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Economics

Large Splodge of Wonga

12 September 2004

A Large Splodge of Wonga

By Gwynne Dyer

Simon Mann, heir to the Watney’s beer fortune, graduate of Eton and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, former co-founder of Executive Outcomes, a leading mercenary outfit in Africa in the 90s, currently resident at Chikurubi maximum security prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, believes that “a large splodge of wonga” (a large amount of money) would spare him most of the seven-year term to which he was sentenced last Friday. A number of his co-conspirators apparently believe the same. They just don’t get it.

The conspiracy was classic African stuff: a plane-load of mercenaries flying across Africa, picking up a consignment of weapons as they went, to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny dictatorship that is Africa’s third-largest oil exporter. The money was put up by a syndicate of British and South African investors, the mercenary muscle was provided by British and South African soldiers-of-fortune, and the pay-off would come in the form of cash and a cut in future oil revenues for the investors plus a contract for Simon Mann to provide security for the new regime.

The only problem with the scheme was that the “classic” period in African history is long over. South African law no longer permits mercenaries operating on its soil to hatch plots against other African governments, and the idea that Mann could recruit around eighty mercenaries to overthrow Obiang’s regime without attracting the attention of South African intelligence was just stupid. The police didn’t intervene right away, but they kept everybody informed, including Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe was where Mann planned to pick up the weapons that he could not legally obtain in South Africa, buying them direct from Zimbabwean Defence Industries on the flimsy pretext that his group of mercenaries were on their way to guard a diamond mine in the Congo. The Zimbabweans had been warned, and when Mann’s private Boeing 727 touched down in Harare last March to collect the arms, the Zimbabwean police instead collected all 66 mercenaries aboard and dumped them in Chikurubi prison.

At the same time, another fifteen of the conspirators who were already in Equatorial Guinea were arrested and thrown into an even nastier prison. President Obiang’s exiled rival, opposition leader Severo Moto, whom the plotters planned to put in his place, flew back and forth between the Canary Islands and Mali as the scheme unravelled and finally went back to Madrid.

Even if the coup had succeeded, it would not have been allowed to stand. The old Organisation of African Unity (now replaced by the African Union) declared in 1999 that it would suspend any member whose government came to power in a coup, and there have been determined attempts to enforce the rule. Not all have succeeded, but when the country is as small as Equatorial Guinea and there are white mercenaries involved in the coup, the AU would definitely intervene. It would have been willing to use troops if necessary (probably from South Africa and Nigeria) to undo a coup as flagrantly insulting to Africans as Mann’s.

Obiang’s regime is monstrously oppressive and corrupt (and so is Zimbabwe’s, for that matter): things are very far from perfect in Africa. But the days when small gangs of heavily armed whites could kill African people and even chang their governments with impunity are gone for good. How is it that Simon Mann and his colleagues didn’t notice?

Simon Mann belongs to that class of English ex-public schoolboys, expensively educated but too dim to work in the high end of business and finance that is the preferred career for their brighter contemporaries, who end up, perhaps after a stint in the army, living off their inherited money, their contacts and their presumptive status as respectable people. Except that often they are not respectable at all: some end up as mercenary soldiers; more spend their lives messing around at the seamier end of the business world.

Among the alleged investors in the syndicate is Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose advisers encouraged him to move to the United States when his Middle Eastern business ventures trading on her name threatened to embarrass her. He moved on to South Africa in 1995 amid a number of investigations into his business activities in Texas, and was in the process of bailing out again and moving his family back to Texas when South African police arrested him last week.

Other alleged investors include London-based Lebanese millionaire Ely Calil, disgraced peer Lord Archer, and assorted British and South African-based “businessmen” all of whom seem to know one another, and none of whom you would want to spend much time with. These are the people on whom Simon Mann is now counting to raise the “wonga” that he imagines will free him from jail in Zimbabwe, but he is dreaming.

Even if these were people who would gladly part with large sums of cash to help a friend in trouble (which seems unlikely), money will not get Mann out of Chikurubi prison. Zimbabwe is a corrupt place, but no African government could let a man like him buy his way free. It’s a question of self-respect.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“At the same…Madrid”;and “Obiang’s…notice”)