Her Boy

R.W. Johnson

  • Thatcher’s Fortunes: The Life and Times of Mark Thatcher by Mark Hollingsworth and Paul Halloran
    Mainstream, 415 pp, £7.99, July 2006, ISBN 1 84596 118 8
  • The Wonga Coup: The British Mercenary Plot to Seize Oil Billions in Africa by Adam Roberts
    Profile, 304 pp, £9.99, June 2006, ISBN 1 86197 934 7

There is a terrible relentlessness about Thatcher’s Fortunes, a chronicle that can be easily summed up. Mark Thatcher, talentless, and so graceless that the most charming thing about him was that he would sometimes introduce himself as ‘charmless Mark’, was – is – doted on by ‘Mummy’, in whose eyes he could do no wrong and who insisted, against all the evidence, that he was a ‘born businessman’. What this meant was that he traded endlessly and ruthlessly on her name and had better access to her than anyone except – maybe not even except – Denis; and that he was happy to get involved with all sorts of shysters and downright crooks in order to become rich. Being rich seems to have been something Mark thought he was born to, that he had a right to, and he was in a great hurry to get to it. He got there all right but from the start you realise that the only mensch in the plot is his twin sister, Carol, who kept her feet on the ground, remained unbothered by fame or fortune, and was reluctant to trade on her mother’s name.

For those of us – or some of us – who lived through the Thatcher era there is something slightly mysterious about the degree of deference which Thatcher was and, to some extent, still is shown, and thus about how tradeable her name was. She was a woman of unusual energy and determination but not of great depth or intelligence. She was revered by the rich and by conservatives all over the world because she reasserted certain fundamentals very dear to them, and did so at just the right time. That was the key. Had she come to power in 1960 or 1970 she would have failed – she had no second suit – but by 1979 the foundering of old social solidarities and, with them, the postwar consensus opened the way to her simplistic truths: Victorian values and all the rest. Mark Hollingsworth and Paul Halloran describe the way Mark took over the marketing of his mother’s memoirs, and almost completely messed it up. At one stage an experienced literary agent, George Greenfield, was brought in to advise, but found himself ‘constantly interrupted by Mrs Thatcher . . . who fixed him with a blank, self-absorbed stare. “The extent of her ill-conceived ignorance at that time was only matched by the brazen vigour with which she expressed it,” he recalled.’

That was Thatcher all over, as even such slavish acolytes as Geoffrey Ripon gradually discovered. She exalted rags-to-riches entrepreneurialism but the launch of her career depended on her having married a wealthy older man able to pay for childcare and make it unnecessary for her to earn her own living. It should come as no surprise that Mark was without talent but filled with self-belief and utterly brazen. Denis saw this for what it was but Mrs Thatcher never has. Raised to riches, married to a desirable heiress, he is now, at the age of 53, unwanted in Switzerland, South Africa and Monaco, alienated from his wife and children, banned pro tem from America, and doomed to live with his mum in Britain, where he has always been an embarrassment.

Take the al-Yamamah ‘arms deal of the century’. Mark is said to have received £12 million in commission from the Saudis, though he has denied it. Mrs Thatcher herself took the lead in pushing this £40 billion contract and the Saudis seem to have concluded that Mark had to be rewarded as her crown prince in the way a Saudi prince would have been. This deal and others like it were so curious in terms of both rules and political convention that British embassies were, time and again, horrified to find Mark wheeling and dealing on their patch. He in turn appears to have regarded embassies and their staff as little more than family retainers, an attitude which, again, may not seem so surprising when you remember that Mrs Thatcher greeted the news of the arrival of Mark’s first child with ‘We are a grandmother.’

Everything about Mark is so rebarbative that it seems only natural that he would count Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer among his closer associates and that even those invited to his house found his rudeness to servants – and to his wife – so repellent, verging on outright cruelty, that they often took an instant and lasting dislike to him. ‘Don’t you realise who I am?’ is his customary response to not getting his own way. My heart goes out to the American waitress whom he once tried to force into serving his table first. When she resisted he exploded with ‘Look, I am Mark Thatcher,’ to which she replied: ‘I don’t care if you’re Mark Twain, you take your turn like everybody else.’ Mrs Thatcher’s friends and advisers endlessly anguished over ‘the Mark problem’ and the political danger in which it placed his mother, but few had the courage to broach the matter with her and those who did were sent packing.

