“Opportunity Is Always Out There” With Simon Mann

Chatham House/Simon Mann

Simon Mann was formed in consummately British institutions. After completing his education at Eton College and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he entered the Scots Guards in 1972. It was a family tradition—both father and grandfather had served before him. Later, he joined the British military’s elite Special Air Service (SAS), which took him across Europe. Such a military career might have set him up for prestige in conventional business or politics. Instead, Mann decided to try his luck in Africa.

In 1993, Mann went to Angola to seek fortune in the oil industry with his friend Tony Buckingham. Within months of their arrival, the oil-producing city of Soyo was captured by anti-government rebels. It seemed like their oil venture was doomed—until, as Mann tells the story, he proposed a solution: reconquer Soyo. Mann and Buckingham called upon South African contacts, most of whom had backgrounds in the South African Defence Force and the shadowy Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), an apartheid-era counterinsurgency unit. One of these contacts, Eeben Barlow, was a former South African military officer who had seized the opportunity of apartheid’s collapse to recruit compatriots into a private military company (PMC) called Executive Outcomes (EO).

Together, they secured Angolan government contracts for EO to reconquer Soyo, and eventually help the government win the civil war. Their success in achieving an Angolan victory put Mann and his friends on the map. Soon, governments across Africa and elsewhere were knocking on their doors.

EO soldiers have since taken part in conflicts across the continent, and Mann has gone on to many more adventures. In 1997, his own PMC, Sandline International, was involved in the controversial Sandline affair in Papua New Guinea. In 2004, Mann was arrested for organizing a failed coup in Equatorial Guinea, and spent the next five and a half years in some of Africa’s most notorious prisons. He was released in 2009 after a pardon. His memoir, Cry Havoc, was published in 2011.

Today, Mann continues his work in the world of private military ventures, including with STTEP International, a PMC that has fought the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. Known internationally as a mercenary, in conversation Mann is polished and confident in his positions. We were curious to learn more about what it means to get involved in war and statecraft as a non-state actor, the unconventional opportunities he has found, and how he thinks about his work. He sat down with Palladium to explain.

A soldier fights for king and country. Or in some cases, for freedom and democracy. A mercenary, on the other hand, puts his life on the line for cash in countries not his own. Who ends up in this line of work and why?

Who ends up in the line of work? Ex-soldiers. And funnily enough, I get asked by a lot of kids on social media, “How can I become a mercenary without being a soldier first?” You can’t. Don’t try. Become a soldier. And then, if you want to, you can go into the PMC world. It’s the PMC world they want to get into, not mercenary work.

There is a long and, I think, very boring debate that one can have about the meaning of the word “mercenary.” You can be a mercenary doctor: you’re a doctor, but you’re more interested in the money than you are in curing patients. So a soldier is someone who fights in wars, or is ready to fight, or is in uniform, and the mercenary soldier is a soldier who’s doing it purely for money.

But now it does get very torturous. For example, if I joined the British army today, am I joining it because I wish to fight for democracy? No, I’m not. Nobody in the British Army that I ever met was doing it for queen and country. They’re doing it because they see it as an exciting lifestyle and the money is okay. Sometimes, it’s the best job they can get. But the motivation is, at least in part, financial. It is unlikely, really, to be patriotic. That doesn’t mean to say that we’re not patriotic. But that is not the prime motivation.

Is glory a motivator?

I looked it up once in Shakespeare, this whole business of soldiers and money. He referred to it as “bubble reputation in the cannon’s mouth.” What they were seeking was this moment of glory.

You know, I think this is a personal thing. I’ve never been interested in glory, not at all. I’m a British guy, and I’d joined the British Army. I wanted to be an officer in the Scots Guards, which is one of the King’s own guards, and in the SAS, which is the UK’s special forces. The rough American equivalent is Delta Force. The SAS and Delta are very close.

But we also have Gurkhas in the British army—men from Nepal who volunteer to join. They come and serve with the British army, which they do incredibly well. Now, are they mercenaries? I don’t think so. Most people don’t think so. And if you said that to one of them, he probably wouldn’t be very friendly; they have these kukris, these unique knives, and you don’t want to upset them too much.

I think another very interesting example is that of Oman: specifically, Operation Storm and the war in the 1970s. It was an insurgency coming through Yemen, a serious attempt to overthrow the ruler of Oman.

Nominally communist insurgents, right?

