tue 23/07/2024

Storyville: Simon Mann's African Coup, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Storyville: Simon Mann's African Coup, BBC Four

Storyville: Simon Mann's African Coup, BBC Four

Odd Mann out: pardoned Etonian mercenary licks his wounds

Smiling, but not joking: It seems horribly likely that Mann wished to use his BBC interview to impress his captors

It always used to be said that boarding school prepares you for every hardship. Whether that includes prison in one of the most impenitent dictatorships in Africa is not a question that was put to Simon Mann in last night’s edition of Storyville. Mann, still incarcerated when the BBC caught up with him, was awaiting a pardon from President Teodoro Obiang, the very potentate he had attempted to topple five years earlier.

Never mind that they like to keep a battery and electrodes handy for interrogations, Mann wasn’t about to slag off the great man’s excellent hospitality. Goodness, Eton really does teach you etiquette for every social situation.

The story of Mann’s bungled caper in Equatorial Guinea has already been told by the BBC in a drama called Coup! John Fortune's jocular script positioned him as a buccaneering adventurer and incompetent rogue. Mann was played by Jared Harris, son of Richard, which now seems retrospectively like an excellent in-joke. Harris senior was often cast as charismatic desperadoes with only half a toehold in the world of civility. And that’s Mann to a T. The cheery winks, the carapace of politesse, that lopsided grin, the barefaced facility for euphemism – none of these did anything to loosen the impression that he is capable of what theartsdesk will politely refer to as moral relativism. His mercenary company was even called Executive Solutions. Those Latin polysyllables cover a multitude of sins. Mann fights for cash, and not with a copy of the Queensberry Rules to hand.

'The entire operation could be seen as a hilarious farce held together with sticky tape'

Coup! was on three years ago. Just to rehearse the whiffy facts of the case, in 2004 Mann was involved in an attempt to enforce regime change in Equatorial Guinea. The idea was to fly up from South Africa with a bunch of hired chaps who used to go out to bat for the apartheid regime, pick up some fire power on the way and assassinate/depose/wage guerrilla warfare, depending on the circs. The personal reward, Mann blithely admitted, would be a cut of the divvied-up oil wealth.

The plot was hatched somewhere between London, Madrid (capital of the former colonial power) and Cape Town. Depending on who you ask, Mark Thatcher and another accomplice were in up to the knots of their old-school ties or merely to their monogrammed silk socks or maybe not at all. Mann distinctly recalls sitting next to Mrs T at dinner, and even going on hol with her. Either way, the entire operation could be seen as a hilarious farce held together with sticky tape and string if it didn’t shine such a depressing light into the grim world of realpolitik where every ethical scruple comes with a price tag.

Simon Mann’s African Coup may have been billed as one man’s story. It was actually a meticulous analysis of the unseemly rush to share in the oil rush of West Africa. As soon as the Middle East became ever so slightly unstable following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, it was deemed preferable by all and sundry to source our energy from non-Islamic suppliers. Never mind that this means getting into bed with a man who deposits much of his nation’s riches in private accounts in Washington, leaving to languish in poverty compatriots who ought to be sharing in a per capita wealth equivalent to France.

If there was a World Cup for dictators, Obiang could be confident of favourable seeding and maybe even a bye through to the quarters. The Chinese get along with him famously. And so evidently does Mann. How else would he have been handed back his passport at the end of the film by the very judge who only 18 months earlier had called for him to be imprisoned for more than 30 years?

The expediency of his contrition rather took the breath away. “The moral courage is to have the strength to say stop,” he reasoned. “That’s what I failed to have.” It would be fascinating to see if medical science could somehow measure moral fibre. Mann, described by one of his slack-jawed accomplices as “a cricket captain”, would not trouble the scorers. As he takes his place in free society, he seems entirely motivated by visions of revenge against those dishonourable associates who, in his estimation, left him and his team to rot in jail. “They are with me on the mountain, and you don’t leave people on the mountain.”

Quite how the BBC managed to secure this exclusive interview is not clear. Ever the mercenary, Mann will certainly have asked for payment. We know this because even when manacled and shackled in Zimbabwean captivity he said to a cameraman, “You have to pay to film me.” He was smiling, but he wasn’t joking. And if it wasn't in cash, he would have wanted payment in kind: it seems horribly likely that Mann wished to use his BBC interview as a demonstration of his good faith to his captors. He eventually screwed a pardon out of them by pledging to testify against his collaborators.

That pledge was reiterated here. If it ever comes to court, whether Mann can position himself as a credible witness is open to doubt. Scotland Yard have so far not assisted him in his efforts to nail the men he labels “traitors”. The police went down to interview him several times but, as a result of his testimony, have not pressed any charges. This got Mann quite shirty. “I said to Scotland Yard, ‘You do me no favours – excuse my language – poncing about.'” Happy to excuse his language. Not a lot else, though. Give it a year and he'll be on I'm a Celeb.

His mercenary company was even called Executive Solutions. Those Latin polysyllables cover a multitude of sins

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Executive Outcomes, I believe

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