Coup Attempt in Equatorial Guinea

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"Simon Mann belongs to that class of English ex-public school-boys, 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." -Gwynne Dyer


Overview

Equatorial Guinea, a small sub-Sahara African country made up of offshore volcanic islands and a jungle mainland, is ruled by longtime dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who assumed control in 1979 after seizing power from his uncle, the brutal dictator Francisco Macias Nguema. Equatorial Guinea is also the third largest oil producer in the region and is thought to contain as much as 10% of the world's oil reserves. Obiang has cashed in on the wealth of the nation, a US Senate investigation into the Riggs Bank N.A. in the summer of 2004 has shown, with over $700 million in US bank accounts [1][2].

Time for A Change (Times Have Changed)

Though few would argue the legitmacy and fairness of the Obiang regime, most would surely not want to do business with his son. Upon Obiang's death, which some feared is coming soon, another possible leader of the tiny nation became more attractive in certain circles of the international business world.

Some people talk, other people act. And for over a decade, British-born Watney beer heir, and owner of the Inchmery estate in England, Simon Mann has been one of those who acts. As a founder of one the first PMCs, Executive Outcomes, Mann is known as one with the contacts and abilities for changing the tide of internal disputes in Africa and elsewhere.

Mann was arrested along with 70 others in Harare, Zimbabwe, on March 7, 2004, while the plane carrying the soldiers was making a stopover there to load up with the weapons for the coup [3]. Among those were two owners of Meteoric Tactical Solutions: Hermanus Carlse and Lourens Horn[4][5]., who had shown up a day earlier as an "advance party" tasked with collecting the weapons [6]. Another 19 men were arrested the same day in Equatorial Guinea, 14 of which were foreigners, one a South African arms dealer and EO partner, Nick du Toit. Meanwhile the Spanish-based rival, and leader in waiting, Severo Moto Nsa, was flying back and forth between Mali and the Canary Islands before hearing news the plan had been botched. Having no pronouncement, he returned to Madrid. (1)

About 20 of the soldiers flying to Zimbabwe are former members of Battalion 32, or the Os Terriveis, Portuguese for "The Terrible Ones" as they were commonly known. The Battalion 32 soldiers were formed in 1975 out of remnants of the anti-Marxist forces fighting in Angola. The former SA Apartheid government used these soldiers to fight enemies both inside and outside the country, until they were withdrawn from Angola in 1989 and placed in Pomfret, a former mining town with plenty of asbestos in the air and 125 miles from the closest supermarket. They were disbanded in 1993 by the new government and left in the desert.

Mann was well known to this crew. His partner in Executive Outcomes, Eeben Barlow, had been the commander of Battalion 32[7], and later they were used for operations contracted in Sierre Leone, Angola and elsewhere. The soldiers are experienced, reliable, trained and often very familiar with the terrain in African wars. [8]

A Large Splodge of Wonga

Mann attempted to smuggle a letter [9] out of prison to his family that, among other things, mentioned the serious state he was in. In the letter he writes:

  • "Our situation is not good and it is very urgent. They [the lawyers] get no reply from Smelly and Scratcher [who] asked them to ring back after the Grand Prix race was over! This is not going well."
  • "I must say once again: what will get us out is major clout. We need heavy influence of the sort that Smelly, Scratcher, David Hart and it needs to be used heavily and now. Once we get into a real trial scenario we are f****d." [Apparently Mann will not spell out a curse word on paper]
  • "It may be that getting us out comes down to a large splodge of wonga! Of course, investors did not think this would happen. Did I? Do they think they can be part of something like this with only upside potential, no hardship or risk of this going wrong? Anyone and everyone in this is in it - good times or bad."[10][11]

Scratcher Mark Thatcher

Shortly after 7 a.m., August 25, 2004, South African police showed up at former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's son's house, Mark Thatcher, in the upscale suburb Constantia of Cape Town. Mr. Thatcher was awake and packed before he was arrested and taken into custody. On August 30 he was put under house arrest on a £167,000 bail and all his traveling papers were confiscated.