Nominally. The original ruler of Oman was not nominally, but actually a tyrant. Then he was replaced. It’s known as the British Foreign Office’s last coup d’etat. He was replaced by his son, who was much more reasonable. And then a long, hard-fought campaign was conducted against the insurgents. I was around at that time, and I very nearly did go to Oman.

Now, as a young officer in the British army, I could have been attending that conflict in three different ways. One, I could have been a British officer on secondment—an officer in Oman’s armed forces, but still a British officer. Route two: I leave the British army, and go to the Sultan’s armed forces as a contracting officer.

And route three, which actually happened: the SAS was secretly deployed in Oman to fight that engagement. In any one of those three routes, I could have found myself in exactly the same firefight. But is any one of those a mercenary? A lot of people will say that the second one, the contracting officer, is a mercenary. But really, he is contracted with the Sultan’s armed forces, the national military. And he’s just doing the same job as anybody else who is on secondment.

So the thing about the expression “mercenary” is that it’s a bit like calling a woman a whore. You know, does she sleep around? Or is she a prostitute? You know, there are many different ways to whore.

What matters is that if there is a conflict, how do the people engaged in that conflict actually behave—are atrocities being committed, or is it being conducted in a proper way? Now, a lot of civilians will just say “War is such a ghastly thing, how can you possibly start discussing whether a war can be conducted in a proper way?”

In fact, it certainly should be conducted in a proper way. Troops should not open fire on civilians, they should not torture prisoners of war, and so on. So although it may sound illogical, there are rules of war. And that’s been generally accepted for a very long time.

Now, if we go to the rights and wrongs of privatized warfare, there is a huge amount of privatization in war. There always has been. I mean, there were privateers. America had privateers too—very successful ones in the war of 1812, for example. And when the Royal Navy set sail to fight the Germans in the Second World War, there were lots of civilians on the warships; the maintenance crews stayed on the ships to work while the ships went into battle. This is privatized war.

You can get into a real muddle, I think, arguing about this. I would say that it’s inevitable that governments are going to hire private people to do some of the work in times of war or in peacetime military matters. It may involve logistical, security, or technical support. Are they mercenaries? If you want to sell your newspaper by using the word mercenary, then okay, fine. But what do you actually mean?

In fact, according to the African convention on mercenaries [the 1977 Organization of African Unity Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa], I don’t think I’ve ever been one. They were actually planning to hang them. This was a convention of all the African countries in the early 1970s, and they really wanted to purge the mercenaries. They had just had the Biafran War and the Congo Civil War, where there had been some really nasty stuff going on, including some of the kinds of mercenaries who give mercenaries a bad name. So they really wanted to get rid of them.

Because they were planning to hang them, they had to define their terms very carefully. And those terms actually would allow me to say that I’ve never been a mercenary—even though I’m tarred today, over every bloody website you can imagine, as a mercenary. I don’t want to sound blasé, but I’ve sort of just gotten over that. If you want to call me a mercenary, call me a mercenary. But then I don’t really think you know what you’re talking about because you don’t actually know what I’ve done or tried to do.

How do you define yourself and what you do?

Well, what I’ve done, and what I do are not necessarily the same things. What I’ve done is, I was a general in the Angolan army for a short while when there was a war. We fought it and we won. That was for the recognized government of Angola, and I was enrolled in their armed forces. I’m quite proud of what we did. And I’m very proud of the guys that we did it with, both Angolan and South African.

In Sierra Leone, it was very similar. The RUF [Revolutionary United Front] were the masters of atrocities. If you’ve seen the movie Blood Diamond, you know that they used to go around chopping people’s arms off. They used to bet on whether a woman’s fetus was male or female and open her up to have a look. They were pretty easy to fight against, quite honestly. But again, we were part of the properly formed armed forces of Sierra Leone. So that technically is not a mercenary.

And then, I was involved with Papua New Guinea, remotely. But there was no war going on there. So it was more of a sort of civil contract.

The next thing is Equatorial Guinea, my attempt to overthrow the government—where again, no shot was actually fired. And the plan very much was that no shot would be fired. There was certainly no war going on. So again, if you go back to this convention, one of the things that is stipulated is that there has to be a war going on for you to be a mercenary. There has to be a war going on and you have to fight in it. If you’re a transport airplane pilot and you happen to carry a handgun for your personal safety, you’re not a mercenary according to that convention.

I don’t want to hang my hat on that convention; in the event, what happened was everyone approved it and nobody ratified it. Very African, right? Every country approved it at the conference. They all got home and then nobody passed it into law. 

