Black Sheep, Big Trouble

The trials of Sir Mark Thatcher.

Black Sheep Big TroubleA botched coup by mercenaries last year against the dictator of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea ensnared Sir Mark Thatcher, son of Britain’s former prime minister, whose business dealings have made him controversial before. Though he denies involvement, he was arrested by the South African government, and faces charges of having helped finance the plot. Reporting from Cape Town, the author talks to the 51-year-old Thatcher and other sources about the investigation, his relationship with his powerful mother, and his dangerous connections.

It wasn’t hard to spot Sir Mark Thatcher in the lobby of the Mount Nelson, an exclusive but now somewhat faded hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, in early October. At 51, with gray hair and piercing blue eyes, he looks more than ever like his mother, the former British prime minister Lady Margaret Thatcher. The resemblance is all the more striking given Sir Mark’s six-foot, lean frame, held soldier-upright, which makes it difficult for him to blend in. He was by far the most immaculately dressed man in the place. His blue chinos and white Ralph Lauren shirt were crisply ironed, his black loafers polished until they shone. A yellow cashmere sweater was tied with perfect symmetry around his shoulders. Amid the sea of casual T-shirts and cutoff shorts, he looked both very British and very distinguished. He also seemed tired and yawned occasionally.

“You’re late,” he said testily, leading the way to lunch, during which, without warning, he would periodically amble over to the buffet. But his awkwardness slowly dissipated. “Mark is best described with three s’s,” a friend of his had told me the night before. “Shy, sensitive, and stubborn. He actually finds it hard to talk to people at first, and this has been mistaken for arrogance.” In fact, at our meeting Thatcher soon grew animated and charming. He has both a dry sense of humor and an admirable stoicism, given his current circumstances.

The meeting at the Mount Nelson had been set up through Thatcher’s London-based spokesman, Lord Tim Bell, his mother’s former election adviser, and Bell’s associate Abel Haddon. At Thatcher’s insistence, Haddon stipulated that there were to be no questions about the court hearing scheduled for late November concerning Thatcher’s possible involvement in funding an alleged multi-million-dollar failed coup attempt in the oil-rich dictatorship of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny former Spanish colony on the west coast of Africa.

On the night of Sunday, March 7, 2004, 70 soldiers for hire, including Simon Mann, a 52-year-old British, Eton-educated former Special Air Services officer, who was a neighbor and friend of Thatcher’s in Cape Town, were arrested on the military side of Harare airport, in Zimbabwe. Their plane, an American Boeing 727, which had been flown in from South Africa, was parked beside an arsenal of weapons, including 61 AK assault rifles with 45,000 rounds of ammunition, 150 grenades, 20 P.K.M. light machine guns with 30,000 rounds of ammunition, 50 PRM heavy machine guns, and 100 rocket-propelled-grenade launchers with 1,000 rounds. The men were taken off the plane at gunpoint by the Zimbabwean authorities, and then jailed (except for two South Africans, who were released). Most were sentenced to approximately a year in prison for illegally entering the country. Mann, however, was given seven years for attempting to illegally buy weapons in Zimbabwe. He and the others are imprisoned in Chikurubi, a jail on the outskirts of Harare that is infested with rats and severely short of drinking water. Armed guards are perched on the walls, and a tank sits outside, its guns aimed at the gates. Most of the mercenaries are incarcerated eight to a cell, and disease is rampant. One has since died, and two others have been released for reasons of ill health.

Meanwhile, more than 2,000 miles to the northwest, in Equatorial Guinea, a country approximately the size of Maryland, with a population of just half a million, another mercenary crew, consisting of eight South Africans and six Armenians, is likewise imprisoned. These men, it is alleged by the Equatoguinean government, were Mann’s advance party, whose duty it was to secure the airstrip and provide transport. They were led by Nick du Toit, a tough 48-year-old former South African National Defence Force (S.A.N.D.F.) elite officer. Du Toit and his comrades are being held in the notorious Black Beach prison, on the Atlantic coast, which, according to legend, floods when the tide comes in. Rife with deadly malaria, it supposedly makes Chikurubi look like the Ritz. Du Toit confessed to charges concerning his involvement in the coup and shouldered most of the blame; he later recanted, saying he confessed under torture. (A lawyer for Equatorial Guinea, Englishman Henry Page, of the U.K. law firm Penningtons, denies this.)