Thatcher has a shakey history himself. He was accused of arms trafficking in the eighties while his mother was the PM of England; he settled a civil racketeering lawsuit in the US for an undiclosed sum; he has faced charges from the US IRS for his role in a Dallas-based security company that went bankrupt [12] (2); and he most likely took a large commission on a construction project in Oman that was likely steered by his mother's influence [13][14].

Thatcher has been charged with violating the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act in South Africa, and he has also been subpoenaed by Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla at the request of the Equatorial Guinea government, compelling him to answer questions regarding his alleged part in financing the coup. He fought the order confidently, but lost in court on November 24, 2004, and will have to answer a series of questions on the coup attempt [15][16].

His lawyer, Alan Bruce-Brand of Webber Wentzel Bowens has filed an appeal to the ruling, which ordered Thatcher to start answering questions the next day, and the hearing has been postponed until February 18, 2005. His trial had been post-poned until April 8, 2005, to allow prosecutors to piece together the investigation which includes confusing relationships between businesses, rebels and high profile players [17].

Thatcher has claimed he thought his investment of £140,000 was for an air ambulance in a business deal with Crause Steyl. Steyl scoffed at Thatcher's claim, saying, "He knew what was going on. I only knew him in the context of Equatorial Guinea business. I didn't know him before hand." [18]

It appears Thatcher invested in a company run by Mann, Logo Logistics, via a South African company, Triple A Aviation, which was operated as Air Ambulance Africa by Crause Steyl. Crause's brother, Jaapniel Steyl(Neil), was the captain of the aging Boeing 727 that flew the sixty-seven South Africans into Zimbabwe. The King Air aircraft that was flying Moto back and forth was owned by Triple A as well [19].

On January 13, 2005, Mark Thatcher pled guilty to breaching Section 2 of South Africa's anti-mercenary Foreign Military Assistance Act. At the same time he pled ignorance to the hidden purpose of the helicopters and was able to buy off the five year sentence by paying a half million dollar fine. He received a four year suspended sentence and is now allowed to leave the country where he will head to Dallas, Texas to reunite with his family.

Thatcher said of the fine, "There is no price too high for me to be reunited with my family and I am sure all of you who are husbands and fathers would agree with that."

Later Thatcher would suspect the use of the helicopter would be used in mercenary activity which led to the statement by his legal team, ""Although the helicopter was never used in any such mercenary activity, and in fact did not leave southern Africa, Sir Mark had by then committed an attempt to contravene the provisions of" South Africa's anti-mercenary laws.[20]

On September 18, 2005, it was announced that Mark Thatcher and his American wife, Diane, are to divorce. The 18-year marriage is to end because of an "irretrievable breakdown", the couple said in a joint statement. [21]

Endgame

Simon Mann's trial was much quicker. His comfort with organizing armed conflict and his rush to make this one work got him a seven year sentence in one of the worst prisons in the world. During a review by the High Court in January, 2005, Mann's sentence was reduced by three years. [22]

South African Intelligence had been on to the coup attempt for quite some time and had kept the governments of Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe informed of the plotters actions. The countries involved have commitments to keep each other knowledgeable about trans-border criminal activity. Said an SA police spokesman when arresting Thatcher, "We refuse that South Africa be a springboard for coups in Africa and elsewhere." (3)

Mann had not been able to legally buy weapons in South Africa, which was the motivation for going to Zimbabwe were he made a $170,000 down payment to arm himself from their government's supply. His justification for guarding a diamond mine was flimsy at best, but at that point the governments involved had enough evidence to make the arrests [23].

The lawyers for the defense tried to have the case extradited to South Africa, citing they would not receive a fair trial in Zimbabwe, not known for the best judicial system. The government of Equatorial Guinea tried to have the accused extradited to their country for obvious reasons. South African judge-president, Bernard Ngoepe, rejected any pleas to make a request for extradition. The Zimbabwe government decided not send the accused out of country.

