As political scandals go, it may be less immediately compelling than all this business about the Home Secretary’s love life. But in terms of import and, I suspect, shelf life, the extent of British involvement in the attempted coup against the government of Equatorial Guinea is certainly the one to watch. With every careful, clever parliamentary question set down by the shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram, the Foreign Office position looks less and less tenable. With every further bit of digging by journalists, more weird and murky stuff emerges.
The chief questions at the moment are these: why did Jack Straw suddenly change his mind and agree that Britain did, after all, know about the attempted coup as early as January this year? He had given point-blank denials to two newspapers investigating the story — and then suddenly decided that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had been given the intelligence. And so it follows that if Britain did know, why didn’t we do what we were meant to do under international law and tell the — admittedly corrupt and loathsome — government of Equatorial Guinea about it? We know that the FCO took the various reports it had received about the planned coup seriously enough to revise its civil contingency plans for the possible evacuation of British nationals from that appalling west African country. But this does not square with its current excuse that it did not take the reports of a coup seriously enough to inform Equatorial Guinea’s revolting dictator, President Obiang.
But there are more questions, many more. Rather pleasingly, a lot of them relate to the involvement of the new EU commissioner, Mr Peter Mandelson. You just knew he had to be involved somewhere along the line, didn’t you? It is alleged that the coup was backed financially by a British-domiciled Lebanese businessman, Eli Calil. One intelligence report delivered to the British government about the attempted coup stated that Mr Calil met Mr Mandelson regularly. The report from Nigel Morgan says ‘Calil says that Mandelson assured him that he would get no problems from the British government side’ and that he invited Calil to see him again ‘if you need something done’.
Mandelson has vehemently denied any meetings with Calil about the coup. But then he has also said that he expects no approaches from the South African national prosecuting authorities, which will question Mark Thatcher about the matter next April. ‘There has been no contact from the police in Equatorial Guinea or South Africa and nor do I expect there to be any,’ he told the Guardian this week. For the first time, however, we can reveal that the South African police, the elite ‘Scorpions’ unit, most definitely wish to interview Mr Mandelson and will be making contact. Hitherto they have remained ambiguous about the business. Now, however, they are clear — ‘We want to speak to Mr Mandelson,’ a spokesman told me. I have asked Mr Mandelson if he intends to co-operate but he hasn’t replied so far.
How does Mr Mandelson know this chap Eli Calil? And what exactly is the link between the two men now? Mr Calil is a strange, ectoplasmic presence. What we know for a fact is that back in 1999 Mr Mandelson — who was at the time, if you remember, experiencing certain pressing problems of accommodation — rented a flat from Mr Calil. The two men met in a restaurant, by chance, I am told. And Mr Calil offered him a nice apartment in Holland Park, as you do, where Mandy consequently lived for a while.
Here’s another thing about Mr Calil: he has a habit of cultivating contacts among Britain’s most august and respected politicians. He was, for example, an adviser to Lord Archer. It is alleged that Lord Archer was also a financial backer of the coup in Equatorial Guinea (something he denies).
In January 2004 Mr Calil contacted another influential friend of his, Lord Bell, and asked for his help in rebutting a piece of journalism in Africa Confidential which alleged that Calil was bankrolling the coup. Lord Bell kindly lent a hand, for a bit. Bell told me that Calil was an old friend; the Lebanese businessman apparently confirmed to him that he’d spoken to Mandelson a few times in the past couple of years. Calil has now fled the country and has failed to return Bell’s last few phone calls. Maybe he’s in Abu Dhabi, maybe Dubai. Nobody knows. A lot of people want to know — the authorities in Equatorial Guinea are suing him for his alleged involvement in the coup and the French authorities, which once arrested him, are still investigating ‘illegal commission’ payments made through him via a subsidiary of the oil company Elf Aquitaine. And, of course, the South African authorities would like a word, too.
I tried to find Eli Calil but I didn’t have much luck either. I rang his home number and a woman told me he wasn’t there. Where is he then? I asked, politely. Is he in Britain or abroad? ‘Don’t know, to be sure,’ said the woman.
‘But this is his home?’
‘Um. Yes. But he doesn’t always stay here.’
‘Oh. Are you his secretary?’ (Long, Harold Pinter-ish, pause.)
‘I think you’d better speak to somebody else.’
