Trouble On Oily Waters

The International Peace Operations Association has a lot more clout at the Pentagon than the name might suggest. Calling itself an "association of military-service provider companies," it's the closest thing in Washington to a lobbying group for soldiers of fortune. At the outfit's annual dinner last November, the guest speaker was Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for African affairs, from the policy directorate headed by Douglas Feith, the controversial under secretary of Defense. Whelan's topic: the U.S. government's increasing use of private military contractors, especially in Africa.

That evening and its aftermath are raising awkward new questions about a botched coup attempt this year in sub-Saharan Africa's third largest oil producer. It's hard to blame anyone for wanting to see the last of Gen. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. He seized power in Equatorial Guinea 25 years ago by overthrowing his own uncle, the nation's first president, and today his regime ranks as one of the most corrupt and brutal in the world. Obiang has survived numerous efforts to dislodge him over the years, but the latest try, allegedly involving 90 mercenaries and a $14 million bankroll, was one for the books.

Obiang blames it all on the governments of Spain, Britain and the United States, along with several internationally known figures. Lord Jeffrey Archer, the British politician and novelist, has denied newspaper allegations that he put up $133,000 to back the alleged scheme. Sir Mark Thatcher, son of the former British prime minister, was arrested by South African police in August on suspicion of kicking in $275,000. Now trying to quash a subpoena for his formal questioning, he also denies any role. But his friend Simon Mann, an Eton alumnus, brewery-fortune heir and former member of Britain's elite Special Air Service, is now doing a seven-year sentence in Zimbabwe on weapons charges allegedly rising from the failed attempt. (Mann's family and friends insist he's innocent.) Officials in Equatorial Guinea claim the accused plotters were motivated by something beyond mere humanitarianism: a piece of the country's oil concessions, which are likely to earn $1 billion or more this year.

The Pentagon insists it had no advance knowledge of any plot against Obiang. Nevertheless, the audience at Whelan's speech included a British security consultant named Gregory Wales--now one of six defendants in a lawsuit filed by Obiang's attorneys in London against the alleged plotters. Wales gave Whelan his card after the speech, and later called to request a face-to-face chat. The meeting came in mid- to late February, according to a Defense official, who says, "Mr. Wales mentioned in passing, as part of a larger unrelated discussion of African issues, that there might be some trouble brewing in Equatorial Guinea. Specifically, he had heard from some business associates of his that wealthy citizens of the country were planning to flee in case of a crisis." The official adds that Wales's mention of Equatorial Guinea was "such a general remark about one troubled country in a troubled region, there was no reason to follow up on it, and Ms. Whelan did not."

Wales says he knew of no coup plans. But on March 7, Zimbabwe arrested a planeload of 70 mercenaries allegedly en route to Equatorial Guinea. The detainees included Wales's friend and sometime business partner Simon Mann. More arrests soon followed in Equatorial Guinea. Wales says his friend must have been headed somewhere else, since months of coup rumors had made Obiang's country too dangerous to mess with. Despots like the general may be doomed to extinction in any case; this February, the 53 members of the African Union agreed they will no longer recognize new regimes installed by coup. That may be bad news for Africa's hired soldiers. But the people of Equatorial Guinea can only wish it had come a quarter century sooner.