Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Wonga Coup

The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa (Hardcover)
by Adam Roberts

Interesting book documenting a fairly recent incident in which a bunch of mercenaries attempted a coup in a small west African nation of Equatorial Guinea. I think this happened in 2004. The whole event was unsuccessful. Regardless, the attempt and the planning that went behind it are simply mind boggling. The author who has intimate understanding of social and political landscape of Africa does a good job of piecing together several disparate pieces of information, talking to several people who were involved in the coup attempt to present a nice blow by blow account.

Equatorial Guinea - a small country on the west coast of Africa. Some portion of the country is in mainland Africa  and some provinces are islands off the west coast of Africa. Rich oil fields attract international attention. A bunch of wealthy foreigners with their eyes on the oil fields, a disgruntled political figure in exile who is very eager to come back and become the head of the state get together and start planning the coup. Equatorial Guinea was a colony of Spain. After independence, one after another ruthless, brutal and cruel dictators ravaged the country. Atrocities were too gruesome. Due to isolation nothing much was known to the external world.

The coup plotters were not novices. They were the veterans of private armies who fought wars for people who paid them right. They fought in Angola among many other countries. Many of them had solid training as soldiers in UK. The group as a whole had all sorts of skills - foot soldiers, pilots, helicopter pilots etc.

Best seller novel and also the movie based on the novel 'The dogs of war' resembles this coup attempt very closely. In fact, the novel which was written way back in 1970s was based on another coup attempt. The author is alleged to have financed the coup in same fashion. When the coup could not be pulled off, he mixed facts and fiction and came up with a very realistic book which described planning very well and fictional execution which did not happen. In 2004, the story was being replayed.

This coup attempt is strange for several reasons. No secrecy was maintained. May be people were too confident that they would pull it off without much problem. The planning was hodge-podge. Airplanes which are considered never suitable for coups were used. Many shady and unreliable elements such as wayward rebels in Congo, unscrupulous government officials in Zimbabwe became part of the plot and only made it more prone to problems.

For people from India, we can relate to one particular person. The lead pilot who was to fly the Boeing jet which was to carry the team to Equatorial Guinea was the pilot who flew Indian liquor baron Vijay Mallya's private jets. He was also a veteran of Angolan war and had flown planes and helicopters on many dangerous missions. He always yearned for action and when the leader of the coup plot called him in Bangalore, the pilot was only too willing to forgo his vacation to join the plot. It's a different matter that after being arrested in Zimbabwe, he had to spend more than a year in jail and had lost the job with Mallya.

The whole plot which started on a shaky ground gave up due to many flaws and carelessness. Ultimately the south African government which was very closely aware of the plot informed Zimbabwe government and the plot team which was in Zimbabwe to pick up arms before heading off on the mission was arrested and thrown into jail. Similar thing happened to the small sleeper cell in Equatorial Guinea.

Many prominent people were involved. One of them is Mark Thatcher, son of ex-PM of UK Margaret Thatcher. He was convicted on some count which was on the periphery to the plot. He paid fine and did not have to serve any time. However, due the conviction his ability to travel freely is very limited.

Very nice story. Opens our eyes to how a small group of powerful people can control whole countries. How world powers look other way when such sinister acts suit their interest. There are also passing references to some other coups  such as how Comoros was taken over multiple times by the same band of mercenaries, disposing same people they had put on the throne in the first place. Unsuccessful coup attempt in Seychelles where foot soldiers were too drunk to stage the coup. To escape, they somehow hijacked an Air India plane to South Africa to be arrested. This was probably the last of the ventures of Mad Mike (Mike Hoare) a legendary British mercenary.

All in a good book. Fast read. The author who is a BBC correspondent has done a great job of telling nice story.


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