The Cold War years were the days of the mercs, of their wild and lawless adventures in Africa and across the globe in the proxy war playgrounds of the superpowers. In 2004, a legendary British merc who was heavily involved in African exploits during the Cold War attempted to recapture the excitement of those years. The clever, well-educated Simon Mann had captured the imagination of adventure seekers and had amassed fortunes through his exploits. His African adventures offered all of the intrigue and mystique of the Cold War fiascos on the dark continent. A myth had been circulating for years that Mann was one of the masterminds of the infamous Executive Outcomes, the most famed of merc companies (see Sidebar that debunks this myth).
But by then, the world had changed and so had the either unabashed or veiled official acceptance of the overthrow of dictators.
SOF readers will recall a series, “Mercs Screwed Up, Set Up, Sold Out,” that I wrote in early 2005 on the disastrous Equatorial Guinea Coup of 2004, after meeting with former mercs and private investigators in the United Kingdom. At the time, the coup attempt had been gutted, the mercs had been captured and they were facing a sham trial in Zimbabwe.
The tale took an unexpected turn early this November when I was in Rome following up on the trial in absentia of 23 CIA agents in Italy. The media, which had a hey day with the real life intrigue for years, was abuzz with the shocking turn of events.
The famous British and South African merc masterminds, Simon Mann and Nick du Toit, had been given up for dead
or dying in the horrible Equatorial Guinea Black Beach prison in Malabo. Both were unexpectedly released from the prison on 3 November, 2009.
The once cocky, rugged and fearless Mann had become a pathetic, Equatorial Guinea tyrant’s butt kisser, beaten down, sick, prematurely aged old man He apologized profusely to the slob of a dictator, telling him how glad he was that the coup had failed, and thanking him for his “humanitarian” decision to release him from hell.
From the filthy floors of the prison widely known for its torture and abuse, Mann was released to spend his first
night in a five-star hotel, Paraiso, outside Malibo, the European press establishment reported.
The mystique and intrigue that had surrounded one of Britain’s most famous of the new generation mercs and one of Africa’s most envied operators had been crushed in the harsh prison. Like stunning movie stars who age gracelessly and are sadly remembered only for their lost glamour, the once dashingly handsome mercenary, looking like a heap of emaciated bones, commanded nothing but pity.
So why did the long-ruling vandal of a president let Mann go? The answer is as mysterious as the disappearances and denials of all those involved in the coup and the ever-changing stories of the hapless, easy-target mercs who got caught.
A COUP IS HATCHED
In 2004, notorious South African merc and former SAS officer Simon Mann pulled his last hurrah when he conspired with famous and infamous partners, including the formidable former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s not so formidable son, Sir Mark Thatcher, and a menagerie of money bag Brits, Lebanese and Americans.
The British secret service MI6, the Zimbabwe Defense Ministry (ZDI), the CIA, and the Spanish secret service were all accused of being involved in the plot to overthrow one of the monsters of Africa.
Mann later confessed that he had been trying to get Zimbabwe President Mugabe on board by pretending to back a rebel army in the Democratic Republic of Congo, so that the greedy Mugabe could acquire Congolese diamonds to help in the economic crises he has created in Zimbabwe.
Mann had flown to Harare to discuss a consignment of arms with the ZDI. The arms were to be delivered to the Kolwezi airstrip in Congo, under the control of the rebel leader, and from there the weapons would be cross-loaded on to Equatorial Guinea. British multimillionaire Greg Wales, heavily involved in the fiasco, reportedly met with senior Pentagon officials discussing the “dangerous” situation in Equatorial Guinea.
According to Wales, he and the Pentagon were discussing the possibility that Obiang should be arrested for money laundering and human rights abuses. The U.S. was under pressure by human rights groups to impose penalties on the brutal dictator. But sanctions would hurt American oil interests, since U.S. companies were the largest player in exploiting the Equatorial Guinea oil.
U.S companies are the major players in the Equatorial Guinea oil fields. In spite of boisterous U.S. theatrics and legislation that bar human rights-abusing tyrants from entering the United States, Obiang and his avaricious heir Teodoro Nguema Obiang own a multi-million dollar spread in California and are welcome visitors to the United States. The New York Times obtained a memorandum that confirmed that the U. S. government is aware that
Teodoro assets were derived “from extortion, theft of public funds or other corrupt conduct.” From April 2005 to April 2006 he funneled at least $73 million into the United States, using shell corporations and accounts to launder the money to invest in his $35 million Malibu estate and a luxury jet.
