The cast list of the alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea reads as if straight out of a cold-war thriller: An aging mercenary determined to organize his last big job, the corrupt leader of a tiny oil-rich nation, and the playboy son of the former leader of a world power.
The titillating story, which first came to light with the detention of 70 men on the runway of a Zimbabwean airport on March 7, hit international headlines again last week with the arrest by South African police of Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He is accused of partially financing the overthrow of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the strongman of Equatorial Guinea, a small country on Africa's west coast. The plot allegedly planned the takeover of the continent's third-largest oil producer.
To many observers, the tale is another example of Africa's political instability. But African security experts say that the foiling of the plot, which required intelligence cooperation among three different African nations, actually points to an end of a tolerance of the African coup.
"We've entered a new era," says John Stremlau, head of the international relations department at the University of Witwatersrand here. "Around the region over the last few years, you've seen an increased willingness to be more assertive in the face of this kind of action."
Postcolonial Africa has been hobbled by illegitimate political takeovers. According to research by Patrick McGowan, a professor of political science at Arizona State University in Tempe, in sub-Saharan Africa between 1956 and 2001 there were 80 successful coups, 108 failed coup attempts, and 139 reported coup plots. There have been 11 attempted or successful coups since then.
Professor Stremlau and others say that there has been a marked change in the way Africa responds to unconstitutional changes in government.
"With the new activity we've seen from the African Union and other organizations, it's going to be increasingly difficult to topple a government and take its place," says Angela McIntyre, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think tank.
She points to several recent instances where the African community has intervened after attempted coups or other military takeovers. African mediators stepped in to negotiate a peace settlement in Ivory Coast after an armed rebellion divided the country in 2002. And when a small band of disgruntled soldiers overthrew the president of Sao Tome last year, pressure from the AU and neighboring countries like Nigeria convinced the plotters to hand back power to the president in return for their grievances being addressed.
Of course, not all coups have been condemned with the same force. When a military junta overthrew the president of Guinea Bissau last September, regional mediators were content to allow the coup plotters to hand power to an interim government instead of the deposed president, who was widely considered incompetent and despotic.
Nevertheless, Mr. Stremlau says there has been a genuine change in heart, led by South Africa. In particular, Stremlau says he is gratified to see that the old Organization of African Unity (OAU), long seen as a club for despots and dictators, did more than change its name when it became the AU. The OAU usually made little noise when its members were overthrown and simply welcomed new military leaders into its fold. Idi Amin of Uganda and Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia, both of whom took power in coups, hosted OAU summits.
Still, the Equatorial Guinea plot shows that South Africa has much work to do to clean up the remnants of its old security forces, which remain a threat to African security.
With the end of apartheid, South Africa's surplus of out-of-work security forces became a major source of guns for hire. Most famously, the now defunct Executive Outcomes - two of whose founders, 61-year-old British Special Forces operative Simon Mann and Nick du Toit, who is on trial for his life in Equatorial Guinea - guarded installations and fought rebels in the civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone. Additionally, hundreds of South Africans are now working for private security firms in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although in 1998, South Africa implemented strict legislation cracking down on mercenary activity, there have been few significant prosecutions so far under the law, called the Foreign Military Assistance Act. One problem, says Ms. McIntyre, is that much of the law, which is currently under review by the government, fails to draw an adequate line between legitimate security work and illegal mercenary activity. There was talk earlier this year, for example, about whether South Africans working in Iraq could be prosecuted under the act.
The Equatorial Guinea plot promises to be a major test case for the law and South Africa's commitment to cleaning up its former security sector. Many of the 89 men facing trial in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea could face charges in South Africa even if acquitted in their current trials. And it's the latest questionable chapter in the life of Mr. Thatcher, who has been dogged for years by allegations of shady deals and capitalizing on his famous name.
But as South African police spokesman Sipho Ngwema told media after Thatcher's arrest: "We refuse [to let] South Africa be a springboard for coups in Africa and elsewhere."