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Casting a flamboyant spell from a private plane

Depriving Tiny Rowland of a private jet would be like keeping a Rolls-Royce in the garage to save on petrol. His style requires such apparently flamboyant gestures, just as it requires his polished manners and his immaculate suits. (In fact, he owns one of the most renowned tailors in Savile Row.)

Not that a private plane should be seen simply as a luxury for the chief executive of a conglomerate with business interests in more than two dozen countries scattered round the world. Rowland's royal progress through Africa, which I first witnessed with awe in Malawi 30 years ago, has made his company the leading British trader on the continent and given him a deeper knowledge of African politics than MI6 and the Foreign Office combined (as I've heard both acknowledge).

The way his alleged pounds 5.5m perks-and-salary 'package' has been presented to the press bears all the hallmarks of a calculated leak from the camp of his partner and rival, the German Dieter Bock, in an attempt to discredit him ahead of today's meeting. It is hard to believe that his admittedly high level of expenses was not known, and much of it approved, by the Lonrho board.

I must be one of relatively few people privileged to hear at first hand Rowland's view of Bock and Bock's view of Rowland. Curiously, Bock gave me his views on board the company Gulfstream on a trip last year to secure a gold mine concession in Tashkent. The gist of it was: 'If Tiny wants the plane as the price of his friendship, then fine - but I'll expect a lot of friendship for this.'

One can only assume that he feels Rowland has failed to deliver. Not that Bock has been notably friendly himself, systematically stripping Rowland of his allies on the board and imposing non-executive directors. Bock has skilfully exploited the post-Cadbury principles of strict corporate governance to put Rowland at a disadvantage. Whether he actually believes in them may be another matter, just as it is unclear what he plans to do with Lonrho once he escapes Rowland's long shadow (if he ever can).

I first came across Rowland at a Government House reception in Zomba, Malawi, in 1964, when he arrived with Angus Ogilvy to buy Nyasaland Railways. His height, striking good looks, old-world courtesy and general style made a memorable impression on everyone. I've since seen him exercise the same spell over Africans, including Nelson Mandela, Arabs, Indians, Mexicans, Russians and Iranians.

His many trips to Africa, even his unscheduled calls on guerrilla leaders in the bush, are like state visits, with minimal airport formalities. The jet is undeniably comfortable (apart from the time it was shot at by Angolan rebels), but the journeys are long and gruelling and Rowland, now 76, is prey to occasional asthmatic and malarial attacks. This is not sybaritic jet-setting (he is a non-drinker) so much as hard work.

As with the plane, his elegant homes in Buckinghamshire and Chester Square, London, are in effect Lonrho offices, as his loyal and supportive wife Josie, aged 50, must ruefully observe as yet another evening or weekend is given over to entertaining yet another Third World leader.

Because he has deliberately shunned the establishment, the City knows little about Rowland except his public feuds and obsessions. They know nothing, for example, about his lively and mischievous sense of humour, which lights up all his personal contacts.

He may need that sense of humour today if the board seeks to strip him of all power in the company that has been his whole life. There have been some very high payouts in recent months to unwanted Lonrho directors: the imagination boggles at what it might cost to remove a man with a pounds 5.5m annual price-tag.

The author was editor of the Observer during the 12 years it was owned by Lonrho.