The funds were traced from Equatorial Guinea to the central Banque de France to U.S. accounts at Wachovia, Bank of America and UBS. In one six-week period in 2006, Teodoro transferred nearly $34 to the United States to buy a Gulfstream V jet. The people of Equatorial Guinea are dirt poor and the Obiangs are unable to hide the ongoing torture.
BIG MONEY, BIG PLAYERS
In preparing for the coup, Mann recruited the well-known South African merc Nick Du Toit to mastermind the grand scheme. Du Toit, who was well connected with the ZDI, was to supply arms, guides and vehicles for the coup d’état. The plot was to overthrow the hideous dictator of Equatorial Guinea, Obiang, who had brutalized and impoverished his citizenry of some 600,000 for a quarter century.
The supposed goal was to replace Obiang with the exiled rebel leader Severo Moto, who had been convicted of treason for a previous Equatorial Guinea coup attempt. The alleged real goal was driven by the root of all evil, that of the lusty masterminds and their greedy patrons to get rich on the newly discovered oil in the tiny west African country.
The mercs of misfortunate had no fear nor clue that the often inept African intelligence community was on to their scheme. Zimbabwe president Mugabe, ZDI, and the General Intelligence Organization (GIO) boasted of foiling the plot. South African Defense Forces, in collaboration with the GIO, watched as the chief conspirators trained their recruits in South Africa. Ronnie Kasrils, South African intelligence minister, bragged of infiltrating the alleged conspiracy to overthrow Obiang from the time the plot began to unfold, the UK Times reported.
When Mann went to pick up the arms in Harare in January 2004, he found no rebels nor fuel to redirect the arms. The coup was aborted when a bird struck the engine of his Russian Antonov 12 and the rebels failed to secure an airstrip at Kolwezi.
From the Congo Mann went to Zimbabwe, where he was snatched by South African intelligence officers who had been waiting in a local hotel for him.
Captain Neil Steyl and co pilot Hendrick Hamman, with $30,000 in cash for fuel, $100,000 in cash for operations and sixty-five mercs with South African passports, flew from Principe to San Tome, then on to South Africa.
A COUP IS GUTTED
“On 8 March, 2004, the aircraft was summarily impounded when it landed at Harare International Airport and all those on board were arrested. Simultaneously, in Equatorial Guinea, a 15-man advance party under Nic du Toit was also taken into custody,” Eben Barlow writes in Executive Outcomes.
Sir Mark Thatcher was fined R3 million for his part in the coup and because of his powerful mamma was allowed to avoid prison and leave his mansion in South Africa. Nick du Toit was sentenced to forever in the dreadful Black Beach prison in Equatorial Guinea. Mann was sentenced to seven years in a dreadful Zimbabwe jail and, after serving four years, he was extradited to Equatorial Guinea at the request of Obiang, where he was “tried” and sentenced to thirty-four years in prison. He served two years and then was released with du Toit in November, and that is where our story began.
The rest of the poor sucker mercs who supposedly were recruited to serve as security in the Congo were released after some months in Zimbabwe prison and repatriated to South Africa. There they were charged with violating the post-Cold War “mercenary law,” but the case was dropped after a loud public outrage. So why did the murderous tyrant of Equatorial Guinea release the mercs?
Because of his “humanitarian instincts,” he said, so that Mann could get proper medical care in the United Kingdom with his family by his side.
Some reports were guessing that the dictator did not want the uproar if the ailing Mann died in prison. By some counts the release was to gain favor with the international community so that Obiang would once more win the coming election with a 100 percent approval rate, and the world would see him as a fair minded guy. Hardly.
Some accounts speculate that Mann was willing to turn on Mark Thatcher and other high profile accomplices and fill in the international intelligence community with the true details.
I wish I knew what goes into the thinking of greedy, warped diabolical tyrants; but I will throw my guess into the list of whys and maybes anyhow.
A wild guess—it was connected in some way with some deal with some Western intel or company that involved Obiang’s oil money.
Dr. Martin Brass is an international lawyer.