Bob Denard

Mercenary operating in Africa

Gilbert Bourgeaud (Bob Denard), mercenary: born Bordeaux 7 April 1929; six times married (eight children); died Paris 13 October 2007.

'Colonel' Bob Denard was the archetype of the old school of western mercenaries, described in Frederick Forsyth's novel The Dogs of War. For three decades, he left a trail of coups d'états – and failed coups d'états – across Africa. For most of this time, he claimed – probably accurately – to be working with the tacit approval of the French government and the West in general. His death brings down the final curtain on the murky – and, to some, romantic – private armies of the 1960s to the 1990s. Their work has now largely been taken over by the outwardly sober-suited and profit-driven, multinational companies that provide private security forces in Iraq and elsewhere.

Denard always claimed to be motivated as much by anti-Communism as by profit. He insisted, during his various trials, that he had always acted with at least a "yellow light" from the French government. Between the early 1960s and early 1990s, he and his band of mercenaries – les affreux (the terrible ones) – were involved in more than 20 coups and civil wars in, amongst other places, North Yemen, Congo, Zimbabwe, Iran, Nigeria, Benin, Gabon, Angola and, frequently, the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. It is now generally acknowledged in France that Denard was, for decades, the secret, deniable, armed agent of Jacques Foccart, the shadowy "Mr Africa" of successive French presidents. He was also, however, a willing tool of the apartheid regime in South Africa, becoming in the 1980s the virtual ruler of the Comoros, which provided a staging post for busting western trade sanctions against Pretoria.

In 1995, after the collapse of apartheid and a shift towards a more aloof French African policy, he staged one coup too many. He landed on the Comoros with 33 mercenaries in a large inflatable speed boat. A few days later, he surrendered without firing a shot after France sent an expeditionary force to arrest him. Denard spent 10 months in jail in Paris awaiting trial for his alleged role in the assassination of a previous Comoros president in 1989. He was acquitted and "retired" to his small vineyard in Médoc. At a second trial this summer for his role in the 1995 Comoros coup, he was convicted of "conspiracy to commit a crime" and sentenced to serve a year in jail. The sentence was never applied because of his increasingly severe Alzheimer's disease.

Antoine Glaser, a French writer on Franco-African post-colonial relations, said: "His importance to 'Françafrique' was much greater than was ever admitted at the time . . . He was the armed agent of the French secret services, especially at the height of the Cold War. The French mercenary is now an endangered species. Most of them are British today and working for large private companies. But at the height of Denard's activities, he was a sort of 'state mercenary', at a time when French ex-colonial interests in Africa were regarded as an important part of domestic politics."

The self-styled "Colonel" Bob Denard was born Gilbert Bourgeaud in Bordeaux on 7 April 1929, the son of a non-commissioned army officer. He was a quartermaster in the French marines during the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria in the early 1950s. After a spell as a policeman in Morocco and then – less plausibly – as demonstrator for a washing-machine company in Paris, he drifted into mercenary activities in Yemen, Iran and the Congo.

In the civil war following Belgium's departure from the Congo in the early 1960s, Denard changed his allegiance frequently, as France – and the West – altered their view of the conflict. Denard and his men fought initially for the separatists in the mineral-laden province of Katanga and then for the government of Moise Tshombe. After Tshombe's overthrow, Denard switched sides again – probably with backing from Paris – to support the Katangan rebellion. He was seriously wounded and escaped to Rhodesia. His Congolese period ended in farce when he attempted to invade Katanga with 100 men on bicycles in 1968.

Over the next decade, he was involved in French-supported actions to topple, or protect, regimes in Gabon, Guinea and Benin. The first of several Denard-assisted coups in the Comoros occurred in May 1978, when the President, Ali Soilih, was murdered in circumstances which have never been fully explained. Denard always stoutly denied having been involved in this or any other assassination. "I was a soldier," he said at one of his trials. "Never a murderer."

While living in the Comoros over the next decade, and using the islands as a base for other military excursions in Africa, Denard converted to Islam. He lived luxuriously on a 1,800 acre farm and claimed an Islamic right to marry a sixth wife, without having divorced from several of his previous ones. He had eight children in all.

John Lichfield

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