Mercenaries a headache for Equitorial Guinea, but useful as pawns, writes Mandy Rossouw.
Equatorial Guinea’s release of four South African mercenaries was part of a charm offensive by the country’s dictator and President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, to improve his image worldwide and win sufficient credibility to assert a leadership role on the continent.
The release of the mercenaries coincided with President Jacob Zuma’s day-long visit this week to Equatorial Guinea to explore the possibilities of South African business involvement in rebuilding the small but oil-rich country.
Nguema himself has long had the reputation of leading the governing elite in looting the country’s resources. He has styled himself an international playboy, living the high life and owning plush homes and luxury cars that were allegedly bought with state funds.
Sources say the 67-year-old Nguema arranged the release of the mercenaries to persuade Zuma that, after 30 years in power, he wants to become a respected statesman and run a proper democracy.
Nguema hopes his association with Zuma will boost his image on the international stage. He wants to play a larger role in the Economic Community of Central Africa States and to position Equatorial Guinea as a more influential player in the African Union.
Nguema released South African mercenaries Nick du Toit, Sergio Cardoso, Jose Sundays and George Alerson, as well as British mercenary Simon Mann, on Tuesday. They had each been sentenced to 34 years for their roles in the 2004 coup attempt against Nguema.
The mercenaries had stood to gain $1-million for their part in the coup while ringleader Mann was to be paid $15-million. The organisers and financiers of the plot allegedly included British oil billionaire Eli Calil and Mark Thatcher, son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Mark Thatcher pleaded guilty in a South African court to helping finance the planned coup and received a four-year suspended prison sentence.
Sources say Nguema discussed the pardon with Zuma to prepare the South African delegation for the release. “There was engagement prior to [the release]. They knew they couldn’t just dump it on us,” a South African official told the Mail & Guardian.
Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite NkoanaMashabane, Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele and Minister of Energy Dipuo Peters accompanied Zuma.
Zuma, who visited oil refineries and construction projects, was awarded the Order of the Independence of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea.
South Africa wants to get the first tranche of state resources that will be spent on infrastructure. PetroSA and Eskom are expected to take up some of the massive petroleum and gas resources that Equatorial Guinea owns.
A source close to Nguema told the M&G that he feels “the coup attempt never happened, no one was ever killed”, so there was no reason to keep these men in Black Beach jail to serve their full sentences. He said the mercenaries’ health was suffering from the country’s extreme equatorial humidity.
“But Black Beach jail is not the hell-hole everyone says it is,” the source said. “It was revamped shortly after the coup attempt and has air-conditioning, proper beds and a good dining area.”
Mann reportedly dined on good food and wine while in prison, but a source involved in the negotiations to release him told the British Daily Mail: “If you catch a thief, you don’t keep him in your house. You punish him and throw him out.”
The source said that Mann was a headache for Equatorial Guinea officials. “We don’t want anything to happen to him — it would be a disaster if he was to die in our prison,” the source told the British tabloid.
Nguema hopes to use the goodwill generated by this development to position himself favourably in the presidential elections scheduled for this month. All elections so far have been declared invalid by international observers.
“He wants to show himself as generous … and as a real statesman,” said Paul-Simon Handy, head of the African security analysis programme at the Institute for Security Studies.
Mercenaries were apartheid troops
The four South Africans released this week are all crack military men and mercenaries. Ringleader Nick du Toit was one of the military kingpins in the attempted coup, while the other three were all senior operators in the coup, write Yolandi Groenewald and Faranaaz Parker.
Accounts of what has become known as the Wonga Coup paint Du Toit as a classic dog of war. He was a senior officer in the apartheid army’s notorious 32 Battalion or Buffalo battalion. Several Buffaloes joined Du Toit in the coup attempt.
Du Toit became a mercenary after 1994. He joined the notorious Executive Outcomes, a private military company, in the mid-1990s, and his name cropped up regularly in military operations throughout Africa, including an operation against the Lord’s Resistance Army and operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
It was in Executive Outcomes that Du Toit linked up with ex-British special forces officer Simon Mann.
The two reportedly worked together on security contracts in Angola, where they trained Angolan troops and protected oil and diamond fields.
Members of the apartheid defence force who followed Du Toit included Sergio Cardoso, Jose Sundays and George Alerson.
Adam Roberts, author of The Wonga Coup, says Cardoso, Sundays and Alerson are former Angolans who fought on behalf of Unita rebels and the old South African government during the civil war in Angola. When the war ended, they were given the right to move to South Africa.
Alerson was a sergeant and a member of a special forces unit while Cardoso was involved in a coup attempt in São Tomé in 2003.
There were close connections between the participants involved in the São Tomé coup attempt and the Equatorial Guinea coup attempt, with many of them coming from 32 Battalion.
For a decade Du Toit travelled Africa making money from mercenary activities, until the Equatorial Guinea job came along. He was the advance man and was to provide the mercenaries with arms and secure the airport at Malabo.
Another member of the Buffaloes, Johannes Smith, worked for Equatorial Guinea’s government and it is believed that his intelligence played a critical role in shopping the mercenaries.