Equatorial Guinea (E.G., for short) is currently run by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago, 63, who overthrew and executed his uncle in 1979. Since the discovery of oil in 1995, Obiang and his family have lived like maharajas, while most of the population lacks such basic necessities as electricity and clean water. The country is considered by the U.N. to have one of the worst human-rights records in the world. The International Bar Association carefully scrutinizes its legal system. Until recently the country’s only courtroom was a former movie theater.

One of the alleged mercenaries taken into captivity there in March, a German named Gerhard Nershz, has already died—some say from torture. The E.G. government publicly attributed it to cerebral malaria. “No one has seen the body, so no one is in a position to say,” says Amnesty International spokesperson Marise Castro.

The E.G. government is charging that the two groups of mercenaries were planning to install as president Severo Moto, 61, a rival politician who has been in exile since 1996. Last year Moto set up a government-in-exile in Madrid, where he has close ties to José María Aznar, the Spanish president who was voted out last April.

Moto, E.G.’s prosecutors claim, was on a plane with some of the funders of the coup that flew from Grand Canary, in Spain’s Canary Islands, to Mali the night it was to take place. Moto has since denied that he ever left mainland Spain, but South African reports suggest that hotel records show that he was indeed in Grand Canary on March 7.

In South Africa, Mark Thatcher denied any involvement with the alleged coup attempt whatsoever. In October he and his lawyers attended South Africa’s first televised court hearing in an attempt to set aside a subpoena from the E.G. government that would force him to answer two lists of questions, beginning with “Do you know Simon Francis Mann?”

He was also awaiting another hearing, in which he faced charges made by South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority—known as “the Scorpions” because of their apparently lethal sting—for infringing Sections Two and Three of South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act of 1998, written to deter the activities of private armies in Africa. Since South African courts go into recess in December, it is unlikely the case will be decided before next year.

If Thatcher is found guilty, he could face a jail term, although so far only two people—mercenaries involved in the civil war in the Ivory Coast—have ever been charged under the 1998 act. They pleaded guilty as combatants and were each fined several thousand dollars.

Thatcher now cannot leave the Western Cape province without permission. His wife, Diane, 44, and children, Michael, 15, and Amanda, 11, are in Dallas, Texas, where Diane grew up. An elegant blonde who is deeply religious and universally liked, she made a well-publicized 10-day visit to stay with her husband in mid-October. En route she had lunch with her mother-in-law at the Ritz Hotel, in London.

Other than that, Mark Thatcher has largely been on his own since his arrest on August 25. “Mark has been wrapped up with his thoughts ever since the arrest, so he’s likely to be volatile,” a person who knows him said in advance of my interview. Thatcher has, apparently, been known to be rude, gauche, and deeply mistrustful. Another person described him as having “an ego the size of a herd of elephants and the attention span of a gnat.” His litany of social crimes allegedly includes rudeness to waiters, tactlessness, and imperiousness. “If it wasn’t for his mother, he’d be an East End barrow boy,” says someone who has attended parties at his house in Cape Town.

Thatcher’s finances are a source of constant speculation in the media. His twin sister, Carol, a journalist in England, has said she has no idea where Mark made his money. Few people, it turns out, know even how much Mark Thatcher is worth. He has always denied having the tens of millions the British press claims he has. “It’s just nonsense,” says Tim Bell, adding, “He does not have 27 servants, or whatever has been written, in South Africa. He has two.” Thatcher himself once told the Financial Times, “If I had tremendous success I would not be running around trying to do the things that I am doing. I would be sitting on my own private island in the South Pacific, but I’m not.”

Another of Thatcher’s P.R. problems is that he is a private entrepreneur and the nature of his businesses—typically to do with energy, home-security services, and vehicle brokering—tends to seem secretive. When asked, he will not discuss the precise nature of his dealings, declaring that they are private.

