Opinion  :: Columns  :: Jottings from Johannesburg


The coup plot thickens

Published: 26-JUL-04

It's a story which has gripped the imagination of the country's media ever since the 70 were arrested on 7 March after landing at Harare International Airport, supposedly to refuel and take on board a stash of military equipment.

President Obiang weaves a fantastic tale of a three-phase attack, in which an advance party would scout out the lie of the land, the second wave would overwhelm his forces with a potent drug, and the third element, the Spanish navy, would lie offshore in support. Believe it or not.

The captives flatly deny being mercenaries, saying they were on their way to the Democratic Republic of Congo to perform mine security duties.

Four months later, the situation poses a series of delicate moral questions to South Africa's highest court, the Constitutional Court. Does it leave its own citizens to stew as an example to others, and risk their execution after what may well be a farcical trial? Is it beyond the Court's ambit to intervene in the affairs of another country, even if the constitutional rights of South African citizens are in danger? And so on.

The mens' lawyers have no doubt that if they end up in Equatorial Guinea, they will almost certainly be executed. The country doesn't even have a functioning legal system, so the possibility of a fair trial is remote.

South Africa's Constitution, which is the envy of many First World countries, is unequivocal on its anti-death penalty stance. It is therefore up to the government to make sure the men don't face this sanction elsewhere, say their lawyers, particularly as the state's intelligence agencies have admitted to springing the trap by tipping off both the governments of Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe.

The South African government's role in the matter is puzzling. It still isn't clear when the country's intelligence services learnt about the plot. In the absence of facts, conspiracy theories are rife. Exiled Guinean politician and coup-plotter, Severo Moto, claims a grateful Obiang gave South African president Thabo Mbeki and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe $10 million each.

Needless to say, the ANC government dismisses the allegations as garbage. On the balance of probabilities, one is inclined to believe them. What is less credible is their lack of a response to the question: if they knew about the so-called plot all along, why did they allow this rag-tag band to take off in the first place? And let's face it, if anyone was ever a prize candidate for being deposed, Obiang is it. He rules with an iron fist over a dictatorship awash with dirty oil money, human rights abuses, political murders and a corrupt judicial process.

He took power in 1979 by deposing - and promptly executing - his predecessor and uncle. He was re-elected president with 97.1 percent of the votes in December 2002 in an election which made the Zimbabwean polls look free and fair by comparison. His corruption and human-rights record was so bad that the Clinton administration cut its ambassadorial ties.

Indeed, state radio said in July 2003 that he was "the god of Equatorial Guinea" and could "decide to kill without having to give anyone an account and without going to hell." With an attitude like that, the country is clearly not too worried about tourism revenues.

Bizarrely, he was one of 10 African leaders invited to meet George Bush last year to discuss the "war on terror". Is it any coincidence that Equatorial Guinea's oil production has jumped from just 17 000 barrels per day in 1996 to a current rate of more than 220 000 barrels?

The country's ambassador, Teodoro Biyogo Nsue, who is Obiang's brother-in-law, last year accidentally revealed that oil revenue was held in an account at the notoriously dodgy Riggs Bank. How much? The Los Angeles Times alleges that Obiang is the account's sole signatory and more than $300 000 000 of the country's energy earnings has been deposited in the account by oil companies active in Equatorial Guinea.

It's all very well for African leaders to show solidarity, even to the lasting puzzlement of the Western psyche. But with President Mbeki being a leading light in Nepad, perhaps he would be well served to put a little more distance between himself and Obiang. The alleged mercenaries would fancy a little distance themselves.

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