How new Africa made fools of the white mischief-makersThe days when white mercenaries could walk into small African countries and take them over appear to be gone. The coup plot against Equatorial Guinea, with its cast of old Etonians, adventurers and shady money men, failed because of its leaders' incompetence - and because of a new spirit of co-operation among Africans.
By Raymond Whitaker and Paul Lashmar
29 August 2004
"Things have changed in Africa over the past few years," said a friend of Simon Mann, the old Etonian now awaiting sentence in Zimbabwe for attempting to buy arms illegally. "The days are gone when you could recruit a bunch of moustaches, load up some ammunition and take over a country - especially if you are a white man."
Mr Mann says the weapons were for a mine security operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo; the Zimbabweans and others say they were for a coup in the oil-rich state of Equatorial Guinea. But the truth of his friend's words are evident as the 51-year-old former SAS officer sits in Chikurubi prison near Harare, facing a heavy sentence at his next hearing on 10 September.
In Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, Nick du Toit, Mr Mann's associate, is on trial for his life. And under house arrest behind heavy iron gates in Constantia, one of Cape Town's smartest suburbs, Sir Mark Thatcher is contemplating his future.
The indulged son of Baroness Thatcher got out of several scrapes when his mother was Prime Minister, but there is nothing she can do to extricate him from his most serious trouble yet. The businessman, also 51, has been charged under South Africa's Foreign Military Assistance Act with involvement in financing the coup plot, and faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted. Although he is unlikely to be extradited to Equatorial Guinea - no extradition treaty exists between the two countries, and South Africa, like Britain, refuses to send suspects to states that retain the death penalty - legal officers from there may be allowed to question him in Cape Town.
According to legal statements by Mr Mann and Mr du Toit, a force of mercenaries recruited in South Africa were to fly to Zimbabwe, pick up arms and ammunition and fly on to Equatorial Guinea. In return for $1.8m (£1m) and lucrative contracts, they would help to depose President Teodoro Obiang Nguema and replace him with Severo Moto, an exiled opposition politician based in Madrid. If he was not killed in the operation, President Obiang was to have been flown to Spain.
But how could the politics of a small, sweaty African microstate have entangled such a varied cast of characters? These include not only Lady Thatcher's son but some of her closest former aides, such as Lord Archer, whose friend, the Lebanese-born, British-based oil trader Ely Calil, is named by Mr Mann as the chief sponsor of the coup. (Both Lord Archer and Mr Calil have denied any prior knowledge or involvement.) Add in ex-special forces operatives from Britain and South Africa, not to mention two African dictators - President Obiang and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe - and the story begins to resemble a Frederick Forsyth thriller, a post-modernist Dogs of War in which the "natives" actually win.
And that, an Independent on Sunday investigation shows, is the point. Not only does the affair resurrect the era when white mercenaries attempted to overturn regimes across Africa, it brings back half-forgotten figures from the 1980s in Britain, when a class of deal-makers and influence-peddlers operated in the shadow of the seemingly unconquerable Iron Lady, seeking to turn her grip on the British electorate to profit.
When his mother took power Mark Thatcher was 26, with an undistinguished career at school and in business (see box). There was little reason to expect that 25 years later he would be worth an estimated £60m, with mansions in Cape Town and Texas and a network of business contacts around the world.
Like others, Sir Mark (who inherited a baronetcy when his father, Sir Denis, died last year) did well out of his connection to one of the most internationally admired British Prime Ministers of recent times. But the questions and controversies arising from his use of the Thatcher name drove him first to the United States and then to South Africa. There he made friends with Simon Mann - who owns a luxury homestead in Hout Bay, another up-market Cape Town enclave - Nick du Toit and other former military men using their expertise to make money out of Africa's chronic instability.
Mr Mann appears to be the only person who really knows where all the pieces of this jigsaw fit, who was really behind the coup plot and who is on the mythical "wonga list" of investors. But the whole affair would never have acquired such international notoriety if it were not for the letter he smuggled out of prison.
