Simon Mann, the Eton- and Sandhurst-educated adventurer whose interventions helped bring down two governments and who was plotting to bring down a third when he was arrested with a load of weapons and mercenaries in Zimbabwe five years ago, appeared to use up his eighth life on Tuesday when he was released from his jail cell in Equatorial Guinea.
The former Special Air Service (SAS) commando and one-time member of the infamous private military contractors Executive Outcomes and Sandline International, was pardoned by Equatorial Guinea's President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the man he was plotting to depose when he was caught with 64 confederates and a planeload of $100,000 worth of weapons on the tarmac in Harare.
At the time, Mr. Mann said they were headed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to guard a diamond mine. But after serving almost four years in a Zimbabwe prison and then being extradited to Equatorial Guinea, where he was serving a 34-year prison sentence, he came clean. He told Jonathan Miller of the UK's Channel 4 last year that I "was the manager... not the main man" in a plot to wrest control of the tiny, oil-rich and deeply corrupt nation.
(For more on how Equatorial Guinea's oil curse is playing out, read the Monitor's in-depth report on how the country tests President Obama's vow to hold Africa's leaders accountable for good governance.)
Mann alleged the "main men" were the country's former colonial power, Spain and South Africa. He also expressed chagrin at his capture in a fashion that would have made Rudyard Kipling proud: "You go tiger shooting but you don't expect the tiger to win."
The full details of the plot are still unknown. South African prosecutors dropped their own case against Mann and his co-conspirators a few years ago after Sir Mark Thatcher, the arms dealing son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, pleaded guilty to "unwittingly" helping to fund the plot.
Mann's post-military career has been frequently controversial. Sandline International's $30 million contract to put down a rebellion on the island of Bougainville, home to a copper mine in Papua New Guinea, led to a scandal there that pushed Prime Minister Julius Chan from office. Executive Outcomes fought on the side of the government during Sierra Leone's bloody civil war in the early 1990s.
Mann, the son and grandson of England cricket captains, now returns home to enjoy what's left of his fortune with the dubious distinction of being the last white man to try to take over an African country. It's hard to see anyone taking that distinction away from him, since there aren't many of the so-called "Dogs of War" left. But he belongs to a rich tradition of European adventurers who sought to increase their fortunes at the barrel of a rifle in Africa after the colonial era drew to a close.
On our list, he comes in fifth among the recent white mercenaries in Africa.
Here are our top four in descending order:
1. 'Colonel' Bob Denard. Mr. Denard fought his way across Africa from north to south for 40 years (with a brief tour along the way in French Indochina). His first conviction was while serving as a colonial policeman for France in Morocco in 1954, when he was convicted of participating in a plot to assassinate French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France, who was then negotiating a withdrawal from France's North African possessions. After fighting on various sides of Congo's conflicts in the 1960s, he made his first big splash in 1975 by successfully aiding a coup in the Comoros, the tiny island nation off the east coast of Africa. It was the first of four coups Denard helped lead in the Comoros, an entanglement that took up the rest of his life and ultimately led to his downfall. The self-described "pirate of the republic" always hinted that he was working for the glory of France, an impression bolstered by his lenient treatment by the French justice system. He was sentenced, but never served jail time, by a French court for his participation in a failed coup in Benin in 1977.
His 1975 coup replaced Comoran President Ahmed Abdullah, who had declared independence from France, with Ali Soilih. But when Mr. Soilih turned toward leftist politics, Denard returned to the islands in 1978 with a few dozen hardened mercenaries and helped install Mr. Abdullah to power again (Mr. Soilih was killed in mysterious circumstances during the coup). Denard served as the head of Abdullah's presidential guard for the next decade, and grew wealthy thanks to military contracts in nearby Mozambique and thanks to the Comoros' then-favored position as a way-station for getting around sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime. A coup against Abdullah ended this idyll, with Abdullah killed and Denard escaping to South Africa with only a minor gunshot wound thanks to the aid of French commandos. But he could not stay away. In September 1995, Denard, then 65, led a small group of hired guns on zodiacs back to the Comoros in an attempt to oust the government that had replaced Abdullah. France took matters into its own hands this time, putting down Denard's final coup attempt and taking him home to face trial. Denard again received a suspended sentence and passed away in France in 2007.
