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Simon Mann, captive soldier of fortune Print
MATTHEW HART - Special to The Globe and Mail - May 18, 2007

LONDON — One of Africa's more famous dogs of war, British mercenary Simon Mann, got one, cruel sniff at freedom last week before a Harare magistrate clapped him back inside Zimbabwe's notorious Chikurubi prison. There he awaits a decision that could spell his death, as Zimbabwe considers his extradition to Equatorial Guinea.

The dispassionate observer cannot like Mr. Mann's chances. He stands accused of a plot to topple the regime of Equatorial Guinea's dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, a man routinely accused of eating his opponents' testicles. Alas for Mr. Mann, President Nguema supplies the bankrupt regime of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe with cheap oil.
If the extradition goes forward, as his friends fear it will, the 54-year-old former SAS commando, once one of the world's top guns for hire, will face incarceration in an even worse establishment than Chikurubi – the torture camp of Black Beach prison in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea's capital.

Mr. Mann's troubles began on March 7, 2004, when his chartered Boeing jetliner, packed with 69 South African mercenaries, put down to refuel in Harare, and to buy arms. Zimbabwean troops were waiting for them.

His sudden downfall – snared by people he seems to have thought he had in his pocket – astonished those who knew him. When I met him, seven years before in Johannesburg, he was the picture of the cool soldier- businessman whose exploits had made him a byword in the world I was then writing about, diamonds. It hardly seemed possible that this immaculate warrior was the same person pictured in news photos from Harare: dishevelled, haggard, shuffling into custody in shackles.

Nor was the story less fantastic. Mr. Mann was on his way to topple Mr. Nguema, install the exiled opposition and in return receive a share of the country's cash-spinning offshore oil. According to reports, he had hoped to trick the Zimbabweans into allowing him guns and passage by claiming he planned to back a rebel Congo group that would give Mr. Mugabe access to diamond revenues, badly needed by his ruined exchequer.

But the Zimbabweans, probably briefed by South African intelligence, whose political masters loathed the mercenary remnant still operating from their country, smelled deceit and pounced.

“They were imbeciles,” Des Burman said of the mercenaries, speaking from his home near Cape Town.

“Mann broke every rule.”

Mr. Burman was once a colonel in the Buffalo Battalion, a storied commando unit of the old South African Defence Force. Several of the men arrested with Mr. Mann were Buffalo veterans, and Mr. Burman himself had worked as a mercenary, running security for oil companies in Angola.

Mr. Mann, he told me, “was in Zimbabwe to buy weapons; you never buy weapons in Africa. You buy everything offshore and have it delivered to your theatre.

“Second, always operate from a safe country. Zimbabwe's not safe, and neither is South Africa. The South Africans are embarrassed by all the mercenaries operating here, and they've been trying to catch them. The South African security forces set Mann up.”

The South Africans certainly seemed to have penetrated the group. No sooner was Mr. Mann convicted in Harare of arms and immigration offences in August, 2004, than South African police made a dawn raid on the Cape Town mansion of Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and charged him with breaking South Africa's anti-mercenary laws by bankrolling the Mann venture.

Sir Mark was placed under house arrest until a bond of two million rand ($334,000 (U.S.)) was posted, reportedly by his mother. He eventually pleaded guilty to the charges, received a four-year suspended sentence, and paid a fine of three million rand. The charges “destroyed” him, he told a reporter. “I will never be able to do business again. Who will deal with me?”

And indeed, Sir Mark has become a forlorn figure. His criminal conviction led the United States to refuse him entry when he tried to join his American wife in Dallas, and last month the couple divorced. Monaco and Switzerland have refused him residency, and he now divides his time between Gibraltar and his mother's London house.

Still, he clearly was one of those addressed in a plaintive note Mr. Mann had smuggled from prison asking his friends for a “splodge of wonga” – British public-school slang for a fistful of dollars – as the only possible way to win his freedom. The phrase made its way into the title of a book about the bungled affair, The Wonga Coup, and has come to stand for all that is pathetic in Mr. Mann's reduction.

Born in 1952 to a prosperous London brewer and a South African heiress, he had a gilded youth. His parents moved in the rarefied circles of the English rich. They sent their son to Eton, the exclusive boys school in Windsor, and put him down for membership in White's, an ironclad blueblood haunt in the club land of St. James's.

From school he went to Sandhurst, the military college, and was commissioned into the Scots Guards. He did a three-year hitch in the SAS, then returned to the regular army. According to Henry Bellingham, a Conservative MP and a long-time friend, the regular army bored him. “He had the makings of a brilliant wartime general, but peacetime soldiering was not big enough for him.”

