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Africa Confidential, March 2004

Mercenary fandango
The South African mercenaries detained in Bioko and Zimbabwe were en route to Malabo to oust President Obiang - but at whose instigation?

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The foiled plot to oust President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea  and replace him with opposition leader Severo Moto Nsa ranks as one of the most farcical military adventures in Africa's long history of coup-making. It may also embarrass the governments of Spain and South Africa as questions are asked about how the plotters were able to organise their plan with apparent impunity.

Africa Confidential has learned that both the arrests of 15 South African ex-soldiers in Bioko, following the seizure of a United States-registered plane in Zimbabwe, and the arrests of a further 64 South African ex-soldiers on 7 March were part of a mismanaged plot to overthrow President Obiang and install Spanish-based opposition leader Severo Moto. Moto, who was involved in a separate, failed mercenary-led conspiracy in the late 1990s, has vigourously denied the charge.

The coup plotters who flew in to Harare Airport on 7 March appear to have been duped by some Zimbabwean military officers, led by Colonel Tshinga Dube, Director of Zimbabwe Defence Industries.  The week before, some of the ringleaders flew into Harare to meet Col. Dube and paid US$180,000 for a consignment of AK-47s, mortars and 30,000 rounds of ammunition.

But when the main team of mercenaries flew into Harare on 7 March in a Boeing 727-100, registered to US-based Dodson Aviation Inc., they were all arrested and the plane was seized. Dodson say that the plane had recently been sold to Logo Logistics, a private security company, based in the British Virgin Islands.  Africa Confidential has obtained copies of an 'investor agreement' between Logo Logistics and the Lebanon-based Asian Trade and Investment Group SAL, which  was alleged to have commissioned the overthrow of President Obiang, according to military sources in South Africa.

Equatorial Guinea Information Minister Agustin Nze Nfumu has accused London-based businessman Ely Calil of helping to organise and finance the coup attempt.  But Calil told Africa Confidential that he had no links to Asian Trade and Investment Group - and no connection to the coup plot.  However, Calil conceded that he was a friend of opposition leader Severo Moto, the supposed beneficiary of the plot, and had given 'modest' financial support in recent years.

The unmasking of the coup plot may also embarrass Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who has had several meetings with Moto recently, and was said by military sources to have been aware of the plot.  Aznar was due to stand down ahead of national elections in the following few weeks.

The affair is also a test case for South Africa's anti-mercenary legislation, given that much of the planning for the coup happened there and that most of the mercenaries were former South African soldiers.

President Obiang will doubtless try to use the failed coup to his advantage. His position had appeared to weaken in the previous few months, with the succession battle heating up and rifts developing within the country's tiny ruling clique.  The latest blow to Obiang came in late February when he visited Washington D.C. in an attempt to resolve problems with his government's account at Riggs Bank.  Obiang is the sole signatory on that account, which had a balance of more than US$600 million.  The account has recently been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and an official at Riggs Bank has been interrogated by US agents.