Tthe creepiest, most corrupt country I have ever visited is the tropical African dictatorship of Equatorial Guinea. I was reporting on the 2004 ‘Wonga coup’, in which Mark Thatcher and a bunch of white mercenaries thought they could take over
When Frederick Forsyth was looking for a suitable setting in which to write The Dogs of War, his 1974 thriller about white mercenaries in Africa, he chose this island capital. That was three decades ago, but not much has changed in Malabo since. Beneath green-draped volcanic slopes, 200-year-old Spanish cannon still guard the palm-fringed harbour and the damp-stained shopfronts. An air of “malarial lethargy”, VS Naipaul’s phrase, still prevails.
But look out to sea from the terrace of the Bahia Hotel, where Eddie the Eel practised in the comma-shaped swimming pool, one of only two on the island, for his moment of glory at the Sydney Olympics, and there is a sight Forsyth would not have seen. At night, the horizon glows red; here and there a pinpoint of flame pierces the darkness. These are the flares of the offshore platforms which have transformed Equatorial Guinea into sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil exporter.
When Forsyth was writing, there was little to lure soldiers of fortune to this tropical dictatorship, which consists of a few lush volcanic islands and a jungle-covered strip of the African mainland. Its population of 500,000 subsisted mainly on cocoa exports, so the novelist, who rechristened the country Zangoro, endowed it with valuable deposits of platinum. But the oil is real enough, and it appears to have attracted a band of adventurers who imagined that the 1970s had never gone away.
Languishing since March in the island’s Black Beach prison are eight former members of South Africa’s apartheid-era special forces, six Armenian aircrew and five local men. They are accused of being the advance guard for a coup planned by Simon Mann, a former SAS officer turned mercenary soldier, allegedly supported by his friend Sir Mark Thatcher, Lord Archer and his friend Ely Calil, a Lebanese-born oil trader based in London, who is said to have commissioned the whole operation. He is said to have wanted to put Severo Moto, an exiled Equatorial Guinea opposition politician, in power in exchange for favourable oil deals.
Apart from Mr Mann, who is in Zimbabwe awaiting sentence for illegally attempting to buy arms, all have denied having anything to do with the affair. But in Equatorial Guinea, unaccustomed to world attention, the alleged involvement of internationally known figures in a conspiracy against it is more exciting than anything else that has happened since the Spanish loosened their colonial grip in the 1960s. Not only is there an English lord whose book sales outstrip even those of Frederick Forsyth, but the Iron Lady herself is now reported to have put up bail for her son, who has been under house arrest in Cape Town on suspicion of having helped to finance the plot.
Even Equatorial Guinea’s President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, appears to have been caught up by the mood. When the alleged mercenaries were put on trial last week, the death sentence was demanded by the prosecution for their leader, Nick du Toit, who has confessed to his role. The case was moved to a recently built conference centre and the world’s press, normally excluded from the country, given access. On Tuesday, the trial was suspended until the alleged role of Sir Mark and a number of other accused coup supporters abroad can be explored. The judge said yesterday it would resume in 30 days, but Mr Obiang summoned the foreign press for what turned out to be little more than an opportunity for him to be photographed giving them an audience. The men on trial, he said, were “individuals without morals who attempted a crime against our country which would have resulted in blood being spilt”.
The journalists would have welcomed the opportunity to ask the President about his own reputation for spilling blood. Since he deposed and killed his despotic uncle, Macias Nguema 25 years ago – opinion varies on whether he pulled the trigger himself – his opponents charge him with having had several enemies disposed of. There are even claims that he ate the testicles of some, to imbibe their masculinity. But, while conceding that President Obiang permits no dissent, winning his last election by the customary 97 per cent, nearly everyone agrees his uncle was infinitely worse.
As we had dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Malabo, with ample bar girls half-heartedly trying to chat up a couple of grizzled European bush pilots, a government adviser said: “Look, we have had at least five other coup attempts. One of them even involved Moto, but nobody was killed in any of them. The President just kept them in jail for a while, then let the plotters go, telling them to change their ways. Moto went to Spain when he was released.
“This one was different. Simon Mann said they had taken account of the possibility that Mr Obiang might be killed in the operation. That’s why the death sentence was demanded for Nick du Toit, to show the seriousness of the whole business, but the President would never let it be carried out.”
