Take a third world country, mix in the conspiracy to overthrow a political leader, the celebrity involvement of Sir Mark Thatcher, the blunderings of an over-privileged British mercenary, and suddenly you have a tale worthy of the world’s attention. The Simon Mann story has only began to unfold, but what has been pieced together so far, is a combination of greed, courage, stupidity, mystery, and high adventure. Let’s introduce the characters of our story.
The Beginning: Equatorial Guinea and Papa Macías
As the Gulf War was winding down, the destruction of the Kuwait oil fields had the U.S. thinking about finding a new, friendlier, less volatile source for oil. The country in question would need plenty of this black gold, non-OPEC, and if they just so happened to be Christian too, that would be the icing over the barrel. One volcanic, dusty, flea infested country appeared to fit the bill rather nicely, Equatorial Guinea (Western Africa).
The Republic of Equatorial Guinea was initially discovered by Portuguese explorer, Fernando Po, in 1471. It remained in Portugal control until Spain received the territory in 1778. Spain would be the primary influence until the small country’s independence was granted in 1968, under pressure of the United Nations. Later that year, Francisco Macias Nguema would become the elected first president of Equatorial Guinea. This would be the only legitimate election this country would experience for the next 40 years.
President Nguema (a.ka. Papa Macías) took control in 1968, appointing himself the President-for-Life in 1972. This was the beginning of his rein of ignorance, neglect, and terror. Schools were emptied, healthcare minimized, water and electricity diminished, citizens tortured, killed, exiled, and imprisoned for wearing a pair of glasses or uttering the word, intellectual. Prisoners’ at Black Beach jail were ritualistically held to the floor, as their skulls were crushed with iron bars by other prisoners. One-third of the countries population was wiped out over a period of just seven years.
A New Leadership with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo
Macías’ nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, was the young lieutenant colonel in charge of Black Beach prison. He saw the opportunity to overthrow his uncle in 1979, organizing a coup d’etat, and had him arrested. Papa Macías’ would be executed and Obiang would take over the presidency with aid from the Supreme Military Council.
In the early 1990s, Equatorial Guinea discovered two oil fields near Bioko Island. Oil companies got word, and it was not long before Obiang was being wined, dined, and treated as if a miniature God. Oil tycoons from the U.S. would fly in, hungry for a piece of Obiang’s 20 million gallons of oil per year, then fly out in disbelief of the inhumanity they witnessed. Over the next few years, Obiang’s regime would be accused of one of Africa’s worst violators of human rights.“This is the sh**hole of the planet,” One unanimous oil executive told Spiegel Online International. “Our bosses hate the corruption, they hate these guys, and most of all they hate the protocol.”
Asphalt parking lots cradling the slew of SUV’s parked haphazardly in front of the air-conditioned office buildings where oil business is done. Beyond these fancy buildings, make-shift homes are built among dirty, smile-less faces. Its not that there isn’t signs of money being spent here, just not where it is needed (education, water, electricity, healthcare, etc.). The executives are told to keep their mouth shut or they will find themselves on the first plane back to America. Those who criticize Obiang’s regime end up in jail, or much worse!
Our Anti-Hero: Simon Mann
No story would be complete without a hero, or in this case, an anti-hero. Simon Mann was a spoiled, rich kid, heir to a brewing fortune by his father, who had been an English cricket captain in the 1950’s. He was well on his way to becoming a fat cat in privileged society. He attended the prestigious Eton private school, Sandhurst military academy, becoming a member of the Scots Guards, and finally achieved the title of Commander for the SAS (a special forces unit). Before the age of 30, he left the military after serving in Germany, Ireland, Cyprus, and Central America. His new job would be providing muscle (bodyguards) to the wealthy and elite.
There was good money in selling muscle ($50 to $100 million/year), but Mann and his adventurous heart was always looking for the next big thing. In 1990, he founded the company, Executive Outcomes, which offered strategic advice and armed protection (mercenaries) to businesses operating in danger zones. He would later establish another security firm, Sandline International, which is believed to be linked to the Sierra Leone Civil War over democracy.
