What Nanny Didn’t Tell Me

Bernard Porter

  • Cry Havoc by Simon Mann
    John Blake, 351 pp, £19.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 84358 403 2

In Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War, Sir James Manson hires a mercenary called ‘Cat’ Shannon to stage a coup in the tiny West African state of Zangaro – Equatorial Guinea thinly disguised – and replace its tyrannical president with one who will, perhaps, be less tyrannical, and will definitely grant Sir James the highly profitable platinum-mining concession he wants. The operation goes like clockwork – no problems, no mistakes – though there’s a twist at the end. Simon Mann’s Cry Havoc might seem like a copy of this scenario – same place, roughly the same plot, thirty years later – but it’s much more fun because Mann’s attempted coup turned out to be, in his words, ‘a swashbuckling fuck-up’.

Mistrust, quarrels, betrayals, defective intelligence, security leaks, mechanical breakdowns, changes of plan (there were five altogether) and money troubles beset it at every stage. Mann himself didn’t even make it to Equatorial Guinea: he was arrested en route in March 2004 at Harare airport, where he and his men were supposed to pick up their weapons. He was imprisoned in Chikurubi prison for three years and then extradited to Equatorial Guinea, tried and sentenced to 34 years. That terrified him; he was convinced that President Obiang intended to eat his testicles. In the event he served only 14 months in better conditions than in Zimbabwe before being pardoned by Obiang and flown back to the UK in November 2009. Since then one assumes he has been busy working on this book, which started out as a ‘love letter’ to his wife, Amanda – ‘the Bitch of War as she now likes to call herself’ – while he was in jail.

Mann’s account doesn’t add much to what we know about the attempted coup; in some respects it tells us less than Adam Roberts’s excellent The Wonga Coup.[*] Roberts names more names than Mann does, including Jeffrey Archer’s (he may have donated money), and gives some broad hints as to the identity of Mann’s equivalent of Sir James Manson, here just called ‘the Boss’, who is supposed to have masterminded the whole affair. Apparently, Mann has ‘legal reasons’ for omitting all this – we’re told that two reported conversations with Margaret Thatcher have been cut on similar grounds.

Her son, Mark, isn’t spared, however, mainly because in 2005 he admitted complicity in the affair as part of a plea bargain in South Africa; and because of Mann’s animus against him. Thatcher claimed that he bought a helicopter for Mann on the understanding that it was to be used as an air ambulance (or some such: he kept changing his story), and knew nothing about the plot until the very end. Mann isn’t having any of this. Thatcher was in on it from the start:

He nearly bites my hand off … Not only does he want to share the spoils of our EG adventure. He wants to play an active role … He can become ‘one of the boys’. SAS … Mark thinks that the SAS walks on water … I think he’s lonely. He doesn’t seem to have many friends. So he’s seized upon me.

He also promised to try to bail Mann out if he got ‘collared’: ‘Thatcher has the money, and the political connections – in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the UK – to help me … We even shake hands on it.’ It is his failure to redeem this pledge that upsets Mann as he languishes in jail. Cry Havoc is partly his act of revenge against Thatcher, and the others who failed him in his hour of need, including the Boss. Readers who come to the book less for its account of the coup than for what it says about Thatcher won’t be disappointed: he doesn’t come out of it well.

Thatcher can’t be blamed for the fiasco, however, even though Mann doesn’t think it was his own fault either. He admits to poor judgment in not aborting the coup when it was clearly going pear-shaped. Otherwise, he thinks his ‘leadership’ was fine. According to him the main culprits were the Boss, who failed to produce the wonga when it was needed, and the CIA, with whom the Boss was in cahoots, but which chickened out when news of the plot leaked out, complete with details – like the hiring of an ex-USAF aircraft – that seemed to show American fingerprints. It doesn’t occur to Mann that the Boss and the CIA might have become disillusioned with him. More broadly, he implies that the oil interests the Boss represented were not really looking for liberal regime change: ‘Political and economic stability is simply not in the interests of big oil or big business.’ At a seminar at Chatham House in November to mark the publication of his book he agreed with a questioner that the Boss ‘doesn’t sound like the sort that would be hugely interested in governance and human rights issues’. Ultimately, it was all ‘about oil’.