That may be little consolation to the South African, who faces the prospect of months more in Black Beach before he learns his fate, but the oil, discovered in the mid-1990s, has raised the stakes heavily. President Obiang and his clan have always run Equatorial Guinea as a private enterprise, but the advent of American oil majors such as Conoco and Amerada Hess has turned a trickle of agricultural earnings into a torrent of oil dollars.
American congressional committees are said to be upset at human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea, and tales of contracts which provide for oil revenues to be paid directly into personal bank accounts. Oil wealth has given the country the sixth highest income per head in the world, but the delapidated state of the capital testifies that very little of it trickles down. The country has been refused aid by major donors because of misappropriation of funds, and US government reports state openly that the President and his circle control nearly all official revenues.
But in a world where Washington faces threats to its strategic oil supplies across the Middle East, it is not likely to be too fastidious about events in a country few of its citizens could find on a map. Indeed, the US is mulling plans to build its biggest military base in Africa right here. The arrival of American warships, aircraft and service personnel would heighten the already surreal contrasts that exist in Equatorial Guinea.
Hefty oilmen with Texan accents live in isolated compounds with their equally hefty spouses and offspring, while African villagers a few miles away live the way they always have, practising subsistence agriculture and animist beliefs. There, it is said, one can hear dark mutterings about certain omens concerning the President. When his uncle was killed, Mr Obiang apparently took custody of the clan’s most precious ritual object, a skull, which should have passed to his eldest brother. And when his wife had twins – considered an evil event in many African societies – he failed to have the younger one killed. No good will come of it, traditionalists say.
Hearing such tales, and bearing in mind that many of the ruling “elite” are illiterate, must have convinced those plotting a coup that they could not fail. “But just because someone is illiterate does not mean that he is stupid,” the government adviser said. “There was a lot of white arrogance towards black people in this.”
Indeed, the accused conspirators are the ones who look stupid: not only was their security appalling, with a paper trail a mile wide, but they seemed oblivious to Equatorial Guinea’s strategic importance having changed since the 1970s, when it had Cold War ties to the Soviet Union and China. African governments are also working far more closely with each other these days.
As Mr Mann arrived at Harare airport to meet a planeload of former soldiers arriving from South Africa, the government of Zimbabwe, tipped off by South African intelligence, was ready. Equatorial Guinea was warned after the arrests, and rounded up Mr du Toit and his co-accused. Britain and the US were also aware of what was happening; a source in Malabo said American oil workers had been told to stay in their compounds the night the mercenaries were supposed to go into action.
Equatorial Guinea has pointed no fingers at London or Washington, but government sources have accused the right-wing former government in Spain, ousted in the election later in March, of complicity in the plot. Rumours persist that Spanish warships, with commandoes, were in the vicinity of Equatorial Guinea at the time, only to sail away when the coup fell apart.
As for Mr Moto, the putative beneficiary, he was lucky not to have ended up in Black Beach with Mr du Toit and the rest. A light aircraft with two South African pilots had taken him as far as the Canary Islands on his way back to Equatorial Guinea. From there, the plane was supposed to refuel in Mali and continue to Malabo, landing just after Mr Mann and his men had arrived. What saved Mr Moto from testing the quality of President Obiang’s mercy a second time was a motor race being held on the runway at Las Palmas. It delayed his departure from the Canaries, and when the plane landed in Mali the pilots were warned by a text message that Mr Mann’s aircraft and everyone aboard had been seized in Zimbabwe.
Equatorial Guinea has launched a High Court action in London, accusing Greg Wales, a British businessman, of being involved in the plot. South African newspapers say they have found registration records which show he stayed at a hotel in Las Palmas with David Tremain, a South African businessmen, at the same time as Mr Moto and the two pilots. Mr Wales and Mr Tremain deny involvement.
For President Obiang, who is used to being treated somewhat circumspectly by other African leaders, let alone the rest of the world, the unfolding saga is a windfall as welcome as the oil under his country’s seabed. The value of the unexpected gift increases with every revelation and allegation, particularly if it concerns someone as famous as Sir Mark Thatcher.
And since the former Prime Minister’s son is not due to appear in court until November, there is little risk of interest fading. The only people for whom this is not good news is Mr du Toit and his colleagues in Black Beach.