Africa was big enough.

By the time I met him, in 1997, Mr. Mann was already famous, his name spoken with respect in that hard domain populated by men-at-arms no longer in their countries' uniforms. When I travelled there, and I imagine still, scores of security contractors – armies for hire – were growing fat on the oil-and-diamond-rich milieu of southern Africa. They can be a thuggish lot, but Mr. Mann stood out.

I was staying at a new Hilton in the mostly white northern suburbs of Johannesburg. He had just finished a presentation to a group of stock-market analysts about a diamond operation his group ran in Angola. It was a violent night for weather, with purple clouds thrashing the trees with short-lived storms. I had stepped out for a smoke, and was under an awning watching lightning split the sky.

After a few minutes, I noticed Mr. Mann standing a couple of yards away – very upright and still, absorbed in his thoughts. He was dressed in a short-sleeved safari suit that might have come straight from Savile Row. It fit him like a glove. There was none of that grimy, rumpled, slightly sodden look that afflicts the rest of us the moment we step from a plane onto the soil of Africa.

He and his associates had spoken that night about the attractions of the property in northeastern Angola where they had mining rights. The parties in the country's civil war were then in the midst of a doubtful truce, and his job was to convince the analysts that, if they invested in his company, they would get diamonds, and not ruin. In the morning, we were going in to have a look.

“Bit of a risk for an investor,” I observed. Mr. Mann studied me for a moment, as if to remember who or what I was, then turned his gaze back to the storm.

“That area where we're going tomorrow? It's completely pacified,” he said.

“By you?”

“By the Angolan government.”

The “government” he meant was the faction in control of Luanda, the capital. He and his friends helped it plan military operations.

In those days, Angola was the great dream cake of the diamond world, gushing $600-million a year in high-end rough from the diamond rivers. Most of this flowed from the insurgent UNITA army. The diamonds were run out of Angola in hair-raising operations by Ilyushin cargo jets that landed on dirt strips in the middle of the night. Off came Russian tanks and on went the goods.

In the 1990s, a tide of such goods washed through the diamond scene, illuminating it with the lurid phosphorescence of loot. By the time I met Mr. Mann, the trade in “blood diamonds” – gems used to finance wars – was at its height. At times, it felt as though the whole diamond world was a secret sea being sailed by pirate ships.

Into this surf had waded a handful of small exploration companies known as juniors. One of these was DiamondWorks, a Vancouver-based firm that had passed into the hands of Mr. Mann's associates through a piece of stock-market legerdemain called a reverse takeover, in which DiamondWorks “bought” the group's company with DiamondWorks stock.

DiamondWorks has since purged itself of this association, but at the time the deal raised concerns in Canada that African mercenaries had found a way to finance themselves on Canadian equity markets. Mr. Mann's task that night at the Hilton was to persuade the analysts that, despite his reputation, DiamondWorks was a legitimate diamond miner, and he was about to give them proof.

The next morning, DiamondWorks' chartered Boeing 737 jet circled out over the Atlantic and landed at Luanda. Once a ravishing city, the Angolan capital had been reduced to tatters by 20 years of civil war. We taxied past rows of spavined Antonovs and battered Ilyushin freighters.

A white pickup came tearing across the runway. Mr. Mann got in and sped away.

In those days, clearing Luanda airport could take hours. But when he returned, we were whisked straight through. Stamps went smacking into passports and an official of Endiama, the state diamond company, arrived with letters of passage – amazing, florid documents festooned with signatures that granted entry to the diamond region via Saurimo in Lunda Sul province.

At Saurimo, Mr. Mann led us across the baking asphalt to a Russian-built MI6 helicopter, and we went racketing north across the bushveld into Lunda Norte province. Soon, the brown serpentine of the Chicapa River hove into view, and we clattered into the DiamondWorks camp.

The place was called Luo, from the name of a stream that joins the Chicapa there. Luo had enjoyed a kind of lustre in the diamond world since a pair of South Africans with a suction pump had hoovered a 24-carat pink diamond from the riverbed two years before. They had taken it out of Saurimo in a Lear jet and sold it on the diamond bourse in Johannesburg for $4.8-million. One week later, the stone was flipped in New York for $10-million, sawed in half and polished into matching pears. The sultan of Brunei's younger brother paid $20-million for them.

The DiamondWorks camp was set among trees and ruled by an immense, slovenly South African. He was recovering from malaria, for which the treatment seemed to be a tumbler of whisky, never out of his sunburned paw. He took great pride in the feast prepared for the analysts, including prawns flown in from the coast. In the heat, a high smell came off the tables, and the visitors mostly kept to beer.

