Cry Havoc: mercenary's bitter account of a failed coup

Simon Mann's self-pitying account of his failed venture in Equatorial Guinea is both badly written and devoid of any interesting historical detail.

Simon Mann and his accomplices during their period of incarceration in a maximum security prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, before their coup in Equatorial Guinea could even begin. AFP
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Cry Havoc
Simon Mann
John Blake Publishing Ltd

Everyone's favourite kind of coup d'état is the bloodless one: El Presidente is surprised in his pyjamas, or while shopping in London, his trusted military aides turn out to be snakes, and he ends up, along with his loyalists, either under house arrest or in exile - padded at first, then increasingly threadbare as the secret accounts are frozen, one by one. Meanwhile, if you are an average citizen of his beleaguered country, not much changes. The money flows to anyone but you: meet the new Presidente, same as the old Presidente.

Simon Mann, one of the most famous living mercenaries, set out in 2004 to manage what he insisted would be a bloodless coup to topple Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. But the Wonga Coup was so bloodless that it barely got started. Mann chartered a Boeing 727 full of armed men and planned to fly into the capital of Malabo, where an advance team led by the South African mercenary Nick du Toit intended to take over the airport. Mann hoped to install Severo Moto, the leader of a government-in-exile headquartered in Spain, as president, and in return reap millions in oil revenues.

The coup-plotters were in shackles before a weapon was even loaded. Obiang locked up Du Toit in Malabo and, with a friendly call to fellow despot Robert Mugabe, had Mann and his men detained at their rendezvous point in Harare. Pretty soon Mann, the chief dog of war, was kennelled in a foul Zimbabwean prison and begging an unsympathetic world not to let Mugabe extradite him to Malabo, where he was convinced Obiang would cook and eat him.

Mann, whose extradition to Malabo ended not in a peppery stew but in a humanitarian pardon from Obiang, has now written the story of the coup and of the weird and silly life that led up to it. Cry Havoc is nearly as severe a botch as the coup itself. The writing is atrocious: someone seems to have advised Mann that sentences magically become more gripping if one adds needless full stops. Like this. To heighten the tension. And where the writing is tolerable, it is self-pitying when it should be self-critical, and grimly serious where any minimally sentient person will realise that the joke is not only hilarious, but very much on the clueless author.

By now, after the publication of Adam Roberts's The Wonga Coup and a nutty but enjoyable account by James Brabazon (who was scheduled to become the coup's official documentarian), there is no room on the shelf for any book that doesn't either reveal something about its powerful backers, or treat the whole Clouseauesque affair as low comedy. No mercenaries have failed so comically since the Seychelles coup in 1978, when one of the covert force headed by "Mad" Mike Hoare walked through the "Something to Declare" line at the airport (who does that?) and had his weapon detected.

On the subject of the coup's backers, Mann pulls back the curtain only a little, mostly to embarrass Mark Thatcher (the son of the former British prime minister), who pleaded guilty in 2005 in South Africa to charges related to financing the coup. According to Mann, Thatcher pumped thousands of dollars into the venture and told "a cringe-making lie" when he said he thought the money was for humanitarian air ambulances. Mann portrays the ex-prime minister's son as a "habitually naughty boy" with a platonic crush on ex-SAS men like Mann (who served in the regiment, and never misses a chance to mention it).

Thatcher declined to help when he and his men ended up in Zimbabwean prisons, according to the author. Later, once surrounded by Obiang's sous-chefs in Malabo, Mann began squealing on everyone, including his now-enemy Thatcher. At that point, Mann says, he and Obiang started getting along: Obiang wanted to ferret out disloyal members of his inner circle, and Mann wanted vengeance on his ex-backers.

Meanwhile, Mann alludes only elliptically to a larger consortium of entities who smiled upon his coup and lent assistance here and there. "Many hands," he writes, "were helping [us] along." He accuses a legitimately intriguing CIA-linked figure, known here as The Boss, of masterminding the whole affair and of ponying up vast sums to secure future oil rights. Although Mann once named these backers in open court in Malabo, The Boss remains anonymous for legal reasons. The book's willingness to snipe at Mark Thatcher stands in contrast to its timorous treatment of the only people anyone cares about.

And so the only potential merit for Mann's book, riddled as it is with basic errors of geography and fact, and exsanguinated of any interesting historical or political detail, is personal: can Mann realise that his hapless coup was, in fact, fit not for a Frederick Forsyth novel but for one of the lesser movies of Mel Brooks? The second half of the Mann memoir consists of his prison diaries - a genre that is uplifting in the hands of a hero or sensitive soul, but worthless from a humourless and self-pitying failure. Mann started with riches and connections (he is an Old Etonian, son of an English national cricket captain, and millionaire heir to a beer fortune) and flushed it all away through greed and incompetence. To read about his picking nits out of his prison blanket is more pleasing than he might imagine.

Of course his time in prison had its nasty moments. The Zimbabweans threatened to feed him to crocodiles and left a painful hernia untreated, and on his release from Equatorial Guinea he tested positive for a virus transmitted through rat urine. It is human to pity Mann for the half-decade away from his family (including a son, Arthur, born while he was away). But one might be better off reserving a tear or two for some other characters who had it worse - Nick du Toit was tortured in prison and lost 37kg; another mercenary died - and, most of all, for the vast majority of people who have the good sense not to plot coups. In any case Mann didn't have it so bad, once he turned on his backers and started paying off his jailers. Obiang donated a treadmill for his cell, arranged for hernia surgery by Tunisian doctors at a presidential clinic, and allowed him to order in meals from Hotel Paraiso, Malabo's finest.

Mann's most daring mercenary act is the bold attempt to dress up this adventure as something other than an exercise in greed. In the end, when you pick a fight, you have to be ready not to whine when the blood spilt is your own. And you deserve scorn if, like Mann, you try to have things both ways and claim both the mercenary's spoils of victory and the liberator's moral capital. Mann's title, of course, invites a cynical interpretation. Historically, the battle command "havoc" signalled the moment when soldiers could pillage and steal as they pleased.

That admission in big letters on the book jacket makes the talk of principles especially rich. "If I and the gang could be the power behind a democratically elected and vastly wealthy Equatorial Guinean throne," he muses, "then we could be a real power for good." Someone needs to remind Mann that mercenaries are rewarded according to their competence, and that democrats don't sit on thrones.

Graeme Wood is a contributing editor to The Atlantic.