Thursday, March 25, 2004

Boeings, Weapons, and the Threat of Force...

Where Coup Plots Are Routine, One That Is Not

New York Times
March 20, 2004
By Michael Wines

MALABO, Equatorial Guinea, March 17 — This malarial West African dictatorship quashed another coup attempt this month, which is like saying the corner 7-Eleven served up another Slurpee. Quashed coups (five since 1996) are a political staple here, so routine that some say the government stages and then quashes them to burnish its image of invincibility.

But the coup this month was different. Nobody could make this coup up.

The coup attempt of 2004 features a dysfunctional ruling family, a Lamborghini-driving, rap-music-producing heir apparent and a bitter political opponent in exile who insists that Equatorial Guinea is run by a gonad-eating cannibal. It is said to involve a Lebanese front company, a British financier, an opposition figure living in exile in Spain and some 80 mercenaries from South Africa, Germany, Armenia and Kazakhstan.

Its messy denouement unfolded not in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea's capital, but 2,100 miles away, aboard an American jet in Zimbabwe.

With such a polyglot cast, this whodunit has become almost a parlor game among Africa watchers. Not since Christmas 1975, when Moroccan palace guards shot 150 suspected plotters in the city soccer stadium to a band's rendition of "Those Were the Days, My Friend" has a botched takeover set tongues wagging so briskly.

"Normally, the people involved are just rounded up, paraded before the state media, and then they disappear forever," said Patrick Smith, the editor of the London-based newsletter Africa Confidential, which has scooped competitors on the coup's juiciest details. "This one is the most extraordinary ever."

Until lately, few cared. Equatorial Guinea, a Spanish colony for 190 years, was seen as a sweltering backwater, so destitute that many citizens foraged for food. But in the mid-1990's American drillers struck oil, and everything changed.

Today, this Maryland-size nation has $5 billion in American oil rigs and drilling gear parked offshore, pumping 350,000 barrels of petroleum a day. Washington is reopening an embassy closed in the mid-1990's after the ambassador, a vocal human rights critic, began getting death threats.

Most Equatorial Guineans remain subsistence-level survivors. But the president since 1979, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, owns mansions in Maryland and Virginia and banks up to $700 million a year in oil revenues in personally controlled accounts.

As Mr. Obiang said at a news conference on Wednesday in his meticulously restored ceremonial palace, having money is a mixed blessing, seeing as so many people want to take it away. Participants in this month's quashed coup were promised a share of the oil wealth if their takeover had succeeded, he said.

Instead of benefiting those it is supposed to, "it is causing them a lot of problems," he said through an interpreter.

Yet, toppling Equatorial Guinea's government would be no mean feat, because removing the president would barely scratch the surface. The military is peppered with Mr. Obiang's cousins and nephews. One of his sons is the natural resources minister. A brother-in-law is ambassador to Washington.

A brother, Armengol Ondo Nguema, is a top internal security official and, according to a 1999 State Department report, a torturer whose minions urinated on their victims, sliced their ears and rubbed oil on their bodies to lure stinging ants.

Finally, a second son, Teodoro Nguemo Obiang, is the infrastructure minister and his father's anointed successor. To the dismay of some relatives, he also is a rap music entrepreneur and bon vivant, fond of Lamborghinis and long trips to Hollywood and Rio de Janeiro, who shows few signs of following his father's iron-fisted tradition.

On its face, this month's coup seems to threaten none of these leaders. Indeed, the 80-odd mercenaries said to be the coup's advance force are now in prisons in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea where, if human rights reports are any guide, it is possible they will face torture, if not execution.

Equatorial Guinea's government said Wednesday that one captured mercenary, a German held in a Malabo jail, had died of cerebral malaria in a local hospital. But this is among Africa's most opaque regimes, and long one of its most repressive. The only real constant is that appearances are deceiving.

The outside world first learned of the coup attempt on March 6, when Zimbabwe officials said they had seized an old Boeing 727 jet with American markings after it stopped in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, on a flight north.