Thatcher first came to prominence in his 20s, when his mother became prime minister, in 1979. At the time he was high-handed with the media, reportedly saying things such as “Do you know who my mother is?” This kind of behavior won him little sympathy with the British press, and he was soon dogged by controversies surrounding his role in deals in countries where his mother was negotiating arms contracts.

In 1983 the general perception of him was so unfavorable that he was advised by Tim Bell to “leave the country” before the British election. He moved to Texas, where he wrote letters signed, “from Mark Thatcher in exile.” In the U.S., he worked for Lotus, the automobile company, and took on a variety of consultancies. In 1996 he moved to South Africa, and once again he became embroiled in controversy, this time involving an I.R.S. investigation into Emergency Networks, an American security company of which he had been a director. He was never charged, and court records vindicate him.

Currently Thatcher really is a figure in exile. He used to receive dozens of e-mails a day; now it’s down to three. His phone calls and e-mails are monitored. “I will never be able to do business again,” he says. He adds that on the day of his arrest there were 18,500 Google mentions about it. “Who will want to deal with me after that?” he asks with a shrug.

“Furious? Yes, I think you can let me say on the record that being arrested is likely to infuriate anyone.” This time there is a flash of passion in his eye.

Later that afternoon he drives through Cape Town in his five-series BMW to his 15,000-square-foot house, overlooking a landscaped garden, in the scenic, mountainous suburb of Constantia. The house, currently on the market for approximately $4 million, has a thatched roof and is tastefully decorated with bamboo furniture. Thatcher’s beautiful wildlife photographs cover many of the walls. The only servant in sight is an armed guard in the driveway. (There have been several attempted break-ins, before and after the arrest.)

The corridor outside Thatcher’s study is hung with cartoons from the London Daily Express depicting him as an idiot riding on Mother’s coattails. “My favorite is this one,” he says, pointing to a picture of Mrs. Thatcher descending from an airplane and greeting a host of well-to-do Arabs. Beside her is a little boy wearing a suit and a smug expression. The caption reads, “As far as business is concerned, Mark’s keeping a low profile at the moment, but have you met my grandson?”

Later he drives on the winding roads around Table Mountain, where he walked several times a week to train for a 2001 expedition to Mount Everest base camp. “It was really wonderful going up and down here,” he reflects. “A good three-hour hike. So relaxing.” Temporarily, it seems, he has either forgotten his troubles or steeled himself, Margaret Thatcher–like, not to dwell on them.

Mark Thatcher was arrested the day before his family was due to leave South Africa for America for the start of his children’s school year. He was awakened around eight a.m. by 17 members of the Scorpions. Photographers and journalists had assembled to record the arrest. “They’d been called the night before,” a friend of Thatcher’s says.

Thatcher opened the gates and invited the police in for a cup of tea. He was handed an arrest warrant. He called a lawyer, and the Scorpions stayed for several hours, looking over his computers and cell phones, which they duly removed—along with some other personal items, according to court papers.

Thatcher was, to put it mildly, stunned. He had known that the Scorpions wanted to talk to him, but it had not occurred to him that he was a target for investigation. Back in May, while on business in Europe, he had received a phone call from a South African senior investigating officer asking him about his friendship with Simon Mann, because the Scorpions had seen a letter written by Mann in prison, dated Sunday, March 21. It was addressed to Mann’s wife, along with his assistant, a lawyer, and a friend, and it asked for help from, among others, “Smelly and Scratcher.” After the letter was leaked to the press, it was alleged by the E.G. government that Smelly was Ely Calil, a Lebanese businessman who lives in a $20 million house in London’s Chelsea district and who made his fortune as a middleman in oil ventures in Nigeria. In 2002, Calil was arrested in Paris on charges of taking kickbacks in connection with securing oil licenses in Nigeria. He was subsequently released without being charged. (Tim Bell, a friend, is occasionally Calil’s spokesman.)

Scratcher was thought by the E.G. government to be Thatcher—a supposed reference to a teenage nickname, though he says he has never been called Scratcher in his life. Nowhere, Thatcher’s friends and lawyers point out, did the letter state that he had been involved in the coup attempt. It just asked for help from Scratcher, among others. Thatcher is also not on the so-called wonga list (“wonga” is British slang for money), a mysterious document compiled by a risk analyst. It discloses the names of the supposed contributors to Mann’s company Logo Limited, which the E.G. government claims was the cover organization for the coup.

