Who is Simon Mann?
Be he founder, cohort or accomplice, Simon Mann now sits for 34 years in one of the world's worst prisons as one of the first private military personnel caught in the turmoil of a failed coup, Jody Bennett writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Jody Ray Bennett for ISN Security Watch
It was in Angola in 1993 and a man by the name of Tony Buckingham had a problem. Buckingham had recently been subcontracted by a Calgary-based oil exploitation company (Ranger Oil West Africa Ltd, or ROWAL) to set up a platform infrastructure that would award Buckingham with 10 percent of the generated profit from the new venture. However, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) forces had since taken control of key oil ports, including offshore equipment needed by ROWAL to carry out its contract with the government of Angola. It would cost Buckingham thousands each day that ROWAL could not operate. He needed to do something fast.
In his book, Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, Robert Young Pelton reported that Buckingham unsuccessfully attempted several tactics to get the ROWAL operation back up and running. He tried to renegotiate with UNITA forces, but they refused to comply with any stipulation that would have further empowered the dos Santos government of Angola. Buckingham then tried to have a third party - a private security company called DSL - sabotage the seized oil equipment in order to reap insurance benefits; DSL refused. Finally, Buckingham turned to the Angolan army to liberate the port and equipment, but having been undertrained and overstretched for years in one of the world's most notorious Cold War proxy conflicts, the Angolan forces were simply unable to carry out an operation to regain control of the area.
A desperate Buckingham then turned to a friend, a man by the name of Simon Mann, a former British SAS officer who had originally helped him secure the contract with ROWAL in Angola. Mann introduced him to Eeben Barlow who had since established a company called Executive Outcomes (EO), a private military outfit often cited when illustrating the genesis of the private military industry. With funding from the Angolan state oil company, Mann spearheaded a very dangerous operation with EO using only a few MiG helicopters and a few dozen black African expat mercenaries, which would be transported by ship. Mann and EO eventually defeated the UNITA forces and recaptured the port and equipment needed for Buckingham to resume operations.
Soon after, Mann and EO were given another contract by the dos Santos government to deal directly with UNITA forces. EO again assembled a small force of African manpower eager to earn a wage to support their families, and by 1994 the company "dramatically tilted the balance of the conflict." By November 2004, the two warring sides signed the Lusaka Protocol, temporarily ending the conflict in Angola. By 1996, Executive Outcomes would pull out of Angola completely.
Pelton notes: "It took the Clinton Administration's threatening to block UN aid to Angola for dos Santos to tactually break off the relationship [with EO]…Clinton […] wanted Angola to replace EO with the politically correct version of a private military company: Military Professional Resources, Inc (MPRI), a collection of American generals and contractors who train foreign armies with the blessing of US policy."
With a newly replenished bank account, EO beefed up its air, tank and manpower capabilities and secured another contract with the military leadership of Sierra Leone. Surrounded by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Freetown, Executive Outcomes was able to push RUF forces back into the jungle after only nine days, with a mere 125 mercenaries and some heavy military equipment. As with Angola, EO only temporarily ended the fighting. Just a few months after the company pulled out, RUF forces had regained a significant amount of power in the region.
The Sandline incident
Executive Outcomes would eventually be forced to dissolve in 1999 after South Africa passed the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act. This prompted Mann to contact his long-time friend, a former Scots Guard, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer, to form a new, more corporatized (and less visible) private military company that was to be dubbed Sandline International - a project that had been in the works roughly three years before EO would have to officially close its doors forever.
By winter 1996, Sandline had received approximately US$250,000 from Papua New Guinea to survey the possibilities of regaining control and securing the Panguna copper mine from the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) rebels. After some speedy number crunching, Spicer and Mann approached Julius Chan, then-Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, and told him that Sandline could liberate Panguna for US$36 million.
By February, Sandline began military and security training with South African mercenaries, many of whom were the same individuals used in previous EO missions. The government of Papua New Guinea later explained to Australia that it had "paid for a training program from what was essentially Executive Outcomes." After the Australian government pressured Chan to remove Sandline, the news leaked to the public and the Papua New Guinea defense forces (PNGDF) became outraged that the Chan government had chosen to hire private mercenaries for such a high price without first consulting national forces.
The scene quickly turned ugly. Spicer would eventually be jailed and the rest of Sandline's contractors would be deported by the PNGDF, which, led by Jerry Singarok, demanded Chan step down as prime minister. When Singarok was forced to resign in the face of a firing, hundreds of soldiers flooded the streets to demonstrate on his behalf. Interestingly, Pelton notes, "The Sandline operation had accidentally pushed the country to the brink of a military coup." Spicer was eventually released and flown out of the country, and Sandline demanded payment for its services. After a court settlement, Papua New Guinea was forced to pay an amount in increments to Sandline over a period of several years.