By 1995, however, Mark was faced with five separate legal actions in the US, and threatening Revenue investigations in both the US and the UK. To Mrs Thatcher’s horror, it seemed possible that he would be cross-examined about the al-Yamamah deal and asked to explain how exactly he’d made £12 million out of it. Worse still, an American former business associate was suing him for allegedly ‘hijacking’ his company, a case which involved Thatcher family money. Denis was livid: ‘I never thought I would see my family name on the front page of the Sunday Times associated with fraud,’ he told a friend. Money was paid, actions were settled out of court and Mark was bundled off to South Africa, specifically to the leafy suburb of Constantia in Cape Town.

Constantia (where I live myself) is quite a large area because, as generally happens with fashionable suburbs, many peripheral districts lay claim to the name. But its most upmarket streets include mansions of stunning size and grandeur, with magnificent views of Cape Town and Table Mountain. Among those who have bought houses here are Earl Spencer, Elton John and Michael Douglas, but the oddity is that, while you might assume, as you drive through its wonderful avenues, that Constantia’s residents are nothing if not respectable, you’d be dead wrong, because not only did Mark set himself up in palatial style here but so did Spencer’s ex-friend the convicted fraudster Darius Guppy; Simon Mann, the leader of the attempted mercenary coup in Equatorial Guinea in 2004; and Teodorin Nguema, the playboy son of the Equatoguinean dictator, Obiang Nguema, whom Mann was trying to overthrow.

It was Thatcher’s involvement as a financial backer of this coup that saw him eventually leave Constantia in disgrace and which also led Hollingsworth and Halloran to put a picture of Mann and his comrades in Zimbabwe’s hellish Chikurubi prison on the front of their book, though this is a little misleading: most of the book was written before the coup and a new edition has been rushed out with some added material. For the real story one must turn to Adam Roberts’s gripping, well-researched and – given the ludicrous ease with which African tyrants have been able to milk the English libel laws – legally very bold book.

Equatorial Guinea had the bad luck to come to independence under Macias Nguema, whose rule was so terrible that a third of the population was either killed or fled. Though he had people garrotted, buried alive and beheaded (and their heads stuck on poles), the detail that sticks in my mind is his having 150 people executed to the tune of ‘Those Were the Days, My Friend’ played over stadium loudspeakers. In 1973, a group of mercenaries attempted a coup that Roberts claims was planned by the novelist Frederick Forsyth – The Dogs of War, which chronicled the plot in detail, was published the following year. Although it was generally regarded as a work of fiction it became a do-it-yourself manual for mercenaries mounting coups in Africa for years afterwards.

When Obiang Nguema, Macias’s nephew, seized power from his uncle (whom he killed) in 1979 things improved only slightly. Opposition leaders tend to die behind bars; torture is commonplace; Obiang is reported to eat the brains and testicles of those he particularly dislikes; and members of his family as well as some of the country’s diplomats have been accused of large-scale drug-running. With the country now Africa’s third largest oil producer, Obiang and his family are fabulously rich, while the small population languishes in unchanging poverty. By the same token Obiang became increasingly vulnerable to anyone with notions of mounting a coup, an idea that came to Simon Mann as a result of his long association with Tony Buckingham’s Executive Outcomes in Angola. There mercenary success earned huge financial rewards: Buckingham walked away from that adventure worth some $150 million in oil and diamonds. Mann, an Old Etonian scion of the brewing family, seems to have hatched his plot after consultation with the Lebanese tycoon Ely Calil, who was already helping to fund Obiang’s chief rival, the opposition leader Severo Moto.

