Nov 2009

A free Mann

Equatorial Guinea is a pretty awful place to live. Unless, of course, you happen to be a member of the ruling elite. Despite experiencing recent economic growth thanks to the discovery of oil, the population largely live in poverty with almost all of the petroleum revenue being appropriated by President Obiang to fund a luxurious lifestyle for him and his inner circle, as well as ensuring the military are paid well enough to keep him in power. Although there are occasional elections, they are quite obviously loaded in Obiang’s favour and nobody is under any illusions about him being willing to relinquish power voluntarily. He is a dictator in all but name, and while he probably isn’t responsible for quite as much bloodshed and tyranny as the guy he overthrew, that’s really not saying much given the record of Francisco Macías Nguema. Macías reputably had a penchant for mass public executions to the soundtrack of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days. His regime was nightmarish in the most literal of senses… terrifying and surreal all at once, like a David Lynch film writ large.

If you’re an ordinary person in Equatorial Guinea, you have a difficult life and probably quite a short one.

It’s worth pointing out that when people describe Equatorial Guinea as “oil rich”, it’s a statement that needs to be placed in some context. In fact, with estimated recoverable reserves of a little under 2 billion barrels, Equatorial Guinea represents a fraction of one percent of global oil. However, with a population of less than 650,000 that should, in the right hands, be enough wealth to provide the country with a more than adequate health, education and social welfare system. Given their oil resources in proportion to their population size Equatorial Guinea could be a very pleasant place to live given radically different circumstances.

It’s the sort of place that could desperately do with a change in government.

And about five years ago, a group of men decided to try do just that. A bunch of South African mercenaries led by Simon Mann (a former British SAS officer turned soldier-for-hire) were preparing to launch a coup d’état when they were seized enroute to Equatorial Guinea. The Zimbabwean government intercepted their chartered plane when it touched down in Harare to take on supplies and Mann was extradited to the small West African nation to stand trial. During the trial allegations were made that Mann’s coup attempt was being backed by members of the British establishment including Sir Mark Thatcher (son of a certain ex-Prime Minister) and Jeffrey Archer (baron, bad novelist, prominent tory and all round git). These remain “allegations”, though Thatcher’s involvement in providing logistical support has been proven despite his insistence that he was unaware of the details of the plan and had no idea Mann and his private army were up to anything dodgy.

The details of the operation are obviously a little vague, but the basic plan seems to have been to overthrow Obiang and install either Mann himself or a local puppet as President of the country whereupon those who organised, financed and took part in the coup would reap the rewards in much the same way that Obiang currently does. I feel confident that largescale infrastructure projects and a redistribution of the oil wealth to the general populace wasn’t on the cards.

Mann was placed on trial in Equatorial Guinea and found guilty of plotting to overthrow the government. In July last year he was sentenced to 34 years in prison.

Now, it’s fair to say that Equatorial Guinea probably doesn’t have the most robust or transparent judiciary. People like President Obiang rarely install that kind of thing in the countries they rule. Dictators can be funny like that. Nonetheless, there’s no question — given Mann’s own public statements — that the basic facts are as stated. Surprisingly (or not if you assume that some kind of deal was done… cf. not the most robust or transparent judiciary) Mann has just been released having served less than a year and a half of his 34 year sentence. He appears to be a guy with an axe to grind and is looking to get even with the other coup plotters who left him swinging in the wind.

Despite the obvious relish with which some are anticipating whatever he’s got up his sleeve for Thatcher, there are others; Merrick for instance; who point out quite rightly that “a vicious mercenary is now free to enjoy his millionaire’s lifestyle and work on his book deal and film options”. This is hardly very satisfactory and is a somewhat lamentable outcome to the entire affair.

John Band, on the other hand, via that horrid twitter service that irritates me considerably, makes the following comments…

Struggling to see why Merrick upset re S Mann – Eq Guinea one of Africa’s vilest regimes, so no biggie if overthrown

and then (because twitter insists on breaking simplistic soundbites down into absurd soundnibbles)

If he’d been overthrowing an (even vaguely) democratic or liberal government, *that* would actually matter

Taken at face value (and Twitter is doubtlessly doing John a disservice by reducing his position to two sentences of less than 140 characters each) that’s a pretty dreadful sentiment. It seems to be saying that so long as the regime is bad enough, it doesn’t matter if rich westerners storm into an African country, kill a bunch of people, overthrow the government and then syphon off the mineral wealth for their own benefit. It’s an endorsement of violent imperialism because the suggestion that Mann and his 70 heavily armed mercenaries were going to liberate the people of Equatorial Guinea from tyranny is risible.

Perhaps they’d have set up a regime that was moderately less oppressive? But that resolves into an endorsement of Obiang’s government given the fact that it is moderately less oppressive than the Macías dictatorship it replaced.

The reason we should be upset about the likes of Simon Mann and his establishment backers… the reason their actions should matter… is because military intervention and murder for personal gain should not be tolerated even if most of the dead were bastards. People like Mann are no different to the Obiangs of the world, even if he did go to Eton. And I’m a little taken aback that John seems to think it doesn’t matter if they go tearing around Africa pocketing the continent’s wealth at gunpoint.

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