The Equatorial Guinea project
Equatorial Guinea, the very small but very oil rich nation and former Spanish colony, fell into Mann's crosshairs for a new project just a few years later. By 2002 several large investors had come together and rough plans were drawn up to overthrow the Obiang government and reap the benefits of the oil rich nation. The investors ranged from big businessmen to British politicians, including Mark Thatcher, son of Margaret Thatcher.
But to successfully and quietly overthrow a government, the investors required a secret army. It would be no surprise that Mann, known for his previous African operations, would be contacted to assist. Mann would soon turn to Niek du Toit, a former colleague who worked for EO during the Sierra Leone and Angolan missions, to begin operations on the ground. Since then, it has been confirmed that du Toit, as reported by Pelton, "relocated to Equatorial Guinea with the purpose of setting up a front company that would arrange logistical support in the advance of the coup."
By February 2004, Mann had organized the plan with all parties involved to overthrow the Obiang government. The plan seemed simple: One cargo plane of mercenaries and military equipment would fly from South Africa to pick up Mann and a large cache of arms in Harare, Zimbabwe. From there, the plane would fly into Malobo while Obiang would be distracted as he dined with one of du Toit's colleagues.
Once the plane arrived in Harare, military officials grew suspicious and searched the aircraft, finding the armed men hired by Mann. Despite the pilot's initial story that the plane was on its way to Burundi and the Congo for mining operations, the men aboard were arrested. Mann was placed in solitary confinement. Fourteen mercenaries were arrested alongside Mann and du Toit, all of which were sent to Black Beach prison, one of the world's worst containment centers.
In Zimbabwe, Mann was sentenced to serve four years for the shady arms purchase made in Harare. Thatcher was also arrested and heavily fined under South Africa's anti-mercenary rulings. Du Toit was given 34 years in Equatorial Guinea's Black Beach jail, where he currently serves and maintains that he had no knowledge of an alleged coup attempt.
Mann comes clean…or does he?
As Mann awaited a chance to appeal in Zimbabwe, he was secretly transported (he claims brutally kidnapped) to Black Beach prison where he is now serving up to 34 years for his involvement in the overthrow of the Obiang government. The 60-plus mercenaries on the cargo ship have since been released.
In March 2008, Mann was interviewed by a British media outlet where he not only openly admitted for the first time that he and his team were planning to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea, but also de-emphasized his role, stating he was merely a "manager - not the architect" of the plot. He implicated several people behind the project, including Thatcher and other high officials in the Spanish government.
"Well, I was involved. And I was, if you like, the manager. Below me were quite a number of people. Including those who were arrested with me in Zimbabwe, including those who are still, who have been sentenced, they are doing prison sentences [in Black Beach]. And of course, above me in the machine, were other people […]. So I was, if you like, The Manager. Not the architect. And not the main man."
At the highest level, Mann states that Eli Khalil, a British businessman of Lebanese and Nigerian descent, bankrolled the majority of the project. Khalil has adamantly denied all allegations of his involvement with Mann or the Equatorial Guinea Project.
Mann is clearly hoping that by "coming clean" he may have had a chance to shorten his stay in Black Beach. Bound from wrists to ankles, Mann analogizes the entire situation, "You know, you go tiger shooting and you sort of don't expect the tiger to win." He later adds, "I've been saying how sorry I am to everybody for four years now actually. I'm going to write it on my forehead. 'Sorry!'"
"Based on my conversations with President Obiang, I believe that Mann (and the other plotters led by Niek du Toit) will be pardoned and returned to their respective homelands once Obiang has made his point," Pelton told ISN Security Watch.
Pelton further notes on mainstream media coverage of Mann and coup attempt: "The [popular] media misses the main point […] that [Equatorial Guinea] is not a cartoonish back-water African nation (as Simon Mann was led to believe) but rather a rapidly growing success story. It has been Obiang's point all along that the era of African leadership being decided by wealthy privateers and violence is at an end," he said.
"The world community will simply not allow a small group of desperate men the ability to overthrow a recognized government by violence and deception. We hold a double standard by demanding first world social structures from rapidly developing nations and encourage the stereotype of Africans not being able to determine their own destiny."
Jody Ray Bennett is an ISN Security Watch correspondent based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.