The Eye: ‘The Wonga Coup’

The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs, and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa by Adam Roberts.

The Iron Lady is dead, an event no doubt marked by Elvis Costello donning his heaviest iron shoes. Amidst all of the mourning, it’s worth remembering that her son, the Baron Sir Mark Thatcher, has enjoyed his own delightful romps into foreign adventurism and imperial resource seizure. A failed accountant, salesman, and race car driver who almost died in 1982 when he got lost in the desert during the famed Paris-Dakar rally, he was widely detested by his mother’s cabinet and considered a liability during elections. He would, of course, eventually make his fortune by marrying rich and using his mother’s name to leverage an assortment of shady business deals in the Middle East, Texas, and Africa.

But his most spectacular and public financial adventure came in 2004, when he was approached by his old friend, the former SAS officer Simon Mann, to help fund a private coup in the tiny central African nation of Equatorial Guinea. A country whose vast oil wealth and small population could easily grant it Qatari-like growth, were it not ruled by President Teodoro Obiang, a genocide hobbyist, kleptocrat, and self-proclaimed God who- with the passing of Gadaffi- is now the longest reigning non-regent in the world.

In a charming preview of 21st century geopolitics to come, Thatcher, Mann and their fellow financiers decided to cut out the middle man (i.e. increasingly irrelevant nation-states) and hire a force of mercenaries (Mann and a team of mostly ex-South African special forces from the Apartheid era) to depose/kill Obiang and replace him with opposition-leader-in-exile Severo Moto. In exchange for the Presidency, Moto would give exclusive rights to the country’s considerable oil and gas wealth to all of the coup’s backers. The media would later call it “The Wonga Coup”. A jolly exciting romp into the dark continent for fun and profit, just like the good old boys in the good old days!

Unfortunately, your best laid plans are sometime tipped off to the Zimbabwe government, who arrest you and your mercenaries during a layover in Harare when you are buying weapons at the last minute for your great big operation. The would-be assassins were sentenced to prison- some for decades- in Equatorial Guinea’s Black Beach Prison, widely considered to be among the most horrible in all of Africa. Simon Mann would serve four years in a Zimbabwe prison and one year at Black Beach before being released, by order of Obiang himself.

Mann would later claim that Thatcher was partially responsible for  the plot’s failure, as he had failed to raise enough money in time for the operation. As quoted in The Independent, “One of the biggest mistakes was approaching Mark Thatcher to put in money. He wanted to be one of the boys, gain power in an oil rich country, impress his mother. He turned out to be a very weak link indeed…  (Thatcher and the others) were not only investors in this venture, but also brothers-in-arms. But they did nothing to help me or my family while I was in prison.” Perhaps as revenge, Mann is now working with Obiang to sue Thatcher- worth about $100 million- for his role in the coup.

As for Mark Thatcher himself, he paid $560,000 in fines and received a four-year suspended sentence in a South African court. And then, his fortune intact and his safety from punishment assured, he left the mess he helped cause behind and got on with his life. Such would appear to be the principal trait of Thatcherism. 

Roberts’ fascinating and penetrating book is worth revisiting, even years after its publication. It is a story of 19th century imperial intent meeting 21st century geopolitical realities, as well as the briefest of glimpses at what goes on behind the closed doors of the world’s power brokers.