Simon Mann talks to The Africa Report about the forces that destabilise African governments and the changing state of the mercenary business.
“We were the good guys!” he exclaims, leaning back with the sort of charming smile he adopted on the playing fields of Eton and the battlegrounds of African wars. Simon Mann wants people to know his days as a mercenary were about morality as well as money.
He accuses the “barrel boyz” – shady oil interests – of destabilising the continent. He blames tyranny, intelligence agencies and the legacy of empire, but never the guns for hire. A seductive pitch, perhaps, but was he not ultimately one of the “barrel boyz” he now castigates?
First in Angola with Executive Outcomes (EO) in 1993 and then as “manager” of the disastrous coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea in 2004, he was leading men into war for profit. Mann offers another expansive grin and readily concedes the point.
“Yes, you could say that’s the closest I get to being a ‘barrel boy’ really is with Tony Buckingham with Heritage Oil … If I’d pulled off the Equatorial Guinea operation, I would have ended up right at the top of the ‘barrel boyz’ tree, wouldn’t I?” He adds “In Angola the forces of good, supposedly, were the forces that pushed the country back into civil war, but no one says to them [the Central Intelligence Agency and diamond companies], ‘Hey, you bunch of murdering bastards!”‘
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His comrades in arms were different, claims Mann, who is also proud of the role he played in combating the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone in 1995. He says EO put out fires rather than starting them, and that Africans are right to distrust big business. “What I mean by the ‘barrel boyz’ is a group of people who are prepared to go beyond the law and beyond what is right. So you’ve got this closed secrecy over the whole thing. And the whole thing’s being conducted in the Wild West anyway. It’s so very difficult to pick it out and say ‘that’s a crime there.'”
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo disagree. After his arrest on 7 March 2004 at Harare airport as he was en route with 69 men to pick up weapons, Mann spent more than three years in Chikurubi prison in Zimbabwe and another 22 months in prison in Equatorial Guinea before his release in 2009.
Back in London, looking healthier and still boyish at 59, Mann is his old self, playing the role of liberal interventionist while happily accepting the reality of the profit motive. “I think before EO, the companies like KMS and Control Risks were all pretty respectable and well behaved and were basically, in modern terminology, PMCs [private military corporations]. They will fight, and they did, but only when they had to protect themselves,” argues Mann.
“EO comes along and basically breaks the mould,” says Mann of the force that gave South African soldiers, many with links to covert anti-African National
“EO broke the mould, saying upfront and in the open ‘We will fight’ Congress operations, a new lease of life. “It says ‘Hey, you pay us and we’ll win your war and we’ll do the fighting. That is the change, saying up front and in the open ‘We will fight.'”
EO was disbanded in 1998 – “Far too successful,” says the ex-Special Air Serviceman cheerily, but a final chapter of its story may have played out amid the chaos of Libya in 2011. It emerged soon after the killing of Muammar Gaddafi on 20 October that he was accompanied by two dozen South African mercenaries. “Yes, they were old EO people,” confirms Mann.
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“I think Harry Carlse [a former EO fighter who was also part of the Equatorial Guinea coup attempt] was one of them…The group with Gaddafi, two were killed, some were wounded, some got away and [some are being held in Libya], so I believe.”
Mann’s pardon and release came with an understanding he would assist the Malabo government’s pursuit of the coup’s alleged backers, “in the same way that here in London I was helping Scotland Yard”. Mann fingered Lebanese-Nigerian businessman Ely Calil during his trial in Malabo and pointed to support from former colonial power Spain.
Despite giving evidence in Lebanon at the end of last year, Mann does not think that the legal route is likely to lead to tangible results. Meanwhile, in the UK, Scotland Yard dropped its investigation into Calil after Mann refused to give evidence without a guarantee of immunity from future prosecution.
“All I could gather from the Scotland Yard guys was that they were absolutely, deadly serious [about going after Calil], but at the same time they were saying ‘Well of course you do realise that if we do go ahead with this, we’re going to be knocking on a lot of doors and some of those doors are very powerful people … it will be a huge thing. They were warning me.”
Mann stresses he would not have gone ahead in 2004 if he did not think that Obiang was a dictator. He does not deny that oil contracts and ‘wonga’ (money) were the driving force for the people he claims were behind the coup. “What I expected most of all [if we succeeded] was the most massive fight, between my group – it may sound selfserving, but we were determined that it should be done well, properly – and …Mark Thatcher and Ely Calil, who were not going to be so obsessed with doing things properly but would be more interested in going for the money.”
The agreement drawn up in July 2003 with Severo Moto, who Mann and the others planned to install as the new president, details a central role for Mann as a conduit for arms procurement and would have put him in the driving seat to take advantage of new oil licences. The contract terms belie any pretence of democratic idealism. Mann says that US concerns about the potential succession of Obiang’s playboy son, Teodorín, might have led it to view a coup favourably.
“I think [Calil] was given the very deniable nod and a wink and then it was all up to him. And then he put together a group of people behind him to do it. There are big, big question marks in my mind today…like if that theory is correct, why did Ely muck around so much? … To any normal observer this is typical of a guy who wants to do something and basically doesn’t have the money to do it.”
Months of delays and false starts made the plot one of the worst kept secrets in Africa. South Africa, Mann says, wavered between support and opposition before finally pulling the plug. But in the murky world of spooks and oil men, nothing was as it seemed. Mann still believes “assisted regime change” can be justified.
“It’s up to the individual, morally. Can I do it? Should I do it?” But will the profit motive distort your aims? He smiles. “I think it is fundamentally true, capitalism is like that. It’s a machine, and it’s hungry.
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