In 2004, a mix of rich white men and mercenaries attempted to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. Why? Greed -- and boredom.

Published August 17, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

"As it is a very lucrative game, we should expect bad behavior; disloyalty; rampant individual greed; irrational behavior (kids in toyshop style); back-stabbing; bum-fucking, and similar ungentlemanly activities." So reads a cautionary note in the prospectus for what's known as the "Wonga Coup." In March 2004, a group of men with a hired army of about 70 mercenary soldiers set out to topple the government of the tiny West African nation of Equatorial Guinea and install a new one. Ostensibly led by a political opposition leader but actually controlled by the white mercenary officers, this new regime would plunder the recently discovered oil wealth of Equatorial Guinea, enriching the coup's architects by billions of dollars.

The Wonga Coup never came off, but not because of the kind of double-crossing anticipated in that early planning document. Adam Roberts, a correspondent for the Economist magazine and a journalist steeped in the skulduggery of modern Africa, describes just how this "improbable escapade" was born and ruined in his new book, "The Wonga Coup." One of the strangest aspects of the story is that the Wonga Coup nearly replicated an earlier failed attempt to take over Equatorial Guinea in 1973. And that coup had since been fictionalized in a bestselling book, popular with the mercenary crowd, by Frederick Forsyth, "The Dogs of War." A case of life imitating art imitating life? The truth is even more bizarrely convoluted: Roberts has found evidence that Forsyth himself financed the 1973 coup. (And Forsyth has more or less admitted as much.)

Roberts' discoveries allude to the crazy mirror game that goes on between real soldiers of fortune and the popular entertainments (books and movies) that glorify them. There is, as he points out, "a long tradition of grizzled white mercenaries fighting in Africa," and they have often inspired thriller authors. The fighters then, in turn, carry novels like "The Dogs of War" around with them as props to their swashbuckling egos -- and sometimes as playbooks. Forsyth, at least, was motivated by a desire to liberate Equatorial Guinea from a horrifically cruel despot. (The nation's oil reserves weren't discovered until the 1990s.) The 2004 coup plotters made noises about installing a better leader, but their real motives were "wonga" -- British slang for money -- and something less tangible. "It's fun," said one observer. "Some of the guys did it for kicks, because life is boring."

The head man in this band of adventurers was Simon Mann, the scion of a British brewery dynasty who had managed to parlay their wealth into class; Mann attended the elite boarding school Eton and rubbed shoulders with aristocrats at a prestigious gentlemen's club in London. He had a yen for soldiering, however, and joined the Special Air Services (a Special Forces regiment), where his expertise lay in intelligence and counterterrorism. This eventually led him into those murky industries that supply military-style services to whoever can afford to pay for them. One of the outfits he worked with -- a company with the sinisterly euphemistic name Executive Outcomes -- was used by the government of Angola in the 1990s to defend its oil installations from the rebel group UNITA.

"The Wonga Coup" offers a window into the demimonde of African soldiers for hire. If smaller weapons can be picked up for a pittance in many other African nations, South Africa is the place to shop for mercenaries. Many of them are decommissioned members of 32 Battalion, a South African army unit that also fought in Angola. Others once belonged to nasty, shadowy domestic police and army units charged with squashing antiapartheid movements. These guys tend to live in the same neighborhoods and hang out at the same bars. The current South African government frowns on freelance soldiers working out of its territory, but anti-mercenary legislation passed by Nelson Mandela's administration has proved hard to enforce.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these mercenaries are tough, preening thrill seekers. Among the characters Mann signed up were an Angolan named Victor Dracula ("I can only say this; I took blood!") and a fellow described by a colleague as "a thug, very ugly, a mulatto built like a brick shithouse. But quite friendly if he doesn't want to kill you." One was nicknamed "The Enforcer" after he broke a man's arm over a restaurant table, while a cooler customer ominously described himself as a "professional hunter and 'security consultant' for foreign governments."

