Giles Foden

The lure of adventure

A few minutes’ walk from Paddington Station is a drinking den and restaurant called the Frontline Club, a members’ club for foreign correspondents.

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My Friend the Mercenary

James Brabazon

Canongate, pp. 352, £

A few minutes’ walk from Paddington Station is a drinking den and restaurant called the Frontline Club, a members’ club for foreign correspondents.

A few minutes’ walk from Paddington Station is a drinking den and restaurant called the Frontline Club, a members’ club for foreign correspondents. Among the characters you might find banging on the bar, wedged between Rick Beeston of the Times, Jason Burke of the Observer, and gentleman freelancers such as Aidan Hartley or Sam Kiley, is James Brabazon, an award-winning documentary filmmaker specialising in war zones.

Though there are plenty of female stars, such as the redoubtable Marie Colvin, with her fantastic hair and piratical eye-patch, this is still a fairly macho world. Like the Goldman Sachs boys, foreign correspondents make sheep and goats distinctions between those who are (in the parlance) ‘big swinging dicks’ and those who are not. Brabazon’s book My Friend the Mercenary tells the intriguing tale of how he became one.

The story begins in a luxury hotel in Johannesburg in 2002. Brabazon is still quite green when he is introduced to Nick du Toit, a South African mercenary. Du Toit will later become involved in the so-called ‘Wonga Coup’, the tragicomic plot that hoped to topple the nasty, oil-rich regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea. The same that saw Old Etonian professional soldier Simon Mann landed with a spell first in a Zimbabwean and then an Equatoguinean jail, and Mark Thatcher faced with a fine of $450,000 dollars.

With du Toit as his minder, Brabazon undertakes two journeys in Liberia; where he films the hapless campaign of armed LURD rebels to unseat the dictator Charles Taylor. These trips are made in gruelling jungle conditions, in the company of the drug-crazed, rap-fixated, fright-wigged gang-bangers whose images became the signature of the Liberian and Sierra Leonian civil wars. Behind the scenes, as ever now in Africa’s small wars, is avarice for oil and minerals; also those men from American military intelligence whose sunglasses are as opaque as their intentions.

A veteran of apartheid South Africa’s murderous midnight raids on neighbouring states, du Toit has seen more action than the Liberians and the Yanks combined. To the reader and to Brabazon himself, he seems a slight, physically unprepossessing figure. But when the going gets tough in the bush, he’s just the man to get Brabazon out of a scrape.

The two become close friends. Fascinated by du Toit, tempted by the prospect of more escapades with him, in whatever capacity, Brabazon becomes subject to thrill-seeking delusions. This is a professional hazard. As soon as neutral observation turns into admiration for action per se, the maverick adventurer-journalist is doomed to be outstripped. Sunset bronzes the departing conqueror, and the journalist is left standing in the dust, stiffening himself into ever more ridiculous attempts to assume the heroic idea he had of himself before the other came along.

Of course, it’s good journalism, not adventure itself, which should be the focus. When it’s Nick du Toit you’re admiring instead, there’s a serious problem. As he freely admits, Brabazon knows he has crossed the line in becoming chummy with a mercenary. In many ways the drama and interest of this book comes from that dynamic — between what the tyro journalist knows he should do and what he actually does.

It’s easy for this to happen. The straight road is rather narrow, and tends not to produce the story. Anyone who has wandered around Africa with a notebook or camera knows how quickly one can become caught up in its exotic dramas. Meet a corpulent bush pilot salting away the dollars, a bug-eyed rebel leader with a PhD from Leeds, and a special forces operative with thick biceps, and suddenly you think you’re part of it.

The odd thing is, Brabazon very nearly was. During his time with du Toit, the mercenary began dropping hints about a big operation involving regime change somewhere in west Africa. The idea was that Brabazon might film the operation, coyly called ‘Nick’s African Adventure’.

Luckily he didn’t, or else he too might have ended up in court in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea’s sweaty capital. In the dock there, Mann alleged that he took Thatcher to the Chelsea home of Ely Calil, a Lebanese businessman accused by the Equatoguineans of being the main financier of the plot. It’s probably far from being that simple. For one thing Calil seems too clever a man to have got involved in this kind of foolishness. The role of Nigel, aka ‘Nosher’ Morgan, a florid-faced former Irish Guards officer turned intelligence consultant, could bear more examination. Morgan passed information about Mann to South African authorities at the same time as professing to help him.

Du Toit, like Mann (who was extradited from Zimbabwe), was banged up in the horrific Black Beach prison in Malabo. Among other injuries, his toe-nails were continually stamped off by military boots during interrogation. Rats fed off his wounds while he slept.

While du Toit was in prison, Brabazon did his best to help the mercenary’s wife and to unpick the murky story of the coup. This is the best bit of the book. But in the end who did what and why, with the tacit blessing of which government, all remain mysterious. One can only agree with an SAS friend of the author, who described the whole thing as ‘an astonishing catalogue of buffoonery’.