From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


In 2004, a mix of rich white men and mercenaries attempted to overthrow
the government of Equatorial Guinea. Why? Greed — and boredom.

By Laura Miller / Aug. 17, 2006

“As it is a very lucrative game, we should expect bad behavior;
disloyalty; rampant individual greed; irrational behavior (kids in
toyshop style); back-stabbing; bum-fucking, and similar ungentlemanly
activities.” So reads a cautionary note in the prospectus for what’s
known as the “Wonga Coup.” In March 2004, a group of men with a hired
army of about 70 mercenary soldiers set out to topple the government of
the tiny West African nation of Equatorial Guinea and install a new
one. Ostensibly led by a political opposition leader but actually
controlled by the white mercenary officers, this new regime would
plunder the recently discovered oil wealth of Equatorial Guinea,
enriching the coup’s architects by billions of dollars.

The Wonga Coup never came off, but not because of the kind of
double-crossing anticipated in that early planning document. Adam
Roberts, a correspondent for the Economist magazine and a journalist
steeped in the skulduggery of modern Africa, describes just how this
“improbable escapade” was born and ruined in his new book, “The Wonga
Coup.” One of the strangest aspects of the story is that the Wonga Coup
nearly replicated an earlier failed attempt to take over Equatorial
Guinea in 1973. And that coup had since been fictionalized in a
bestselling book, popular with the mercenary crowd, by Frederick
Forsyth, “The Dogs of War.” A case of life imitating art imitating
life? The truth is even more bizarrely convoluted: Roberts has found
evidence that Forsyth himself financed the 1973 coup. (And Forsyth has
more or less admitted as much.)

Roberts’ discoveries allude to the crazy mirror game that goes on
between real soldiers of fortune and the popular entertainments (books
and movies) that glorify them. There is, as he points out, “a long
tradition of grizzled white mercenaries fighting in Africa,” and they
have often inspired thriller authors. The fighters then, in turn, carry
novels like “The Dogs of War” around with them as props to their
swashbuckling egos — and sometimes as playbooks. Forsyth, at least,
was motivated by a desire to liberate Equatorial Guinea from a
horrifically cruel despot. (The nation’s oil reserves weren’t
discovered until the 1990s.) The 2004 coup plotters made noises about
installing a better leader, but their real motives were “wonga” —
British slang for money — and something less tangible. “It’s fun,”
said one observer. “Some of the guys did it for kicks, because life is

The head man in this band of adventurers was Simon Mann, the scion of a
British brewery dynasty who had managed to parlay their wealth into
class; Mann attended the elite boarding school Eton and rubbed
shoulders with aristocrats at a prestigious gentlemen’s club in London.
He had a yen for soldiering, however, and joined the Special Air
Services (a Special Forces regiment), where his expertise lay in
intelligence and counterterrorism. This eventually led him into those
murky industries that supply military-style services to whoever can
afford to pay for them. One of the outfits he worked with — a company
with the sinisterly euphemistic name Executive Outcomes — was used by
the government of Angola in the 1990s to defend its oil installations
from the rebel group UNITA.

“The Wonga Coup” offers a window into the demimonde of African soldiers
for hire. If smaller weapons can be picked up for a pittance in many
other African nations, South Africa is the place to shop for
mercenaries. Many of them are decommissioned members of 32 Battalion, a
South African army unit that also fought in Angola. Others once
belonged to nasty, shadowy domestic police and army units charged with
squashing antiapartheid movements. These guys tend to live in the same
neighborhoods and hang out at the same bars. The current South African
government frowns on freelance soldiers working out of its territory,
but anti-mercenary legislation passed by Nelson Mandela’s
administration has proved hard to enforce.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these mercenaries are tough, preening thrill
seekers. Among the characters Mann signed up were an Angolan named
Victor Dracula (“I can only say this; I took blood!”) and a fellow
described by a colleague as “a thug, very ugly, a mulatto built like a
brick shithouse. But quite friendly if he doesn’t want to kill you.”
One was nicknamed “The Enforcer” after he broke a man’s arm over a
restaurant table, while a cooler customer ominously described himself
as a “professional hunter and ‘security consultant’ for foreign