Mann, however, represents what Roberts calls "a new sort of mercenary, the type as familiar with company law, bank transfers and investor agreements as with the workings of a Browning pistol." But Mann's more cerebral orientation didn't dampen his appetite for buccaneering exploits. When the Wonga Coup plot began to run into some serious setbacks -- and at a point when, as Roberts sees it, a more cautious man might have thrown in his cards -- Mann stuck with his plan, "driven on by a mixture of vanity, the need to recoup his losses and by the love of adventure."

Arrayed against rent-a-coup schemers like Mann is a breed that Roberts calls the "rag-and-bone intelligence dealer," a kind of freelance spy who "darts about Africa with a laptop and satellite phone, lingering in hotel bars, picking up scraps of information where he can, selling them to willing buyers, whether corporate or government. The more sophisticated use electronic, online or other surveillance." If Mann and his team recall a ripping Forsyth yarn, these figures in "The Wonga Coup" seem to have walked out of a recent John le Carré novel.

The target in Mann's plot was a former Spanish colony that, in most atlases, "lies hidden under the staple." It had been ruled in the '70s by a tyrant named Francisco Macías Nguema, the paranoid son of a famous witchdoctor and a man rumored to indulge in not only black magic but cannibalism. He slaughtered tens of thousands of citizens, ruined the country's economy and even tried to ban Western medicine as "un-African," burnishing Equatorial Guinea's reputation as a breeding ground for malaria, yellow fever and leprosy. At the time, one foreign visitor called it the "Dachau of Africa." When Macías was finally deposed, he fled with a suitcase full of banknotes. Then, in the ensuing battle, the nation's entire foreign reserve went up in smoke in a burning hut.

Macías' successor, his nephew, Obiang, isn't much better. In 1995, when the U.S. Embassy briefly closed up shop, American officials called Equatorial Guinea a "basket case" and "a nasty little dictatorship in the middle of nowhere." Amnesty International estimates that 90 percent of the inmates in its notorious prisons are subjected to "inhumane practices" and characterizes jail terms there as "slow, lingering death sentences." An ambassador who complained about the use of torture was accused of conspiring with the president's political opposition to cast evil spells and warned "You will go to America as a corpse."

Most corrupt regimes in oil-rich African nations steal from ordinary citizens, siphoning off wealth that should go to health, education, economic development and other public services. Equatorial Guinea goes them one worse, however, being so ineptly managed that it gets some of the lowest prices for its oil on the continent, despite the high quality of the product. Obiang, his family and the rest of Equatorial Guinea's elites spend fabulous sums on fleets of sports cars and mansions overseas while stuffing foreign bank accounts with their ill-gotten millions. Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., was investigated by the U.S. Senate in large part for accommodating the flagrantly illegitimate dealings of Obiang and his relatives. Although Equatorial Guinea has the fastest-growing economy in the world (according to the International Monetary Fund) as a result of the discovery and continuing exploitation of its oil, the quality of life there (as measured by the United Nations) continues to fall every year.

Nobody likes Obiang's regime, and Roberts makes a good case that some Western nations may have discreetly supported Mann's little project. Spain -- which had been shut out of Equatorial Guinea's oil jackpot and had harbored the priest and exiled opposition leader Mann wanted to install in Obiang's place -- almost certainly encouraged the plot. Some have suggested that coup planners' liberally funded lobbying efforts in Washington may have paid off in the unusual ease with which Mann obtained a Boeing 727 to transport his fighters after his first plane broke down.

As Roberts sees it, where the plotters really screwed up was in thinking that South African authorities would welcome what they called "assisted regime change" in Equatorial Guinea. While it's hard to imagine a government that could have been worse than Obiang's, South Africa's leadership understandably didn't want to encourage the notion that a few rich white men could hire a (mostly black) army of mercenaries and overthrow the government of an African state. When they found out about the scheme, they cleverly arranged for Mann to be arrested in Zimbabwe while trying to pick up a load of weapons on the eve of the attack. The members of his "forward team" in the Equatorial Guinean capital of Malabo, who had been posing as businessmen, were apprehended as soon as the story broke.

