Monday, March 31, 2008

Thatcher, big oil and the mercenaries.

Three years ago, Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, pleaded guilty in South Africa to negligently investing in a helicopter used in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. The charge and plea were the result of a bargain made with South African prosecutors which saw Thatcher avoid jail (and more serious charges) and pay a hefty fine instead.

Thatcher has long been suspected of being one of the principles behind the attempted coup of Equatorial Guinea's president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. This last Saturday rumours started to circulate that Equatorial Guinea had issued an arrest warrant for Thatcher. Those have turned out to be untrue.

However, it appears a mercenary at the centre of the attempted coup has fingered Thatcher and says his involvement was more than just "negligent investment". According to ex-SAS officer and mercenary Simon Mann, Thatcher knew everything.
A British mercenary awaiting trial in Equatorial Guinea for leading a failed 2004 coup has said the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was involved in the plot, the public prosecutor said on Sunday.

Jose Olo said former British special forces officer Simon Mann had testified that Mark Thatcher knew all about the scheme to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has ruled the oil-rich West African country since 1979.

Of course Mann himself had no reason to overthrow Obiang. He was the hired help. The fact that Obiang runs an oppressive and corrupt regime factored little in Mann's presence during the coup attempt. It was all about oil and that would interest Thatcher.

What makes this interesting is the kind of people with whom Thatcher obviously associates, (aside from the fact that he, a private citizen of the UK with notable family connections, is prepared to become involved in overthrowing governments and starting wars). Mann is real piece of work with a long and sordid history.

Mann had been an officer in the Scots Guards, a connection with some later significance, who went on to become a member of the Special Air Service. He left the British army in 1985 to enter the computer security field. Recalled from the reserves for the 1991 Gulf War, Mann completed that particular service and entered the oil industry with one Tony Buckingham, a former member of the British Special Boat Service. Tony Buckingham today is the CEO of the Canadian gas and oil exploration company, Heritage Oil Company. His short bio indicates he was once a security adviser to various governments. Polite language for something far more complex. (As an aside Heritage Oil has announced it is planning on de-listing its shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange and listing them in the UK as a Jersey-based parent company.)

When UNITA rebels, in 1993, took and held the Angolan port of Soyo, closing Angola's oil production facilities, the Angolan government asked Buckingham for assistance. Buckingham called Executive Outcomes for direct military assistance. Actually, Buckingham was one of the founders of Executive Outcomes. In 1993 Buckingham, along with Mann and one other individual, registered Executive Outcomes in the UK as a private security company. The other individual? Eeben Barlow.

Eeben Barlow became the first leader of Executive Outcomes and his history should have set off alarm bells around the world. Barlow was the former head of the apartheid-era South African Civil Cooperation Bureau - a polite name for an organization which engaged in the assassination of political opponents and developed European-based covers for companies intended to work around UN anti-apartheid sanctions. What made Barlow particularly attractive to Executive Outcomes was his high-level contacts in the South African government and access to personnel from the soon-to-be-disbanded South African 32nd Battalion and from South African special forces and paramilitary units which were being drawn down as apartheid crumbled. Within a year of being established Executive Outcomes, led by Barlow, Buckingham and Mann, could offer close to 500 quasi-military officers and over 3000 hardened combat troops, most of whom had extensive counter-insurgency training and experience fighting Angolan rebels. Further, many of the South Africans had been engaged supporting UNITA and knew their inner workings.

Executive Outcomes cleaned up, if more on a public relations front than anything else. UNITA was crushed (the Angolan army played a significant role) and Angola's oil production was back in the hands of the oil companies, including Ranger Oil, another Canadian company with whom Buckingham had been doing business since 1991, and eventually Heritage Oil. Buckingham, Mann and Barlow had secured the Angolan oil supply and they were deeply entwined with one Canadian oil exploration company and would soon be connected directly with one which Buckingham himself would found.

Then Sierra Leone called in Barlow, Buckingham and Mann. Executive Outcomes was tasked with quelling an insurgency led by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Once again Executive Outcomes succeeded. They did it by securing the diamond fields and they showed up as a professional and fully air-mobile brigade, complete with armoured fighting vehicles.

It was shortly afterwards that Buckingham was accused of purposely introducing Executive Outcomes to weak governments plagued with guerrilla insurgencies but with extensive oil and diamond resources. Buckingham has denied it, but once again one of his companies maneuvered its way into control of diamond concession in the very fields which Executive Outcomes had taken to lever out the RUF. Branch Energy, a mining development company owned by Buckingham and registered in the Isle of Man, gained control of extensive diamond resources in Sierra Leone. Branch Energy was sold to Canadian DiamondWorks of Vancouver, British Columbia. Buckingham retained 30 percent control of that company and the diamond production he had secured in Sierra Leone.

Executive Outcomes had some serious exposure problems. First was the dirty connection with South Africa. Secondly, the connection with African mineral and oil concessions was becoming obvious enough that questions were being raised. Executive Outcomes had engagements in seven African countries, all of which held the incentive of mineral or petroleum wealth.

To optically break this link, in December 1996, the same three principles incorporated a British company called Sandline International. They brought with them Nic van der Berg and Michael Grunberg. And they added another person who would actually head up the company: A former Lieutenant Colonel in the Scots Guards, Simon Mann's former regiment.

Enter Tim Spicer.

Spicer's first major outing as a mercenary leader would result in two things: The mission would end in failure and, the organic links between Executive Outcomes, Sandline International and large mineral/petroleum extraction companies would be firmly established.

Continued in Part Two.

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