According to the list, Calil put in $750,000; Karim Fallaha, a Lebanese national, put in $500,000; Gary Hersham, a U.K.-based real-estate man and associate of Calil’s, put in $500,000; so did Greg Wales, a 53-year-old London-based accountant and longtime friend and associate of Mann’s. Also on the wonga list is South Africa–based businessman David Tremain, who lived near Mann on the Cape. All of them have denied any involvement in the planned coup.

Meanwhile, Mann’s bank statements show that Logo received nearly $135,000 from a J. H. Archer—who, it’s been speculated in the British media, could be the novelist and disgraced British politician Jeffrey Archer. Jeffrey Archer has said he was not involved in the coup plot.

In the spring Thatcher was phoned by Dries Coetzee, a private detective associated with Alwyn Griebenow, an aggressive attorney then representing Mann and the other men in jail in Chikurubi. The detective asked forcefully for $300,000 to help Mann. Several other people said that Coetzee had approached them in similar fashion.

Thatcher supposedly told Coetzee to “f— off” and that he was watching a Formula One Grand Prix race. “I tend not to give money to people whom I’ve never met and when I don’t know what it’s for,” Thatcher explains.

Things got more worrisome when Diane Thatcher started to receive anonymous phone calls in which the caller said he knew where her children went to school. She and the children soon left for America for the summer, as planned. (A family friend explains that Diane has never wanted to live in South Africa for longer than five years and that she wants the children to be raised as Americans.)

Thatcher also sensed trouble when he returned to South Africa in August, after a business trip to Europe. He was surprised to be greeted at the airport by an immigration official, who told him, “They want you for questioning,” and who then photocopied his passport.

Thatcher phoned Nigel Morgan, a charismatic, sandy-haired, rotund mining-security expert, referred to by his friends as either “Nosher” or “Captain Pig.” (Evidently he has a hearty appreciation of good food and wine.) Morgan is British and an old ally of Margaret Thatcher’s—he used to work for a Conservative Party think tank. He likes to tell stories of his days in the Irish Guards, when he was “the only officer not allowed to carry a gun for his own safety.” Close to certain people in the South African government for whom he has written risk analyses, he is, perhaps, Mark Thatcher’s best friend.

Together the two men went to see South African government officials. Thatcher told them that, yes, he knew Mann, and liked him, but that he’d had no knowledge of, or any involvement in, the coup plot. But he also told the authorities that in January he had created an air-ambulance venture worth $250,000, named Triple A Aviation, with Crause Steyl, a pilot and former Executive Outcomes mercenary, whom he had met through Mann.

The contract for Triple A, seen by Vanity Fair, stipulates that a helicopter—an Alouette III—was to be used for the air-ambulance company in eight African countries, of which E.G. was one. Bank records show that on March 2, four days before the planned coup, Triple A paid $100,000 to Mann’s alleged coup-cover company, Logo Limited.

Thatcher has maintained that he had absolutely no idea that Steyl had any involvement in the plot. His friends back him on this. They say the air-ambulance business was something Thatcher had talked about quite openly. “He’d got the idea from Simon Everett—brother of the actor Rupert—who runs a Kenya-based operation, which was used by Richard Branson when he ballooned around the world,” says Ron Wheeldon, an attorney in Johannesburg, who shares Thatcher’s passions for cars and aviation. Francois Marais, a local pilot, says he also remembers Thatcher discussing it eagerly. “Mark loves helicopters,” he explains, “and he’s very good at flying them.”

Unfortunately for Thatcher, however, his business partner was up to his neck in the alleged coup attempt. Not only does Steyl say he was slated to pilot the plane that was to fly Moto and others into E.G. on March 7, once the capital was secured, but his brother, Neil Steyl, piloted the Boeing 727 that was impounded in Harare. Neil is currently imprisoned with Mann in Chikurubi. (After he has served his 14-month sentence he will, like Thatcher, face charges in South Africa under the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.)