But not for Mann. Much of this book is devoted to trying to persuade us that his own motives were far more ‘PC’. Obviously, the wonga was not to be sneezed at: ‘Sure, we’ll make money – loads.’ After all, he had to maintain his wife, two exes, seven children and their posh educations, expensive homes, an Aston Martin DB5 and his subscription to White’s. (‘I know White’s is a shits’ club, of course it is,’ one of its members had told him, ‘but at least we’re the best shits.’) But the money wasn’t enough. He also wanted excitement – the ‘craic’, he calls it. ‘Go and have your lovely adventure,’ his wife tells him at one stage. And, he claims, he wanted to feel that he could be ‘a real power for good in one of the worst parts of Africa … make a difference, make some lives better’. Hence he claims he checked that Obiang really was the evil monster he was made out to be. He’s also at pains to emphasise that he’s against assassination, which is ‘plain wrong’. All this is in order to persuade himself – and his readers – that he is that rarest of creatures: a moral mercenary.

It’s easy to be cynical about this: I am. But in Mann’s case greed may not have been a sufficient motive, or excuse. As he points out, ‘I’ve got loads of bloody money anyway. I’m a multi-millionaire in sterling, for fuck’s sake.’ (Though it’s not as if multi-millionaires can’t be greedy too.) Mann’s actions also fit in with his upbringing, his times and the British historical tradition that he reflects in many ways. Mann is a creature of all of them, however unusual a one.

He was born into privilege. Roberts calls him an aristocrat, but he could never be an echt one since his fortune derived from ‘trade’ (breweries). His father and grandfather served in the world wars, and both captained the England cricket team. His mother hardly appears here, except as a hallucination while he’s in prison. ‘A Thing comes out: bright green, furry, long-legged … The size of a dinner plate, and very cross. It’s Mummy. I stamp. Squelch. Yuk.’ His nanny used to follow marching guardsmen when she took him out in his pram; later she introduced him to war comics and boys’ adventure stories. ‘What Nanny didn’t tell me was that these books were for enjoyment, to get me reading; that they were not training manuals for life.’ At eight he was sent away to prep school, North Foreland Court in Kent, which ‘took seriously its duty of preparing small boys for life’s unpleasantness’, and where he was predictably miserable. He went from there to Eton, at a time – the 1960s – when it was still turning out ‘prefects rather than pirates’, to use a contemporary head of Westminster’s phrase. He says little in this book about Eton, apart from retelling a piece of advice from his shooting instructor, an ex-chief petty officer (‘An ’ard ship’s an ’appy ship, sir … an’ that’s all thar is to it’) and lamenting his poor showing at cricket. ‘I hoped that I’d be good at war … That way, I could live up to being a Mann in one way at least.’

So he went to Sandhurst, then into the Scots Guards (his father’s and grandfather’s regiment) and the SAS, after a meeting at White’s with its legendary founder, David Stirling, ‘a man of beautifully dangerous ideas’ who became a kind of godfather to him. Stirling tried to recruit Mann for a mercenary operation in the Seychelles, but the army wouldn’t let him go. When he did leave the army, a rich friend wangled him into his oil firm, so that he could ‘earn some real money’ and use his military expertise to try to win one of its Angolan fields back from rebels. That’s how his career as a mercenary began. He claims, again, that he needed to be sure the rebels (Unita) were the baddies before he would agree. Much of this book is given over to an account of this operation, and a later one in Sierra Leone, interspersed awkwardly with the story of the Equatorial Guinea attempt. The object seems to be to keep these successes, as he sees them, constantly in view of the reader, to leaven the impact of the later fiasco, and to make the case for such irregular military interventions.

As Mann puts it, ‘regime change is in vogue.’ He had links, through David Hart (a Thatcher adviser and plotter), with leading American neocons. He even took on an important piece of neocon ideology: the belief that if democracy were established in one part of (in this case) Africa it would naturally spread. ‘ARC’ – assisted regime change – appealed to him greatly, though he felt uneasy about the ‘Born Again mumbo-jumbo’ that accompanied it in the cases of Blair and Bush. He thought it was all quite straightforward. Take Iraq. There was ‘no question in my mind: Saddam is a war criminal. He’s a mass murderer. He’s a despotic madman who needs to be brought down. A bully that needs to be fought. Fast. Not having a go against a Saddam is like not having a go against a street mugging.’ All that was needed was someone in the West to ‘have the balls’. So he decided to try to ‘sex up’ the situation with a couple of ‘schemes of derring-do’. One involved mounting a commando raid on a small Iraqi town and ‘flying the flag of rebellion’ there, in the hope that Saddam would retaliate, which Mann thought would trigger UN action; the other was to sail a cargo ship carrying nuclear weapons-grade fuel or bomb parts into Basra, thus appearing to confirm US suspicions that Iraq had WMDs. Apparently, Blair liked parts of the scheme, but Mossad was dismissive. Later, questioned about the problems the Iraq invasion had triggered, he acknowledged that ‘it’s blindingly obvious that what happened next is a disaster,’ but still maintained that the war was morally right. ‘Abuse of power equals bully. Bully means: “You’ve gotta fight.”’

