Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get thrown into prison in Equatorial Guinea

Equatorial Guinea is famous for few things. It was featured as a prison for pig gene-spliced, organ-donor doppelgangers in Robin Cook's Chromosome Six. It also is the third largest oil producer in Africa. But most interestingly, it has been home to one of the most intriguing and troubling post-colonial morasses in the last decade, as the drama of Simon Mann and his band of Thatcher-funded mercenaries' attempted coup has unfolded. It seems that this week, there has been some resolution to the drama, as Mr. Mann has been officially released (aka bought out) from jail.

I know that this posting might seem a little tangential in comparison to my previous posts, but this topic is ever so near and dear to my heart, as I wrote my first, real, big, college paper on the subject back in 2004 while taking a class called
Ethics and War. I have been quietly following updates to the story ever since, and remain in awe of the hubris of the players involved. At the time that the story was breaking news, I took on the task of writing a paper at Professor Kateri Carmola's (now mentioned twice on my blog) urging. I found though, even with access to Lexis-Nexis, that there was very limited information on the coup in the media two months after it occurred. Little did I know that it would become such an intricate and dramatic ordeal that never seems to end! Looking back on what I wrote, I think that my now half-decade old* assessment stands up rather strongly and that my B grade on the paper is in need of some serious reconsideration seeing now that I initially interpreted the situation correctly. Unfortunately for Mr. Mann, his assessment was not so spot-on. I realize that posting a 9 page paper from 5 years ago might be a little self-indulgent, so I don't expect you read all of it. The Wiki entry above is interesting enough on its own. But if you have some time to kill, I offer you my sophomoric rambling on an attempted coup in Sub-Saharan Africa and all of the gritty, and at times, cynically hilarious, implications. Enjoy!

* I hate that I can now make date in time references using decades as units of measurement.

In an event that has been described as featuring “a dysfunctional ruling family, a Lamborghini-driving, rap-music-producing heir apparent and a bitter political opponent in exile who insists that Equatorial Guinea is run by a gonad-eating cannibal” and involving a “a Lebanese front company, a British financier, and some 80 mercenaries from South Africa, Germany, Armenia and Kazakhstan,” the recent coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea seems like it belongs, as one reporter says, in a “lurid airport novel.” While the attempted overthrow of the small, Maryland-sized country in western Africa seems fictional at first; its implications are significant. Upon examining the actions that took place in early March of 2004 three questions arise: what exactly happened in Zimbabwe, what motivated the group of sixty-five soldiers to act, and are these soldiers classified as professional military contractors or mercenaries?

On March 7 a Boeing 727 was grounded in Harare, Zimbabwe for having an incorrect passenger list. Upon further inspection of the plane, sixty-five men, instead of the four on the official list, were found huddled in the cabin. The sixty-five men, comprised of 20 South Africans, 18 Namibians, 23 Angolans, a Zimbabwean traveling on a South African passport and two men from the Democratic Republic of Congo, were classified as “suspected mercenaries” and were traveling with “military material” according to Zimbabwe home affairs minister Kembo Mohadi. Many of the men were former members of disbanded South African Apartheid military units such as the Buffalo Unit and Battalion 32. Meeting the sixty-five on the tarmac was Simon Mann, a former SAS agent with deep connections to the professional military corporations Executive Outcomes and Sandline. Zimbabwean authorities arrested the men on the plane along with Mann. The plane had apparently come to collect arms from the Zimbabwe Defense Industries to which Mann had apparently paid $180,000. Three days later, fifteen suspected professional military soldiers, led by former Executive Outcomes employee Nick Dutoit, were captured and charged with attempting to overthrow the government in Equatorial Guinea.

The next day Zimbabwean officials claimed that Simon Mann, under interrogation, had confessed to planning and attempting to execute a coup in Equatorial Guinea with funding from MI6, the CIA and the Spanish Secret Service. The apparent plan was to install Severo Moto Nsa, an Equatorial Guinean dissident and exile living in Spain. Mann had reportedly been paid the equivalent of over twenty million U.S. dollars to execute to the operation. On March 10th, Zimbabwe threatened that the captured men faced capital punishment and accused Britain, the United States, and Spain of pursuing economic interests in Equatorial Guinea. All three countries swiftly denied any involvement, yet the same day Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who was recently placed number six on a list of the world’s ten worst dictators, reported that Nick Dutoit had confessed on national television to receiving funds from the same three governments and multinational corporations. Logo Logistics Inc., a British P.M.C. of which Simon Mann is an executive, claimed that it had hired the men to protect mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As more investigation occurred, Equatorial Guinea came to accuse Ely Calil, a Lebanese born British oil investor of leading a group of businessmen who funded the operation. On March 24th the sixty-five captured men were officially charged in a Zimbabwe court with conspiring to possess dangerous weapons, acquiring firearms without a license, violating immigration and aviation regulations and conspiring with exile Severo Moto in
Spain to topple the Equatorial Guinean government. The charge of conspiring to overthrow Obiang was dropped at the last minute and, as of April 30th, the Zimbabwean government has negotiated a treaty with Equatorial Guinea in which the sixty-five alleged men will face extradition to an Equatorial Guinean prison and face trial there for the attempted coup.

