TONY BUCKINGHAM is a businessman of the hard school, equally adept at running mercenary operations against insurgents as prising oil and gems out of the ground in the most inhospitable climates.
A week after the death of the great business buccaneer Tiny Rowland, Mr Buckingham is his obvious heir apparent, a flash of rude colour in among the grey corporate suits. Like Mr Rowland two decades before, Mr Buckingham has made a killing by befriending and helping to power emergent Third World leaders. He even has Rowland as a middle name.
As with Mr Rowland, Mr Buckingham's rise to riches has not been without controversy. There was the Sandline arms shipments to Sierra Leone affair, which embarrassed the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. Then there were Sandline's abortive mercenary operations in Papua New Guinea in 1997 and the small mercenary army he organised in Angola in the mid-1990s.
With a large house in Guernsey, which he shares with his wife, Bev, Mr Buckingham is a very wealthy man. He looks the part of the tough oilman, stockily built and with a pugilistic demeanour. Socially he has a reputation as a bon viveur. "You could not get a more engaging lunch companion," said one acquaintance. And like Mr Rowland, Mr Buckingham likes relaxing on his yacht. At weekends he can be seen sipping rum and coke on his boat, Easy Oars, on the Solent.
Michael Grunberg, a former partner in the accountants Stoy Hayward, who helps Mr Buckingham run his companies from their office in the King's Road, west London, said: "I have worked with him for five years and he has been a loyal friend. He is a tough businessmen, but he is one of the most amenable people I have ever met."
Charles Jamieson, chief executive of Premier Oil, a major British oil company, who worked with Mr Buckingham in the early 1990, said: "The trouble with Tony is he is a likeable rogue."
Mr Buckingham's roots are somewhat mysterious. Even business partners know little of his past. In company records he gives his nationality as British and date of birth as 28 November 1951. But there is no birth certificate for him in the public records on that date.
He has not denied a special forces background, believed to be in 22 SAS - the territorial regiment. His business partner, Simon Mann, is also a former SAS officer.
As the archetypal frontiersman, Mr Buckingham got his first break in the great business frontier of the 1970s - the North Sea - as a diver. The small band of professional divers working on the offshore platforms could make good money. "It was here that he got his great love of the oil business," said a colleague.
In the 1980s, Mr Buckingham moved into the business side of oil and spent much of his time abroad doing deals. Premier's Charles Jamieson said: "At one stage he worked with Bunker Hunt Oil in Pakistan and the Canadian Nova Corp in Africa."
In 1987, Mr Buckingham appears as a director of a company called Sabre Petroleum Ltd. On the board were the wealthy Jivraj brothers, who listed UAE Investment Ltd among their directorships at the time. His big business breakthrough seems to have come with his close friendship with Jack Pierce, the head of Ranger Oil, a well-known Canadian company in the North Sea business. In 1990, Mr Buckingham suggested that Ranger take a slice of the Angola offshore oil field. Mr Buckingham made the introduction to the Angolan government.
Ranger's executive, John Faulds (Mr Pierce died six years ago) said: "Tony was one of [the] business associates and this was Tony's original concept. Ranger wanted to diversify and this was the ideal project." The company got the concession in 1991 and it has produced a steady flow of oil since. Mr Buckingham's Bahamas-registered company Heritage Oil and Gas took a share in the profits.
When the rebel forces of Unita captured the vital oil town of Soya in 1993, Mr Buckingham suggested to the Angolan government that it should hire mercenaries. He introduced officials to his friend Ebben Barlow, a former South African special forces officer and head of Executive Outcomes, whose hired hands recaptured the town. Although Mr Buckingham remains a director of Ranger (West Africa) Ltd, according to Mr Faulds "He is no longer a working partner - he sold out."
By the early 1990s Buckingham was moving in influential circles. He became a close friend of Andrew Gifford, a founder of the lobby firm GJW Government Relations, that was at the centre of the recent Labour Party lobbyist controversy. Mr Buckingham describes him as "a close friend who I have been shooting with." Mr Gifford was Lord (David) Steel's former adviser and at his behest, Lord Steel joined the board of Heritage Oil and Gas. He resigned just before the Papua New Guinea scandal broke.
It is the mineral business that has been most lucrative for Mr Buckingham. He is a director of a publicly quoted Canadian mining company, DiamondWorks. DiamondWorks has projects in Africa and elsewhere. Mr Buckingham runs Branch Energy Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary. It holds diamond concessions in Angola and Sierra Leone.
Branch Energy owns a number of companies, including Indigo Sky Gems, in Namibia. This company and its subsidiary, Camelthorne Mining Ltd, have the concession to prospect for tourmaline at the Neu Schwaben mine in Namibia.
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