One of the two leading figures in the notorious coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea in 2004 has spoken for the first time of his shame at being involved in the failed plot and insisted that he only went ahead because he believed the British and South African governments had backed it.
South African Nick du Toit, together with his fellow mercenary, ex-SAS officer Simon Mann, was released late last year from the infamous Black Beach prison in the tiny Central African nation’s capital Malabo, described by Amnesty International as a “living hell”. Du Toit served five years and eight months of a 34-year sentence in a 150cm x 210cm cell and had been tortured, beaten, starved and kept for much of the time in solitary confinement.
“It is difficult to classify the worst period,” Du Toit told the Observer. “The first three weeks were very bad; we were treated worse than dogs.
“But being locked up without any sunshine, solitary confinement, that is the worst of the whole thing. Bad treatment you get over, your body can adapt to it and your mind can take it, but when you sit down on your own 24 hours a day, we are used to being outside, we are outdoors people, so that was extremely difficult.
“I am a family man, I love my children, all of a sudden not being able to see them, not to receive a letter, in the whole period I was there I received three letters from my wife. I wrote to my daughter every month and she received two letters from me, so it was extremely difficult, another way of torture, keeping us completely locked up from the outside world.”
Du Toit’s experiences have been detailed in a new book by James Brabazon, an award-winning British film-maker who hired him to be his bodyguard while filming the Liberian civil war in 2002. The two became friends.
Invited by Du Toit and Mann to film the coup attempt in March 2004, Brabazon escaped the fate of his friend and the others by a quirk of fate. Attending the funeral of his grandfather meant Brabazon missed the call to join the mercenaries as they set off on their ill-fated expedition to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, replace him with exiled opposition leader Severo Moto, and rake in profits from Equatorial Guinea’s vast oil wealth.
Du Toit, who was last week refused a visa to visit London by UK authorities, spoke on the phone from Yemen, where he is working for a vehicle sales company. He said his “soldier of fortune days were over” and he deeply regretted his involvement in the coup. “I am ashamed,” he said. “It was not a right thing to do.
“I didn’t go there to make lots of money and sit on my own and say, ‘Hey, I’m a rich man’: I did it for my family, to improve their lives. I made the wrong choices, I am very sorry about, for the pain and the grief I brought my family, especially my daughter, who was 10 when I was incarcerated.”
He insisted not all of his motives in joining the so-called “wonga coup” had been about money. “I looked at it in two ways. One was I really do care for Africa because there is a lot of potential in Africa and when it comes to these type of dictators I will help when I can to bring about change. But it was also an opportunity for me to start a new life, financially to get into a proper business and settle down.”
A former colonel in the Reconnaissance Commando unit of apartheid South Africa’s Special Forces, Du Toit, like many Afrikaners who had fought on “the wrong side”, struggled to find a place for himself in the post-apartheid state. “I have been in the military for almost 20 years, a true and proper career. Afterwards I tried to settle down and start in a business, but most of them didn’t work.
“I will never go back to the old fighting ways. It is never right to take a course of political action in your own hands by military means. But Africa’s history is plagued with wars and battle for power all the time, so it is a place where political views very rarely bring about a change, as it is always the military option, and I grew up with that.”
Since his release, Du Toit has settled back in South Africa and has no contact with Mann, although he says there are no hard feelings. “There was a point about midway through the planning stages when I was on the point of getting out.” he said. “I told Simon Mann that I didn’t think this was viable and we shouldn’t continue. All my military experience told me, everything told me, that if the thing has been compromised you can’t go ahead with it.
“Everything was red light and telling me this isn’t going to work, it’s compromised already, because everybody in South Africa knew about it, everybody in the intelligence community knew about it. Mann recruited every intelligence officer he could get hold of and they were telling him the same thing, ‘It’s fine, go ahead and do it.’ He told me that he had had contact with the South African government, with the British government, with a lot of other people, and everybody was basically supporting us.
“I knew he was working with Mark Thatcher and others who had British government connections so, yes, I believed it. There was for me a fair amount of evidence that we would be looked after should things go wrong. I know how these things work, you might do a stretch in jail, but they will get you out in the end. Clearly that didn’t happen with us.
“The Thatcher name was not a big one to me because his mother was the prime minister, not him, so he didn’t impress me much, but he was a connection of Simon and through Simon I trusted him.”
“I knew exactly what I was letting myself in for, so the fact that it went wrong, I can’t blame anybody: I was there and if everything went well I would have been jumping with joy and I would have had a good business going. So I’m not one of those people who look back and blame everybody else.”
He said his time in jail had been an opportunity to reflect on his life. “I have always been an African and even though we really have a lot of problems, we are all pioneers and we should not run away. We should stay and try and change and make the place a better place.
“Even our presence in Equatorial Guinea, in the time that we have been there, getting the whole world’s focus on the country, made for a political softening up. It hasn’t changed completely, but a lot of the people had been in jail for years without a court case, and after our case a lot of them were taken to court and a lot were freed. So we made a difference.
“Being called a mercenary — I don’t really like it because I am ex-, I am finished with that life.” – guardian.co.uk