EXECUTIVE OUTCOMES: AGAINST ALL ODDS - FIREFIGHT WITH UNITA, Part One
In 1992, the Cold War had ended. However, in Africa, things were starting to heat up as tensions held in check by the Cold War began to boil over. In other places, the Cold War was going out with a bang – not a whimper. Angola was one such place, where UNITA [National Union for the Total Independence of Angola], under Jonas Savimbi, refused to participate in the 1992 elections and tried to seize control. The continuing conflict in Angola left things unstable – and leaving many caught in the middle.
Among those caught in the middle was Heritage Oil & Gas, which had received oil concessions from the Angolan government. To extricate themselves from the situation, Heritage Oil & Gas turned to Eeben Barlow, a retired colonel in the South African Defence Forces, who had just started Executive Outcomes.
“I DON’T THINK HE’S A SPOOK”
In late February 1993, Colonel Larney Keller, an ex-Signals Corps officer, discussed what he called a “sensitive issue” with me. It was an issue that would forever change our lives, particularly mine.
“I have a friend in England who served in the SAS [Special Air Service],” Larney said. “He called me last night and told me he’ll soon be visiting South Africa with a friend. It seems that they have a very delicate problem and are wondering if you would be able to assist them.”
“If he is ex-SAS, he could be working under some sort of cover. Do you think they want us to do something that will give the British government credible deniability?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think he’s a spook. I think you should meet him and see what he has to say. It might end up as something good for us,” Larney suggested.
“But why would he want to see me?”
“I told my friend Simon about your military background. He thinks you might be the ideal person to help sort out the problem.”
MEETING SIMON MANN AND TONY BUCKINGHAM
A couple of evenings later Larney phoned and told me that Simon and his friend had arrived and I should come over and meet them. Larney introduced me to Simon Mann and his associate, Tony Buckingham. It was a meeting that would lead to a close working relationship in the years to come, although the road ahead would often be a rocky one.
It immediately became evident that Buckingham was the leader and Simon Mann the follower. Buckingham can best be described as one of those swashbuckling, suntanned, adventurous Englishmen that belong to a dying breed. He had a ready laugh and was easy to get along with. Chomping on a fat Cuban cigar—something that became a sort of trademark of his—he told me he was the chief executive of Heritage Oil & Gas and its subsidiary Ranger Oil. Simon had a quieter disposition but was keen to show that he was knowledgeable about matters military. He seemed like a good guy, but there was something about him that warned me off.
I got the impression that Simon felt the same way about me. They made it clear that they were both seasoned soldiers who had served in the SAS and had taken part in many “hush-hush, nudge-nudge, wink-wink” operations for Her Majesty’s government, but I wasn’t particularly interested and I didn’t press them for details.
Buckingham disclosed that his company was involved in oil exploration and drilling off the Angolan coast, but they had run into a “minor problem.”
“My company has some valuable oil drilling equipment in Soyo in northern Angola. You may or may not know it, but UNITA has overrun the town and captured it from the government forces (by then known as FAA [Angolan Armed Forces], and no longer as FAPLA [People’s Armed forces for the Liberation of Angola]). The equipment is hired, so it’s costing an absolute fortune in lease fees. The situation is worsened by the fact that we can’t even use it because we can’t get close to move it.”
RESCUE THE EQUIPMENT FROM UNITA
I knew that despite statements to the contrary, the South African government had continued giving support to UNITA and that was keeping the region unstable. I could understand how this impacted on companies like Heritage Oil, Ranger Oil, Texaco, Elf and the others working the area.
“Soyo is a small harbour town in northern Angola,” Buckingham continued. “It has several onshore facilities and the harbour is of vital importance to Angola’s oil industry.”
“Can’t you just ask UNITA for permission to load the equipment? They surely have no use for it.” I suggested.
“Well, I did ask them to give it back to me. I told them that I want no part in their war. I just want the kit out of Soyo because it’s costing me over $20,000 a day in lease fees alone. They were pretty straightforward with their answer—they told me to bugger off,” laughed Buckingham.
“So what do you want me to do about it?” I asked.
“We thought that maybe you could secure the area for us.” Buckingham responded.
“So do you want me to put together a team, fly to Soyo and ask UNITA to lend a hand in loading this kit of yours?” I asked.
“THEY CAN GO AHEAD AND WIPE EACH OTHER OUT”
“No, not exactly,” Buckingham chuckled. “The Angolan Army is about to launch an assault on Soyo to recapture the harbour and the town. I need you to put together a team to provide security for our recovery teams once the place has been captured. Larney says you’re familiar with Angola and that you operated there with a reconnaissance team during the war years.”