Early in 2003 Mann began assembling his team, which, he hoped, would fly in to Malabo, the Equatoguinean capital, surprise and topple Obiang, install Moto in his stead and run the country through the Bight of Benin Company, founded for the purpose. It has occurred to more than one plotter, looking around at the many failed and failing states of Africa, that such countries would be better off run by companies, in the way that the Dutch East India Company ran the Cape and Rhodes’s British South Africa Company colonised Zambia and Zimbabwe. The problem is that Equatorial Guinea, like many African countries, is well endowed with natural resources and any number of companies had – or might have – already invested in it. So it was essential for Mann to drop heavy hints of a coup at an early stage, both in Madrid (Spain being the former colonial power) and Washington – and there had to be no messing about with the rights of the American oil companies since that’s ‘what gets the marines coming in’. Meanwhile, Calil knew Peter Mandelson – Mandelson had rented a flat from him – and questions were asked in the House of Commons as to whether ministers or officials had discussed the matter with Mandelson (Mandelson denied it). At any rate, British intelligence soon knew about the impending coup and talk leaked into mercenary circles.

A regime like Obiang’s depends heavily on mercenary bodyguards, even for intelligence; and Obiang was very dependent on one Johann Smith, a South African special forces veteran, who repeatedly warned him of possible plots to impose Moto. Smith had teamed up with Nigel Morgan, an Irish-Brit who had trained to be a Jesuit priest, worked in a Thatcher think-tank, served in the Irish Guards and then got into the private security business in the Congo, where he recruited the fearsome Victor Dracula, an Angolan who had served with SA special forces, and James Kershaw, a radio and computer geek. Morgan’s nicknames, ‘Nosher’ and ‘Captain Pig’, are self-explanatory but a far more impressive man to cross Smith’s path in Malabo was Nick du Toit, a legend in the SA special forces. Du Toit was on the qui vive for opportunities. As luck would have it, he ultimately threw in his lot with Mann, not Smith.

All this was to have fateful consequences. South Africa’s National Intelligence Agency is stuffed full of agents who learned their craft as operatives for the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), once one of the world’s least effective guerrilla forces. As a result President Mbeki still relies for anything really serious on white Afrikaners from the ancien regime, several of whom have set up private security companies with ties to mercenary and special forces circles. ‘Nosher’ Morgan moved in these circles and supplied intelligence to Mbeki’s network. A friend of both Thatcher and Mann, he realised early on what was up and inserted Kershaw as Mann’s special assistant. With Kershaw reporting back to Morgan and Morgan in turn reporting to South African intelligence, the plot was no secret in Pretoria. Interestingly, Obiang and Mbeki were both to fulminate against the phenomenon of white mercenaries, but both depended on them to foil Mann’s plot.

Mann’s coup was so poorly organised, and leaked information so freely, that it was discussed in the course of a Chatham House seminar before it took place. The plotters had a penchant for meeting in loud groups at fashionable restaurants – in one instance in Malabo itself, with 35 drunken Afrikaners roaring away to anyone who cared to listen. Mann assumed that almost everyone would be pleased to see the back of the odious Obiang, and that by noising his plans abroad he was allowing Britain, the US, Spain and South Africa to know what was happening: if they didn’t react he would take it that he had their tacit consent. The plotters actually told Bulelani Ngcuka, the head of South Africa’s prosecution authority and a Mbeki intimate, what they were planning and again assumed that the lack of official response meant they had Mbeki’s implicit permission to go ahead. In fact, there is strong reason to believe that the coup did enjoy US and Spanish support, and London certainly did nothing to stop it. Moreover, when the first attempt was mounted on 19 February, the two DC3s carrying the mercenaries were allowed to take off unhindered from Polokwane airport, north of Pretoria. The almost farcically complicated plans fell apart when the Antonov coming to meet them suffered a bird-strike; the mercenaries got as far as Ndola in Zambia before having to turn back.