PMCs and Wagner Group

A major difference between PMCs and professional militaries is that the latter are loyal to a particular state and can be ideologically disciplined. A military officer is conditioned into various norms: civilian authority, the chain of command, and so on. It’s not considered likely that the U.S. is going to have a military coup. But with private militaries, such discipline can’t happen easily. So is a PMC politically untrustworthy?

I mean, the short answer is yes. Clearly, I think we need to distinguish between—these are my distinctions—a PMC by the modern definition, which is pretty much what I would call a private security company. They’re in Iraq, they’re in Afghanistan, but what are they actually doing in those places? They’re escorting VIPs, guarding an embassy, escorting an incoming politician who wants to look at the troops. They are not there as soldiers. They may get shot at and then they may shoot back, but they’re not going to be told to go and capture the hill at grid reference XYZ.

Let’s take Aegis or Blackwater, the ones we all have heard about. They can be in a military situation somewhere like Baghdad, but they’re not actually the military. They’re not being told to go and clear streets. They are escorting people around. They’re guarding installations. That’s the kind of thing that they’re doing.

With Executive Outcomes, on the other hand, we went to the Angolan government. We said, “Okay, look, we will help you win your war. We’re going to come and fight. And if that means taking that hill, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re not here for security purposes, we’re here for fighting and winning a war.”

Now, it seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between those two things. The modern kind of PMC—that’s probably got a board of directors with a couple of admirals on it, and might even be on the stock exchange, highly respectable—they operate in a very, very particular way. Not like a mercenary company, not like Executive Outcomes. There is a real difference there. And actually, I don’t think that private mercenary companies are the way to go. I don’t think that’s the best way of doing things.

How does that square with your involvement in Executive Outcomes, Sandline, and the like?

Well, look, if I’m walking along the street, and a guy’s house is on fire, I’m going to help him. He says, “Have you got some men, and some firefighting equipment?” and I say, “Yeah, I have got loads of them, but it’s going to cost you. We’re going to charge you because I’m going to get my men and equipment in here. And we’re firefighters, you’re gonna have to pay us.” But that doesn’t mean that I think that private little firefighting companies are the way to go. I think the municipality should produce a proper firefighting force and it should be them putting the fires out. And in this case, that should be the UN or somebody like it. But if the UN is there, as they were in Angola and in Sierra Leone, and they are absolutely and completely failing to put the fire out, then it’s better that we put it out rather than watch it go on burning.

How has the PMC landscape changed? Are there more Chinese PMCs in Africa today, for example?

I’ve actually been consulted by and had discussions with the Chinese about this. And they are very, very interesting. They’re aware, firstly, that they are very unpopular with a lot of people in Africa. They are seen by Africans as a force for bad, rightly or wrongly. And they’re also very aware, interestingly, that there is a cultural clash on a security level. If you had 100 Chinese army guys, and you said, “Okay, you’re going to secure this mine in the middle of the Congo,” it would be very, very difficult. They don’t know what to do.

Of course, they can put in security. They can keep people out. But going in and winning hearts and minds—or when there’s an incident, following it up with a discussion with the village chief—that’s foreign to them.

They didn’t know how to do it, and they know they don’t. So they’re kind of trying to work that out. And at the same time, you’ve got actual events on the ground, some of which are pretty nasty. But then, you’ve also got Chinese mines that do manage. They hire local companies to handle security.

What people don’t realize is how many Chinese are in Africa not because the government sent them, but because of their own volition. They even buy a local passport. There are many, many Chinese in Zambia who are Zambian citizens. They vote. They pay their taxes.

The other growing security presence in Africa has been Russia. Wagner Group has been working in places like the Congo and competing with the French in Mali. What is the nature of Russian involvement?

The Russian thing is very different because Russia doesn’t have the money and the resources like China does. They don’t chuck around money like the Chinese do. And in Sub-Saharan Africa, Wagner is not like one unit with a clear sort of clear hierarchy or organogram. They’ve got different companies and can pop up in as many guises as they wish. But they will more often than not be paid for by a Russian oligarch in order to secure or win a certain asset from that country. Gold, diamonds, whatever.

As for private military companies in general, if we’re talking about an Executive Outcomes-type warfighting outfit, I would say that it is extremely difficult to do that now. It is highly, highly unlikely. Other than Wagner. They are supposedly doing that in Mali.

