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Give War a Chance: the Life and Times of Tim Spicer

by Pratap ChatterjeeSpecial to CorpWatch
June 9th, 2004

Tim Spicer was driving around Vancouver, Canada, with Rakesh Saxena, an Indian-born Thai businessman one day in the summer of 1997, when his companion stopped at the local police station to "check-in."

Saxena had invited Spicer, an ex-member of the Scots Guard, an elite regiment of the British military, to talk about some diamond and bauxite concessions he had invested in Sierra Leone. One year prior, a coup had deposed President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, and Saxena wanted to hire a private military company to help him recover his mining concessions.

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"It transpired that the Thai government were trying to extradite him from Canada to face charges of embezzlement, and while the deportation order was pending he had had to surrender his passport and check in with the police every day," wrote Spicer in his autobiography, "An Unorthodox Soldier."

"It was beginning to appear that Mr Saxena had a somewhat questionable reputation in some of his dealings with national governments. You meet a lot of strange people in this business, (but) Saxena was not a proven villain," he added.

Strange or villianous, Tim Spicer's business partners over the years, have found themselves in hot water from Canada to Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe, although he has always somehow managed to avoid prosecution.

Weeks after the driving trip, Saxena's problems got worse - he was arrested with a false passport belonging to a dead Serbian - and put in jail for trying to flee the country, but Spicer, who was the chief executive officer of a British military company called Sandline, went ahead with the project with the $1.5 million that Saxena had helped him get.

"There were 35 tons of military hardware in the belly of the Boeing 727 as it came in to land. The aircraft was operated by Ibis Air, a familiar sight in the war zones of the dark continent. The cargo doors opened and Nigerian troops unloaded crates of AK-47 assault rifles," wrote Nicholas Rufford in the Sunday Times. "For Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer, a former Guards officer turned freelance adventurer, the moment for action had arrived."

In addition to the Bulgarian guns and ammunition that Sandline shipped to Kabbah's forces as well as trained some 40,000 militia fighters, the Kamajors or "hunters," in collaboration with the Nigerian army, which then successfully toppled the government in March 1998.

At least 200 people, many of them civilians, were killed when local militia men and Nigerian military forces drove out a military leader who had seized power. Missionaries and other Europeans were held hostage and thousands of civilians fled the fighting.

The Vancouver Sun says that many Canadians were shocked that someone who was the subject of an extradition hearing could plot coups in Third World countries, but Saxena coolly noted there was nothing in the terms of his bail that prevented him from engaging in such dealings."Obviously, if the Canadian government passes a law saying it can't be done, then it can't be done," he told the newspaper.

For Spicer, who has served the British government in at least two major occupations (the Falklands and Northern Ireland), the job was also not ethically troubling. (He claims that he was unaware that it was specifically illegal under British law and United Nations resolution 1132 to supply arms to the Kabbah supporters.)

"Sandline has five basic operating principles: we only work for legitimate governments, we will do nothing illegal, even for those governments; we will do nothing against key Western nations' foreign policies; we apply First World standards to all our military work, including respect for human rights; and we ensure client confidentiality," says Spicer in his autobiography.

Spicer claims he is in the business of keeping the peace, rather than in out-sourcing war, reflecting on his student days when he had long hair, wore a shirt made out of the North Vietnamese flag, and joined demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.

But over the years, as he learned to soldier in Britain, serving three times in Northern Ireland, a year in Germany, briefly in the Gulf War and finally as a spokesperson for the United Nations peace-keeping force in Bosnia, he realized that he could make a lot of money out of "peace-keeping."

His first stint in this business ended in disaster. Papua New Guinea's former army commander General Jerry Singirok, who initially recruited him to help invade the island of Bougainville, to rescue a copper mine which had been shut down by a local rebellion, says that Spicer first paid a covert visit to as part of a group representing the Australian government's aid agency, AusAID.

Singirok told a conference in May 2004 that Spicer had been able to visit many centers and was "given the freedom to get an overview of the military situation," and even carry out a few dummy runs over the island in a CN35 Casa aircraft.

Prior to the planned assault on Bougainville, there were 85 Sandline recruits conducting training exercises in East Sepik province." When I pulled the plug on 16 March 1997, two gunships armed with missiles had been scheduled to arrive," Singirok said.

Instead Spicer says he found himself staring into the barrel of a gun pulled by a Papua New Guinean soldier, part of an angry group who wanted to know why the government was spending so much money on foreign "mercenaries."

Spicer was eventually rescued by the intervention of diplomats at the British embassy and Tony Buckingham, another ex-SAS man who was Spicer's financial and business patron at Sandline.

Spicer has always been able to get himself out of these political messes but not all his business partners have been so lucky. Simon Mann, one of the co-founders of Sandline who helped ship the Bulgarian arms to Sierra Leone, is currently jailed in Zimbabwe and facing charges of plotting a coup against the government of Equatorial Guinea. He was arrested in March 2004 when traveling through Harare with a group of South African commandos and a stash of weapons in a Boeing 727.

(Mann says he was on his way to guard diamond mines in the Congo but the police say he was working for Eli Calil, a Chelsea-based tycoon accused of plotting a coup to put his friend Severo Moto into power in return for oil concessions in Guinea.)

Spicer officially quit working for Sandline and its associated companies in September 2000 but the company continued to operate until April 16, 2004, when a note appeared on the website: "Sandline International wishes to announce that the company is closing down its operations forthwith. The general lack of governmental support for Private Military Companies (PMCs) willing to help end armed conflicts in places like Africa, in the absence of effective international intervention, is the principal reason behind Sandline's decision. Without such support the ability of Sandline (and other PMCs) to make a positive difference in countries where there is widespread brutality and even genocidal behaviour is irretrievably diminished."

One would imagine that would have been the end of the story but less than seven weeks later Spicer re-appeared in the public eye, with a $293 million contract in Iraq - with some of the very same employees and consultants - Major General Jeremy Phipps and Sara Pearson.