Mann, however, represents what Roberts calls “a new sort of mercenary,
the type as familiar with company law, bank transfers and investor
agreements as with the workings of a Browning pistol.” But Mann’s more
cerebral orientation didn’t dampen his appetite for buccaneering
exploits. When the Wonga Coup plot began to run into some serious
setbacks — and at a point when, as Roberts sees it, a more cautious
man might have thrown in his cards — Mann stuck with his plan, “driven
on by a mixture of vanity, the need to recoup his losses and by the
love of adventure.”

Arrayed against rent-a-coup schemers like Mann is a breed that Roberts
calls the “rag-and-bone intelligence dealer,” a kind of freelance spy
who “darts about Africa with a laptop and satellite phone, lingering in
hotel bars, picking up scraps of information where he can, selling them
to willing buyers, whether corporate or government. The more
sophisticated use electronic, online or other surveillance.” If Mann
and his team recall a ripping Forsyth yarn, these figures in “The Wonga
Coup” seem to have walked out of a recent John le Carré novel.

The target in Mann’s plot was a former Spanish colony that, in most
atlases, “lies hidden under the staple.” It had been ruled in the ’70s
by a tyrant named Francisco Macías Nguema, the paranoid son of a
famous witchdoctor and a man rumored to indulge in not only black magic
but cannibalism. He slaughtered tens of thousands of citizens, ruined
the country’s economy and even tried to ban Western medicine as
“un-African,” burnishing Equatorial Guinea’s reputation as a breeding
ground for malaria, yellow fever and leprosy. At the time, one foreign
visitor called it the “Dachau of Africa.” When Macías was finally
deposed, he fled with a suitcase full of banknotes. Then, in the
ensuing battle, the nation’s entire foreign reserve went up in smoke in
a burning hut.

Macías’ successor, his nephew, Obiang, isn’t much better. In 1995,
when the U.S. Embassy briefly closed up shop, American officials called
Equatorial Guinea a “basket case” and “a nasty little dictatorship in
the middle of nowhere.” Amnesty International estimates that 90 percent
of the inmates in its notorious prisons are subjected to “inhumane
practices” and characterizes jail terms there as “slow, lingering death
sentences.” An ambassador who complained about the use of torture was
accused of conspiring with the president’s political opposition to cast
evil spells and warned “You will go to America as a corpse.”

Most corrupt regimes in oil-rich African nations steal from ordinary
citizens, siphoning off wealth that should go to health, education,
economic development and other public services. Equatorial Guinea goes
them one worse, however, being so ineptly managed that it gets some of
the lowest prices for its oil on the continent, despite the high
quality of the product. Obiang, his family and the rest of Equatorial
Guinea’s elites spend fabulous sums on fleets of sports cars and
mansions overseas while stuffing foreign bank accounts with their
ill-gotten millions. Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., was investigated
by the U.S. Senate in large part for accommodating the flagrantly
illegitimate dealings of Obiang and his relatives. Although Equatorial
Guinea has the fastest-growing economy in the world (according to the
International Monetary Fund) as a result of the discovery and
continuing exploitation of its oil, the quality of life there (as
measured by the United Nations) continues to fall every year.

Nobody likes Obiang’s regime, and Roberts makes a good case that some
Western nations may have discreetly supported Mann’s little project.
Spain — which had been shut out of Equatorial Guinea’s oil jackpot and
had harbored the priest and exiled opposition leader Mann wanted to
install in Obiang’s place — almost certainly encouraged the plot. Some
have suggested that coup planners’ liberally funded lobbying efforts in
Washington may have paid off in the unusual ease with which Mann
obtained a Boeing 727 to transport his fighters after his first plane
broke down.

