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[Note: Private Eye wickedly mocks, criticizes and investigates the British political and business elite. The magazine has generously allowed me to reprint this review of the The Wonga Coup, the lightweight and much overpraised 2007 book which I referred to in a story yesterday. The review should be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the alleged “mercenary coup” in Equatorial Guinea back in 2004. It’s also fascinating for those who want to understand how routinely journalists get duped by their sources.]

*****

Chaps called Nosher and Smelly, a bloodthirsty black dictator with a penchant for human testicles and crafty Arabs lurking in the shadows – if The Wonga Coup were a novel, it would make Wilbur Smith seem intellectual and politically correct. Slap in a bibliography, list a load of interviewees, pretend it’s all true and suddenly you have a brilliant piece of investigative journalism.

Or not.

In March 2004 a planeload of men were arrested at Harare airport, Zimbabwe, at dead of night. The next day, 18 white people were picked up in oil-rich, obscure Equatorial Guinea. It was, according to the country’s president, a brilliant piece of pan-African co-operation to intercept a deadly conspiracy hatched by white mercenaries and their wealthy backers to steal his country.

Unlike all the other nondescript claims of foiled conspiracies from far away, this was different. The military mastermind of the alleged plot was British, and a posh one at that. Simon Mann was an old Etonian.

Simon Mann: Botcher-in-Chief.

A quick search on the Internet showed their target made Pol Pot appear genteel. As the leaks from investigators and ass-coverers began to flow, all who wrote about the affair dusted off the analogy that it seemed like “something straight out of a Frederick Forsyth novel.”

Newspapers mentioned Jeffrey Archer and Peter Mandelson, who denied any knowledge or involvement. Then Mark Thatcher was arrested in Cape Town. The story of this apparently bungled fiasco, led by a group of greedy ex-public schoolboys against an exotic African backdrop, was irresistible. But was it true and what was it really about?

Insiders point to a web of intrigue and betrayal, in which vague plans to promote the cause of an exiled opposition leader were quickly seized upon by intelligence services in Equatorial Guinea and South Africa to set up Mann and his chums for a conspiracy that was designed to fail. In the process, Equatorial Guinea would have a pretext for one of its regular clampdowns against real and imagined opponents.

South Africa could claim a victory over the private military companies run by apartheid era ex-servicemen marauding across the continent. And the freelance informers, working both for the two countries and with the plotters, could get rich. This is a complex and interesting story.

Unfortunately it is not the account revealed in Mr Roberts’ lightweight volume. Like virtually all the media coverage before it, this is a triumph for the clutch of spooks with an often semi-adjacent relationship with reality on whom it relies lazily but almost exclusively for its sourcing.

Nigel Morgan, informer to South African intelligence and friend to Mann and Thatcher, was “generous to a fault” and provided “a thick file of documents.” His business partner Johann Smith, an informer to – and later decorated by – Equatorial Guinea, also provided “thick folders of his intelligence reports.”

Henry Page, lawyer for Equatorial Guinea, also had “yet more documents and material relevant to the case.” Why were they so generous? Did it suit them, or those behind them, to have the conspiracy presented as dimwitted toffs caught up in a one-dimensional joke?

At one point, apparently, the mercenaries were scheming to lure Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, to the country’s main airport personally to collect six Land Cruisers, at which point he would be detained or shot.

Obiang: Makes Pol Pot look genteel.

“The plan,” according to Roberts, “had much to recommend it.” We are expected to believe that an African leader in power for 25 years (who had shot his way to the throne with the backing of foreign troops and remains guarded by Moroccan mercenaries), at the head of a $6 billion economy and with a family fond of depositing 30 kilos of $100 bills at a Washington bank, would personally rush to the airport on the promise of six Toyotas?

Is it the kind of plan a former SAS officer with years working in Africa would have entertained for a moment? Or is it a fantasy cooked up to see how gullible an earnest scribe could be?

Relying on a series of confessions extracted from two of Africa’s most notorious prisons, where allegations of torture are manifest, does not instill confidence in the reader. One of those detained in Equatorial Guinea has already died in custody, while many of those in Zimbabwe reported abuses.

Simon Mann, and Nick Du Toit, the alleged head of the forward party in Equatorial Guinea, say they were forced to write statements according to scripts dictated by their captors. Both have retracted all the material on which the book is based.

Roberts cheerfully tells tales of the appalling treatment the alleged conspirators received, but – at the risk of otherwise finding he has no account to tell – ploughs on with the contents all the same. But in any case the story is full of holes: the author did not go to Malabo and has spoken to no one in Equatorial Guinea.

Adam Roberts: Pitilessly played by his dubious, self-serving sources.

It is clear Smith and Morgan at the very least knew of a plot months before the March arrests, and had briefed their clients. Earlier still, Nick Du Toit had gone into business with Armengol Ondo, President Obiang’s brother and national security chief, whose job it has been since 1979 to uncover coup plots.

Did Armengol not know of Du Toit’s background as an arms dealer and “private security” consultant? Did Du Toit and Mann think they could pull a fast one on such an official? Why did Obiang initially claim the mercenaries had been arrested in Namibia? Are any of the conspirators to be trusted?

Is Africa easily dismissed as no more than an idle canvas against which an abundantly implausible and distinctly suspect yarn can be spun?

  • Karl Kolchak

    I slogged my way through that book back when it was first published. I had forgotten that the central premise was so thin–perhaps because Roberts’s prose was so clunky that it rendered what is indeed an interesting story almost unreadable.