Mann was no stranger to African wars when he was approached by the London-based, billionaire oil tycoon, Ely Calil (codename: “Smelly), in 2003. According to Calil, he approached Mann to put in touch with the exiled politician, Severo Moto, with the intention to bring him safely to Equatorial Guinea. What Mann claims, however, is that Calil was meeting with Mann to discuss the possibility of organizing a coup that would overthrow the president, and make everybody “a little money.” In translation, Mann and his merry group of investors stood to make “a large splosh of wonga” (a.k.a. “millions”).
Calil would take Mann to Madrid for a meeting with Moto, who would later deny having any knowledge of the coup. Mann, however, would claim that he and Moto sat down and discussed assassinating Obiang to bringing Moto into power. In return, Moto would promise Mann $15 million, immunity from prosecution, a diplomatic passport, and 30 percent of all Obiang’s U.S. capital that could be tracked down. A very large splosh of wonga, indeed.
Behind the Scenes of the Coup
The plan was simple, send in a troop of mercenaries to assassinate Obiang (through guerrilla warfare or gulf invasion), have Mann (codename: “Captain F”) back in time for crumpets and tea the next afternoon. In order for the plan to work, Mann would need lots of capital. Organizing a coupe with an expert team, providing them with equipment, weapons, transportation (plane, boats), and paid incentive, is not exactly cheap.
While Calil is thought to be the main financier of the project (up to $700,000), Mann thought of his good buddy and close neighbor, Sir Mark Thatcher (codename: “Scratcher”) to finance a good portion of the expenses. Specifically to pay for a small plane to take Moto from Madrid to Malabo. In exchange, Thatcher would receive bragging rights of the coup, and his own share of the wonga.
Thatcher would claim he had no idea what the $350,000 he was handing over to Mann would be used for. Mann claims, Thatcher knew everything, and was elated to be a part of the project. So, what we had here so far, was the brains of the crew (Mann), the brawn (Mann and a band of 64 merry mercenaries), the money (Calil, Thatcher, and several other less known financiers), and a plan (well, sort of).
2004 Coup D’etat of President Obiang
“It was a lousy attempt to overthrow Obiang,” a German diplomat has said in reference to the coup. “They based their preparations entirely on the book by Forsyth.” The plan was indeed based off a good portion of the best-selling book by Frederick Forsyth, The Dogs of War. In the story, the main character, “Cat” Shannon, lead a team of mercenaries to Zangaro (fictitious African country), where they would land by boat, storm the palace, kill the president, and live happily ever after.
There was just one problem, Mann must have read the Cliff’s notes version, as he forgot one important detail. The story states quiet clearly, that landing a plane at the airport with a group of mercenaries armed to their teeth, would look suspicious, landing them in jail (which it did). But there was yet another problem with their secret plan. It wasn’t much of a secret!
During the initial planning, almost everybody knew about the coup, except for perhaps Obiang. Mercenaries have a saying, and that is the victim is usually the last to know. This is especially true if the victim is not a well-liked person. A wake-up call was about to ring forth to Obiang that friendship is only skin deep, especially when billions of dollars of oil lay beneath that friendly exterior. Mann claimed that Britain, Spain, South Africa, and the United States all knew what was about to go down, but did nothing, each for their own reasons.
For Spain, replacing Obiang with a more cooperative government would be a good thing (Spain was never much of a friend to Obiang, anyway). The only key, was Mann would have to hurry to get the job done before the fourth coming Spanish government took its place, as they might not prove as cooperative. The United States stood the most to lose, having the lions share of oil business in Equatorial Guinea. Mann claims that he approached the government with his plan, but they told him they did not want any part of it. They also said, as long as their assets remained intact, they had no problem with it (so much for that friend/ally).
Britain did nothing, claiming the warnings weren’t insubstantial enough, and as far as South Africa was concerned, a new regime might not be such a bad thing for them, either. Considering rumors of the president’s continuously failing health, and his decision to put his eldest son as his successor (a wild card in an already stacked deck of corruption), Moto would be the lesser of the evils.
The Final Days of Reckoning
A group of mercenaries were collected in Africa, told they were going to be protecting a diamond mine in the Congo, and they checked into a hotel in February of 2004 and awaited further instruction. Meanwhile, several weeks before, a former South African special forces commander, Johann Smith, had got wind of the coup and sent out an SOS to the U.S. Pentagon, British Parliament, and South African Intelligence… but heard nothing in return.
