Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Understanding the Wonga Coup

“‘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.

3 Responses to “Understanding the Wonga Coup”

  1. Pienso says:

    Great review and comments. Just in case, here is a related piece in Slate:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2148608/

    And another from Salon:

    http://www.salon.com/books/review/2006/08/17/roberts/print.html

    I haven’t read it yet, though it is in the mail. I really loved the Forsyth book though when I read it years ago.

  2. Sverre Helgesen says:

    Ho-ho! I had to laugh at reading Forsyth’s comments about ‘being an innocent’. Pull the other one, mate!

    I know Freddie, or knew him, way back in the late 50′s/early 60′s. I was mates with the guy who became famous as the Jackal, Jimmy Duggan from Bromley, and over the years met many of the mercs you’ve come to know so well via Freddie’s books. Freddie was their intel-officer and a good friend of Jimmy’s, I met him often. He knows the lot, kept copious files you would love to get a peek at!

    The ‘Dogs’ scenario came about in late ’61, an idea from Black Johnny (who is thought to be still alive) as getting a place the mercs could retire too, along with friends in the OAS (2 of Jimmy’s men, Jean Baptiste and Rolf Steiner, had been members of the OAS, and via them I met a few of the top OAS men, who all realised it was over and wanted out, the problem being where they could live with no extradition treaty). It was Rolf who went to Equitorial Guinea, his dad had been a keen birdwatcher. He DID get beaten up, got a rifle-butt in the stomach and had to feed on babyfood for 2 weeks whilst staying ay Jimmy’s flat in Adams Mews in Mayfair. It was Rolf and Jimmy who planned and costed the coups. Finding the money was a problem, Forsyth was dealing with Lord Mountbatten who obviously wanted in big time (the geologist actually found offshore oil, billions of dollars worth). I suspect Jimmy and the guys didn’t trust Mounbatten, realising he was going to screw them and take over for himself. I have reason to believe he then thought to use the international power this would give him to take over The Crown of Britain in a coups (!). But, luckily, Jimmy was then approached by a gay bankclerk (Jimmy was bisexual) and together with Rolf and Black Jack Schramme, planned what we now know of as ‘The Great Train Robbery’, to finance the coups.

    I don’t know what happened to change things, my family emigrated and I never saw any of the guys again. I might have met Buster Reynolds once. I did meet Roy James a few times. But as I was out of the loop I don’t know what went wrong with the Train Robbery op. By the way, the mercs and OAS guys – who were to do the robbery – could drive any vehicle, including trains, and the money was to be flown out within the hour on a plane flown by David Ferrie (of JFK fame). I met him at Jimmy’s, he was well-known by the mercs. The Corsican mafia would be waiting at a lonely chateau in France and swap the money for arms and ceritificates the guys needed to persecute the ‘Dogs’ coups. This before the Brit police knew there had been a robbery…..

    It took 17 years, but I rewrote Freddie’s book about The Jackal and sent him a copy. He did read it, but refuses to talk to me about republishing it, and giving the money to charity. It’s not the definitive version, I don’t know it all, only Freddie knows that, but it is a damn site closer than he got!

    I traced Jimmy to the Peitermauritzburg/Durban region, where several millionaire ex-merc leaders had estates and their own security, but my contact (who went to school with Jimmy’s son) went silent on me. This was 3-4 years ago now. Jimmy was living under another name, but it was him.

    Forsyth is an interesting man. Another contact (with a pedigree to back it up) suggested he was a secret agent for Opus Dei. Would that match up with Mounbatten? My contact also suggested there have been 4 attempts to take The Crown the last 100 years, one was foiled by WW11 and was perhaps being setup again after it (the time I’ve mentioned?) and Diana was another attempt (though she didn’t know anything about it, was being used). Interesting point: there is yet ANOTHER coups being set up as we speak! It seems Freddie was arrested by the SIS after the Jackal attempt on De Gaulle AND after the failed ‘Dogs’ coups, but put his finger up and told them to back off. Does those files of his contain something really juicy? It does seem suspiciously so.

    Freddie also knew Stephen Ward of the Profumo scandal, Ward was sometimes down the mews chatting (a favoured meeting-place for many professional and showbiz people) and was also a very good friend of Roy James, as Ward was an ex-racer (speak to Stirling Moss and David Piper about this, they knew Ward very well, thank you, it was Ward who swung the deal that got Piper the money to buy his Ferraris!) I’ve been trying to find photos taken in the mews that would show this. The bike-racer Paddy Driver and Marlene Redman, the Honda racer’s wife, were keen photographers and took many pics. But she divorced Jim after he retired and I can’t find either her or Paddy.

    Perhaps he doesn’t dare, perhaps he’s been told to cool it, but oh yes, Freddie Forsyth knows a bit more than he lets on……

  3. Brian Reyes says:

    One of the most interesting elements of this book for me was the fact that it was a re-run of previous, faied coup. Im a journalist based in Gibraltar and following the leads in the book, I took a local look at this angle. Hope you like.

    http://www.lettersfromgib.com/2009/08/mercenary-plot.html

    I also had the opportunity of asking Mark Thatcher about Equatorial Guinea while he was on honeymoon in Gibraltar. Well, opportunity isn’t really right. I doorstepped him at his hotel. He didn’t say much, understandably…

    http://www.chronicle.gi/headlines_details.php?id=13160

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  2. …My heart’s in Accra » From compassion to action, from action to knowledge - [...] book was the result of his involvement in planning an attempted coup in 1973 – Forsyth admits he knew …
  3. …My heart’s in Accra » Overcoming apathy through participation? – (not) my talk at Personal Democracy Forum - [...] Forsyth’s “Dogs of War” was written about a coup in Equatorial Guinea and the attempted coups in 1973 and …

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