The intention of the participants in the failed coup is questionable. Some claim that the men were attempting to liberate Equatorial Guinea from a brutal dictator who, because of his country’s vast, recently discovered oil reserves, had western powers overlooking his involvement in gruesome human rights abuses. Others assert that Mann and his counterparts were working with the exiled Moto in order to establish a new, puppet government and in turn be appointed to high-ranking cabinet positions with considerable shares of the oil revenue. Professional military analysts and conspiracy theorists question Mann’s tactics in the coup-attempt and even go as far as to posit that the South African government, wanting to rid itself of its reputation for harboring ex-Apartheid “dogs of war,” set Mann and the other soldiers up in conjunction with the Zimbabwean government. Zimbabwean President Mugabe is also notoriously paranoid of Western democratic governments. The alleged foreign involvement of the C.I.A, and MI6 along with the South African conspiracy is most likely the result of Mugabe attempting to spin the situation in order to victimize Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, the attempted coup raises questions about how to classify Mann and his group. Were these men in fact professional military contractors serving as liberators ousting a dictatorial regime in an undemocratic region or are they mercenaries simply profiteering from an unstable oil-rich country? Since the actual intention of the group proves difficult to ascertain both of these questions require a close examination.

The Equatorial Guinean government has one of the worst human rights records of any African country. A U.S. State Department report showed that in 1998 at least five confirmed cases of extrajudicial killings occurred in which prisoners were beaten to death under the supervision of the head of presidential security. There were also reports of an unknown number of summary executions near the Bioko village after which security forces hid the bodies in a jungle before the arrival of a special U.N. rapporteur for human rights. At least ten incidents of disappearance were also reported, yet only one has been confirmed. In response to a January 21, 1998 revolt many incidents where “torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” occurred. Following the revolt a credible source claimed that prisoners with any involvement in the incident were urinated on, kicked in the ribs, had their ears sliced with knives, and were smeared with oil in order to attract stinging ants. The president acknowledged such abuse but justified it by claiming that it was against rogue detractors. Prison conditions are reported as “primitive and life threatening,” with inadequate rations, and nonexistent sanitary conditions.

A 2002 state department report claims that while “nominal” legal procedures exist, such as requirement of search warrants or protection of citizen’s rights, the government systematically ignores them. Judges serve at “the pleasure of the President,” and “corruption is widespread.” Though the constitution allows for free speech, the government does not tolerate it. Journalists practice self-censorship and the current press law is based on a 1967 Spanish, Franco-era press law. All radio is monopolized and operated by the government. The report also shows that while citizens have the right to change their government, there has not been a free and transparent election since the country won its freedom in 1968. In the 2002 presidential elections, President Obiang carried 97.1 percent of the vote with 98 percent of registered voters voting. There are no rights for the welfare of children, and while it is illegal to beat women in public, such action is encouraged in the home. Despite efforts to condemn the Equatorial Guinean government for its abuse, the current U.S. administration reopened the embassy in Malabo in the summer of 2003, after eight years of closure, as Equatorial Guinea became the third largest oil-producing country in Africa producing over 180,000 barrels per day.

An official comment on the Sandline website titled, “If it worked before, why not again?,” makes the case for intervention using PMC’s in failed states facing humanitarian crises. After quoting Kofi Annan, a handful of high-ranking U.N. officers and other experts in international policy the corporation attempts to define their role in international conflict and conflict resolution. Sandline acknowledges that PMC’s should be utilized in order to pacify war torn nations and bring peace to civilians. In other words Sandline wants to serve as a humanitarian corporation:

“Private Military Companies have already proven their effectiveness in Africa. We have a track record of swiftly ending conflicts in the 1990s. Today, deployment in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sao Tome and parts of Uganda to name but a few countries in crisis could bring a stop to the local violence and bloodshed and precipitate a return to peace and security for their long-suffering civilian populace."

In its company profile Sandline claims that its involvement in any conflict will “improve the state of security, stability and general conditions in client countries.” Sandline will also support “genuine, internationally recognized and supported liberation movements” which are “legal and moral.” In this context, the possibility arises that Simon Mann, in conjunction with Sandline, was organizing a plot to install exiled dissident Severo Moto, who seems to be recognized as a legitimate leader of a liberation movement. In relation to Equatorial Guinea’s human rights record, Mann would have been acting legally and morally while improving the stability of the country. In this sense, Mann was acting within the boundaries of Sandline’s code of ethics, which seems to be internationally respected. Strangely, and possibly in response to the events in Zimbabwe, Sandline shut down its operations on April 16, 2004 citing lack of government support for its operations stating “without such support the ability of Sandline (and other PMCs) to make a positive difference in countries where there is widespread brutality and even genocidal behavior is irretrievably diminished.” Though Sandline might portray itself as a provider of peace and stability throughout the world acting for humanitarian causes, one might question a company comprised of ex-Apartheid officers and other freelance soldiers who have become known and referred to as “dogs of war” as a result of a novel written in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea that described a fictional plot eerily similar to the early March activities. Might there be another motive driving these soldiers to potentially dangerous, combat situations where the threat of imprisonment or death exists?