The coups first attempt failed due to a broken down AM-12 plane, but after several more weeks of nervous waiting, the coup was back on for March 7th, 2004. With only 60 hours notice, two ships from Spain set sail with 500 men aboard, heading towards the Gulf of Equatorial Guinea. Speculation as to their actual purpose would never be answered, but without a doubt, their presence stated something big was about to go down.
An old 727 was flown in from the United States, and a team of 64 mercenaries boarded the plane. They were packing bolt cutters, pepper spray, and sledgehammers. Customs copied passports of each of the men, but without any further questions about their business in Zimbabwe, the group was off to city of Harare to pickup weapons and ammunition. Things were going smooth… perhaps a little too smooth!
Moto was already on his way to the African dessert at this point, flying in under the radar. He would be ready and waiting to take his place at the Malabo thrown by early morning the next day. When the 727 touched down, Mann was waiting to meet his team at the tarmac. He wasn’t alone, however, as the team was met by a troop of Zimbabwean soldiers wielding 20 light machine guns, 60 assault rifles, 50 heavy machine guns, 100 grenade launchers, and over 100,000 rounds of ammunition. Police swarmed the plane, taking everybody into custody.
South Africa had set the trap, and Mann had fallen for it. It would appear they allowed the team to pass through customs without hassle, so they could be caught red handed in the coup. The group was heavily beaten and taken to a police station where they would be beaten some more. Moto was immediately flown back to Spanish territory. The next day, fifteen more mercenaries were arrested and charged with aiding the coup.
On July 28th, 2004, Mann pleaded guilty to the possession of illegal weapons in South Africa. The Zimbabwean court sentences him to seven years. On August 28th, Mark Thatcher was arrested at his home, while packing to leave. He was charged with financing the coup. On January 13th, 2005, Thatcher pleaded guilty, admitting he may have had prior knowledge of financing the aircraft. He received a four-year suspended jail sentence, a $500,000 fine (paid by his mother, Margaret Thatcher), and he then got out of South Africa for good.
Meanwhile, Mann was sitting in prison, hoping to be released in early May of 2007. Instead of getting off easy like Thatcher, he was extradited to Equatorial Guinea on January 30th, 2008. Mann appealed, but he was secretly thrown into the Black Beach prison, before anybody knew what happened. Mann had finally made his way to his original Malabo destination, but not under his preferred circumstances. Most prisoners end up dying from either starvation (a daily ration is less than one bread roll), disease (malaria, rat infestation), and/or torture here.
Mann was already in need of medical care, suffering from a severe hernia and a bad hip, but Obiang had other, not so pleasant, plans for him (sodomy, skinning alive, cannibalization), but first a trial would ensue. Mann, along with seven other accomplices, were sentenced 17 to 34 years at Black Beach. At this point he began to feel very betrayed by his accomplices, stating they should never “leave a man on the mountainside.” This is despite being warned that if he got into trouble, he was on his own.
Mann, more like a fat cat in high society than a hardened mercenary, did everything he could to stay alive in Obiang’s clutches. This included singing like a canary about everybody behind the plot. He sang about Calil, Thatcher, and the support of both the Spanish and South Africa governments during the coups planning. This would follow the immediate warrant for Thatcher’s arrested on March 28th, 2008.
Mann would then make a statement to the media, claiming he was glad the coup was unsuccessful, and that Equatorial Guinea is not such a bad place to live after all (said the puppet, strung from the puppeteer). Eventually Mann would write to the Equatorial Guinea government, asking for a pardon for his cooperation, which he would receive on November 2, 2009. President Obiang would claim his mercy would come not only from Mann’s cooperation, but Mann’s declining health and need to be with his family. Up to the writing of this piece, none of the principle characters of this plot had been arrested by British police for their involvement in the coup.
Many question remain, such as why did an experienced SAS soldier (Mann) allow himself to be so easily caught? Why were they trying to overthrow a nations leader to take control of his oil supplies?Was it all about the wonga, or were there other forces at work? Unfortunately, it is these other forces, that will keep us from ever knowing the truth, but this story is far from over. With billions of dollars of oil on the line, a corrupt leader still in power, and the main players still on the hot seat, the fat lady is far from singing her last duet with Mann…
(Photo via The Associated Press)