The MPs, the despot, and a fact-finding mission that ended in verbal fisticuffs
Lobbyist who set up all-expenses-paid visit to Equatorial Guinea describes guests as 'vacuous, ignorant, ill-bred oiks'. Oliver Wright reports
It was supposed to be a "fact-finding" mission to a tropical country to show British parliamentarians that one of Africa's most notorious dictators was not, in fact, a cannibal kleptocrat whose regime executes political opponents – but a committed reformer leading his people to new-found wealth.
Sadly for all involved, the all-expenses-paid trip to Equatorial Guinea has descended into bitter recriminations.
In a bizarre postscript to 2004's famous "Wonga Coup", which saw British and South African mercenaries try to overthrow the oil-rich dictator President Teodoro Obiang, there has been a spectacular falling-out between a group of Conservative MPs and the two businessmen who arranged for them to visit the country.
The MPs have been dismissed as "vacuous, ignorant, ill-bred oiks" and the Equatorial Guinea government is apparently "deeply unimpressed with the quality of our parliamentarians".
Nadine Dorries, Steve Baker and Caroline Nokes accepted an invitation to take part in the £8,000-a-head trip to Equatorial Guinea, organised by the businessmen who secured the release of the British mercenary Simon Mann.
Greg Wales, a property developer who was instrumental in obtaining the release of Mr Mann after two years in prison for his part in the planned coup, accused the MPs of acting like a group of "geeky fourth-form" schoolchildren.
Meanwhile the MPs have hit back and accused Mr Wales of attempting to harry them into writing an uncritical report on the country overlooking its poverty, corruption and human rights breaches.
The Equatorial Guinea trip was put together by Mr Wales and Rupert Allason, the former MP and spy writer. Mr Wales said that the regime of President Obiang had been mischaracterised as a result of the Mann case and was keen to arrange a trip for British MPs to see what life was really like in Equatorial Guinea.
In an interview with The Independent Mr Wales claimed that, while the MPs seemed enthusiastic on the trip, their tune changed when details of the visit emerged in the media. "I understand that the MPs panicked after coming in for a fair bit of criticism," he said.
"While they were there they said all the right things on Equatorial Guinea television and they were very polite. But they did not deal with issues that were the main point of the trip like the extent to which it is a place where one can reliably do business.
He added: "They were happy to wander off seriously under-briefed. It was all a bit like the geeky lower-fourth on a trip."
Mr Wales added that there had been one successful element to this trip. "The most useful thing was to prove that you can take a bunch of British MPs to Equatorial Guinea and come back with the same number of body parts which you left with." He added: "They were rather rude about their hosts when they got back – that was just bad manners.
The most irritating aspect is the things they could have done – actually give the Foreign Office some useful information and insights; assist UK businesses and individuals who work there or plan to; impress a government that has surprising clout and is very close to other places that matter a lot to the UK – for example Nigeria – with their gravitas.
"Once back they opted for playground name-calling. They come across as a bunch of vacuous, ignorant, ill-bred oiks. The Equatorial Guinea government was deeply unimpressed with the quality of our parliamentarians."
For their part, the MPs totally refute Mr Wales's suggestions. They say the only reason they agreed to go on the trip was to get first-hand knowledge of the country and report back to the Government and other MPs.
Ms Dorries said: "Mr Wales was pushing a sugary, sickly-sweet view about how wonderful everything was in Equatorial Guinea. At even the slightest criticism he became bad-tempered. We decided to be polite, diplomatic and keep our powder dry. We wrote what we found in our report and have now raised our concerns about Equatorial Guinea. We believe we were right to go to see for ourselves what life is like in the country and report back in a fair and balanced way and that is what we have done."
Mr Baker added: "Greg Wales and I don't share the same idea of what a free society should look like. I did considerable preparation for this trip and what I found was not the kind of society we should have anywhere in the world. I am glad to have gone and exposed the regime for what it is – utterly foul."
The MPs' report claims that the government "exists to increase the personal wealth and political power of the ruling class at the expense of the wider population" and that the country "has an undeniably appalling global reputation" based on claims the President's is a cannibal, alleged human rights abuses and the Black Beach Prison where Mr Mann was held.
President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea is accused of sanctioning killing and torture, and has amassed a $600m fortune, according to Forbes
Tory MP for mid-BedfordshireNadine Dorries was behind recent attempts to involve religious groups in abortion counselling
Fellow Tory Caroline Nokes, who signed a declaration "to act according to Christian conscience", was found to be having an affair with a councillor 10 years her junior
Steve Baker is one of the Tories' top 10 most rebellious MPs. He is in favour of bank reform, against quantitative easing and against the high-speed rail link
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