Thinking: Ever Loyal to Lord Oil

Greed, a botched government overthrow, and oil addiction writ large in Adam Robert's The Wonga Coup

By Britt Peterson

The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa. By Adam Roberts. Public Affairs Books, $25.95

Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa

PUBLIC AFFAIRS BOOKS, $25.95 THE CHARACTERS in Adam Roberts’s book The Wonga Coup are as preoccupied with oil as if they’d sprung from the black stuff themselves. From corrupt West African demagogues to British and South African mercenaries, from American politicians to the son of a certain former prime minister of England, everyone in Roberts’s world craves oil—and the power and money (“wonga” is British slang for cash) it brings.

Even in the chaotic history of government overthrows in Africa, the fruitless attempt in March 2004 to overthrow Obiang Nguema, the “democratically elected” president of Equatorial Guinea, stands out. Unlike other recent coups, this one was led by white Europeans and South Africans—a group of wealthy, adrenaline -addicted mercenaries who had previously rented out their private armies to fight in Angola and Sierra Leone’s civil wars. And this coup was not meant primarily to punish Obiang, or to restore democracy to notoriously repressive society. The plotters admit that they were after Equatorial Guinea’s underwater oil reserves—a resource that nets the government over $6 billion a year, not much of which trickles down to Equatorial Guineans who are not related to Obiang.

In 2003, Simon Mann—an Eton alum, occasional bit actor, and commander of a private army of African soldiers—began plotting the overthrow, a process Roberts describes inprecise, fascinating detail. After finding a potential puppet in Severo Moto, an eternal gadfly of Obiang’s regime who was living in exile in Spain, Mann started scouting for funding. One of his sources was former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s middleaged son, Mark Thatcher, whose eventual arrest brought an onslaught of media attention to a story that might otherwise have faded quickly from the public consciousness. Roberts’s portrait of Thatcher as a bumbling, petulant boyprince (when called upon to help a jailed friend, he asks if the friend could “ring back when the Grand Prix race was over”) is a major joy of The Wonga Coup.

Once Mann had hired planes, airstrips, masses of arms, and soldiers, and had lined up supporters ranging from Congolese rebels to (Roberts speculates) American CIA agents, he was ready to launch his coup. But an inability to keep his men from blabbing about their plans led to his perhaps inevitable, but nonetheless dramatic, downfall. While Mann, Thatcher, and their cohorts met with their comeuppance, the real victims, as Roberts tells it, were Mann’s dirt-poor African soldiers and their families, cast away at the end like a bad memory.

Roberts presents Mann’s hubris and fall in workaday language, leaving the conclusions largely up to his readers. Still, the implications of his scrupulously researched narrative are clear. Roberts mentions without comment, for example, a South African cartoon drawn after Thatcher’s arrest, depicting George H.W. Bush on the phone with Margaret Thatcher: “Maggie, that son of yours can’t go around toppling governments just to get the oil contracts… unless he’s in office! Now my boy.…” He was referring, of course, to his own boy, current president of the United States and originator of the phrase “addicted to oil,” who is a constant, if implicit, presence in The Wonga Coup. Reading Roberts’s book, we are reminded over and over again that oil addiction affects all levels of global society, and carries bloody consequences wherever it strikes.

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter