This book is a mess. Simon Mann may have been brought up on John Buchan, educated at Eton and Sandhurst, and taken Conrad and the Iliad with him on his African travels, but his style is appalling — a sort of demotic militarese. Short sharp sentences. Few verbs. Acronyms sprinkled like confetti. The third sentence reads: ‘Rock-crag fingers claw my arse.’
And we skip all over the place, between Angola, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa and Sierra Leone, with flashbacks and fast-forwards and no index. The publisher’s boast that identities would be revealed and the mighty shaken on their thrones turns out to be empty. ‘The Boss’ goes unnamed, as does ‘the Croc’. And other names are changed for— says an apologetic note — ‘legal reasons’.
So the book lacks charm. And yet everyone who has met Mann agrees that this is the quality he possesses in abundance. What has gone wrong? There is no mention of a ghost-writer, but there is a fulsome tribute to a ‘creative editor’, who, I suppose, may be responsible for the haphazard style. This is a great pity — for within the chapters on Angola in particular, there is much interesting new stuff. And Mann’s description of his time in Mugabe’s jails, which amounted to almost four years, is fascinating in a ghastly way as well as being genuinely moving.
As for the name changes, the only people to have made money out of the failed plot to overthrow the dictator of Equatorial Guinea are lawyers. It seems as if the draft of the book was sent out to all the interested parties pre-publication; and that, for instance, two conversations with Lady Thatcher in South Africa were cut completely. Mark Thatcher, as usual, is vilified — in my view unjustly. His main crime, and that of ‘the Boss’, seems to have been a failure to send Mann so much as a postcard in jail.
Mann, for his part, fails to mention that at his trial in Equatorial Guinea (when he was sentenced to 34 years’ imprisonment rather than death) the prosecutor had warned that he was going to extradite ‘the Boss’ and Thatcher. So it was little wonder that they denied all involvement and were not best pleased when Mann pointed the finger at them during his four-hour examination in court.
Indeed, in his final chapter, Mann not only skates over his trial; he simply says nothing about it at all. This is the trial, in July 2008, in which he perorated: ‘I want to say I am sorry for what has happened here. I am very happy I failed.’
Fifteen months later he was released. He had ‘fully co-operated’ by denouncing not only the coup backers — safely, they hoped, out of reach — but also, much less excusably, the man described as Amil Hammam. Via pressure on the latter, the name was obtained of the insider in the planned palace coup, Fortunato Ofa Mbo, Secretary General to the Presidency, who was also put on trial. What has happened since to these two unfortunates, God alone knows.
The only personality who stands out in this book as a rounded, sympathetic character is Tony Buckingham, the present boss of Heritage Oil — who recently was reported to have taken over Sahara Oil in a $20 million deal in ‘new’ Libya. It is good to know that he went to ‘huge lengths’ to help Mann when he was in jail.
And it is equally good to know that Tim Spicer, like Mann late of the Scots Guards, helped Mann’s two older sons while their father was ‘away’. In March 2004, the very month that his former brother officer was arrested at Harare airport, Spicer signed, for his own private security outfit, Aegis, a phenomenal deal, for a cool $293 million. Not all such ventures go wrong. But it is the ones that do that make the headlines.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 26, 2011Tags: Book review, Non-fiction, Travel, World politics