“I know a little bit about the country but I’m hardly an expert. Let’s say I’ve seen parts of it,” I replied.
I wondered why men who claimed to be so well versed in the arts of war wanted to discuss what they considered a “small problem” with me. Surely, I thought, it should be no big deal for them to resolve it themselves.
Buckingham explained that his companies had been awarded a number of oil-exploration concessions by the Angolan government, which was anxious to reap as much oil revenue as possible to finance the ongoing war with UNITA. Buckingham was concerned that if Heritage Oil & Gas didn’t come online soon, the government might balk at awarding them further oil concessions, or even cancel the concessions already awarded to them.
“I’m not worried about the war as such, only insofar it affects my business—and my business is oil. As far as I’m concerned they can go ahead and wipe each other out. I just want to get our kit off the harbour so we can get back to pumping oil,” Buckingham said.
Since overrunning Soyo, UNITA had kept everyone out of the town and away from the docks. Buckingham had recently overflown the area but had seen few signs of recent UNITA activity. He estimated that UNITA had only a minimal presence there. He said he had also spoken to people in Britain’s Foreign Office who had confirmed this.
“THEY’LL PROBABLY SKIN YOUR ARSES”
“My guess is that UNITA has about a platoon there and that’s tops.” He repeated his grave concerns about the equipment and stressed that its loss would cost his company millions of dollars.
“So tell me exactly what you want me to do,” I said.
“As I have suggested, can you put together a team to guard the recovery operation? The Angolan government has assured us they will attack, capture and hold Soyo, but say it’s not the army’s job to safeguard private property. In my personal opinion I believe they are so useless they probably won’t even be prepared to fight UNITA if it comes down to the wire.”
“I don’t have a quarrel with UNITA,” I said. “The SADF [South African Defence Force] supported them during the war years, but I never liked or trusted them. You can bet, though, that they won’t take kindly to us being in the area, even if we were their one-time supposed allies.”
“They’ll probably skin your arses if they catch you,” Buckingham said encouragingly. “Then we’ll just have to do some skinning of our own. I don’t think that’ll be too much of a problem,” I answered. “If I understand you correctly, the FAA will hold an outer perimeter and my men will be there purely to protect the recovery teams.
So to be absolutely clear, you are looking for a protection team. That obviously means it must comprise men who can fight if push comes to shove.”
“Precisely. If the shit hits the fan we won’t be able to babysit a group of security guys. We’ll be too busy trying to save our own skins,” he laughed.\
RECOVER THE GEAR – BUT IT WILL BE DANGEROUS
I was starting to warm to this man. He was asking us to help him recover his equipment while at the same time making it clear that it would likely not be without danger. For instance, there was no guarantee that UNITA would not try to retake Soyo—if the FAA was successful in capturing it in the first place.
“What is the strategic or tactical value of Soyo to UNITA?” I asked.
“Absolutely none—or at best, very little that I am aware of. It just happens that we have our kit on the Soyo docks. Other than that, it can serve them no purpose at all as UNITA doesn’t have a navy or even own a ship.”
“If I agree to get involved, what will you expect of me and my company?”
“It will be your job to put together a team and see to their logistics, salaries, uniforms and so forth. I’ll coordinate with the Angolan oil parastatal Sonangol as regards the allocation of their tasks on the ground.”
“What sort of time frame are we looking at and what are the budgetary constraints? You obviously know that it costs money to recruit good men to conduct a security operation in a hazardous area?”
“WHO’LL PAY FOR OUR SERVICES?”
“Obviously, I would like the equipment recovered as soon as possible. As far as the budget is concerned, you tell me how you’ll do it and how much it will cost. Provided it’s within reason, I’ll get the money for you to go ahead.”
“Okay,” I said. “Will you personally be placing the contract on us?”
“Yes and no. It’s actually a little more complicated than that. The contract will be between you and Sonangol. In turn we’ll liaise between you and them. Heritage Oil is a foreign company and that precludes it from contracting you directly to provide this kind of service. We must have the sanction of the Angolan government and that can only be obtained by Sonangol.”
“Okay, but who’ll pay for our services? What guarantees do I have that we’ll be paid—if ever? I have no wish to hire guys and then have them sitting on my tail because I don’t have the money to pay them. I’ve been down that road before.”
“I’ll guarantee the funds and ensure you are paid in advance.”