According to a brief allegedly prepared by Nigel Morgan in April, Crause Steyl feels terrible about what has happened to his brother. “It was he who promised his brother, Neil Steyl $1 million to fly the Boeing 727-100. Neil had a good job flying an Indian-based tycoon, now he’s in Chikurubi,” the brief reads. “Steyl feels guilty and is thrashing around trying to solve the problem.” In October, Crause told the London Evening Standard that Thatcher had absolutely known that the helicopter was for the coup.

Court papers show that the Scorpions waited five days after getting the warrant for Thatcher’s arrest, and showed up on his doorstep the very same day that Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, was in South Africa for bilateral talks on economic issues. Straw’s visit was knocked off the headlines by Thatcher’s arrest. Consequently, there are many among Thatcher’s friends who believe the arrest was politically motivated. (Margaret Thatcher was no friend to the now ruling African National Congress during the apartheid era and once referred to Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.)

At the time of this writing, the Scorpions have yet to reveal their evidence against Thatcher. In the weeks preceding the hearing scheduled for November 25, rumors flew as to what they might have. Piet van der Merwe, who spearheaded the arrest of Thatcher, told a source that Thatcher’s computer files contained incriminating evidence; and it is rumored that evidence has also been found on the computer of one of Simon Mann’s assistants. Another insider says that the Scorpions’ chief evidence lies in a statement given by one of Thatcher’s closest friends. On November 17, the BBC reported that three of the mercenaries, including Crause Steyl, have pleaded guilty, have received suspended sentences, and will testify against Thatcher. Sipho Ngwema, a spokesman for the Scorpions, says, “We would not have arrested him [Thatcher] if we did not think we had a case.”

“The burden of proof on them is huge,” says South African journalist Marlene Burger, adding that it seems unlikely the Scorpions would have made the arrest had they not had something substantial up their sleeves. However, in the October hearing, Judge Deon van Zyl accused the Scorpions of going on a “fishing expedition” when the second of two lists of questions for Thatcher from the E.G. government was submitted to the court. Van Zyl pronounced that it looked “suspiciously interrogatory.”

“They don’t look like questions that have come from Equatorial Guinea; rather, like the kind of questions I expect possibly to come from a party in S.A. and perhaps hoping to gain some information for the purposes of their own case against Thatcher,” van Zyl said.

“I can tell you that Mark was not directly involved,” Nigel Morgan says. “The allegations are circumstantial, resulting from his friendship with Mann and his unwise contractual agreement with Steyl.… I had lunch with [someone I thought was involved] to try to stop him from going, and I said, ‘I hope you weren’t stupid enough to get Mark involved. You know that whatever he does attracts media and intelligence.'”

Morgan says this person promised he had not involved Thatcher in his plans, and Morgan says he believes him. “If I’d thought Mark was anywhere near this thing I’d have handcuffed him to an aircraft and flown him out of the country,” he says.

On August 25 the Scorpions took Thatcher to Wynberg Magistrate’s Court for a half-hour, after which he was released on a warning—and two million rand, or about $300,000, posted as a bond of security. His passport was taken away. Thatcher says that he has since had to turn down a job as a non-executive chairman of a European gas-trading conglomerate.

During her time as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher did more arms deals than any of her predecessors, generating billions of pounds for Britain. The two main areas of controversy about her son centered on Cementation International, a company for which Mark was a consultant and which won a contract worth $450 million to build a university in Oman, during a period when his mother was selling arms to that country; later there was a two-part deal with Saudi Arabia in which Mark reportedly acted as a middleman, alongside reputed international arms dealer Wafic Said. (Both have denied they were involved in the deal.)

Faced with questions in Parliament about her son’s role in both deals, Lady Thatcher never gave an inch, declaring that she was “batting for Britain.” She also said that conversations between heads of state should remain confidential, and, furthermore, members of her family were entitled to privacy in their business interests.

“What you have to remember is that in the Arab world she would never have to spell out that she would like the business to go to the company her son works for. They would assume that is what she wants, as that is how they do business,” says Ivor Lucas, who was the British ambassador in Oman when the Cementation deal was done and who took “a very dim view” of Mark’s presence at the time of his mother’s official visit there.