The Angolan War and its Interludes

In Angola, you were working for the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government. This was a messy, multi-pronged proxy war. The MPLA was once the Soviet and Cuban proxy. Now it formed a government also recognized by the West. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) was originally the Western proxy, but now it was officially just a rebel group with no supporters. In Cry Havoc you write that, in reality, UNITA still seemed to have quiet collaboration from France, South Africa, and possibly the CIA. Why get into this messy situation?

Don’t forget that war had been going on since the late 1960s. The war had started as a war for the national independence of the Angolan people against Portugal, the colonial power. Then the Portuguese had a coup of their own back home in 1976, so they ran away.

There was a civil war between the different factions that had been fighting to get them out. That civil war then became the Cold War’s fiercest-fought proxy war. And it was going on, and on. It was about to all be sorted out with the Crocker Plan [negotiations were led by Chester Crocker, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs]. Everybody in the country would have an election and the results would be recognized—and were recognized—as free and fair by the United Nations. And then UNITA goes against their word, turns the whole thing upside down, attacks us, and restarts the war.

And I’m thinking: wow, these people. These poor people—10 million in Angola—have now been thrown back into a war that is 30 years old, because a greedy bunch of bastards wants to get into power and they don’t care what they’re going to do to get that. That civil war could have gone on forever because the MPLA had the oil revenue and UNITA was supported by De Beers [which is reported to have dealt with “blood diamonds” sourced in UNITA-controlled mines] and others—the CIA too.

Okay, so if I’m Joe Bloggs, ordinary Angolan, I haven’t got a chance. I’m sitting in this horrendous power play: oil and gas, diamonds, CIA, Russians, you name it. And I, Joe Bloggs, am absolutely screwed. Both me and my family. And by that stage, they’d eaten every wild thing. You could go into huge miles of bush in Angola and there wasn’t a single bird or animal because they’d eaten it all.

Here’s a government. It’s been elected. There was a peace plan. Now, we decide, let’s win this war with them and end it. And that is actually what we managed to do. Obviously, that’s me and a cast of about 30,000 others. I’m not claiming I ended it. But that is what happened.

To help win the war, you visited Moscow to acquire ODABs—a Russian thermobaric bomb—for the Angola effort. This was just a few years after the Soviet fall, in the famously chaotic Moscow of the 1990s. You wrote about being helped by General Karphukin, former head of the KGB’s special forces, Alpha Group. He confided at the time that the government was no longer fully in control of things. Can you tell us a bit more about Moscow during that period?

I mean, it was a very strange time in Moscow. You don’t need me to tell you that because anyone who was there, and anyone who knows about it, will confirm that. I just came up from Angola with this shopping list. I didn’t really understand what was going on. But there were a lot of banking and high finance people in Moscow who were basically trying to buy things cheap. That is the process that led to the oligarchs, or people who basically managed to buy for rubles—play money—things that were real, hard dollar-earning assets. That is how the oligarchs, most of them, came into being. They basically stole extremely valuable assets, on the pretext that they were buying them with rubles.

Now, when I was there, I think the realization had dawned that other people were coming into Russia to do the same thing—foreigners, that is. There was a sense that they were being raped. And on the one hand, you had people who were all in favor of being raped, because they just wanted the money. But on the other hand, you had a real resistance building. Around 1993 or ’94, something like twenty Western bankers were murdered in Moscow. I mean, it was really not a good place to be. And it wasn’t safe, because the gloves were off. It was a sort of semi-anarchy, I think, whereby certain Russian agencies were on a mission to stop things. But as mavericks—I mean, I don’t think they’d been told to do this by anybody. They had decided whether this was going to happen, or this was not going to happen. And they were making sure of that, sometimes by recourse to violence. So this stuff was sort of going on.

We were there for several months, so we started to pick up the vibe. And it became really quite frightening. Then, when I met the general, he said, “Well, you know, you’re right to be frightened, because all sorts of shit is going on here. And foreign agencies are here. And they are operating in a way that is not appropriate in a foreign country. They’re taking the law into their own hands.” If you remember, at this time there were all these nuclear and chemical worries going on in the West, that weapons and capabilities could be going into the wrong hands. Everyone knew that Russia was for sale. And you know, it was a real mess. Very dangerous.

The 1991 coup plotters offered Karpukhin a role in a restored Soviet government too, correct? 

