KELA KAPKORA SIL BOLKIN | Supported by the Phil Fitzpatrick Writing Fellowship
Brigadier-General Jerry Singirok, the army chief, denounced the Sandline deal and called on Sir Julius Chan to resign. So Sir Julius sacked him.
But the PNG Defence Force refused to cooperate with his replacement. Brigadier-General Singirok retained the support of the 4,700 members of PNG’s army.
All these events unfolded when I was a first year student at the University of Papua New Guinea.
The PNGDF soldiers made a new home at the university’s Forum Square. The university students and the soldiers unanimously opposed Sir Julius hiring the mercenaries to flush out the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
The police force was true to its constitutional duty and tried its best to protect the lives of civilians as well as public property and assets. But there were a couple of instances where the police and the defence force soldiers came close to firing shots at each other.
At the beginning of their protest, the students and the soldiers shared food from the university mess. This show of solidarity and camaraderie was consistent with the traditional PNG way of preparing for tribal warfare.
There were five defence force officers heading the protest: Major Walter Enuma; Captain Bola Renagi; Captain Belden Namah; Lieutenant Michael David; and Second Lieutenant Linus Osaba.
These soldiers played a crucial role in stopping the mercenaries from going to Bougainville to kill and murder the BRA fighters.
Every time Namah took the podium in his full military regalia to deliver a speech he looked like the Napoleon Bonaparte that we had read about in history books.
He could truly talk and had the students, the soldiers and everyone standing on their toes with their adrenaline soaring.
That was the first time I had heard and seen Namah, albeit from a distance. At the time I didn’t realise he would end up where he is now.
Civilians living in the various settlements in Port Moresby inundated the Waigani campus to show their support for the students and soldiers.
A couple of government vehicles were stolen and driven into Forum Square and burnt as a warning to the Chan-Haiveta government about what to expect if they sent the mercenaries to Bougainville.
Over the next two or three days the student leaders used rhetoric and demagogy to maintain the momentum of the protest.
Some dissenting students who claimed that the leaders were using the crisis for their own means were harassed. So were students who didn’t get involved in the protest and tried to attend normal classes.
Fearing intimidation, they refrained from school work and sat at Forum Square listening to the student leaders talking about Tiananmen Square and the liberation movements in Latin America and Africa.
People like Fidel Castro, Che Ernesto Guevara, Nelson Mandela, Hugo Chavez and other revolutionaries were hailed and used as examples of the approach needed in the crisis.
Few of the civilians, students and soldiers had an understanding of the nature and rationale of the deal signed by the Chan-Haiveta government with Tim Spicer of Sandline International. They only had the opportunity to hear the side of the story espoused at the UPNG Forum Square.
The two daily newspapers were burnt or destroyed if they reported on the advantages of the deal to have the mercenaries eliminate the BRA.
The organisation Melanesian Solidarity (MelSol) was part and parcel of the protest and was very vocal. Jonathan Baure, Peti Lafanama and Powes Parkop were some of the leaders of MelSol and made names for themselves during the crisis. Some student leaders like Tom Olga and David Arore also became well known because of the crisis.
In the 1997 national general election many of the MelSol and student leaders stood for election in their various provinces. They thought that they had made themselves popular enough during the crisis to get elected.
But in the end only one of them, Peti Lafanama, was successful and joined the other new faces, like the late Fr Robert Lak, in parliament.
During the protest, students, soldiers and the general public, and various opportunists, slept outside both the northern and southern gates of National Parliament demanding that the Chan-Haiveta government tear up the deal with Sandline International.
Eventually the 40 Sandline mercenaries were sent packing from Port Moresby and never set foot in Bougainville nor fired a shot there.
Sir Julius Chan resigned on 26 March 1997 taking with him his deputy, Haiveta, and defence minister.
After the crisis, the law took its course. Namah was tried for mutiny, convicted and gaoled in late 1997 with all his fellow officers except Major Walter Enuma. Namah was locked away, nobody heard of him again and he seemed to have faded into the abyss of history.
Around 11 September 2001 when the Islamic militant group al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger jets and crashed them into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, I was granted permission by the then CIS Commissioner Richard Sikani to carry out a 10-week research program looking into prison rehabilitation at Bomana gaol.
He introduced himself and it quickly dawned on me that he was one of the soldiers that had led the Sandline protest. He was living in the European compound with a couple of the other officers implicated in the mutiny.
There were also a couple of policemen, a Fijian and two Chinese who had been involved in various crimes ranging from murder to felony. Namah was very obviously the leader among the prisoners in the European compound and he had secured a freezer, decent beds and a TV for his fellow inmates.
For the next 10 weeks, Namah and I met at the Bomana main compound library for lunch. Whilst munching on our brown rice and tinned fish we discussed socio-economic and political issues affecting Papua New Guinea.
Through our discussions, I came to realise that he knew all the factions in the PNG Defence Force and which politicians they were affiliated with. He was also aware of all the major white collar crimes and embezzlement taking place from the public coffers and would strenuously condemn these crimes.
“This country is a land of milk and honey and I want to become the prime minister one day and save this country from both illegal and legal exploitation of our wealth and diversity.
“We are too polite to foreigners and that in itself is setting ourselves up for ambush by greedy foreign corporate organizations who are obsessed with profits, cheap labour and compliant markets. PNG’s interest is the last thing on their priority list,’ Namah said.
I listened attentively but at the back of my mind I was wondering how a helpless prisoner could get out of prison and give birth to his dreams and aspirations.
We became well acquainted and every time I went to the main compound he greeted me as ‘Angra’.
I tell you, Namah can talk and talk on any issue with vigour and conviction.
Every week when I entered the Bomana CIS I brought the two daily newspapers for Namah to read. He would read through them making comments on all the political rhetoric and grandstanding by politicians and corporate organisations.
He had an opinion on how it could all be done better with less cost, or no cost, to catalyse hugely successful results and impacts.
I was impressed with his ideas but deep down in the bottom of my heart I was underestimating him and was sure that he would die without realising his dreams, not least because of his prisoner status.
Then in 2003 the news was splashed on the front page of both dailies that Namah had been granted parole for his part in the Sandline Crisis. He quietly returned to his Bewani Forest like Robin Hood did to Sherwood Forest in English folklore.
I don’t know what he did between 2003 and the eve of the 2007 national general elections.
In 2007 he stood for the Vanimo Green River Open seat and won. He returned to tackle his arch enemies at the Waigani Haus Tambaran (Parliament) and the Galleries of Justice.
From that point on, all is familiar and we all know he helped oust Sir Michael Somare’s nine-year old government and install Peter O’Neill as prime minister. He landed in the deputy prime minister’s seat.
With the connections he had, he cooled and contained the mutiny by Defence Force soldiers supporting Somare. He also combed the Supreme Court building looking for the chief justice.
If Namah is still the same guy that I became acquainted with at the Bomana prison in 2001 then I feel that one day he will climb the remaining couple of stairs to reach the apex.
I also believe that his prison dream of becoming prime minister one day will also unfold.
You and I know that PNG is the land of the unexpected. Let us wait and see if this prophecy of mine becomes reality.
We all know the adage, ‘Where there is the will, there is the way’. It is also useful to remember that other adage, ‘All great visions are reached in stages.’ Caveat!