Grabbing Guinea.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Aug. 26 2004 3:32 PM

Grabbing Guinea

Did Mark Thatcher try to overthrow an African dictator?

Early on Wednesday morning, South African police arrested Sir Mark Thatcher at his Capetown home on charges of mercenary activity. According to the police, Thatcher, a notorious businessman and son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was involved in a plot to overthrow the leader of Equatorial Guinea. The arrest is only the latest development in a long-simmering story—for weeks, Thatcher's name has been linked to the March 7 arrest of a plane full of mercenary soldiers led by Thatcher's close friend, Simon Mann, as they attempted to pick up a cache of weapons in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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Thatcher's arrest has sparked a storm of press interest in the United Kingdom and South Africa, where reporters have followed Mark Thatcher's dubious exploits for years. The South African Cape Times reviewed some of the highlights, including Mark's inauspicious days at Harrow (they called him "Thickie Mork"), after which he "did not go to university and failed his accountancy exams three times." He later achieved some fame in 1982, while his mother was prime minister, when he got lost in a Paris-to-Dakar rally race and had to be rescued from the Sahara. "A devoted Lady Thatcher, however, has always had faith in him. 'Mark could sell snow to the Eskimos, and sand to the Arabs,' she is reported to have said." Nevertheless, Mark Thatcher's arrest has spawned a tabloid frenzy in the United Kingdom. According to the South African Star, "the British media were said to be streaming into Cape Town overnight."

Most observers were more interested in the story of the coup, which targeted Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, dictator of the small, oil-rich state of Equatorial Guinea. An op-ed in the Glasgow Herald called it "a tale that could have come straight from the pages of a blockbuster by Wilbur Smith or Robert Ludlum." A Guardian article about the coup described Equatorial Guinea as "a small, malarial country in west Africa ruled by a tyrant but newly and filthily rich in offshore oil." The Guardian focused its attention on Simon Mann, who has been involved in several mercenary outfits in the past. Mann implicated Thatcher in his "doomed Boy's Own adventure in a forgotten corner of west Africa" when he tried to sneak a letter out of jail in March asking "Scratcher" to help with "a large splodge of wonga." Mann's financial records may also implicate the disgraced Lord Archer. The article concluded by noting that, in addition to going "spectacularly wrong," the plot was no secret—rumors of it were "openly discussed at an academic meeting about oil, with US and Foreign Office officials present, in London."

The extent of Thatcher's involvement remains unclear, though the elite South African police unit (known as the Scorpions) that arrested him seems confident Thatcher provided financial backing for the coup. According to a police spokesman, "The Scorpions unit does not just arrest people unless there is a very strong case." Thatcher is under house arrest until he can furnish a $300,000 bail. Less fortunate are the alleged plotters arrested within Equatorial Guinea, who are being tried in the capital, Malabo. According to the Herald op-ed, one of those men has already died in captivity. "Malaria, said the authorities. Torture, claim local reports." Thatcher, Mann, and the rest could face execution if Zimbabwe and South Africa permit their extradition and they stand trial with the 14 accused already in Equatorial Guinea.

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.

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