"Please!" read the intercepted note to his advisers. "It is essential that we get properly organised." It urges them to make maximum efforts to contact "Smelly" - taken to refer to Mr Calil - and "Scratcher", a nickname for Sir Mark. It also names David Hart, presumed to be the same businessman who helped Lady Thatcher break the 1984-85 miners' strike. Mann writes: "What will get us out is MAJOR CLOUT ... once we get into a real trial scenario we are f****d."
On a page torn from a magazine, Mr Mann tells his team to chase up expected "project funds" from investors including "Scratcher" who has the figure "200" in brackets. This has been interpreted as meaning that Sir Mark had promised a sum of $200,000, but gives no indication that it was intended for any illegal activity, and indeed implies that no money was ever actually handed over.
Among the four people to whom the note was addressed are Nigel Morgan, like Mr Mann a former Guards officer, and James Kershaw, a 24-year-old who has worked for both men. Mr Kershaw, who is said to have handled money transfers for Mr Mann's company, Logo, is expected to testify against Sir Mark, according to the Scorpions, the elite anti-corruption unit that arrested him on Wednesday. His evidence may be crucial: despite voluminous paperwork connected with the coup attempt, there have been no reports of any document that carries Sir Mark's name.
But whatever their past friendship, "Scratcher" must be ruing the day he ever met Simon Mann. The former secret soldier is a throwback to the days of empire, a British public schoolboy adventurer prepared to interfere in the Byzantine politics of third world countries. "He is very English, a romantic, tremendously good company," said the film director Paul Greengrass. In his first and only role as a professional actor, Mr Mann played the part of Colonel Derek Wilford, commander of the paratroopers in Londonderry in Greengrass's gritty television reconstruction of Bloody Sunday.
After Eton and Sandhurst, the 19-year-old Mr Mann joined the Scots Guards in 1972, but his daredevil instincts soon drew him to the SAS. A troop commander in 22 SAS, specialising in intelligence and counter-terrorism, he served in Cyprus, Germany, Norway, Canada, central America and Northern Ireland before leaving the Army in 1985.
Although he began by selling supposedly hack-proof computer software, like many SAS veterans he also operated in the security business, reportedly providing bodyguards to wealthy Arabs to protect their Scottish estates from poachers. He remained part of 23 SAS, the Territorial Army section, and briefly returned to the colours on the staff of General Sir Peter de la Billiere during the first Gulf War in 1991.
Security consulting in the Gulf area followed, but his connection with Africa predominated. He was hired by Eben Barlow, a South African, to help run Executive Outcomes, the first of the many private military companies now operating around the globe. Both men rapidly became rich, most notably from a series of security deals in Angola, where Executive Outcomes not only protected oil and diamond fields, but trained Angolan troops and fought Unita rebels. The company also helped the Sierra Leone government fight off rebels in the mid-1990s.
All this gained Mr Mann not only a mansion in Cape Town but Inchmery, a 20-acre riverside estate in Hampshire that once belonged to the Rothschilds. Until recently it was rented out to Dame Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of the Pearson group, owners of the Financial Times. Mr Mann, now a dual citizen of Britain and South Africa, bought the estate through a company registered in the offshore tax haven of Guernsey.
But why should a man past 50, who had earned enough to live in style without ever working again, have become involved in such a hair-raising caper as the Equatorial Guinea plot appears to have been? According to his friends, it was the drug of adventure. One said he had been warned by the British as well as the South African authorities that he should "hang up his boots", but the ex-SAS man seems to have ignored the advice.
What is perhaps most surprising about the attempted coup is its incompetence. A planeload of obvious mercenaries leaves South Africa, no longer a country which encourages such activity, then lands in Zimbabwe. If the receiving officials were supposed to have been bribed, it had not been done effectively, but in any case the Zimbabweans appeared to have been warned in advance. It took little time after that to arrest the alleged advance guard in Equatorial Guinea, where Mr du Toit is on trial with seven other South Africans, six Armenians and four local citizens. But the greatest folly was the lack of security. Mr Mann's 66 fellow defendants in Zimbabwe, including the 64 men who were travelling on South African passports when their plane was seized, were acquitted on the arms charge, with the magistrate accepting their plea that they did not know where they were going. It would seem, however, that half of South Africa did. Rumours of the impending coup attempt were circulating in Cape Town, Johannesburg and London well in advance.