I told Buckingham that I needed time to plan the operation. To ensure my appreciation of the situation was correct and to plan correctly, I needed intelligence that neither Buckingham nor Simon Mann could provide. This meant I would have to rely on a plan based on little or no intelligence. I told them that I would recruit ex-SADF soldiers who had seen active service. I knew I could depend on them when the chips were down.
“I will choose the team myself. I’ll let you know my equipment requirements and what the costs will be,” I told them.
SOUTH-AFRICAN STAFFED – OR NOTHING
Initially Buckingham and Mann wanted the team to be under the command and control of a British manager. I disagreed and told them that no British manager, regardless of his background, knew the wars in Africa as we did and that the majority of ex-SADF soldiers would refuse to serve under one anyway, myself included.
It was either to be a South African-staffed contract or nothing. Buckingham finally relented and we agreed that I would plan the operation, brief him and recruit the men. Then, assuming that the budget was approved, the money would be paid to my company in advance and we would in turn support the Heritage Oil recovery operation in Angola. He gave me two weeks to come up with a workable plan. He told me I should only contract the men for a one-month period, as that was how long Heritage Oil’s planners envisaged would be needed to complete the recovery of their equipment.
Because Larney Keller had introduced me to Buckingham and Mann, I told him that although Executive Outcomes would run and control the operation, I would ensure he got the same share of profit from the project as I did. Larney gladly accepted and immediately volunteered to go with the team to Soyo to help out where he could.
“After all, I outranked you in the army,” he said with a grin.
“I have no problem with you going to Soyo. But someone will have to stay here to take care of logistics and sort out operational and administrative problems that crop up.”
It was vital that the Angolan Army (FAA) conduct their offensive operation to secure and hold Soyo and its harbour.
Only then would EO commit its men. As there was a real danger of UNITA harassing my men, I required them to be armed with pistols at least, but preferably with rifles. Buckingham would have to arrange the weapons.
PLANNING THE OPERATION
I began my appreciation of the situation and the planning to accomplish the mission. In a few days, considering the brevity of the intelligence I was able to lay my hands on, I came up with a workable plan to protect Buckingham’s recovery teams. Major aspects crucial to the success of the operation were:
I needed 50 men with combat experience as they might come under fire from UNITA. They had to be men who knew their way around guns and who would be capable of holding the line no matter what was thrown at them.
The contingent would be split into two 25-man teams to provide a 24-hour protection capability for the recovery teams.
The group would need VHF [very high frequency] and HF [high frequency] radios to ensure constant communications among themselves as well as back to me in Pretoria.
They also needed a direct link with the Angolan military in order to coordinate movements and to prevent them from becoming targets of FAA.
We needed three satellite phones to ensure a stable communications link between Soyo and Pretoria and a secure link from Pretoria to London.
We would need to provide refresher courses for the men going to Angola, including aspects relating to emergency medical treatment, requests for supplies, signals procedures and so on.
We required a medevac capability to deal with gunshot wounds and other injuries while on duty and also to extract men who went down with malaria.
The men needed clothing, sleeping bags, boots and a variety of other personal equipment.
I would set up a supply line to ensure they got regular supplies of fresh food. Two weeks later I was ready to brief Buckingham. He happened to be in Namibia on business and a few days later he flew to Johannesburg, where I briefed him and laid out my plan along with the costs involved.
“Looks great to me,” he said. “Is there anything that really bothers you?”
WE NEED WEAPONS AND $225,000, WITH $50,000 UP FRONT
“Yes, if my men are going into a danger zone—which Angola is at the moment, they would need weapons to protect themselves. I suspect that UNITA will try to chase us off the harbour in order to stop the recovery operation. Why would they allow it to go ahead when the beneficiary will be the Angolan government through oil taxes? I don’t want my men to become targets for UNITA to practise on. Also, I can’t just walk into a gun shop over here and buy
assault rifles and machine guns. How will I overcome this obstacle?”
“Good point,” said Buckingham, “I will have to clear that with the Angolan military via Sonangol. You obviously can’t fly into Angola carrying guns and you’ll need their permission and assistance on that matter. I will find out if the Angolans will provide weapons and let you know. In the meantime, I would like you to consider this as a ‘Go’!
Start getting your team together.”
“I’ll put the word out that I am looking for some good men. In the meantime, I’ll need money to start the ball rolling. I expect that it will cost approximately US$225,000, give or take a few dollars and depending on what happens on the ground. I must warn you that the price may increase if there are drastic changes to the situation. If it’s okay with you, please transfer about US$50,000 to my account for a start.”