2. "Mad" Mike Hoare. Mr. Hoare, born to Irish parents but often described as a South African, was the prototype for the white mercenaries who took part in Africa's bloody post-colonial struggles in the 1960s and 70s. He fought on the side of the government in the Congo against rebels in mineral rich Katanga province in 1961 (and against Bob Denard) with a few hundred salty mercenaries, mostly white South Africans and Rhodesians. He also led the charge in 1964 to break a rebel siege of Stanleyville, an effort that saved over 1,000 European businessmen and mercenaries trapped in the city. These and other exploits made him a legend in his circles, and he was the model for Sir Richard Burton's lead role in 1978's "The Wild Geese," a movie about mercenaries in Africa that Hoare acted as a consultant for. His book "Congo Mercenary" is considered the best inside account of the mercenary period.
But a fall from grace was coming. In 1981, Hoare and a group of 40 mercenaries departed from South Africa for the Seychelles, claiming they were a traveling Rugby football club planning to have a good time on the islands and to distribute toys to underprivileged children. But their suitcases had false bottoms for weapons. When a customs inspector stumbled across a weapon, a fire fight broke out at the airport. The mercenaries fought their way out of the airport, commandeered an Air India plane, and forced it to take them home to Durban. South Africa originally let them off the hook, but after the US and others complained, Hoare and his co-conspirators were tried and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
3. Jean "Black Jack" Schramme. The son of Belgian planters in the Congo, he became embroiled in post-colonial intrigue after the country's independence in 1960, and he and his band of mercenaries, known as the "White Giants," fought in the Congo for much of the 1960s. He first fought for the separatist Moise Tshombe in Katanga in the early 1960s, but switched over to the government side when the pro-Belgian Tshombe became Prime Minister in a coalition government in 1964. After Mobutu Sese Seko (then known as Joseph Désiré Mobutu) seized power in a 1965 coup, Schramme resumed fighting the central government from Katanga. He and his men (which included many Katangans), collectively known as the Leopard Battalion, took control and held the border town of Bukavu for two months in 1967 and nearly took over the town of Stanleyville (now called Kisangani), though this effort failed when Bob Denard, also in town at the time, elected not to aid him. Schramme, who was infamous for using overwhelming force on his enemies and any civilians that happened to be near them, was eventually dislodged from Bukavu by a force of 15,000 soldiers loyal to Mobutu and slunk across the border into Rwanda. He returned to Belgium in 1968 and is believed to have died in Brazil in 1988.
4. Lt. Col. Tim Spicer. Former Lieutenant Colonel Spicer is the outlier in this group, a man with a past in murky wars of Africa but who has since very successfully gone legit. Like Mann, who he worked with from time to time, he was a graduate of Sandhurst and served in the Scots Guard. He founded and ran Sandline International and was deeply involved in the company's war against the Bougainville rebels in Papua New Guinea. In 1998, Sandline was also investigated for breaking a UN arms embargo in Sierra Leone in favor of the country's deposed leader, the pro-British Ahmed Kabbah. Spicer said at the time that his actions were authorized by the British government and he suffered no sanctions from the affair. Sandline was eventually dissolved and Spicer founded a new company, Aegis Defense Services, which to date has won more than $3oo million worth of security contracts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Spicer has been leading the charge in calling for private military contractors to be professionalized, and has worked on drafting basic standards for the emerging industry, including lobbying the British government for the industry. He described the PMC's roles in a 2006 interview with The Guardian. "I've always said that in Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone there was nothing wrong with what Sandline was doing because we were there at the request of the democratically elected governments," he argues. "But it attracted a lot of attention and played into the hands of people who felt that this was not a good way of doing things. The idea was well before its time. There was a huge amount of suspicion, mistrust, and poor connotation attached to the security business at that time." The Gurdian summed up his position on the "mercenary" tag:
"Although Spicer was happy to use it in its literal sense five years ago, it now makes him uncomfortable. 'It's a pejorative term,' he shrugs. "Mercenaries are bad.'"
Is the president of Equatorial Guinea worse than the British mercenary he pardoned?
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo – who today pardoned Simon Mann – is widely seen as one of Africa’s most corrupt leaders. But will oil interests prevent a shift in US policy? Read our special report.