Once the plan was exposed, it soon came out that at least one prominent Briton had likely been in on it: former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's black sheep son, Mark. Mark Thatcher, variously characterized by Roberts' sources as "useful but a complete idiot," as "not the sharpest pebble on the beach" and as having "an ego the size of a herd of elephants and the attention span of a gnat," seems to have been a marginal figure in the plot. He contributed several hundred thousand dollars and leased a helicopter that was never used. Still, he was a figure the press loved to hound, and South African authorities relished the chance to use his high profile to demonstrate that they were serious about their anti-mercenary laws. He ultimately copped a plea and was fined 3 million rand for his role in the coup attempt. (He also warned Roberts that if "The Wonga Coup" depicted him as one of the conspirators, the author would wind up as "Mr. Stumpy." "That is, walking around on stumps for legs," Roberts helpfully clarifies.)

But how did the coup's cover get blown to begin with? It wasn't "back-stabbing, bum-fucking and similar ungentlemanly activities," as one of the chief planners feared. Instead, it was arrogance and braggadocio. "Nobody was discreet," Roberts writes. "Heavy-drinking recruits talked in Pretoria's bars. The leaders held forth in Johannesburg's hotel lobbies as if the coup was already complete." The leader of the forward team even invited a documentary filmmaker to accompany them on the mission. "Like many mercenaries, they evidentially wanted someone to record their deeds," Roberts observes. At one point, the coup was being gossiped about in the Spanish media and openly discussed at a semipublic meeting at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. Authorities that might have made the best of an "assisted regime change" once it was a fait accompli had no choice but acting.

The last few chapters of the book deal with the aftermath of the bust. It was bad for Mann and his associates in Zimbabwe and worse for the forward team in the dreaded Playa Negra prison in Equatorial Guinea. A few of them died in jail. Some are still locked up. Others have been released. Most embittered by the experience are the coup's foot soldiers and their families, poor men who took the job under false pretenses; Mann told them they'd be guarding a mine in the Congo. Like the ordinary Africans in Equatorial Guinea, they always seem to wind up bearing the brunt of somebody else's greed and bad decisions. Meanwhile, the coup attempt has boosted Obiang's credibility in the region -- despite embarrassing revelations about his accounts held in Riggs Bank, he has enjoyed recent meetings with South African President Thabo Mbeki and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. ("You are a good friend and we welcome you," Rice told the reputed cannibal and known murderer in Washington, D.C.)

Roberts describes the "cast" of the Wonga Coup as "heavily stocked with rogues and eccentrics," which does tend to make the reader wish "The Wonga Coup" were more than just a specimen of heroic reporting. It can't have been easy to wrangle over a dozen participants and an ever-changing plan of action into a coherent narrative -- especially given that we'll probably never know all the juicy details. (Like: Is the J.H. Archer listed among the coup's financers really notorious British peer, perjurer and bestselling novelist Jeffrey Archer?)

Still, with a story and people this outrageous, it's a pity that Roberts can't write "color." He can tell you which seat the opposition leader took on the airplane to Malabo, but when it comes to sketching a character or generating atmosphere, he's out of his element; the most you learn is that a man was red-faced and liked steak or that an African capital is "sweaty." Perhaps Roberts opted for a terse, detailed, procedure-oriented style of prose in homage to the literary éminence grise of this bizarre tale, Frederick Forsyth, but that approach only really works when the operation is successful.

The quotes Roberts gets from his sources are what best convey the strange, cockeyed and appallingly cavalier tone of this "improbable escapade." Perhaps the most stupefying remark comes from Niel Steyl, one of a trio of South African brothers who signed on for Simon Mann's "project." Steyl also wasn't told much about the operation when he agreed to fly one of the planes. A brief gig during a vacation from his cushy job as private pilot for an Indian tycoon turned into a stint in a ghastly Zimbabwean jail. Still, Steyl holds no grudge. "I would do something with Simon again," he told Roberts. "But not for the money, for the kicks. It's not 'Hell, I'm never going to do this again.' Life is for living. Sometimes there's a fuck-up."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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