to be universally favoured by the British military out of uniform. He smelt of expensive after-shave.
Spicer told us that Sandline now had a contract to provide training to the Kamajors, a militia force loyal to Sam Hinga Norman and currently prepared to fight for President Kabbah. He said that the aim was to prepare the Kamajors for a quick campaign, in support of the Nigerian-led ECOMOG forces, to retake Sierra Leone from the RUF and military junta. The contract covered training and “non-lethal” equipment. Spicer used the phrase “non-lethal” several times, and I took it as his intention to stress that he was not providing weapons and was therefore acting legally.
I told him that we did not favour a military solution and that any armed intervention by ECOMOG would require prior agreement from the UN Security Council; it was essential that any such military action be as quick and limited as possible. The laws of armed conflict and the human rights of civilians must be respected.
I asked Spicer, who was funding the Sandline contract, and why? He replied that he was not free to tell me who was funding it, but that it related to the securing of some mineral assets within the country. I asked him who Sandline were? I had heard that they were related to Executive Outcomes, whose reputation in Africa was not good. Were Sandline related to Executive Outcomes, and was Mr Tony Buckingham involved in Sandline?
Spicer replied that he did not have authority to discuss Sandline’s corporate structure or confidential business matters. He was here to brief me on the wider situation with regard to their strategy on Sierra Leone.
Spicer then said that he had intelligence that the junta may be attempting to acquire Eastern European weapons, shipped via Nigeria. I said that we could ask the Nigerian government to intercept any such weapons shipments under UN Security Council Resolution 1132. I asked Tim Andrews to show him the relevant passage.
Tim Andrews did not have a copy of the resolution on him, so he went back to his own office to get one. He took it down from where it was pinned, on the cork board behind the desk officer Linda St Cook’s desk. He returned to my room and read aloud the appropriate clause:
Decides that all States shall prevent the sale or supply to Sierra Leone, by their nationals or from their territories, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, of petroleum and petroleum products and arms and related matériel of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment and spare parts for the aforementioned, whether or not originating in their territory;
Spicer responded to this by saying that he had understood that the UNSCR applied only to the RUF, and not to the government. I said that this was wrong, and that it was a geographic prohibition covering the whole country.
Spicer then asked whether the prohibition applied to ”dual-use” items, which could have either a military or a civilian application. He gave the example of night vision equipment, which he said could be used by the military or in mining. I said that such “dual-use” items would be subject to export control licensing by the Department of Trade and Industry, who would consult other departments including the FCO and MOD.
Spicer then asked if military items could be exported to a neighbouring country such as Guinea, and then on to Sierra Leone. I said no, they couldn’t.
While it was now obvious to me that Spicer was really considering the potential for himself to export arms to the government of Sierra Leone, I felt that Tim Andrews and I had made it plain that this was not allowed. The language of the Resolution which Tim Andrews read out to Spicer is admirably plain. I was surprised that a former British Army Lieutenant Colonel, who must by training have been familiar with UN Security Council Resolutions in conflict situations and how to interpret them, appeared to be quite so ignorant of the basic rules governing his operations in a theatre in which he was already involved. But I took it that this was because his existing contract covered only training and non-lethal equipment, as he had stated, and he was just making preliminary enquiries about the possibility of expanding this to include arms.
I am quite certain that, when Tim Andrews read Spicer the Security Council Resolution, he did not say anything like “Well, that’s awkward, because the contract we expect to sign does include the sale of weapons”.
It was not only to Tim Andrews and I that Spicer went out of his way to stress that his contract was for “non-lethal” equipment. My first day in the Department had been 5 January, but as is FCO practice I had a few days “handover” from my predecessor who was still doing the job for the first few days. On 5 January John Everard had sent a minute to Ann Grant to say that Spicer had told Everard that his contract would include medical and communications equipment “and nothing higher profile”.
It has been put to me, not least at the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, that I must have realised that a £10 million contract included arms. But in fact such contracts, not including arms, were an established feature of the region. In particular, the Nigerian-led ECOMOG forces which were occupying Liberia, and which we believed might be going on to invade Sierra Leone, received their supplies, training, transportation and logistic support from the United States government via a company called Pacific and Atlantic Engineering. Their role specifically excluded the provision of weapons. Their funding, totalling some US$40 million a year, included contributions from the German and Dutch governments.