Ever since he was a child, Mark, it was felt by her advisers, was his mother’s weak spot; the general perception was that she indulged him far more than she did his twin, Carol. Despite the fact that he failed the final part of his chartered-accountancy exams—at the time he was said to have been spending more time racing cars than studying—Lady Thatcher believes in her son’s business acumen, once explaining that “he could sell snow to the Eskimos and sand to the Arabs.” Against the advice of others, she let her son handle the 1991 sale of her memoirs, for which HarperCollins ended up paying about $6 million. It was also Mark who helped her set up the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, whose mission is to “advance the cause of political and economic freedom,” and Mark who helped her find a town house in London’s exclusive Chester Square following her 1990 resignation as prime minister. Mark organized the July 2003 funeral of his father, Sir Denis. “He was a shoulder to cry on, did all the things she couldn’t do,” says a family friend.

While Mark was wheeling and dealing in Cape Town, he would, on social occasions, sometimes listen to Simon Mann’s stories of how Mann had made around $10 million from Executive Outcomes, the private-military company he’d joined in the early 90s along with a permanently suntanned, cigar-chomping British entrepreneur named Tony Buckingham. Mann and Buckingham had teamed up with two former S.A.D.F. soldiers, Eben Barlow and Lafras Luitingh. “You had all these guys who had fought for apartheid suddenly without work when the apartheid era ended. They needed something to do,” says Johann Smith, a former South African military-intelligence officer, now a political-risk consultant. “It took just four phone calls to get a battalion assembled. Still does.”

Executive Outcomes’ troops were highly skilled and their equipment sophisticated. As a result, the company was extremely effective in working for the governments of Angola and Sierra Leone in their struggles with rebels, and it was richly rewarded. Even a botched mission in Papua New Guinea by an Executive Outcomes subcontractor reportedly netted $36 million. But African governments eventually became wary of its power. In 1998, South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act abolished private armies based in that country, and effectively this was the end of the road for Executive Outcomes. By that point, however, the company’s founders were rich—some more than others, which became a source of friction among them.

They went their separate ways. Buckingham continued to deal in oil and minerals, Eben Barlow became a horse whisperer, and Luitingh an investment consultant. Simon Mann, whose special area of expertise was surveillance and military planning, was largely at loose ends. At one point he asked Mark Thatcher to find him a literary agent, but then decided against writing his story. Too much of it, perhaps, would be too difficult to tell without attracting the interest of the authorities.

After Executive Outcomes disbanded, Mann invested in a Guyana gold company and took a part in Paul Greengrass’s film Bloody Sunday, about the 1972 massacre of Irish civilians by British troops, and, according to one person, auditioned for a part in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which starred Angelina Jolie. In 1997 he bought Inchmery, a Queen Anne house in Hampshire, and he seemed happy enough there with his third wife, Amanda, 39. His friends have described her as a woman with expensive tastes.

In Chikurubi prison, without his attorney present, Mann signed a confession in which he claimed that he, his 53-year-old, white-haired, London-based friend and accountant, Greg Wales, and Gary Hersham had met at Ely Calil’s home in London in early 2003 to discuss possibilities in Gabon and Sudan. Mann also said that Calil later met up with him again and started to discuss Equatorial Guinea. (Calil has denied both meetings.) According to London attorney Andy Kerman, Mann subsequently retracted his confession. Kerman says Mann now claims he had nothing to do with the coup and the weapons were “for another project.”

