Shout-Africa Rewind – Equatorial Guinea is a nation, an African country, “… the country lies hidden under the staple,” Adam Roberts wrote in his book ‘The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa’ . But hey no, the country has oil, and besides oil it has human lives.
In looking back at the year 2004, through the eyes of a writer, we at Shout-Afica try to recall and understand events that led to real big man becoming real foolish. In the Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa, Roberts told the story of an attempted coup by international businessmen and mercenaries in March 2004. The aim was not to gain political power, or to help the blighted nation’s poor start claiming some of their country’s riches. The aim was simply to get “a large
splodge of wonga” as one of the plotters called a big infusion of cash. (Surprisingly, the OED says that “wonga” is British, not African, slang.) The plot, for many reasons explained here, did not work, and plenty of the plotters and their henchmen suffered, but it has had some effects on Equatorial Guinea, and also reflects the current larger problems in the economic development of Africa.
Coincidentally Fredrick Forsyth, who wrote The Dogs of War admitted recently, after formerly secret British documents were unsealed, his own role in financing a similar, and similarly failed, coup against Equatorial Guinea in 1973. In some ways, it is a shame that the 1973 coup didn’t succeed; it was less for riches than for removal of the deranged dictator Macias Nguema, who went on for a further six mad years. He was succeeded by his nephew, Obiang Nguema, about whom the best that can be said is that he is not as crazy as his uncle. Torture and death were his ways of getting things done, but he has successfully brought foreigners and oil companies of the west into his little country, which now gets about six billion dollars a year for the very good and pure oil beneath it. The benefits do not go to the citizens, for whom spending on education is less than any country and for whom public health efforts are so stunted that the average life expectancy is fifty years. Obiang did have an opponent in exile, Severo Moto. The old Etonian and former Special Air Service Officer Simon Mann thought that he could put Moto in but run things commercially himself. Such a coup requires plenty of money, and Mann had it, but he was also competent at finding investors who were interested in the potential gains in a regime change. One was Sir Mark Thatcher, son of the former Prime Minister, who helped pay for a rental combat helicopter. Mann recruited black Angolan soldiers and Afrikaner thugs for the proposed action and plenty of armaments and aircraft. The plotters may have thought that South Africa and Zimbabwe supported their plans, but it was these two countries that stopped the coup while the forces were gathering. Hapless mercenaries, 64 of them, were arrested from their airplane in Zimbabwe and were consigned to the maximum prison there, while the rest of the crew were captured in Equatorial Guinea and went to the even worse prison there.
Many of the participants in the coup have been released by now. Sir Mark Thatcher is sure that the retribution extracted against him was revenge against his mother, but he did plead guilty to financing the helicopter. He cooperated with prosecutors, had to pay a fine, became a convict who cannot return to the US, and his marriage broke up. Many of the other plotters struck deals as well, implicating their fellow conspirators deeper, but Mann served a term in jail in Zimbabwe, and was later extradited to Equatorial Guinea. Ironically, the plot helped Obiang, as the US came to the realization that he was at least a known force and could be reliably counted upon to receive millions in exchange for allowing the oil companies to make their extractions. He since visited Washington, and was told “You are a good friend and we welcome you” by Condoleeza Rice. He even made new friends in Spain and South Africa, who have argued that coups would be less likely if he would help the ordinary citizens of his country, but few changes have happened. Among the background villains of this piece are the oil companies themselves, which wash their hands of responsibility to make sure that some of the money they spend goes to causes better than enriching the powerful, and the US banking system that allows those powerful ones to sock away tainted millions. Roberts himself writes,
“It is hardly appropriate to draw sweeping lessons about the whole of modern Africa as a whole from a story of a failed coup in a single small country,” but still, there are so many layers of rot revealed in this often exciting story that it is clear the world should be behaving better.