How oil brought the dogs of war back to Malabo

How oil brought the dogs of war back to Malabo

As eight alleged coup plotters languish in jail, Raymond Whitaker reports
from Equatorial Guinea, where the President and his friends have lined their
pockets at the expense of their
countrymen

Independent/uk
02 September 2004

When Frederick Forsyth was looking for a suitable setting in which to
write The Dogs of War, his 1974 thriller about white mercenaries in
Africa, he chose this island capital. That was three decades ago but
not much has changed in Malabo since. Beneath green-draped volcanic
slopes, 200-year-old Spanish cannon still guard the palm-fringed
harbour and the damp-stained shopfronts. An air of “malarial lethargy”,
VS Naipaul’s phrase, still prevails.

But look out to sea from the terrace of the Bahia Hotel, where Eddie
the Eel practised in the comma-shaped swimming pool, one of only two on
the island, for his moment of glory at the Sydney Olympics, and there
is a sight Forsyth would not have seen. At night, the horizon glows
red; here and there a pinpoint of flame pierces the darkness. These
are the flares of the offshore platforms which have transformed
Equatorial Guinea into sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil exporter.

When Forsyth was writing, there was little to lure soldiers of
fortune to this tropical dictatorship, which consists of a few,
lush, volcanic islands and a jungle-covered strip of the African
mainland. Its population of 500,000 subsisted mainly on cocoa exports,
so the novelist, who rechristened the country Zangoro, endowed it
with valuable deposits of platinum. But the oil is real enough, and
it appears to have attracted a band of adventurers who imagined that
the 1970s had never gone away.

Languishing since March in the island’s Black Beach prison are eight
former members of South Africa’s apartheid-era special forces, six
Armenian aircrew and five local men. They are accused of being the
advance guard for a coup planned by Simon Mann, a former SAS officer
turned mercenary soldier, allegedly supported by his friend Sir Mark
Thatcher, Lord Archer and his friend Ely Calil, a Lebanese-born oil
trader based in London, who is said to have commissioned the whole
operation.

He is said to have wanted to put Severo Moto, an exiled Equatorial
Guinea opposition politician, in power in exchange for favourable
oil deals.

Apart from Mr Mann, who is in Zimbabwe awaiting sentence for illegally
attempting to buy arms, all have denied having anything to do with the
affair. But in Equatorial Guinea, unaccustomed to world attention, the
alleged involvement of internationally known figures in a conspiracy
against it is more exciting than anything else that has happened
since the Spanish loosened their colonial grip in the 1960s.

Not only is there an English lord whose book sales outstrip even those
of Frederick Forsyth, but the Iron Lady herself is now reported to
have put up bail for her son, who has been under house arrest in Cape
Town on suspicion of having helped to finance the plot.

Even Equatorial Guinea’s President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, appears to
have been caught up by the mood. When the alleged mercenaries were put
on trial last week, the death sentence was demanded by the prosecution
for their leader, Nick du Toit, who has confessed to his role. The
case was moved to a recently built conference centre and the world’s
press, normally excluded from the country, given access. On Tuesday,
the trial was suspended until the alleged role of Sir Mark and a number
of other accused coup supporters abroad can be explored. The judge said
yesterday it would resume in 30 days but Mr Obiang summoned the foreign
press for what turned out to be little more than an opportunity for
him to be photographed giving them an audience. The men on trial, he
said, were “individuals without morals who attempted a crime against
our country which would have resulted in blood being spilt”.

The journalists would have welcomed the opportunity to ask the
President about his own reputation for spilling blood. Since he deposed
and killed his despotic uncle, Macias Nguema 25 years ago – opinion
varies on whether he pulled the trigger himself – his opponents charge
him with having had several enemies disposed of. There are even claims
that he ate the testicles of some, to imbibe their masculinity. But,
while conceding that President Obiang permits no dissent, winning his
last election by the customary 97 per cent, nearly everyone agrees
his uncle was infinitely worse.

As we had dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Malabo, with ample bar
girls half-heartedly trying to chat up a couple of grizzled European
bush pilots, a government adviser said: “Look, we have had at least
five other coup attempts. One of them even involved Moto but nobody
was killed in any of them. The President just kept them in jail
for a while then let the plotters go, telling them to change their
ways. Moto went to Spain when he was released.

“This one was different. Simon Mann said they had taken account of the
possibility that Mr Obiang might be killed in the operation. That’s
why the death sentence was demanded for Nick du Toit, to show the
seriousness of the whole business, but the President would never let
it be carried out.”