The paper trail linked to the plot was so extensive that some observers at first believed that they had been faked to make a case. But Mr Mann, it seems, wanted contracts signed for every part of this dubious scheme. Mr du Toit was even required to sign a company-to-company contract to perform his part of the coup. Why the former SAS officer might have wanted such a document is a mystery: it could hardly have been produced in court in the event of a dispute.
That the plot fell apart so damagingly is hardly surprising, given how wide knowledge of it went in Britain as well as South Africa. "What Simon Mann appears not to have realised is that there is much greater co-ordination among African countries, including intelligence co-operation, to put a stop to coups," said one source. "Nigeria, the regional power, stepped in recently to reverse a coup in Sao Tomé, and was ready to do the same in Equatorial Guinea. The fact that the operation was penetrated by South African intelligence prevented a lot of bloodshed."
Britain, as well as South Africa, has changed, but Mr Mann and his friends seemed equally oblivious to that. Gone are the days when operators such as Sir James Goldsmith and John Aspinall, both now dead, sought to convince a Conservative government that Britain's interests as well as their own would be served by backing such Africans as Angola's Jonas Savimbi, also deceased, and South Africa's Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
The two African leaders were promoted as the Christian, anti-Communist alternative to the likes of Nelson Mandela, whom Lady Thatcher once described as a terrorist. But the Conservatives are no longer in power, and Mr Mandela has been welcomed here on a state visit as president of a free, democratic South Africa - facts which appear to have been overlooked by the heedless coup plotters.
The hapless Nick du Toit, a former South African special officer and member of Executive Outcomes, stands to come off worst. He confessed to his role within a day of arrest in Malabo, and has continued to help identify other plotters since. Despite President Obiang's claim that he is not seeking the death penalty, the prosecutor in the Malabo court has called for the execution of those found guilty. The verdicts are expected by the end of this week.
Unless Zimbabwe goes back on its decision not to extradite him to Equatorial Guinea, Mr Mann will fare better, even if he receives the maximum sentence of 10 years. He could well be extradited back to South Africa to face further charges, but some believe that with his rich and influential friends, he could receive a discreet pardon in a year or two, once the dust has settled. He could even be in line for a healthy cheque from Hollywood.
As for Mark Thatcher, he is fighting back. His circle is claiming that much disinformation has been spread to implicate him and distract attention from the real culprits. But his past is troubled, and the proceedings against him are likely to be protracted and messy. Clearing his name could require every ounce of his much-touted influence.
THE MAKING OF MARK
Sir Mark Thatcher never seemed to have anything going for him but his name and his mother's uncritical love.
He is famously charmless and not noted for his academic prowess. He left Harrow School with three O-levels, and left his first job, at the City firm Touche Ross, after failing his accountancy exams three times. But when it comes to exploiting the opportunities afforded by the Thatcher surname, he has graduated cum laude.
Mark and his twin sister, Carol, with whom relations are frosty, were 26 when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979. Various failed ventures lay behind him, including an attempt to break into motor racing, but it was not until he went missing on a rally in the Sahara in 1982, causing his mother much public anguish, that his activities came to public attention.
Two years later, it was reported that he had gained a commission on a £300m deal won by the Cementation construction company after Lady Thatcher had recommended it to the Sultan of Oman. It was a factor in his departure for the US, and he has not lived in Britain since.
In Dallas, Mark met his wife Diane, from a super-rich Texas family, but controversy continued to dog him. He was accused of exploiting his mother's name to gain a £12m commission on the giant al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and hit legal troubles in the US, including a charge, later dropped, of alleged underpayment of taxes.
In 1995, Sir Mark moved to Cape Town with his family, although Diane and the two children are reported to spend lengthy periods in Texas, where they are now to attend school. Apart from a money-lending scheme to local policemen which collapsed amid rancour, his business activities in South Africa have attracted little attention - until now. But he will always have the Thatcher name, with its lustre enhanced on the death of his father last year by an inherited title. Once again, the family has helped. http://news.independent.co.uk/world/africa/story.jsp?story=556261