Rebecca Blackwell/AP
British ex-military officer Simon Mann, accused of masterminding a failed coup plot, awaits
the start of a fourth day of trial proceedings at a conference center in Malabo, Equatorial
Guinea in June 2008.

Speculation Persists About Equatorial Guinea Presidential Palace Attack

February 18, 2009 11:32 AM
by Josh Katz
Tuesday’s attack on the presidential palace in Equatorial Guinea left many questions about the culprits. Some blame Nigerian militants, others point to a jailed British mercenary.

Attack On Palace in Equatorial Guinea

Early Tuesday morning, attackers descended on the presidential palace in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea. The gunmen arrived by speedboats and the siege began around 3 a.m. local time; the fighting apparently lasted several hours. The nation’s ambassador to London blamed the Nigerian militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) for the attack and said they had been fought off.  The ambassador also claimed that it was not a coup attempt but rather a criminal act. The country, which is a major oil producer in Africa, “has suffered decades of instability,” according to the BBC.

MEND denied the accusations, calling the government “paranoid” and stating: “The story is false. This is a United States conspiracy to justify the need to establish a [military headquarters] in the region,” the Daily Telegraph reports.

The group has fought for the “fairer distribution of wealth from Nigeria’s oil,” and “has normally confined its operations to southern Nigeria and its offshore oil installations,” according to the BBC.

The country’s ambassador noted that MEND was involved in two Equatorial Guinea bank robberies in December 2007. MEND has also been tied to recent attacks on ships off the Cameroon coast.

Reports also indicate that the attack could have been a rescue attempt for imprisoned British mercenary Simon Mann. Because of his involvement in a 2004 coup attempt, Mann was handed a 34-year jail sentence last summer.

But Severo Moto, a member of the Spain-based opposition whom Mann attempted to insert as president, said his party was not behind the attacks. A source close to Moto said, “We are completely in the dark about this,” the Telegraph reports.

Stratfor, a private intelligence-gathering service, asserts, “Accusations that militants from the Niger Delta were involved are highly dubious.” According to Stratfor, MEND directs its operations against Nigeria’s energy sector and Malabo is “out of their range.” Also, “Niger Delta militants seeking more money from the Nigerian government would not attack Malabo.”

Stratfor also addresses the possibility of a plot to free Mann. “Conditions at the prison are notoriously poor, as are the chances that Mann could survive even a fraction of his 34-year sentence,” Stratfor writes. But Mann would probably be able to maintain connections to mercenaries and allies, and rescuing him “would be a mission to both save their old commander and get paid.”

Historical Context: The rule of Macias and Obiang

Equatorial Guinea won its independence from Spain in 1968. Francisco Macias Nguema was elected president that year, and in July 1970 he formed a single-party state, taking the title of President-for-Life in 1972. His repressive rule “led to the death or exile of up to one-third of the country’s population,” according to the U.S. Department of State.

On Aug. 3, 1979, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the lieutenant colonel in control of the military police and the nephew of the president, launched the coup, leading to the arrest and execution of Marcias. Obiang became president in October 1979 and, once again, silenced the opposition. Obiang “proclaimed an amnesty for refugees and released some 5,000 political prisoners, but kept the absolute control he had inherited,” according to the BBC.

Although one-party rule formally came to an end in 1991, “President Obiang and a circle of advisors (drawn largely from his own family and ethnic group) maintain real authority,” according to the State Department.

The unchallenged Obiang won a new seven-year term in December 2002. All his opponents withdrew because of electoral impropriety.

In Spain, opposition leaders have developed a government-in-exile, and President Obiang “accused its leader of sponsoring a failed coup in 2004,” the BBC writes. Simon Mann, a former British special forces officer, led the 2004 coup with the backing of Mark Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Key Player: Simon Mann

Mann came from a well-to-do U.K. family and went on to become an SAS commander. He left the British military in 1981 and set up a mercenary business in 1993, defending oil operations during Angola’s civil war. He went on to start up another outfit in 1995, sending arms to Sierra Leone in violation of a UN embargo. He was arrested in March 2004 along with 60 mercenaries when they arrived at Harare airport. “The mercenaries denied plotting to topple Equatorial Guinea’s government and claimed they were flying to the Congo to provide security for the diamond industry,” according to The Guardian.

Mann was held in a Harare, Zimbabwe, from his capture in March 2004 until he was extradited to Black Beach prison in Malabo in February 2008. He is sentenced to spend 34 years in a prison that is notorious for its inadequate conditions, Stratfor reports.

Reference: Profile of Equatorial Guinea

Equatorial Guinea is situated between Cameroon and Gabon in mainland Central Africa. It also includes Bioko island, where the capital of Malabo is located. Reuters puts the country’s 2008 population at 600,000, and the nation consists mainly of Christians though other traditional religions are observed as well. The country’s dominant language is Spanish, but French is also an official language and Fang, Bubi, Ibo and English are spoken as well.

The country’s growth has accelerated recently because of the discovery of oil in the mid-1990s. Equatorial Guinea yields about 380,000 barrels per day, making it the third biggest oil producer in Sub-Saharan Africa behind Nigeria and Angola. However, the economic growth is not invested in its population and poverty is still rampant. In 2008, watchdog group Transparency International listed Equatorial Guinea ninth among the most corrupt nations in the world.

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