There are two things that make E.G. attractive from a mercenary’s perspective. The first is oil, which was discovered in large quantities there in the early 1990s. E.G. now produces 350,000 barrels a day, making it the third-largest sub-Saharan exporter after Nigeria and Angola. Secondly, E.G. is one of the most corrupt, unstable countries in the world. President Obiang and his family have multi-million-dollar residences in Maryland, as well as in Cape Town. Obiang’s son and heir, Teodorin, 36, whose personal style is that of a gangsta hip-hop artist, was recently filmed in Paris buying 30 designer suits and crashing his Bentley. Obiang’s wealth is funded largely by American oil companies; the major producers there are ExxonMobil, Amerada Hess, and Marathon Oil. Currently all three face S.E.C. investigations for possibly breaking the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, as a result of fierce questioning this summer by Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan), who chaired a special committee inquiry into money-laundering by Riggs Bank. In May 2004, Riggs, a once prestigious D.C. institution, paid a $25 million fine for funneling up to $700 million in payments from the oil companies to Obiang and his family. The Senate report claimed that the companies and bank knew that money which was supposed to be going to the state was going into private bank accounts—including one instance in which a 14-year-old relative of Obiang’s was paid $450,000 in rental fees for office space. “It was an absurd situation,” says Sarah Wykes of Global Witness, an organization that has been lobbying hard for more transparency by oil companies and the governments they do business with. (Obiang responded to the Riggs report by declaring that E.G. operated like a true capitalistic society.)

Currently, E.G. is particularly unstable, since it is widely known that Obiang is suffering from prostate cancer, for which he has received treatment at the Mayo Clinic. His brother, Armengol Ondo Nguema, a barely literate but not unintelligent man who serves as the country’s chief of security, does not think Teodorin is the best successor. In this context it was perhaps little wonder that Severo Moto, an opposition politician, might have seemed an appealing figure to Calil when the two met socially in Spain. Calil and Wales, it’s alleged, figured that they could use Moto as their means to reap oil concessions, providing Mann could pull off the military exercise. (Both Calil and Wales deny this.)

One London financier told Vanity Fair that in August 2003 a certain oil businessman invited him to his house and requested that he ask a client to invest in the coup, which he said would make them all very rich because Moto had promised the backers oil concessions. According to the financier, the businessman explained that he couldn’t fund the operation entirely himself, because his assets were frozen as a result of his being accused of taking kickbacks in securing oil licenses elsewhere. At that time, the businessman allegedly said, the plan was to go into E.G. while Obiang was out of the country being treated for his cancer. “We have a mole in the hospital,” the financier was told. The businessman also allegedly stated that he had done this sort of thing many times before with great success. The financier says he was appalled and advised his client to have nothing to do with the plan.

Mann, according to his statements, had several meetings about the coup with Nick du Toit. In November, Mann made a few phone calls, and, according to Johann Smith, recruitment meetings for former Executive Outcomes soldiers were held in Pretoria at a hotel known as the 224, because it has that many rooms. “One of the men told me he was very upset because he missed the meeting by half an hour,” says Smith.

By now, South African intelligence was watching. In December, Smith prepared a report stating that something was up in E.G. Word spread like wildfire. In February at a meeting at Chatham House (the British equivalent of the Council on Foreign Relations) attended, according to a witness, by an official from the U.S. State Department and a diplomat from the British Foreign Office, an oil executive stood up and said, “Everyone knows there’s going to be a coup [in E.G.] led by South Africa mercenaries.” (Jack Straw recently admitted that the British government had known about the alleged coup plot since late January 2004.)

Nigel Morgan says he was asked at this point by the South African government to tell Mann to abort, although a South African official disputes this. Tensions were running high. “Did they [the plotters] think that E.G. would have just allowed Severo Moto to simply walk in?” asks Smith. “The Nigerians would have gone in; so would the Angolans and the South Africans, because they would have had no option. Their people would have been the ones who had perpetrated this. It would have been a bloodbath.”

Meanwhile, Greg Wales was busy visiting Washington, D.C., trying to drum up support for the Foundation for International Eudaemonism, which is dedicated to, as he puts it, a sensible political basis for stabilizing corrupt rich regimes such as Obiang’s. In February, Wales met with Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs. Whelan has denied that she and Wales discussed anything specific about the planned coup. Wales also met with Scott Fisher at the State Department, although when pressed by Vanity Fair Fisher says that they were more “hallway meetings than anything else” and that they “discussed the Sudan, not E.G.”

Defense officials later told Newsweek magazine that Wales had mentioned “in passing, as part of a larger unrelated discussion of African issues, that there might be some trouble brewing in Equatorial Guinea.… There was no reason to follow up on it, and Ms. Whelan did not.”

