On March 6, 2004, a white Boeing 727 with a U.S. registration number landed on the Harare International airport, Zimbabwe, and headed to the cargo area. The pilot of the jet, that had flown from South Africa, had indicated that it wanted to refuel before flying on.
The Zimbabwean authorities were, however, suspicious, largely because their intelligence told them that some interesting personalities were to meet the flight.
They were right, as it would later emerge that the jet had stopped at Harare, Zimbabwe, to pick up a cache of arms. It would then fly to Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony that is one of the largest oil exporters in sub-Saharan Africa.
There, the plan, led by one Simon Mann, a veteran of British special military operations, was to depose the country’s dictator, Obiang Nguema, and replace him with his rival, Severo Moto, who was then an exiled priest living in Madrid.
The coup, which was modelled on Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 novel “The Dogs of War,” itself a fictional version of an earlier plot, was foiled. At the airport, it is recorded that the Zimbabweans found 64 men on the plane – 20 South Africans, 18 Namibians, 23 Angolans, two Congolese (from the Democratic Republic of Congo) and one Zimbabwean with a South African passport, as well as “military material”, including camouflage uniforms, sleeping bags, compasses and wire cutters.
Some of the men were said to have been former members of the notorious 32 Commando of the South African defence force, a clandestine unit of the apartheid regime who joined the private military company Executive Outcomes (EO), which carried out military operations for the governments of Sierra Leone and Angola in the 1990s, reports The Guardian.
Zimbabwe, then led under former President Robert Mugabe, also arrested the former British SAS soldier, Simon Mann, who had arrived at the airport to meet the plane. According to The Guardian, he had helped to establish EO and its British associate, Sandline International – the military company that helped Sierra Leone beat the rebel group RUF.
At the same time, the police in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, arrested 19 foreigners, many of them being South Africans, and charged them with plotting a coup against the country’s leader, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. One of the arrested men, a German, later died in an Equatorial Guinea prison of what officials said was cerebral malaria.
Adam Roberts, a former Economist Johannesburg bureau chief, who christened the 2004 incident as the Wonga Coup, said that the plotters had intended to stay in Equatorial Guinea for a while in order to get a slice of the oil revenues that was flooding the west African country, using Moto as their front man. His account would implicate associates, including the son of Margaret Thatcher.
Meanwhile, before the attempted coup, reports said Mann, who had run private military companies in South Africa and Britain and was the main organizer of the coup, had been in Harare in February 2004 with a South African called Nick du Toit, allegedly seeking to buy arms.
It would also emerge that Mann was a friend of Mark Thatcher, son of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Five months after the Zimbabwe arrests, Thatcher was arrested at his Cape Town home in South Africa and charged with illegally helping to finance the failed coup.
Thatcher would later admit to paying for a military helicopter used by the mercenaries in the failed plot but maintained that he believed it was to be used as an air ambulance.
Mann, however, said in court that the money from his friend was used to pay for a plane to fly in Moto, who would have been installed into the presidency if the coup had been successful.
A Cape Town court in January 2005 subsequently ordered Thatcher to pay about $332,000 as fine and gave him a four-year suspended prison sentence. This was after he admitted his role in a failed coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea under a plea bargain that saves him from prison.
The suspected mercenaries were, meanwhile, denying that they were seeking to overthrow Obiang, saying that they had been hired to provide security for gold-mining operations in the Congo Republic, southeast of Equatorial Guinea.
But during a Malabo trial, the South African arms dealer, Toit, who was an influential figure in the coup, admitted to the plot.
“He testified that Mr. Mann had offered him $1 million to provide invading mercenaries with vehicles, logistical support and information on the locations of Mr. Obiang and other key officials,” writes The New York Times.
Toit said in an Equatorial Guinea television broadcast interview: “It wasn’t a question of taking the life of the head of state but of spiriting him away, taking him to Spain and forcing him into exile and then of immediately installing the government-in-exile of Severo Moto. The group was supposed to start by identifying strategic targets such as the presidency, the military barracks, police posts and the residences of government members.
“Then it was supposed to have vehicles at Malabo airport to transport other mercenaries who were due to arrive from South Africa. But at the last minute I got a call to say that the other group of mercenaries had been arrested in South Africa as they were preparing to leave the country.”
In the meantime, Zimbabwean authorities also accused the secret services of Britain, the U.S. and Spain of being behind the plot. Roberts’ suggestions also included the following: “that the Spanish government of José Maria Aznar was complicit in the attempt (it had to be launched before he left office in mid-March 2004); that the British government knew about it beforehand, but chose not to inform Equatorial Guinea; that the South African government had been getting regular updates on the plot for months before it was launched, and waited until the very last moment before passing on the information that would scupper it; that the plotters had lamentable operational security, indulging in poolside or bar-stool bragging about their plans; that the plan went through several improbable iterations before it took on a final form bizarrely similar to Frederick Forsyth’s fictional coup thriller The Dogs of War; that most of the conspirators have been happy to make statements implicating everyone else; and that Thatcher probably did know what he was getting into.”
Most of the plotters of the coup have since been sentenced to jails scattered across Africa. Mann, in 2008, was sentenced to 34 years (and two days) in Black Beach prison, Malabo.
Roberts writes that the main reason the coup failed was that “nobody could keep their mouth shut about the conspiracy.” For weeks, rumours of a coup were said to have been rife in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.
Equatorial Guinea, a tiny African country with a wealth of natural resources, struggles under an authoritarian ruler who has been accused of pocketing the country’s wealth for his own personal gain.
Teodoro, who has earned the title of the second longest-serving non-royal national leader in the world, has been accused of abusing his power by imposing government directed kidnappings, subjective arrest, impunity and has been proven to be involved in embezzlement and corruption by the United States Department of Justice.
International businessmen had, in 2004, thought that the government could be overthrown and replaced with one that is more sympathetic to their needs, but they were wrong.