A Planeful of Trouble

The detainment of a cargo plane full of mercenaries in Harare two weeks ago has unfolded into a complicated, very African sort of mess. I missed the boat on the first round of speculation: who are they and what were they planning to do? It’s now fairly certain that their stop in Zimbabwe was a layover to pick up weapons and ammunition, and that their final destination was Equatorial Guinea, where they planned to take part in a coup against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. The fact that Robert Mugabe said so counts for very little, but South Africa has confirmed the story, and the available evidence makes the alternate explanation—that they were just a bunch of security guards heading to jobs in DR Congo—seem pretty thin. BBC News is a good source for the basics of the story.

This article, from Joburg’s Mail & Guardian via AllAfrica, explains just who these guys are. Basically, they’re your typical batch of African mercenaries, mostly white, with plenty of connections to the old South African apartheid regime. Simon Mann, the leader of the group arrested in Zimbabwe, was long associated with Executive Outcomes, and later became on the founders of Sandline International. He’s also <a href="http://icderry.icnetwork.co.uk/news/localnews/content_objectid=14058057_method=full_siteid=66002_headline=Wilford-ActorFacing-Death-Penalty-In-Africa-name_page.html%20%20http://news.independent.co.uk/world/africa/story.jsp?story=501665”>an actor. Nic du Toit, arrested in Equatorial Guinea, is a South African special forces veteran, also with ties to EO. Compared to the sort of mercenaries working in Iraq, these guys seem a little more hard-core. Most of them are veterans of operations in Angola, whose civil war has long been a mercenary-driven bloodfest.

The new big question is: Who hired these guys? Mugabe’s statement is predictable: he says it’s the intelligence services of the U.S., Britain, and Spain. That’s a claim that’s transparently designed play on the preconceptions of the populace. It is impossible to overstate the shadowy, Illuminati-like powers that many Africans believe the CIA possesses. In Liberia and Nigeria, you’d hear those letters pronounced with a certain degree of ominousness, spaced out to make each one sound like a separate word: “C … I … A.” Given the CIA’s actual involvement in all sorts of Cold War shenanigans, especially in Angola, this perspective isn’t at all surprising, although it ascribes way more power, influence, and competence to the organization than it actually has.

Throwing Spain into the accusation may be a little more than just an Iraq War reference, though—Equatorial Guinea is a former Spanish colony. It achieved full independence in 1968, and President Obiang seized power twelve years later in a violent coup in which he executed the former President, his uncle. As brutal dictators go, he isn’t in the same league as Saddam Hussein, who himself has to get in line behind Robert Mugabe. (The Atlantic recently ran an excellent piece detailing Mugabe’s systematic destruction of his homeland.) But if you measured human-rights abuses and corruption on a per capita basis, Mbasogo would definitely be in the running for first place. The discovery of oil in the mid-Nineties has given Equatorial Guinea astonishing economic growth in the past few years; it goes without saying that the wealth has been channeled to Obiang’s friends & relations, who hold virtually all positions of power in the government. Oil means an explosion of unrest, external meddling, and a constant state of political instability—far from being black gold, it’s a black curse, just as it’s been in Nigeria and Angola.

Given all of this, it’s easy to see why Mugabe would want to enthusiastically punish coup plotters with the death penalty, even though he wasn’t their target. As Obiang goes, so might he go someday. But stable African nations, too, have an interest in curtailing mercenary revolutions of this kind. As long as the coup d’etat is a commonplace way to change power in Africa, the continent will never achieve its economic and social potential.

News of what’s going on in Equatorial Guinea right now is sketchy, but none of it is good. Obiang is clearly using this opportunity to foment hysteria in the capital and crack down on his political rivals. Foreigners are leaving the country in droves, mostly by choice but some by force. The conspirators arrested in EG are likely to face a shotgun trial and quick execution (one, a German, has already died in prison); the ones in Zimbabwe aren’t likely to fare much better. And while you could easily say that them’s the breaks in the line of work they’ve chosen, it’s not like EG would have been much worse off if they’d succeeded.

So, who did hire the mercenaries? Though opposition leaders in EG deny involvement, they’re at the top of the suspect list. Severo Moto Nsa, the head of the opposition Progress Party, is currently exiled in Spain. It would surprise me more to hear that the CIA was involved than to hear that oil interests were. A grand, multinational conspiracy is unlikely; all it takes to get a bunch of guys like this on the move is a few million bucks. The most interesting as-yet-unconfirmed wrinkle is that the mercenaries captured in EG itself were actually working for President Obiang’s government as part of a security contract for Logo Logistics, the guys who bought the detained plane. It’s wacky, but the “secret insider” theory rings true, especially since (according to this article) one of that company’s senior executives is Ely Calil, “a wealthy London-based Lebanese businessman with close ties to Equatorial Guinea opposition leader Moto Nsa.”

There’ll be plenty more coming to light in the next few weeks, to be sure—too bad a lot of up will come from the EG and Zimbabwe governments, and so be of questionable reliability. The current big story is where the Plane mercenaries will be tried and whether they’ll get the death penalty. But my thoughts are with the people of Equatorial Guinea, a country I hadn’t given a second thought to before now, but who, despite the fabulous wealth of their leader, will be having to live under an even more autocratic regime from here on out.