As Roberts sees it, where the plotters really screwed up was in
thinking that South African authorities would welcome what they called
“assisted regime change” in Equatorial Guinea. While it’s hard to
imagine a government that could have been worse than Obiang’s, South
Africa’s leadership understandably didn’t want to encourage the notion
that a few rich white men could hire a (mostly black) army of
mercenaries and overthrow the government of an African state. When they
found out about the scheme, they cleverly arranged for Mann to be
arrested in Zimbabwe while trying to pick up a load of weapons on the
eve of the attack. The members of his “forward team” in the Equatorial
Guinean capital of Malabo, who had been posing as businessmen, were
apprehended as soon as the story broke.

Once the plan was exposed, it soon came out that at least one prominent
Briton had likely been in on it: former Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher’s black sheep son, Mark. Mark Thatcher, variously
characterized by Roberts’ sources as “useful but a complete idiot,” as
“not the sharpest pebble on the beach” and as having “an ego the size
of a herd of elephants and the attention span of a gnat,” seems to have
been a marginal figure in the plot. He contributed several hundred
thousand dollars and leased a helicopter that was never used. Still, he
was a figure the press loved to hound, and South African authorities
relished the chance to use his high profile to demonstrate that they
were serious about their anti-mercenary laws. He ultimately copped a
plea and was fined 3 million rand for his role in the coup attempt. (He
also warned Roberts that if “The Wonga Coup” depicted him as one of the
conspirators, the author would wind up as “Mr. Stumpy.” “That is,
walking around on stumps for legs,” Roberts helpfully clarifies.)

But how did the coup’s cover get blown to begin with? It wasn’t
“back-stabbing, bum-fucking and similar ungentlemanly activities,” as
one of the chief planners feared. Instead, it was arrogance and
braggadocio. “Nobody was discreet,” Roberts writes. “Heavy-drinking
recruits talked in Pretoria’s bars. The leaders held forth in
Johannesburg’s hotel lobbies as if the coup was already complete.” The
leader of the forward team even invited a documentary filmmaker to
accompany them on the mission. “Like many mercenaries, they
evidentially wanted someone to record their deeds,” Roberts observes.
At one point, the coup was being gossiped about in the Spanish media
and openly discussed at a semipublic meeting at London’s Royal
Institute of International Affairs. Authorities that might have made
the best of an “assisted regime change” once it was a fait accompli had
no choice but acting.

The last few chapters of the book deal with the aftermath of the bust.
It was bad for Mann and his associates in Zimbabwe and worse for the
forward team in the dreaded Playa Negra prison in Equatorial Guinea. A
few of them died in jail. Some are still locked up. Others have been
released. Most embittered by the experience are the coup’s foot
soldiers and their families, poor men who took the job under false
pretenses; Mann told them they’d be guarding a mine in the Congo. Like
the ordinary Africans in Equatorial Guinea, they always seem to wind up
bearing the brunt of somebody else’s greed and bad decisions.
Meanwhile, the coup attempt has boosted Obiang’s credibility in the
region — despite embarrassing revelations about his accounts held in
Riggs Bank, he has enjoyed recent meetings with South African President
Thabo Mbeki and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. (“You are a
good friend and we welcome you,” Rice told the reputed cannibal and
known murderer in Washington, D.C.)

Roberts describes the “cast” of the Wonga Coup as “heavily stocked with
rogues and eccentrics,” which does tend to make the reader wish “The
Wonga Coup” were more than just a specimen of heroic reporting. It
can’t have been easy to wrangle over a dozen participants and an
ever-changing plan of action into a coherent narrative — especially
given that we’ll probably never know all the juicy details. (Like: Is
the J.H. Archer listed among the coup’s financers really notorious
British peer, perjurer and bestselling novelist Jeffrey Archer?)