I presumed that Spicer was indicating a prospective contract with Kabbah that would be similar in scope to the Pacific and Atlantic contract, and took that to be what he meant when he kept emphasising the term “non-lethal”. [Spicer gives a quite different account of this meeting. See Tim Spicer, ‘An Unorthodox Soldier’, pp198-200]
Nonetheless, I felt worried by my meeting with Spicer. He had refused to clarify Sandline’s ownership, and his repeated questioning on the possibility of sending arms to Sierra Leone led me to think that he was looking to add arms to training in the future. All in all, I had found him not straight. I therefore nipped three doors along the corridor to see Ann Grant, and told her that, having met Spicer, I was worried about his intentions and didn’t trust him, and that I proposed to tell the Department to break contact with him. Ann agreed with my proposal, and I went immediately to let Tim Andrews and Linda St Cook know of my decision.
Spicer later claimed that he informed the FCO at our meeting that he was exporting arms, and that the FCO (i.e. I) gave approval. But both Tim Andrews and I were to make formal, independent statements to Customs and Excise in which we both stated that Spicer had emphasised that he was exporting non-lethal equipment. We both also independently stated that, when Spicer raised questions over arms exports, Tim Andrews read him the Resolution to show that any arms exports would be illegal. John Everard had minuted that Spicer had told him that he was supplying medical and communications equipment “and nothing higher profile”.
Yet much of the media and most of the political establishment preferred to take the unsupported word of a mercenary – that he had told us about supplying arms – against all three of us.
Why would that be?
Well, the Conservative Party saw the “Arms to Africa affair” as their first real chance to hit the Blair government – still only seven months old – with a scandal. They desperately wanted Spicer to be telling the truth and the FCO to have connived at breaking the law, preferably with ministerial knowledge. Conservatives were comforted in this view by the fact that Tim Spicer was a public schoolboy and a former Lt Colonel of a Guards regiment. He was a gentleman, and socially very well connected, with friends in the royal family. Such people never tell lies, while John Everard, Tim Andrews and I were all irredeemably middle class.
This struck me forcibly when I was talking to a friend of mine, an officer in the Ministry of Defence. I told him that Spicer was not telling the truth when he said that I had approved of the shipment of arms. My friend (I believe it was Colonel Andrew Jocelyn, but it may have been another) winced and said “But he’s godfather to one of my children.” To many influential people in Britain, the idea that a senior Guards officer might lie was unthinkable – it struck at the root of their entire belief system.
Support for Spicer from Conservatives was predictable. But I had not realised that influence would be exerted on behalf of Spicer from 10 Downing Street. Our policy on Sierra Leone was to seek a solution by peaceful means. I am sure that was what Robin Cook favoured; I discussed it with him several times. But in No. 10 and in parts of the FCO, particularly the United Nations Department, they were starting to formulate the Blair doctrine of radical military interventionism that was to lead Tony Blair to launch more wars than any other British Prime Minister. [See John Kampfner; ‘Blair’s Wars’]
A fundamental part of this new Blair doctrine was to be the ultimate privatisation – the privatisation of killing. Mercenary troops were seen as having many advantages for quick aggressive campaigns in third world countries. Regular government forces had been configured to fight huge battles against other regular forces. Mercenaries were more flexible and less constrained by regulation.
If you consider what “less constrained” really means in terms of shooting up civilians, it is remarkable that this was viewed as an advantage. Still more remarkably, this policy of military intervention in the developing world had many adherents in DFID, where it was being promoted under the slogan that “Security is a precondition of development”.
The “Sandline” or “Arms to Africa” affair has been presented by its proponents as a noble attempt to restore democratic government to Sierra Leone, hampered by pettifogging bureaucrats. In fact, it was nothing of the kind, but a deeply squalid plot to corner the market in Sierra Leone’s blood diamonds.
I look forward to reading the whole thing.