An African adventure: Inside story of the wonga coup

In an Equatorial Guinea jail, Simon Mann has finally given his version of the hare-brained plot he led to overthrow the country's leader. And the manacled Old Etonian has named those people – and nations – that he claims backed his dogs of war. By Kim Sengupta

Wednesday 12 March 2008 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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The wonga coup, the perfect plot, meticulously planned, audacious and hugely lucrative, the takeover, no less, of a small country with massive oil riches. And the perfect leader for the battle-hardened soldiers of fortune who would make it happen, Simon Mann, Old Etonian, bon viveur and former officer in the SAS.

But the operation collapsed even as it got under way amid recriminations and charges of betrayal with the plotters scattered across prisons in Africa. Now after four years of hard captivity Simon Mann, 55, is prepared to make public his account of what really took place in the failed mercenary mission to Equatorial Guinea.

Manacled hand and foot, with his straggly beard shot through with grey and dressed in prison fatigues, Mann appeared at Black Beach prison in Malabo to claim that a London-based oil trader was the mastermind behind the scheme. There was more: Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of the former prime minister, was far more deeply implicated than he had admitted; the governments of South Africa and Spain not only knew what was being planned but they encouraged it to go ahead.

The interview, by Channel 4 News, was mired in controversy and the subject of legal action. The television company had to overturn an injunction sought by Mann's wife. It was also claimed that much of what Mann said was unreliable as he was implicating others as part of a deal with the Equatorial Guinea regime to secure a lighter sentence on charges of terrorism and attempting to murder President Obiang.

Certainly during his talk with reporter Jonathan Miller the former soldier was at pains to repeatedly state that conditions were fine at Black Beach, a prison with a notorious reputation for brutality which had drawn repeated protests from international human rights groups. He was also keen to justify himself, insisting that more powerful and influential players in the coup had got away while he carried the can. "I was if you like the manager ... I was not the architect of the plot, I was not the main man." Asked who this was, he replied " Ely Calil ... If someone wants to do me a favour they should put a pair of handcuffs on Ely Calil and put him on an aeroplane to Malabo ... As you know it was a fuck up and I have to carry the can for that. Really and truly, I blame myself most for simply not saying 'cut' two months before I was arrested."

Mr Calil and Sir Mark are facing civil action for damages by the Equatorial Guinea government and Baroness Thatcher's son received a four-year suspended jail term and fined R3m (£265,000) by the High Court in South Africa after pleading guilty to charges in connection with the plot. He claimed he had been an inadvertent participant. Asked about Sir Mark's involvement, Mr Mann said: "He was part of the team."

Both Mr Calil and Sir Mark Thatcher strongly denied the charges made by Mr Mann who, they said, must be in "considerable distress" in his present conditions. Mr Calil added that the former soldier had made contradictory statements in the past "many times" while Sir Mark said he had nothing to add to his previous stance on the matter. There were also denials from the South African and Spanish governments who respectively described Mr Mann's allegations as "baseless" and a "fabrication".

The mercenaries had planned to replace President Obiang with Severo Moto Nsa who had fled the country and lives in Spain. Mr Mann accused Mr Moto and Mr Calil of "misleading." him. He said: "They gave me the very strong impression that things were diabolically bad here and a regime change was a crying need. They also told me that the regime was faltering, in a state of collapse. I mean, coming here now, obviously I was told a load of rubbish."

Among other names linked to the plot were Jeffrey Archer, the disgraced peer and former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party who had once used Mr Calil as a financial adviser. Peter Mandelson, a European commissioner, was also dragged into the affair. Both men have denied involvement. Last night Mr Mann dismissed suggestions that either had been involved. He said: "God knows where that came from, I mean that is a real mystery to me."

There were others said to be "connected" to what was going on: David Hart, another Old Etonian who was adviser to Margaret Thatcher during the miners' strike; Mr Mann's friends were being advised by Lord Bell, Mrs Thatcher's former public relations guru. All have strenuously denied any involvement and none have been charged with any offence.

Some of the names emerged soon after Mann's arrest when South African police intercepted a letter to his wife in Cape Town with a "wonga list" featuring Smelly (a nickname for Mr Calil) and Scratcher (Sir Mark Thatcher) among the alleged financiers.

Mr Mann was transferred to Equatorial Guinea from the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, where he had served four years in jail after being arrested en route to Malabo to allegedly lead the coup. His wife said: "It was like a dagger to my heart when I heard he was there. One of the things that fills me with fear is they will beat the living daylight out of him, that it could be happening while I speak, or that there will be one of those 'accidents' that happens in these places." To add to Mrs Mann's fear President Obiang, according to reports, had threatened to "personally sodomise" and then "skin alive" her husband.

But Mr Mann insisted last night: "I am being well treated here. My accommodation is good. There is water, there is food and there is no coercion." he went on to stress the lack of coercion several times and objected to the word "interrogated ... Interview would be better than interrogated." His manacles, he continued were "nice ones" unlike the ones in Harare.

Mr Mann complained bitterly that he had been "abducted ... pushed and shoved around, smacked with an AK..." from the Harare prison just as he was about to be freed and sent to Equatorial Guinea. "Here I am accused of terrible things when nothing happened. The intent was there, but it was a fuck up. I am actually a victim of a far more serious crime than any crime I have committed."

Asked about his thoughts on the coup, he smiled: "I am sorry, I have been saying for four years that I am sorry. I should write that on my forehead."

Behind the accusations and self-justification lay the fact that Simon Mann had indeed planned to be in Malabo – but not quite like this. If the coup had succeeded then he would have been in the Equatorial Guinea capital as a kingmaker with the rewards that would bring.

The plot read like a Frederick Forsyth thriller and that turned out to be one of the main reasons for its failure. Those involved appeared to have mixed up reality and fiction, seemingly believing a successful outcome, just like such a novel, was inevitable.

Long before Mann and 68 South African and Angolan mercenaries were arrested in Harare, en route to Equatorial Guinea with £ 100,000 worth of arms the "wonga coup" was being talked about, with an astonishing degree of indiscretion by some of those taking part. Details were discussed, it is claimed, in the bars and restaurants of both Cape Town and London. Veterans of African wars were telling each other of the "big job" was going to take place and a lot of easy money was on offer.

Unsurprisingly, among the recipients of the information were the intelligence services of a number of countries. Jack Straw, while foreign secretary, was forced to retract Foreign Office claims that the British Government had no warning of the coup attempt.

Nick Du Toit is Mr Mann's fellow inmate at Black Beach. He was among a group of South African mercenaries who were arrested in Malabo after their arrival as an advance party for the coup. Mr Du Toit received a 34-year sentence and will die in the jail unless he is pardoned by President Obiang.

Mr Mann had craved excitement and adventure. He had set up the security company, Executive Outcomes, with the British financier Tony Buckingham in 1993. Two years later he founded another company in the same field, Sandline International, with Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer which was later in the centre of controversy over shipping arms to Sierra Leone in breach of a United Nations embargo. But now there was the realisation that not everything goes according to the script."You go tiger shooting, but you don't expect the tiger to win", he smiled wryly.

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