I phoned Harry Ferreira, an old friend from 32-Battalion, and asked if he still had contact with many of our old comrades.
“Why?” he asked. “Are you planning to invade an African country—and is there a place for me?” he asked jokingly.
“No, I have a security job for us in Angola.”
“Sounds good. I’ll talk to some of the old guys. How many men will you need?”
“WILL WE FIGHT UNITA?”
I then met with Harry Ferreira and asked him to help me contact some of our old out-of-work colleagues from the SADF. I told him that I was recruiting some men to provide security for an equipment-recovery team in Soyo.
“Where the hell is Soyo?” he asked.
“It’s a little harbour town in northwest Angola just south of the Cabinda enclave. Although it has no strategic or tactical value from a military point of view, it is strategically located for the oil industry and has some on-shore oil facilities. The area produces about 500,000 barrels of oil a day. UNITA overran it several months ago, which has caused the oil industry some headaches because a lot of their equipment was stored there. The oil companies are in a Catch-22 situation—they need to get access to their equipment but UNITA won’t allow them into the area. What’s more, the Angolan government is pressuring the oil companies for oil taxes as it needs the revenue to finance the war against UNITA.”
“Is it still under UNITA control?” Harry wanted to know.
“Apparently so, but I’ve been assured that the Angolan Army is planning to attack and recapture the town. Once they have, we’ll move in and baby-sit the oil company’s recovery teams.”
“Do you think that we’ll get involved in a punch-up with UNITA?” Harry asked.
“I hope not, but I have to plan for the worst-case scenario. The guys we take with us must be willing to fight whoever threatens them. We can’t tell our client that we’ll provide security and then refuse to protect them against UNITA if their troops attack us.”
“Okay, as long as we know that we might have to defend ourselves as well ... that’s fair enough. Who is your client, by the way?”
“CONSIDER THE ENTIRE TASK AS A CLASSIFIED PROJECT”
“I suppose it’s actually the Angolan oil parastatal Sonangol. We will, however, interface with them through a UK-based oil company called Heritage Oil & Gas. As this is probably going to be somewhat tricky, I want us to consider the entire task as a classified project. I don’t want UNITA thinking that we are planning to invade their areas and attack them.”
“I agree it should be kept as quiet as possible. I suppose I had better get moving and identify some men who’ll be willing to sign up.” Several days later, the first funds from Buckingham were credited to my account. He sent me US$75,000 instead of the US$50,000 I had asked for. This was an enormous sum of money to me and I was rather excited at how my small company’s account had suddenly grown. My bank manager was equally impressed.
During the days that followed, I met several small groups of men that either Harry or I had contacted. I interviewed and appointed those suitable to positions within the group. Harry had wisely decided he didn’t want to compromise the pending operation by making things too public, so he set up meetings all over Pretoria. One of the meetings was held in the Fountains Nature Reserve in Pretoria.
I told them what they needed to know to make a decision whether to join my company. I started by explaining who the client was, whom they were answerable to and what the mission was.
They would be expected to provide a total security service to the Heritage Oil recovery teams who were unable and possibly even unwilling to defend themselves and their equipment from any threats by an aggressor force.
The task was going to be dangerous and there was a possibility of attack by UNITA. (I thought that I had better prepare them for that in advance so they would be under no illusions.) If UNITA decided to interfere with the operation, it would be our job to ensure the safety of the recovery teams using whatever means were at our disposal.
SOME REFUSE TO FIGHT UNITA
I expected no one to go to Soyo to die for the Angolan government, but I expected everyone to give a good account of themselves should they come under fire from UNITA, or from the Angolan Army, for that matter. Any team operating in a high-risk combat zone is only as strong as its weakest member, and I didn’t want any cowards on board.
They would be away from home for about a month, which would be the duration of their contract.
To some men, the prospect of having to return fire at UNITA if the need arose was more than they were prepared to contemplate. For many years, the South African public and soldiers alike had been led to believe that UNITA was a Christian liberation movement fighting to overthrow the communist government of Angola. This “fact” had been extensively propagated by the South African media, and thus this view of UNITA became a reality in the collective South African mind. What no one ever mentioned was that Dr. Jonas Savimbi was actually a Maoist posing as a Christian for convenience. As far as UNITA was concerned, the South African government had learnt that the more often a lie is repeated, the more likely it would be believed.