The story goes that Karpukhin was told in the Kremlin to go to the White House [the office of Russia’s Prime Minister in Moscow, formerly known as the House of Soviets] and kill Yeltsin. And a few hours later, he was in the White House. At that time, if you remember, the White House was surrounded by tanks and troops. He called back to the Kremlin and said, “I’m with Yeltsin now. And if you want him, you’re gonna have to get through me. We’re with him.” And that was really when the old powers were defeated.

Had the ODABs you were acquiring for the Angolan government been misused, your name would have been all over war crimes. From your own investigations, you believe that they were used well. What was your mental calculus at that time?

I really wanted to end the war. Partly because that’s what we’d been hired to do. But also because from a humanitarian point of view, the war needed to be ended, badly. One could see it drifting on and on, as these African wars tend to do. If you look at the DRC today, it is still going through the same sort of wars that’ve been going on for 20 years. Different players, different names, but basically the same sort of nonsense. So I really felt that something dramatic should happen. If there was a way to just say, “Hey guys, this is it. This is over now. It’s won, so stop fighting,” then that risk was worth taking. 

At the same time, I had a very good relationship with the key players in Angola. They were Generals Joao De Matos, who was the head of the Angolan armed forces—who sadly is dead—and Joaquim David, who was the head of Sonangol, the national oil company. He was very, very important within their political structure. And I just knew those two guys were not going to do something stupid. We talked about it at great length.

The MPLA had taken harsh actions before. Early in the war, MPLA supporters and police killed thousands of pro-UNITA civilians. What made the government unlikely to take these kinds of steps once they’d acquired the bombs, in your view?

Because the Angolan leaders were very well-educated, civilized people. Very sophisticated people. And it was a civil war. They were very conscious of the fact that the people they were fighting with were Angolans.

And I think in any civil war, there’s an awareness that there’s going to be a settling afterward, and they can be very bloody. But also there is the awareness that we’re not fighting an existential, outside enemy. We’re fighting one another. So, in the event, I was right that they would use the bombs properly. It wasn’t investigations that proved that I was right. I was there. I was part of the process. We were still operational.

Did you witness the bombs being dropped?

No. But I mean, we were running the intelligence, or a lot of the intelligence, at the time. So we knew exactly what was going on. Most intelligence was coming from a King Air 200 plane that we kitted out with some sensors. So we knew what was happening pretty well.

In all these operations, it’s a bit unclear what your relationship with the British government is. Can you comment on just how much contact was going on?

No relationship.

Nothing formal or informal? No emails?

We adopted what I like to think of as deliberate naivety. We basically knew if we asked anybody, we’d be told no. And also, you know, Angola was none of their business. The British had no say on Angola, really. Where the British did get involved was when the Americans said, “Wait a minute: Executive Outcomes, what they’ve done in Angola, what they’ve done in Sierra Leone, fine. But this is not how we see the world working. This is not how we want the world to work.” And the British were right there with them on that. And that message was sent to us pretty clearly.

Your Angolan operations ended up including diamond mining. Some of those companies were apparently affiliated with Strategic Resource Corporation, the umbrella organization under which Executive Outcomes operated. You were also unsure about just how dirty some of the big competitors were willing to get in response—especially when an associate of yours died in a strange plane crash. What motivated the diamond venture?

Yes, strange story. My grandfather, believe it or not, was actually a director of Anglo American and De Beers, and a very good friend of Harry Oppenheimer [the South African chairman of De Beers and Anglo American]. We had actually no intention of getting involved with diamond mining until we were asked to by the senior Angolans. And the reason they asked this was because the mining companies—especially De Beers—were applying force majeure to the mining concessions [not fulfilling obligations due to circumstances outside their control, i.e. the war]. So they were not mining. 

And once we got to the end of the fighting, the Angolans were very anxious to try and get people back to work. They had to try and create jobs. And they were very anxious to get the mining industry restarted. So what they did was, they told us, “Look, we could set up a joint venture mining company with you. It will be very profitable because we’re the generals and we’ll make sure the company gets the best concessions. And we can then use you as a stick to beat up the other companies. Then we can say, ‘Hey, these guys are mining, so why can’t you?’”

Is your view that De Beers and the others were holding those concessions because they were opposed to the MPLA government?

Well, De Beers doesn’t want to do mining. They don’t want to produce diamonds. They want the price to go up. And that was why they wanted out. I mean, Angola is a very important country when it comes to diamonds. Ideally, no production at all from Angola would have suited them just fine, even though they were buying diamonds from UNITA. So it was better to continue the war. There were very powerful forces backing UNITA.