Several sources have suggested that the C.I.A. may have known about the coup, but the C.I.A. denies any involvement. “I would suggest you check other elements of the U.S. government … such as the Pentagon,” says a C.I.A. spokesperson. According to Morgan and Smith, employees of the U.S. oil companies were told to stay inside their compounds that night. (The companies deny this.)

Why did the British and American governments let the operation go ahead? “No one thought it a bad thing that Obiang should be dislodged—even by a figure like Moto,” says someone who was involved. What no one bargained for, however, was Mann’s uncharacteristically sloppy planning and his underestimation of the African intelligence network.

According to Mann’s confession, it was du Toit who had pushed to use Zimbabwe as the place to buy arms—the part of the plan that so badly backfired. An insider says that, by early 2004, Mann was allegedly coming under pressure from Calil—not least because they had already spent more than $2 million of the operation’s funds. According to a source, without telling some of the alleged backers, Mann decided to go with du Toit’s idea of picking up the arms in Zimbabwe, rather than in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as originally planned. In fact, according to several sources, Mann had attempted to pick up weapons in the D.R.C. in February, but had found none at the rendezvous location. When Moto’s group, who had flown from Grand Canary to Mali, heard via satellite phone that Mann had been arrested in Harare, they were stunned. “What the fuck is Simon doing in Zimbabwe?” one of them asked. They flew back to Grand Canary, arguing among themselves.

It’s been reported by the London Evening Standard that phone records now in the possession of the E.G. government show that Greg Wales called Mark Thatcher several times in the days following Mann’s arrest. Wales, when asked about this, says, “Of course. I called Amanda Mann too. I called anyone who was a friend of Simon’s.” He adds, “If someone has my phone records it’s because they stole them in the U.K.” A friend of Thatcher’s points out that Thatcher, through his business interests, knew of good lawyers in Zimbabwe, so it was perfectly reasonable of Wales to call him.

According to the April brief, allegedly written by Nigel Morgan, Ely Calil was furious at Mann for having named him. (Du Toit told the BBC that Calil provided the finances for the coup.) Calil went into hiding, moving to Lebanon and from there to an undisclosed location, but he remained busy behind the scenes, and is now back in London, where E.G. has filed a civil suit against him, Mann, Wales, and Moto.

After the alleged coup plot was foiled, the African countries involved in the saga worked together with more unity than they had for years. Obiang was given a red-carpet welcome by South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki in July. Mbeki asked him to ensure the prisoners in Black Beach were treated humanely, and a South African delegation was sent to monitor the court hearings. Oil deals between the E.G. and South Africa are steaming ahead. A member of the South African government, speaking anonymously to a reporter, confirms that South Africa warned E.G. of the impending coup. “If it had not been for the intervention of the South African government, that government [Obiang’s] would not be in existence today,” he said. He added that the Boeing 727 had been allowed to take off for Zimbabwe because, without weapons on board, there was not enough evidence to arrest the men. In November, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe paid a visit to E.G. to meet with Obiang. The state-controlled media welcomed his visit, saying, “In adversity and illness we recognize real friends.”

The BBC has been busy preparing a docudrama based on the story. The consultant for it is none other than Nigel Morgan, who suggests Hugh Laurie play Mann and Stephen Fry for himself. Greg Wales has written a novel about a coup attempt and is also at work on a nonfiction version. He suggests he be played by Pierce Brosnan if a movie is made.

Meanwhile, Mark Thatcher soldiers on, talking to lawyers, trying to figure out how long he’ll be effectively confined to the Cape and how all this will play out. In November, a legal official close to the E.G. government told the press that the country would seek his extradition.

Thatcher’s life is currently devoid of most of the things that fire him up: racing cars, business deals … “Thank God my father isn’t alive to see this,” he reflects. Currently he speaks to his mother twice a week on the phone, but he declines to spell out precisely how she feels about his predicament. “You might be able to guess,” he says.

“He’s like his mother in that he doesn’t show emotion,” says Tim Bell. “He’s used to people insulting him and abusing him and accusing him of things.”

Even so, he was particularly pleased to be told that some of his friends feel he was “born guilty.”

“I’ve never heard that before,” he said, “but I just feel in this particular case like a corpse that’s going down the Colorado River, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” V

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