“‘Knocking off a bank or an armored truck,’ he said, ‘is merely crude. Knocking off an entire republic has, I feel, a certain style.'”
– Frederick Forsyth, “The Dogs of War”, 1974
A tiny African country, a speck on most maps, has a wealth of natural resources, but struggles under a corrupt dictator who pockets the nation’s wealth for his own personal gain. Enterprising, if amoral, international businessmen speculate that the government could be overthrown and replaced with one more sympathetic to their interests. They hire mercenaries, who plan a lightning attack on the nation, replacing the current despot with their own puppet, for money and for the joy of battle.
It sounds like the plot of a spy novel. And it is – the plot of Frederick Forsyth’s “The Dogs of War”, in which a British mining baron hires an Irish mercenary to topple the government of “Zangaro”, hoping to seize a platinum-rich mountain. But it’s also the plot of two seperate, attempted coups in Equatorial Guinea.
In 1973, a group of mercenaries led by Scotsman Alexander Gay began packing a boat called the Albatross with weapons, rubber rafts, uniforms and the other supplies neccesary to mount an invasion by sea of Fernando Po (the name at that time of Equatorial Guinea). The boat made it as far as the Canary Islands when British intelligence, cooperating with the Spanish government, intercepted the boat and deported the crewmen. It’s not certain what the goal of the coup was, or who financed it, but Adam Roberts, author of “The Wonga Coup”, presents a compelling argument that the plot was financed, at least in part, by Forsyth, and that the goal was to hand Fernando Po over to Biafran leader Odumengwu Emeka Ojukwu, who Forsyth had reported on from the Nigerian civil war and vociferously supported in the media.
Roberts, a former Africa bureau chief for the Economist, interviews Forsyth and gets the admission from him that he’d discussed the aborted plot with Alexander Gay, and passed money to the coup plotters… but maintains that he was discussing the coup for informational and research purposes. One way or another, his novel reads almost like a documentary of the aborted coup… though in his book, it succeeds and the character based on Ojukwu takes power in Zangaro. Indeed, the book has very few pages – about 30 of 400 – on the coup itself, and hundreds of pages on the techniques used to purchase arms illegally, to create false identifications and shell companies. It reads almost like a how-to guide, including a footnote to an earlier Forsyth book for those who want to know more about a particular technique for getting a fake passport.
The organizers of the 2004 attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea may well have used the book as a how-to. They failed to read closely enough, and the plotters in the coup to overthrow Obiang Nguema, one of Africa’s least pleasant leaders, led to the imprisonment of African and European plotters in jails in Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe.
The coup story made a minor splash with Africa watchers trying to unpack a complex tale that involved South African and British mercenaries, Zimbabwean arms, an exiled opposition leader in Spain, and a US-made transport plane. (My blog post from March 17, 2004, gives you a sense for how spotty information was.) The story made a bigger splash in Great Britain when it was discovered that one of the financiers of the coup was Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Roberts’ book makes the case that Thatcher did not know he was funding a coup attempt – that he believed he was helping finance an air ambulance service in West Africa – but also makes the case that Thatcher worked closely with Simon Mann, a British mercenary who was the key figure in the plot.
A communique between Mann – in a Zimbabwean jail – and Thatcher gives the coup its title. Mann asked Thatcher for “a splodge of wonga” to help get him out of the mess he was in. Roberts tells us that this is British public school slang for “a wad of dough”, and I can only take his word for it… as I can only take his word that the British public referred to the events in Equatorial Guinea as “the Wonga Coup”.
Roberts’ book is carefully researched and he’s clearly fascinated with these odd events, but their very complexity makes it difficult for him to tell a compelling story. The “cast of characters” at the beginning of his book runs four pages long and includes 27 key figures. Unfortunately, none are as compelling as Forsyth’s mercenary, Cat Shannon, probably because they’re real human beings and also because if Roberts made his characters as colorful, he’d be sued for libel. (He does give us the intriguing detail that Mark Thatcher is fond of threatening him with bodily harm if he’s misportrayed in the book.)
Roberts does an excellent job of detailing what the mercenaries thought they were getting out of the deal – Simon Mann drafted contracts with his backers and with Moto, guaranteeing him lucrative, future military contracts and a senior position in the new Equatorial Guinean army. But it’s less clear what his backers thought they were getting, and completely unclear whether any larger players (nations, large multinational companies) had any interests in the outcome of events, or whether intriguing details like a formerly US-registered cargo plane point to any tacit knowledge of the coup by the US government. “The Wonga Coup”‘s excellent chapter on the aborted 1973 coup suggests that it might be a few decades more before anyone can answer these questions more satisfactorily.
In “The Wonga Coup”, Roberts observes that coups are becoming less popular in Africa, and that the sort of “outside forces” coups Mann and associates were planning are decreasing in frequency and success – he notes that a similar coup was succesful in Sao Tome for only a few days before the coup forces were overthrown. One reason may be that other nations are less willing to see military force overthrow governments in their region. ZDI, a defense contractor controlled by the Zimbabwean government, agreed to arm Mann and compatriots… but the Zimbabwean government seized Mann’s plane when it landed in Harare to take delivery of the arms, and tipped off the Equatorial Guinean government to the presence of Nick Du Toit and other advance forces on the ground, allowing for their arrest.
Another reason may be that it’s very hard to plan a coup without telling too many people. Forsyth’s book focuses on the careful arrangements the coup plotters make to purchase weapons, landing craft and uniforms, avoiding giving anyone sufficient information to betray them. Mann told dozens of people about his planned coup – mercenaries and potential financiers – and more than a few of them had a hard time keeping their mouths shut. Roberts interviews a few men connected to mercenary activity in Europe and reports that several of Roberts collaborators had been discussing their plans in public, often while drunk in bars. One wonders whether similar dynamics exist around failed terror plots like the one that will prevent me from bringing bottled water onto my plane to London this evening.
When I first heard about the Equatorial Guinea coup two years ago, it seemed like the sort of story guaranteed to help people get interested in Africa, even if for all the wrong reasons. Shadowy arms deals, oil-rich dictators, seasoned mercenaries – these are elements of a story bound to catch the attention of anyone not interested in the complexities of debt relief, trade liberalization or entrepreneurial anti-poverty strategies. But Roberts’ book makes clear that the coup was confusing, complex and poorly understood even by those who’ve spent months studying it. In that sense, this simple story suffers from the same problems most Africa stories suffer from – it’s way more complicated than it looks at first glance.