When I rang the same number a little later a different woman denied Mr Calil lived there and said it was the London office of a company called Jones Marine, a diving firm with Ministry of Defence contracts. Then the woman, after telling me she would put me through to one of the firm’s bosses and repeatedly failing to do so, hung up with the words: ‘We have no comment to make about all this. OK? No comment at all.’
All too bizarre. As I say, Mr Calil is an interesting if ectoplasmic presence. And presumably people will now start getting interested in Jones Marine for other than purely aquatic reasons, too.
I’ve written to Mr Mandelson and asked him the following questions. I’ll let you know if I get a reply, or at least a sentient reply:
1. When and how did you first meet Mr Calil?
2. How much did you pay for the rent of his flat? (Up until now he’s said he paid the market rate. But I’m a bit thick about market rates and would really prefer it to be spelled out in, you know, cash terms.)
3. Have you ever discussed Equatorial Guinea with anyone from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
4. Is Mr Calil your mate, or what? When you spoke to him, was it just to ask him to get the boiler fixed, or book a bloke to do the grouting in the bathroom?
5. Any idea where Eli is now?
You see, there are other reasons to be interested in Mr Mandelson’s involvement (other than mere schadenfreude). The country most interested in booting out Obiang was Spain, Equatorial Guinea’s old colonial ruler. It has been alleged — and certainly the horrible Obiang believes — that there were Spanish naval vessels off the coast of Equatorial Guinea ready and waiting for the coup. Certain Spanish oil companies had a lot to gain from regime change. At least one source has suggested that the coup would involve plans for a local ‘rising’ which would need a Nigerian and Spanish ‘peacekeeping’ operation. Many of the people I spoke to suggested that Mr Mandelson was a handy go-between, a link between the Prime Minister of Britain and the then Prime Minister of Spain, José Maria Aznar. Perhaps this is a little fanciful: who knows? As I say, Mandelson has repeatedly denied any involvement whatsoever.
Michael Ancram has now tabled a question to the Prime Minister asking if he or any of his officials had any communication with the former Member for Ha rtlepool during the last 12 months concerning Equatorial Guinea. The House of Commons table office, however, has insisted that Ancram refer only to ‘official’ communication, thus giving the PM a bit of a get-out.
Nigel Morgan, who wrote one of the two intelligence reports that found their way into British hands, and who is not unsympathetic to the Foreign Office position, is pretty clear about the matter. ‘Everybody knew there was about to be a coup in Guinea. It was the talk of all the diplomatic cocktail parties. It would be unusual if there wasn’t talk about a coup in Guinea.’
But still, there are puzzling inconsistencies. We still want to know why the FCO at first denied outright that Britain knew of the coup and went to such extraordinary lengths to prevent newspapers — particularly the Observer — printing a story to the contrary. Personally, I’d be interested to know if British naval vessels were on manoeuvres near the Gulf of Guinea in early March this year.
And then there is the inconsistency between the FCO’s reluctance to take the planned coup seriously and its immediate decision to review civil contingency plans to evacuate British nationals. A simple telephone call to the British leader of the coup attempt, the former SAS officer Simon Mann — who now languishes in a South African prison — would have stopped the operation. Why didn’t they make that call?
And is the FCO absolutely certain that the earliest it knew anything was afoot was in late January this year? And was the Prime Minister himself made aware of the shenanigans and, if so, when? And by whom was he made aware? And will the British police become involved? Will there be an investigation over here into activities which were clearly illegal under international law?
And then there’s Mandy and Eli, my favourite duo from this whole business. Here we have our newly installed European Commissioner, who no sooner does he take up his post than he starts putting his foot in it by apparently dissing the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a French newspaper interview. And then his name becomes linked with the mysterious oil trader Eli Calil. It is not the first time that Mr Mandelson has been embarrassed by his connections with dubious foreign businessmen, is it? Dubious foreign businessmen who are wanted by certain law courts abroad? Maybe I’ve got old Eli all wrong and he’s a perfectly sound chap, entirely fit to be the friend of a senior British politician. Maybe the French police will stop worrying about those alleged payments he made, and the South Africans will cease to take an interest in him. Either that or Peter Mandelson didn’t really know him very well and just sort of lucked into a nice Holland Park flat which happened to be owned by Mr Calil. Right now we can’t be entirely sure. But it would be a remarkable political achievement to be forced to resign office three times, wouldn’t it?