Peter Oborne

What made Jack Straw tell the truth about the botched coup in Equatorial Guinea?

What made Jack Straw tell the truth about the botched coup in Equatorial Guinea?

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Jack Straw, though by no means a distinguished foreign secretary, nevertheless possesses animal cunning. He is an acknowledged master of dissimulation, contrivance, machination, manoeuvre, evasion, guile, trickery, craft, diversion, disguise, distortion, persiflage, falsehood, deception, sophistry, stealth, artifice, sharp practice, underhand dealing, sleight of hand, subterfuge, prevarication and every other stratagem of concealment and deceit. Occasionally, however, the Foreign Secretary is capable of candour. This was the case with his parliamentary answer to Michael Ancram, the shadow foreign secretary, two weeks ago.

Ancram wearily asked Jack Straw when the British government first knew of the botched coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea last March. A characteristically long space of time elapsed before the question was answered. But the answer itself was to the point. ‘In late January 2004,’ replied Straw.

This answer is pregnant with significance, and casts the failed coup — led by the mercenary Simon Mann with alleged backing from (among others) Sir Mark Thatcher — in an entirely fresh light. For up to that point Jack Straw had gone to astonishing lengths to maintain the pretence that the coup attempt came as a complete surprise in Whitehall. Three months after the coup the Observer newspaper, long famed for its well-informed African coverage, received a tip that HMG knew of the plot well in advance. The story was put through official channels to the Foreign Secretary — who issued a categorical denial. This denial was not one of those artful rebuttals in which Jack Straw is an established expert. Not content with merely telling a reporter that the story was untrue, the head of the Foreign Office news department took the unusual step of ringing Roger Alton, editor of the Observer. He issued an assurance that Britain had no ‘prior knowledge of the alleged plot’.

Privately, the official went much further. He stressed to the Observer that the claims being made were extremely grave. If they were true, insisted the official, then HMG would have been indirectly complicit in the plot itself, and individual diplomats guilty of a conspiracy to bring down an internationally recognised government. Since it was utterly unthinkable that HMG would ever conduct itself in such a fashion, the official stated, the Observer should think very carefully indeed before running such an obviously implausible and damaging version of events. In these circumstances the Observer very reasonably felt it had no choice but to order that the story be changed.

The paper naturally felt deceived when Jack Straw’s answer to Michael Ancram was published. It sought an explanation, only to be met by a further wave of obstruction. This time the Foreign Office claimed that it had been alerted to the impending coup by ‘media stories’ emanating from Spain, the former colonial power in Equatorial Guinea. Unluckily for the Foreign Office, Observer journalists had already obtained and translated this Spanish coverage and concluded that it was incapable of bearing the heavy weight placed upon it. When this was pointed out, in no uncertain terms, Jack Straw at last came clean. British government knowledge of the coup, he admitted, came from ‘confidential information received by the government’, but he refused to provide further information about these ‘confidential diplomatic exchanges’. A Foreign Office official has since written a personal letter to the Observer to apologise for misleading the newspaper.

But these latest revelations simply give rise to fresh questions. Given that the Foreign Office was indeed in possession of such interesting information, why did Britain not at once comply with her obligations and warn Equatorial Guinea? Straw’s own explanation for the omission, made in a further written answer to Michael Ancram on 17 November, goes as follows: ‘As we were not able to establish any definitive evidence which could add significantly to the reports which had already appeared in the media, we took no further action with other African governments.’ The information received through covert diplomatic channels was, nevertheless, strong enough for Britain to ‘review and update our civil contingency plan’: in other words, make arrangements for the safety and possible evacuation of British nationals from Equatorial Guinea in the event that the coup took place.

The British government surely knew all along. Simon Mann’s company, Logo Logistics, has close connections with the security establishment. Teodoro Obiang, President of Equatorial Guinea, is an especially loathsome dictator whose removal from office would raise the spirits of his benighted people just as much as it would lift the profits of Western oil companies.

Even so, it is unlikely that the British government, as Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe has mischievously claimed, was behind the coup attempt. On the other hand, there is little doubt that HMG could have intervened to prevent it had it really wanted to. That is why Jack Straw’s startling admission that there was foreknowledge of the attempted coup is by no means without its consequences for Sir Mark Thatcher, who is at present languishing under house arrest in Cape Town. Till now, Sir Mark has looked a lonely figure. Jack Straw has granted him the opportunity to use what might be termed the Matrix Churchill defence. He can claim that his actions, however illegal, were nevertheless carried out with the tacit approval of the Foreign Office.

But one mystery remains. Jack Straw never tells the truth by accident. He certainly did not blurt out the truth in order to help Sir Mark. So what inspired his outbreak of honesty? This is unclear. Some Westminster observers have noted that the Foreign Secretary has not been forthcoming in such an eye-catching way since four years ago, during the Hinduja passports scandal. On that occasion Jack Straw’s candour led to the (second) Cabinet resignation of Peter Mandelson.

Once again observers detect a Mandelson connection. The day after Straw’s sensational confession, a curious item appeared in the Times, claiming that Scotland Yard may wish to question Britain’s new European Commissioner in connection with the Equatorial Guinea plot. Mr Mandelson once rented, during one of his periodic housing crises, a flat from the businessman Eli Calil, alleged by Equatorial Guinea to have played a large role in arranging the botched coup. This temporary arrangement has led to Mandelson joining an exotic list of names compiled by the government of Equatorial Guinea in connection with the coup attempt, Sir Mark and the novelist Jeffrey Archer being two of the others. According to the Times, Equatorial Guinea is claiming that Calil sought to make use of his old connection with Peter Mandelson, both in seeking to gain an insight into the British government’s attitude to a change of regime, and in helping to sort out the mess afterwards. It must be stated that Peter Mandelson insists that he has ‘never had a discussion about this alleged coup with anyone’, while all assertions from President Obiang’s government can only be viewed with dark suspicion.

Even so, just to clear things up, it would be nice to know the full story of Mandelson’s connection with the mysterious Eli Calil. As for the coup itself, the true story is only beginning to be told.