It was a pretty stretch of river. Trees sagging with white blossoms drooped into the water on the far shore.

DiamondWorks had a barge in the middle of the current, tethered by lines to either bank. Winches tugged the platform upriver. A device at the bow extended into the water to loosen the riverbed gravels. Divers slid into the murk and raked through the swirling sediment with suction hoses.

Although miners had worked this stretch of the Chicapa since colonial times, there seemed to be plenty left. A 106-carat, high-colour white had come out of the river a few weeks before, and while we were there Mr. Mann showed us a 50-carat stone worth $150,000. The colour was poor, but the size impressed the analysts.

Upriver from the barge, DiamondWorks had diverted the channel to expose the floodplain gravels, which they trucked to a small recovery mill. But their ambitions were larger. They had identified a promising diamond target at Yetwene, 100 kilometres away, and we boarded the helicopter again and went rattling down the Chicapa for a look.

At Yetwene, they had cleared a broad swath of riverbank and started to erect a mill. We circled the site for 10 minutes, peering through the open hatch while Mr. Mann's geologist, shouting above the engine noise, poured out statistics about grade and throughput.

As we flew back along the Chicapa to Luo, I surveyed the banks. That stretch of river had fed a lot of money into UNITA's pockets, and it seemed improbable they had just abandoned it. There was evidence of mining.

“Who's working the river here?” I bellowed at Mann.

He shook his head. “Nobody. They've been cleared out.”

Yetwene opened in early 1998, and six months later, the Angolan truce in shreds, UNITA came out of the bush and stormed the mine. Mr. Mann's troops set up a fierce resistance, and the firefight lasted for an hour.

Five DiamondWorks people died; UNITA took captives and vanished into the bush. All through the region, diamond miners shut down their operations and pulled out. Mr. Mann's diamond faucet coughed a few last times, then quit. Investors flattened DiamondWorks' share price, and I heard no more of him until his capture at Harare.

Certainly he had prospered in the intervening years. His property includes a gabled, Cape Dutch mansion in the ravishing Cape Town suburb of Constantia, where his neighbours once included the present Earl Spencer, brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. He also has a house in London's fashionable Notting Hill, and Inchmery, his stately home in Hampshire, sits on 20 acres on the banks of the River Beaulieu.

According to Britain's Sunday Express, it was to protect all this that Mr. Mann made a disastrous gamble.

Shortly after his conviction, the newspaper said, he was offered the chance to return to South Africa, where he is a citizen. But fearing a long jail sentence for his mercenary activities, and possibly ruinous financial penalties, he decided to risk remaining in Zimbabwe, believing he could see out his incarceration and return to Britain.

“Instead,” said a source identified as a friend, “he is stuck between two of Africa's worst tyrants, and he hasn't got a hope in hell.”

If he is extradited, he will join Nick du Toit, a former South African commando captured in Malabo in 2004, said to have been tortured, convicted of forming an advance guard for Mr. Mann and thrown in chains into Black Beach prison for 34 years.

The stories of Mr. Nguema's barbarity come with a pedigree. The President's uncle ruled Equatorial Guinea before him, in the 1970s, when the country, a tiny wedge of land on the west Africa coast and a scattering of islands, became a slaughterhouse. The heads of the despot's enemies were stuck on poles and carried through the dusty lanes of Malabo. When the regime collapsed and the uncle was wounded trying to flee into the jungle with a load of banknotes, his nephew seized control. He imprisoned his predecessor in a cage, displayed him in a theatre, and finally had him shot.

Now, as Mr. Mann awaits his fate, rumours abound that he will not suffer it in silence. Friends confirm that he is finishing a book about his role in the alleged coup. It is said to name powerful names. Former British foreign secretary Jack Straw has faced assertions in the past that intelligence sources gave the British government notice of a plot, and that London did nothing to alert Equatorial Guinea.

Mr. Mann's lawyer, Jonathan Samkange, says publishers are competing for the memoirs.

“Simon Mann is writing a book covering his life, his career, his prison experience, his friends,” he said, “and those who betrayed him.”

The pleasures of revenge may be scant recompense if Mr. Mann's enemies succeed with extradition. His case suffered a blow last week when a former politician from Equatorial Guinea decided not to go to Harare to testify.

The man had himself suffered torture at the hands of the regime, and was to tell the court in Zimbabwe what awaited Mr. Mann. But now he fears that Zimbabwe would deport him to his homeland. Having already been inside the damp stone walls of Black Beach prison, he has no wish to return.

Matthew Hart is a Canadian writer based in London, and the author of Diamond: The History of a Cold-Blooded Love Affair.
 
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