Some men bluntly refused to go to Angola, as they considered my contract a betrayal of Christianity and their belief in God. Others asked how I could justify doing anything against UNITA when we had been allies during the war.
“Did you ever fight alongside UNITA? Did UNITA ever save your arses? Did UNITA ever pay you a single cent?” I asked one such group.
No one responded to my question.
“WHAT YOU ARE SAYING WILL MAKE US MERCENARIES”
The irony of such naive comments from the assembled men was that many of those who felt so strongly about UNITA had never worked with or even seen them during SADF’s operations in Angola. They were merely helping to propagate further the National Party government’s desire to ensure Angola’s continued instability.
“The war in Angola is over,” I told them. “In 1992, there were United Nations-supervised elections. The implication of these elections is that the Angolan government is internationally recognised as the legitimate, democratically elected government of Angola. We will therefore be going into Soyo with the full sanction of the UN-approved Angolan government. The Angolan Army will assault and hold Soyo, thereby providing us with an outer protection perimeter.
“I’m not asking you to go in and fight UNITA or to die for the Angolan Army. However, if UNITA fires at you, I expect you to return fire with a vengeance. We’re providing security for a recovery team—that’s it. In order to do this as quickly, quietly and as safely as possible, I consider the whole task to be classified as secret.”
“What you are saying will make us mercenaries,” someone said.
“I disagree. When a security guard fires at an armed criminal who is trying to kill him, do you classify him as a mercenary? If a plumber follows his trade in a hostile area and he defends himself from attacks, is he a mercenary?” I asked.
No one had an answer to that. “Besides, the South African Police have confirmed that there is nothing illegal in what we intend doing,” I added.
SECRETLY TAPED AND LEAKED TO THE PRESS
Unbeknown to me, one of the men at the gathering secretly tape-recorded the proceedings. He passed the recording to a journalist and the next thing we knew, newspaper headlines were boldly telling the public that Executive Outcomes planned to invade Angola and attack UNITA. Speculation ranged from us mounting a secret mission to assassinate Dr. Jonas Savimbi to grabbing the Angolan diamond fields for ourselves. In the years that followed, this kind of false and reckless reporting would become even more vociferous.
The newspaper articles had scared off a number of men who had tentatively agreed to EO’s little excursion. Between Harry, Larney and myself we could only count on 30 men who still wanted to go—far fewer than the media speculate —and some of them were highly dubious characters to boot. Initially, when I believed it was going to be a relatively easy security operation, I was not too concerned about the odd strange character. They would make up numbers and the more experienced men could help them out where needed. The situation had now started to change rather rapidly.
Buckingham called me a day later and reassured me that according to Sonangol’s continued liaison with FAA, there was still little or no UNITA presence in the Soyo area. Sonangol had arranged that our men wouldn’t require visas to enter Angola, as long as they had valid passports. This was a relief to me as obtaining such visas could be a costly and lengthy process.
THE FIRST SHOTS OF A PROPAGANDA WAR
Meanwhile, the false reports appearing in the media caused alarm bells to ring in the offices of Military Intelligence and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). This generated the first shots to be fired in what probably became the
longest propaganda war ever waged against a legitimate private company, under contract to another legitimate company, working with the blessing of a legitimate host government. A decade later, South Africans working in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere—doing what we did in Angola—would be of little to no concern to the media, MI or even the DFA.
Although I personally didn’t have a gripe with UNITA, it had always amazed me how a dedicated Maoist like Dr. Jonas Savimbi had been so strongly supported by a “Christian” South Africa. Whereas I had no problem with Maoism, I had a problem with hypocrisy. I also felt certain that Project Spyker/Silver was still operating in secret and that the SADF was still providing UNITA with millions of rands worth of military support at the South African taxpayers’ expense.
Initial media reports described us as a lot of has-beens—washed-out, aging soldiers who posed no significant threat to anyone, least of all to UNITA. This soon changed dramatically and we suddenly became “mercenaries” and “racist dogs of war.” It was clear to me that someone was orchestrating the stories being fed to the media and they in turn were merely acting as a mouthpiece for both their masters and UNITA.
Unperturbed, the men went off to buy their equipment at the local Trapper’s Trading store in Pretoria and to book their flights to Windhoek in Namibia or Luanda in Angola. Every man was given a budgeted sum with which to purchase the equipment set down on a requirement list.
Next: The start of the Soyo Operation, and the first firefights with UNITA.
Executive Outcomes: Against All Odds, published by Galago Books, is available from Amazon.com.