The discovery of oil in Equatorial Guinea transformed the country from an impoverished west-African nation to one experiencing rapid industrialization. The growth indicators for the country indicate a massive explosion in the GDP growth rate(20 percent in 2002) to over $1.25 billion and the industrial production growth rate (30 percent in 2002). The oppressive government unfortunately does not distribute this wealth evenly to the citizenry keeping the majority of wealth in Obiang’s personal bank accounts. As a result of the discovery of oil, the WorldBank and IMF no longer provide assistance to the small country. Thus the people still suffer as a result of what Financial Times columnists refer to as the “curse” of oil in that in impoverished nations “natural resources bring blessings and a corrosive political culture[.]” From these facts, the actions of the group become questionable because they were attempting to overthrow an unstable and oil-rich government. Simon Mann was apparently receiving financial backing from wealthy London oil-entrepreneur Ely Calil who acquired his fortune from west-African oil investments and was arrested but freed on appeal in the ELF scandal after taking illegal payments for an oil contract in Nigeria. Calil also has close connections to Equatorial Guinean dissident Severo Moto, who was supposed to assume power after the coup. If this is indeed the case Simon Mann and Nick Dutoit’s groups can no longer be classified as professional military contractors securing the safety of an oppressed people but instead become mercenaries trying to install a puppet government and profit from warfare. If Mann and his group are found to be acting as mercenaries they have no rights as prisoners of war or combatants according to the Geneva Convention Additional Protocols of 1977. Therefore they will face justice in accordance with Equatorial Guinean law and most likely serve sentences in one of the “primitive and life-threatening” prisons where eyewitnesses have witnessed gruesome abuses, and in which one of the fifteen members of Dutoit’s group detained in Equatorial Guinea has died from what Obiang’s government cites as malaria.

The current status of Simon Mann and his captured men is undetermined. As of April 30th the detained soldiers in Zimbabwe are awaiting extradition to Equatorial Guinea. Nick Dutoit and his group are still imprisoned in the Black Beach Prison in Malabo. Whether the soldiers are classified as humanitarian interventionists or oil-hungry mercenaries they still deserve ethical and human treatment from the government and law under which they are prosecuted. Though the plot seems wide-ranging and easily succumbs to what some would hope to see as an international scandal involving multiple governments and multinational governments, what happened in March of 2004 must be analyzed from the perspective of corporate professional military entities such as Simon Mann or Sandline. While such actors would hopefully like to intervene in every instance in which blatant violations of humanitarian law occur, companies unfortunately assess each situation from a monetary standpoint using risk and return analyses. Sandline and Simon Mann are in no way humanitarian interventionists; they are businessmen who put money ahead of humanity while concurrently claiming to valiantly provide a service to mankind. Until further empowerment of the U.N. or the arrival of a truly active and willing humanitarian force, false heroes like Simon Mann will be implicated in activities akin to the coup in Equatorial Guinea. The events that took place in March 2004 had the potential to expose the heinous actions of a brutal dictator and the plight of an oppressed people to the world, but instead they were turned into the punchline of a lurid airport novel with washed-up British imperialists gallivanting around the world in search of Etonian conquest.

The men who would be King?

[i]Where Coup Plots Are Routine, One That Is Not” by MICHAEL WINES, New York Times March 15 2004

[ii]MERCENARIES AIMED TO TOPPLE OIL-RICH DESPOT,” by PAUL LASHMAR, Independent on Sunday (London) March 14 2004

[iii]Africa's mercenary mystery,” by Oakland Ross, The Toronto Star, April 11 2004

[iv]Briton tied to plane in Harare: No suggestion of coup. 64 aboard said to be led by known mercenary” by TIM BUTCHER and PETA THORNYCROFT, London Daily Telegraph March 10, 2004

[v]Britain, U.S., Spain plotted W. African coup, Zimbabwe says: Wants to execute those who targeted Equatorial Guinea” The Daily Telegraph, March 11 2004



[viii]Mercenaries shown no mercy,” by Jan Raath, The Australian, March 25 2004

[ix]Zimbabwe to extradite coup plot suspects,” by Andrew Meldrum, The Guardian (London), April 30 2004


[xi]Murky tale of a mercenary adventure: Speculation grows as Equatorial Guinea claims plot to kill president was foiled,” by David Pallister, The Guardian (London) March 13 2004


[xiii] Peter Singer interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation hosted by Neal Conan on March 10, 2004

[xiv] “”




[xviii] Frederick Forsyth


[xx]'Curse of oil' highlights fragility of African states: New riches carry hidden problems,” By MICHAEL PEEL and NICHOLAS SHAXSON, Financial Times, March 24, 2004

[xxi]The British 'coup' in the heart of Africa,” by Patrick Barkham and Michael Evans, The Times (London) March 15 2004

[xxii]Murky tale of a mercenary adventure: Speculation grows as Equatorial Guinea claims plot to kill president was foiled,” by David Pallister, The Guardian (London), March 13, 2004


[xxiv]Jailed 'mercenaries' face extradition threat,” by Jan Raath, The Times (London) April 29, 2004

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