Inside and waiting on the tarmac outside, the government said, were 67 mercenaries, mostly South Africans and Angolans. They were said by Zimbabwe to have landed in Harare to pick up a cache of weapons illicitly purchased from government weapons makers.

Mr. Obiang's security men then announced that they had arrested 15 more people — Germans, Kazakhs and others — in Equatorial Guinea, thwarting a plot to kill the president and take over the government. It soon became clear that the flight had originated in South Africa, and that intelligence officials there, in Zimbabwe and in Angola had tipped Mr. Obiang to the impending coup.

Two mercenaries stood out. In Zimbabwe, the plane had been met by Simon Mann, a British expatriate and onetime aide to senior British military leaders. Mr. Mann is a flamboyant soldier of fortune, a figure in books and even a cameo actor in a war movie. In the 1990's, two companies tied to him, Executive Outcomes and Sandline International, reclaimed Angolan oil fields and diamond mines from rebel armies and imposed peace in war-racked Sierra Leone in the absence of a United Nations force.

In Equatorial Guinea, the crucial plotter was identified as Nick du Toit, a South African special forces veteran who once worked for Executive Outcomes. This time, Mr. du Toit worked for Mr. Mann in a company called Logo Logistics. An official in that company, who goes by two names, has told reporters that it bought the Boeing 727 in Kansas this year as part of an innocent contract to protect gold miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo — not to overthrow a government.

Whatever the truth, Mr. du Toit appeared on state-controlled television in Malabo last week to make a dramatic, seemingly case-closing confession. The entire plot, he said, was hatched by Severo Moto, an Equatorial Guinean opposition figure and longtime fomenter of quashed coups who lives in exile in Madrid. Mr. Moto's coup was said to be financed by $5 million from a British businessman, washed through a front company in Lebanon.

"It wasn't a question of taking the life of the head of state, but of spiriting him away, taking him to Spain and forcing him into exile," said Mr. du Toit, who has not been seen since.

Mr. Moto makes no secret of his hatred of President Obiang: on Spanish radio this month, he called him a demon who "systematically eats his political rivals."

"He has just devoured a police commissioner. I say `devoured,' as this commissioner was buried without his testicles and brain," he said, adding that Mr. Obiang hungered for his body parts as well.

"We are in the hands of a cannibal," he warned.

That said, Mr. Moto also told Spanish radio that he had played no role in the latest coup against Mr. Obiang. In turn, his denial underscored an intriguing omission in Mr. du Toit's own confession.

According to Africa Confidential, Mr. Smith's London-based newsletter, the same Mr. du Toit who is accused of plotting to overthrow the government held a contract with that same government to train Equatorial Guinea's paramilitary and customs forces. The contract was reported to have been signed by Armengol Ondo Nguema — President Obiang's half brother, the head of internal security and perhaps the nation's most feared man.

Some Guinea watchers say Mr. du Toit played a deadly game clumsily, trying to penetrate Equatorial Guinea's inner leadership as part of the coup plot, and lost. Others find it inconceivable that the wily Mr. Armengoldid not know what Mr. du Toit had up his sleeve, and say he was either a willing participant or was stringing Mr. du Toit along.

There is nothing to indicate that Mr. du Toit's contract to train the military of the government he sought to overthrow is untoward. Indeed, President Obiang said at Wednesday's news conference that he knew "for sure" that his brother was not involved in any way with any venture involving Mr. du Toit.

"I think it's not true," he said. "Because if it was like this, I would have known."

Still, a jefe in a place like this always looks over his shoulder. After all, the sole successful coup here occurred in 1979, when Mr. Obiang himself, then a lowly lieutenant colonel, overthrew and executed the self-proclaimed "Unique Miracle," Francisco Macias Nguema.

Mr. Nguema was his uncle. It was a family affair.

NYT Lie Detector: An article yesterday about a foiled coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea misstated the status of a company tied to one of the mercenaries accused in the plot. Sandline International, a private military contractor cited for its activity in Africa in the 1990’s, is still functioning; it is not defunct.

Read The New York Times Article

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