It’s the simplicity that’s troubling about Mann’s approach to ‘bullies’, tyranny and the rest. It’s St George all over again: Unita, he says, was ‘my dragon’, ‘my worthy cause’. This is the position he always falls back on when things look bad, as in the final stages of the EG operation. ‘It’s “Who Dares Wins”. Isn’t it?’ And (repeatedly): ‘That’s not how the West was won. Was it?’ (Do the questions hint at some doubt?) He also relies heavily on his own past experiences. ‘In my heart of hearts I know it: this is how big fuck-ups happen. But each time I think that, I think back to our other times: the Ops before, when I felt the same.’ Then, quite suddenly, it all seems a ‘piece of piss’ after all. This is one of his favourite phrases. In the first three pages of this book we have ‘arse’ (twice), ‘bollocks’, ‘fuck-up’, ‘shit’ (twice), ‘wanker’ and ‘whore’s drawers’. The other main characteristic of his style is the short staccato sentence, often verbless. It’s the sort of book you can imagine Action Man writing. He was, he writes proudly (this is after Sierra Leone), ‘the “Go To Guy” for military coups. The most notorious and best-paid mercenary of my generation.’

In prison he had time – five tedious years – to think. When he was eventually released one of the things his wife feared was ‘that I will have lost my marbles, or become wildly intellectual … pretty much the same thing.’ There are glimmerings of that here. His reading broadens to take in Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews, Paradise Lost, the Iliad, Nigel Benson’s Introducing Psychology, the Scientific American and Simon Schama’s History of Britain. ‘I am deeply struck by the English people’s struggle to win their freedom, which Schama describes as “the English Epic”,’ he writes. This may have been the first democratic history he had encountered. He learns more about Africans (including the Shona language), spending much of his time assuring his fellow prisoners that they are just as good as white men really; he is terrifically chuffed when they call him Shumba, or ‘lion’. He also has time to muse about tyranny. ‘You can’t become a tyrant on your own. It’s a pact. Tyranny is a pyramid, and the pyramid is made of petty tyrants.’

Mann gives the impression that he saved Angola and Sierra Leone virtually single-handed, but others will dispute that. In the case of Equatorial Guinea he maintains that things improved there after his failed coup, even, implicitly, as a result of it. Perhaps he feels this excuses the things he did in order to secure his release: such as betraying all his co-conspirators – ‘I will do anything to fuck them over, because they are my Brothers-in-Arms who betrayed me. Four long years, still no postcard. They are my enemy’ – as well as a local plotter, whose name he wormed out of a fellow prisoner in order to present it to Obiang. He then wrote a ‘six-page security paper’ to help the president forestall more coups. All this somewhat undermines his claim to be a better class of mercenary.

It’s easy to fit Mann into a British imperial tradition, or, at least, into the version of the tradition that used to be taught to the upper classes. In it, the good Britain did in the world was achieved by remarkable individuals (Drake, Clive, Livingstone, Lawrence) on behalf of natives trodden underfoot by tyrants from whom they needed to be saved. But private military intervention tended to bring problems of its own. Would the replacement leader be any better? There were doubts about Severo Moto, Mann’s candidate for Equatorial Guinea. What would those who bankrolled the intervention want out of it? Could you reform a whole society simply by cutting off its head? What if the attempt failed? Mann once described the EG plot as ‘the biggest private military company screw-up since the Jameson Raid’, proving he knows about the imperial precedents.

That earlier fiasco certainly made things much worse for Britain in Southern Africa around 1900. More than a century later, Africans were bound to resent coup attempts led by white men, even if they succeeded. That Mann was dimly aware of this is shown by his preference for black recruits for his little company, on the grounds that they were ‘less provocative’. But after it all, when asked whether he would be in favour of a similar white-led attempt to oust Mugabe, he said yes. God knows what effect that would have in a country always suspicious of its ex-colonial masters’ designs against it.

[*] R.W. Johnson wrote about The Wonga Coup in the LRB of 16 November 2006.