The assumption that Mbeki knew about the plot and was willing to let it go ahead was fairly crazy. For one thing he had entertained Obiang in late 2003. More important, his vision of an ‘African Renaissance’ is based on the notion that Africa must achieve peace and stability before it can achieve anything else. Were it to become known that South Africa was still, as in the bad old days, allowing itself to be used as a launching pad for mercenary activities, Mbeki’s entire diplomatic stance would be undermined. Not surprisingly, the ANC has a visceral dislike of mercenaries in general: the notion of a handful of white-led soldiery changing African governments or suppressing African rebel forces is an uncomfortable reminder of white supremacy. As it happens, Mbeki’s government is so enraged that large numbers of South Africans are employed in the ‘security’ business in Iraq and elsewhere that it is now attempting to pass an obviously unconstitutional law to criminalise such activity retrospectively.

Roberts doesn’t seem to understand that the sight of the US and Britain intervening in Iraq with the avowed objective of ‘regime change’ has been a waking nightmare for Third World despots. Remember how Gaddafi abandoned his now acknowledged WMD programme and his backing for terrorist groups and snuggled up to the US – clearly out of fear that Washington might start thinking that ‘regime change’ was appropriate for him, too? Mugabe, too, was appalled – Gaddafi after all was his patron – and quickly installed anti-aircraft batteries not only around the main civilian airport in Harare but around his own house. His overwhelming fear, his intimates said, was that British special forces would carry out a coup, for deep down he knows that most Harare residents would be thrilled and that the Zimbabwean army is unlikely to put up a fight. According to those who brief him, even Mbeki has nightmares of that kind.

Roberts seems to believe that Pretoria was in two minds as to whether to let the Malabo coup go ahead, but this seems doubtful. That the 19 February attempt had been allowed to get off the ground says more about the shambolic state of the South African intelligence services than anything else. When ‘Nosher’ Morgan realised what had happened he was furious and made certain that a red alert went out to stop the next attempt on 7 March. By now Mann had obtained – with suspicious ease – a superbly equipped Boeing 727 from the US. The arms needed for the coup were to be bought from the (state-owned) Zimbabwe Defence Industries, on the general assumption that Zimbabwe was in such dire straits that ministers would sell their own mothers for a bit of foreign exchange. So Mann decided to fly the 727 from South Africa, full of mercenaries, pick up the weapons in Harare and proceed to Malabo to overthrow Obiang. (Obiang, forewarned, had apparently slipped out of the country weeks before.)

The huge error was to combine the arms procurement with the mercenary flight. It was perfectly possible to get someone in ZDI to sell arms for the right amount of foreign currency. And there was no problem about assembling the mercenaries at some remote launching pad. But putting all one’s counters down on the tarmac at Harare airport was to put them at the mercy of the paranoid Mugabe, who was only too ready to believe that the mercenaries were coming to topple him.

Mugabe had of course nothing to worry about. One of the mercenary leaders explained the choice of Equatorial Guinea as a target: ‘The place had to have oil. I mean, who’s going to do a coup in Zimbabwe?’ But, thanks to Morgan and, ultimately, Mbeki, Mugabe was tipped off and the 727 was detained as soon as it landed. Mann and his colleagues were thrown into jail. In Malabo, Nick du Toit foolishly disregarded a warning to get out, and he and his advance group were rounded up and tortured – one man died as a result. Du Toit is still being held in Malabo, as is Mann in Harare, both in horrific conditions. For all his frantic denials, the trail led back to Mark Thatcher in Constantia (he had invested $275,000 in Mann’s scheme though he claimed to have no knowledge of any coup) and to a J.H. Archer (Jeffrey Archer has denied that ‘he issued a cheque in the sums mentioned’). In the end, Thatcher was able to haggle her son’s way out of trouble (again) but only via an admission of guilt which gives him a criminal record and thus prevents him entering the US to see his children, his long-suffering wife having at last divorced him. As one reads about the grisly fate of the would-be mercenaries (they never got a chance to fight or do anything much at all) it’s hard not to feel that Thatcher got off very lightly.

The mistake, in the words of another mercenary leader, was to ‘play with the Second XI’. One looks in vain through Mark Thatcher’s record for any solid achievement: everything he has has come through tail-coating his mother or somebody else’s enterprise. If things went wrong, Mummy would get him off the hook. This time he tail-coated the wrong lot and Humpty-Dumpty fell right off the wall, so that not even Mummy has been able to put all the pieces together again.