The defendent's lawyer, Alwyn Griebenow, accused Ngoepe of making no less then 22 legal, factual, and evidence related mistakes[24][25], however the defendents did not fight that decision. Said Griebenow about that decision, "I have no proof, but I was told that Mann's legal team did not want to go ahead with the Constitutional Court appeal case against the SA government as they felt it would piss off certain government officials in SA."[26]

On September 10, 2004, Simon Mann was sentenced to 7 years in prison. The soldiers he had brought out of South Africa received sentences of twelve months for violating immigration laws, and the two who flew the plane received sixteen month sentences, one of which was Neil Steyl. Said the magistrate who handed down the sentence, "The accused was the author of the whole transaction. He was caught while trying to take firearms out of the country." [27]

Zimbabwe had refused Equatorial Guinea's request to extradite the arrested, but nineteen still stood trial in the country where the coup was to take place. South African Nick du Toit received the harshest sentence, 34 years, despite claiming his confession had been extracted through torture[28]. Twelve others received sentences ranging from sixteen months to two years. Severo Moto was sentenced in absentia to 63 years in jail while eight members of his government in waiting received 52 years. [29]

Smelly and the Rest

Officials in the British government had been aware of the coup attempt as early as December of 2003. UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw announced that ministers had learned of the plans in late January of 2004. Straw is currently under pressure to explain why they did not inform President Obiang. [30]

While the English government remained silent, others in British society worked towards the overthrow of President Obiang. Ely Calil, millionaire, once advisor to Lord Archer, advisor to the Sengalese president, was accused by the Information Minister of Equatorial Guinea, Agustin Nze Nfumu, of arranging and financing the coup to help his friend, Severo Moto, return to power. Calil, whose connection to illegal payments to the Nigerian dictator are still under review, has retained Margaret Thatcher's PR man, Lord Bell, as well as hiring Imran Kahn to represent him in a civil suit brought against him by the government of Equatorial Guinea [31]

South African sources claim the motivation behind the plot was the future of the country upon Obiang's death. His son, Teodorin, is known for being unstable and was not a favorable option as a future ruler. They feared this could set off a number of possible scenerios within the country which would leave it less fit for profit. Calil had created ties with Moto when oil was discovered, leaping up to 250,000 barrels a day, and the group of conspirators felt a coup would serve the interests of those with financial stakes in the area. [32]

Among others suspected in the coup are Lord Jeffrey H. Archer,strong-arm strike-breaker David Hart, British businessman Greg Wales, and Charles Darrow owner of Logo Logistics. The Spanish government, the CIA, benefitting multi-national oil companies, and even Riggs Bank N.A. have also been rumored to have had a hand.[33][34]

Afterwards

Obiang is among the worst on a long list of African dictators. Dissent is punsihed harshly in his country and the wealth is hoarded by Obiang and his family while a large majority of the nation's people live in poverty. Right up there on the list of Africa's most brutal leaders is Robert Mugabe, "president" of Zimbabwe.

Though the operation was botched and illegal, one has to wonder had the operation been successful, would Equatorial Guinea be better off today? Would the new leader and the ensuing oil contracts with foreign companies benefit the people of the country more than under Obiang?

Who in this scenario performed the greatest injustice? Broke the most important of civil laws? Who and how many have suffered most?

Currently, Obiang is slowly starving to death dozens of those involved in the attempt. Reports have come out from Amnesty International that the men are shackled and restrained from physical activity twenty-four hours a day. [35]

Had the operation been a success, it is doubtful anyone in Equatorial Guinea outside the Obiang family would have complained.

Further Reading

Additional Footnotes

1 Wall Street Journal August 27, 2004
2 Wall Street Journal August 25, 2004
3 Ibid