That may be little consolation to the South African, who faces the
prospect of months more in Black Beach before he learns his fate,
but the oil, discovered in the mid-1990s, has raised the stakes
heavily. President Obiang and his clan have always run Equatorial
Guinea as a private enterprise, but the advent of American oil majors
such as Conoco and Amerada Hess has turned a trickle of agricultural
earnings into a torrent of oil dollars.

American congressional committees are said to be upset at human rights
abuses in Equatorial Guinea, and tales of contracts which provide for
oil revenues to be paid directly into personal bank accounts. Oil
wealth has given the country the sixth highest income per head in
the world, but the run-down state of the capital testifies that very
little of it trickles down.

The country has been refused aid by major donors because of
misappropriation of funds, and US government reports state openly
that the President and his circle control nearly all official revenues.

But in a world where Washington faces threats to its strategic
oil supplies across the Middle East, it is not likely to be too
fastidious about events in a country few of its citizens could find on
a map. Indeed, the US is mulling plans to build its biggest military
base in Africa right here. The arrival of American warships, aircraft
and service personnel would heighten the already surreal contrasts
that exist in Equatorial Guinea.

Hefty oilmen with Texan accents live in isolated compounds with
their equally hefty spouses and offspring, while African villagers a
few miles away live the way they always have, practising subsistence
agriculture and animist beliefs. There, it is said, one can hear dark
mutterings about certain omens concerning the President.

When his uncle was killed, Mr Obiang apparently took custody of the
clan’s most precious ritual object, a skull, which should have passed
to his eldest brother. And when his wife had twins – considered an
evil event in many African societies – he failed to have the younger
one killed. No good will come of it, traditionalists say. Hearing
such tales, and bearing in mind that many of the ruling “elite”
are illiterate, must have convinced anyone plotting a coup that they
could not fail. “But just because someone is illiterate does not mean
that he is stupid,” the government adviser said. “There was a lot of
white arrogance towards black people in this.”

Indeed, the accused conspirators are the ones who look stupid: not
only was their security appalling, with a paper trail a mile wide,
but they seemed oblivious to Equatorial Guinea’s strategic importance
having changed since the 1970s, when it had Cold War ties to the
Soviet Union and China. African governments are also working far more
closely with each other these days.

As Mr Mann arrived at Harare airport to meet a planeload of former
soldiers arriving from South Africa, the government of Zimbabwe,
tipped off by South African intelligence, was ready. Equatorial
Guinea was warned after the arrests, and rounded up Mr du Toit and his
co-accused. Britain and the US were also aware of what was happening;
a source in Malabo said American oil workers had been told to stay
in their compounds the night the mercenaries were supposed to go
into action.

Equatorial Guinea has pointed no fingers at London or Washington but
government sources have accused the right-wing former government in
Spain, ousted in the election later in March, of complicity in the
plot. Rumours persist that Spanish warships, with commandoes, were
in the vicinity of Equatorial Guinea at the time, only to sail away
when the coup fell apart.

As for Mr Moto, the putative beneficiary, reports from South Africa
say he was lucky not to have ended up in Black Beach with Mr du Toit
and the rest. Sources said a light aircraft with two South African
pilots had taken him as far as the Canary Islands on his way back to
Equatorial Guinea. From there, the plane was supposed to refuel in
Mali and continue to Malabo, landing just after Mr Mann and his men
had arrived.

What saved Mr Moto from testing the quality of President Obiang’s
mercy a second time, it appears, was a motor race being held on the
runway at Las Palmas. It delayed his departure from the Canaries,
and when the plane landed in Mali the pilots were warned by a text
message that Mr Mann’s aircraft and everyone aboard had been seized
in Zimbabwe. Equatorial Guinea has launched a High Court action
in London, accusing Greg Wales, a British businessman, of being
involved in the plot. South African newspapers say they have found
registration records which show he stayed at a hotel in Las Palmas
with David Tremain, a South African businessmen, at the same time as
Mr Moto and the two pilots. Mr Wales and Mr Tremain deny involvement.

For President Obiang, who is used to being treated somewhat
circumspectly by other African leaders, let alone the rest of the
world, the unfolding saga is a windfall as welcome as the oil under
his country’s seabed. The value of the unexpected gift increases with
every revelation and allegation, particularly if it concerns someone
as famous as Sir Mark Thatcher.

And since the former Prime Minister’s son is not due to appear in
court until November, there is little risk of interest fading. The
only people for whom this is not good news is Mr du Toit and his
colleagues in Black Beach.

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