Mercenary puzzle

2008-07-11 00:00

Simon Mann, the former British army officer convicted for participating in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea, will be 90 by the time he is free again, if he serves his 34 years and survives the rigours of Black Beach prison in Malabo. The era of the soldier of fortune in Africa, and the legacy of Mike Hoare and Bob Denard, is clearly over.

The government Mann was hoping to overthrow is one of the most venal in Africa with an appalling human rights record. But private invasions financed by foreign interests are unacceptable, which is the reason why the South African government legislated to prohibit mercenary activity. Conversely, some argue, the law goes too far, restricting the right to work for legitimate security companies abroad or enlist in the armed forces of Commonwealth countries.

Mann claims that South Africa had given tacit support to the plot, an allegation dismissed as preposterous by the government. Even assuming this to be true, and that Mann is looking for justification, there remain a number of unanswered questions about this strange affair.

Were the plotters used as unwitting bait in a complex foreign affairs exercise? South Africa has nine official intelligence-gathering agencies. Did none of them know what Mann, who was hardly discreet about his plans, was up to? Or were their agents too busy pursuing political vendettas to pay attention to the security of the state and enforcement of South African law?

If they did know, why was the operation not placed under close surveillance? Why was a plane load of mercenaries bound initially for Harare cleared for take off from South Africa? Foreknowledge and inaction would make the authorities accomplices to illegality. There is the uncomfortable possibility that masterful inactivity was employed in order to earn kudos from the disreputable regimes of Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea.

The South African statute book contains many admirable laws. But the way they are implemented, or not, often leaves much to be desired. A dark cloud of suspicion will hover over the government in relation to this episode until the full truth is known.

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