Way back in 1883, King Leopold of Belgium wrote the following letter to a group of missionaries who would travel to Congo. Two years later, Leopold would become the absolute monarch of Congo, a land of fabulous resource wealth and terrible human poverty. He won the agreement of other European states by convincing them that his aims were philanthropic; that he would help the Congolese people. However, he went on to use his rule to enrich only himself.
“Reverends, Fathers and Dear Compatriots: Your task is delicate and requires much tact. You will go to the Congo to evangelize, but your evangelisation must inspire above all Belgian interests. Your principal objective is not to teach the niggers to know God. They know him already.
Your role is to facilitate the task of administrators and industry. You will interpret the gospel in the way that is best to protect your interests in the Congo. To do this, you must make sure to disinterest the savages from the richness that lives under their feet.
If they become interested in it, they will make murderous competition and dream of overthrowing you. Evangelize the niggers so that they stay forever in submission to the white colonialists, so they never revolt against the restraints they are undergoing.”
Leopold plundered Congo for ivory, rubber and minerals which he sold on the international market. To these ends, he enslaved the population and enacted brutal punishment on those who couldn’t work fast enough, amputating the hands of slaves when quotas went unmet. Even at the time, the atrocities provoked widespread revulsion in Europe.
Estimates of the death toll during Leopold’s 23-year reign range from 1 to 15 million. He is one of many European tyrants who has Hitler to thank for the fact that he’s barely remembered and not routinely taught in school. Over 100 years on, Congo is still experiencing the effects of colonialism, while Belgium, flush with extravagant buildings paid for with the proceeds of robbery and slavery, has never apologised.
Flash forward to 2004. Equatorial Guinea – a small strip of land on the continent’s southwestern coast – is fabulously wealthy in oil, while its people are poor. The country’s GDP ranks as 46th in the world – above Portugal – but the average Equatoguinean is on the wrong end of extreme inequality, with about half the population lacking a source of clean water.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is one of the world’s worst. In 1979 he ousted his uncle in a military coup, and has spent most of the time since extracting the country’s wealth for his own benefit, declaring himself the country’s god in the process, with the power to ‘decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.’ The people of Equatorial Guinea resent him.
Obiang is ripe for replacement, if only the right people with the right plan come along, with the best interests of Equatoguineans at heart.
It was out of this opportunity that the failed coup of 2004 sprang, funded by a cabal of British financiers including Sir Mark Thatcher, son of Margaret Thatcher herself.
It wouldn’t be the first time Mark Thatcher had been involved in shady activities. Over his career he has been accused of being a loan shark and profiting from an arms deal between the UK and Saudi Arabia while his mother was Prime Minister.
Irked by Obiang’s unwillingness to play ball with international oil companies, the group of businessmen enlisted mercenary soldiers as part of a plan to take over the country by force. They would fly a plane from South Africa, where the mercenaries and financiers were based, to Equatorial Guinea, making a stop in Zimbabwe to pick up weapons.
When the plane reached its final destination, its occupants would meet up with another group of mercenaries, a vanguard, and proceed to take Equatorial Guinea’s security forces by surprise, before overthrowing the president. Then, a man named Severo Moto would arrive and take over.
Moto had once been a minister under Obiang, but had fled to Spain in 1981 after a disagreement. Moto had promised oil rights to Thatcher and the fellow plotters in exchange for overthrowing the government.
Moto would arrive and sweep into power. Suddenly Equatorial Guinea would be an open, free-market economy where everyone, after decades of oppression, would benefit from the booming oil extraction industry. Equatorial Guinea would be the Norway of Africa. The man on the street would be lifted up from his grinding poverty and become a petroleum engineer earning a Western wage; those who overthrew Obiang would become rich beyond their wildest dreams. Everyone would be happy and well-fed. Then as before, the violent takeover of an African country would be to the benefit of everyone, not just the putschists.
The action would be led by Simon Mann, an Eton-educated ex-SAS soldier in his 50s whose father and grandfather had both captained the England cricket team. Mann had struggled to leave his military past behind. After exiting the military, he had had a brief career in computers, but soon wound up as a soldier of fortune defending oil interests in Angola.
Mann got in touch with another mercenary, Nick du Toit. Du Toit was a white South African who had been a colonel in 32 Battalion of the South African army during the Angolan Bush War. After the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and finding himself on the wrong side of history, du Toit had become a mercenary and arms dealer. He recruited more old friends from 32 Battalion, a mix of South Africans and Angolans.
From his conversations with Thatcher, Mann believed he had the support of the British and South African governments and secret services. This made him so confident of success that he and others began to brag about it. Soon, people in South Africa were hearing about it in bars from the mouths of the mercenaries.
These rumours found their way to the ears of Johann Smith, another former South African special forces man, but one who occasionally worked for Obiang. Smith decided to report the rumours to the British and American authorities, assuming the plotters’ claims of support were delusionary. However, the response from Britain and America to his warnings was non-existent, and for the moment Obiang was left unaware of the impending coup.
It seems Mann’s claims of support from the West were true. What else explains the absence of any reaction to legitimate warnings that a violent overthrow of a country’s government was about to take place? Financial interests trumped humanitarian ones; American and European oil companies could do very well from an opening-up of Equatorial Guinea’s oil fields. Imagine Mann’s surprise, then, when on March 7th 2004, Zimbabwean police impounded the mercenaries’ Boeing 747 as it sat on the tarmac in Harare airport, full to the brim with weapons and ex-soldiers, ready to fly to Equatorial Guinea.
A panicked Mann tried to claim that they were actually bound for Congo, where they would be protecting diamond mines. The haul of arms included 20 machine guns, 61 AK-47s, 150 hand grenades, 10 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 100 RPG shells, and 75,000 rounds of ammunition.
18 hours later, Nick du Toit and 14 other mercenaries were arrested in Equatorial Guinea, accused of being the advance party for the plotters. It was these contract soldiers, arguably the least to blame for the plot, who got the worst punishment – flung into Black Beach prison, Africa’s fiercest; a filthy, violent hellhole where one of their number was tortured to death. Simon Mann; white, English and moneyed, was spared a similar fate by the work of Conservative MPs and sympathetic articles in British newspapers. He now lives in a £5m house in the New Forest.
The Honourable Sir Mark Thatcher, 2nd Baronet, who refused to take any responsibility for the mercenaries who believed they would rot in jail for carrying out his dirty work, was eventually found guilty of breaking anti-mercenary legislation in South Africa, and handed a five-year suspended sentence.
The coup was thwarted not by the diligent work of British and American security services, but by the arrogance of its executors, blinded by the riches they stood to gain. A blasé attitude informed by a long history of privately-educated white people romping around Africa with guns, taking whatever they wanted, had allowed Mann and co. to ignore the dangers of what they were doing and discount the possibility that their boasts might find their way to the wrong people.
In the end, they did. Africa has changed since the years of King Leopold. Now, the people of Africa understand the riches beneath their feet, and know from history that other people might want to steal them – usually under the guise of civilising their society and importing democracy. In the 21st century, African countries are self-governing and have competent security services which, believe it or not, share information with each other. It goes against the instincts of leaders like Mugabe to allow violent coups to happen in neighbouring countries, as there’s always the chance that they could act as blueprints for plots against themselves.
The South African, Zimbabwean and Equatoguinean security services who prevented the coup all knew about the plot because they had been told about it in a bar.