Still, with a story and people this outrageous, it’s a pity that
Roberts can’t write “color.” He can tell you which seat the opposition
leader took on the airplane to Malabo, but when it comes to sketching a
character or generating atmosphere, he’s out of his element; the most
you learn is that a man was red-faced and liked steak or that an
African capital is “sweaty.” Perhaps Roberts opted for a terse,
detailed, procedure-oriented style of prose in homage to the literary
éminence grise of this bizarre tale, Frederick Forsyth, but that
approach only really works when the operation is successful.

The quotes Roberts gets from his sources are what best convey the
strange, cockeyed and appallingly cavalier tone of this “improbable
escapade.” Perhaps the most stupefying remark comes from Niel Steyl,
one of a trio of South African brothers who signed on for Simon Mann’s
“project.” Steyl also wasn’t told much about the operation when he
agreed to fly one of the planes. A brief gig during a vacation from his
cushy job as private pilot for an Indian tycoon turned into a stint in
a ghastly Zimbabwean jail. Still, Steyl holds no grudge. “I would do
something with Simon again,” he told Roberts. “But not for the money,
for the kicks. It’s not ‘Hell, I’m never going to do this again.’ Life
is for living. Sometimes there’s a fuck-up.”

The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless Determination to Create
Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa (Hardcover) / by Adam Roberts

From Publishers Weekly

The most terrifying thing about this chronicle of a failed coup attempt
in Equatorial Guinea is that it’s not a Graham Greene novel but a true
story. Roberts, an Economist staffer, chronicles the plot by foreign
mercenaries and merchants to topple the country’s brutal dictatorship
solely for the “wonga” (British slang for “money, usually a lot of
it”). An irresistibly lurid tale is peopled with bellicose profiteers,
particularly of the neocolonialist sort from Europe and South Africa,
with long histories of investment in oil, diamonds and war-for-profit.
Among these self-styled gentleman adventurers are Margaret Thatcher’s
son, Sir Mark Thatcher, and “rag-and-bone intelligence men” who linger
in hotel bars, “picking up scraps of information… selling them on to
willing buyers, whether corporate or government.” The audacity of the
coup’s planners is almost admirable, though Roberts rightly chastises
them for their oil-soaked greed. As he lifts the curtain to the
backrooms of power in postcolonial Africa, the reader finds that not
much has changed on the continent since 1618, when the “Company of
Adventurers of London Trading to the Ports of Africa” became the first
private company to colonize Africa for profit.

Book Description

Equatorial Guinea is a tiny country roughly the size of the state of
Maryland. Humid, jungle covered, and rife with unpleasant diseases,
natives call it Devil Island. Its president in 2004, Obiang Nguema, had
been accused of cannibalism, belief in witchcraft, mass murder,
billion-dollar corruption, and general rule by terror. With so little
to recommend it, why in March 2004 was Equatorial Guinea the target of
a group of salty British, South African and Zimbabwean mercenaries,
traveling on an American-registered ex-National Guard plane specially
adapted for military purposes, that was originally flown to Africa by
American pilots? The real motive lay deep below the ocean floor: oil.

In The Dogs of War, Frederick Forsyth effectively described an attempt
by mercenaries to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea – in
1972. And the chain of events surrounding the night of March 7, 2004,
is a rare case of life imitating art-or, at least, life imitating a
1970s thriller-in almost uncanny detail. With a cast of characters
worthy of a remake of Wild Geese and a plot as mazy as it was unlikely,
The Wonga Coup is a tale of venality, overarching vanity and greed
whose example speaks to the problems of the entire African continent.

{Adam Roberts is a staff correspondent of The Economist. For four years
he was the publication’s Johannesburg bureau chief, reporting from
Madagascar, Congo, South Africa, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone
and-illegally-from Zimbabwe, as well as from many corners in between.
He has also reported from South-East Asia, the Balkans, Europe and the
United States. A former student of international politics at Oxford
University and the London School of Economics, he is now based in

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