In Cry Havoc, you recount a meeting with Anthony Oppenheimer, at that time head of the Central Selling Organisation, the exclusive De Beers distribution channel. You claim that Oppenheimer invited you to a meeting where he offered payment in exchange for Executive Outcomes pulling out of the war. You come away insulted, having declined. As one of your colleagues asks: “What kind of fucking mercenaries are you?” Why refuse?

If you’re a highly-paid footballer, that doesn’t mean you’re going to take a bit more money and lose the match on purpose, does it? Quite a few footballers I can think of would be extremely upset if you asked them.

You would be a bad soldier.

I think you’d be a bad person! I mean, you know, that’s just not the way to behave. We decided what we were going to do for very good reasons, and not simply just making money. You know, the MPLA had won the election, they were the internationally recognized government. UNITA threw the entire country back to war, needlessly. And we felt quite strongly about that. Then, further downstream, by then we were on the payroll. We’d become comrades in arms with the Angolans. And so to have some little guy in London thinking he can just buy us out, I thought it was really insulting to us. And Tony felt the same way. So that’s the end of that meeting.

Attempting a Coup in Equatorial Guinea

Your name became famous thanks to your role in the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea against its dictator, President Obiang. You were working with Sir Mark Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher’s son. At that time, Obiang still had a bad relationship with the U.S. You, Thatcher, and your collaborators wanted to pull off a palace coup and bring in Severo Moto, the opposition leader.

Your team got arrested in Zimbabwe and you spent five and a half years in prison. You were in two of the worst in Africa: Zimbabwe’s Chikurubi Prison, and then solitary confinement at Black Beach in Equatorial Guinea. Obiang pardoned you in 2006 and got back on good terms with the U.S. In taking on the Equatorial Guinea job, you were no longer “with the heads”—fighting with the government. What informed the kinds of contracts that you were willing to take?

There’s plenty of room in accepting contracts because you could always say no. And I think the principle of individual responsibility is very valid. As I was saying earlier, what matters is how you do things, not so much the label. It was very, very clearly established at the Nuremberg trials that you are individually responsible for what you do, regardless of your orders and the situation around you. You are responsible.

When we decided to get involved in Angola in the way we did, we thought about it long and hard. Same in Sierra Leone, same in Papua New Guinea, and same in Equatorial Guinea. Now Equatorial Guinea, as you rightly pointed out in rugby terms, was one “against the heads.” And that was the first time I’d tried to do that. Therefore, I knew that there would be a much, much greater obligation, that the morality had to be even clearer. Because now we’re going to try and overthrow a government.

Now, there was no war going on. And we certainly didn’t intend to start one. In fact, one of the options that were available to overthrow that government would have meant possibly fighting and we deliberately avoided that. The idea was no fighting, hopefully no bloodshed.

The first thing that I did when I accepted that we should have a go at this was to establish very clearly how bad of a tyranny it was. Before we really got down the track at all and before we got to the point of no return. You know, I was being told, “Oh, it’s a terrible tyranny. This guy really needs to be replaced.” And I didn’t take their word for it. I said, “Okay, well, great. If that’s what you’re telling me, then fair enough. But I’m now going to investigate that myself.”

Obviously, I couldn’t go to the place myself. So I sent Niek [Servaas Nicolaas “Niek” du Toit, former colonel of South Africa’s 32 Battalion] to Equatorial Guinea on a recce [reconnaissance mission]. An extended recce, as it turned out, because he was there for the best part of a year. And all the information I got back from Niek, which corroborated with other sources, was that we were justified to try and do what we were doing with assisted regime change. And remember, assisted regime changes were very fashionable at the time. The United States had just done one in Iraq.

“Bloodless” is something of a bet on your part. By the nature of these things, there’s always a chance that something gets out of control. In fact, it did get out of control in this case—just earlier than you anticipated.

The real plan was that we would have the new interim president, Severo Moto [Equatorial Guinea’s prominent opposition leader, who now leads a government-in-exile from Spain] land at the same time as us. And by that point, President Obiang would have been under arrest in his palace. There would have been a palace coup. We were to arrive in the early hours of the morning and the president would already have been arrested and would go to prison, and then Severo Moto would go to the broadcasting station and wish everyone good morning.

We only had 70 men. And I mean, we were very good, but we were not going to be able to overthrow a country with police and armed forces numbering in the thousands with 70 men. So I was planning to get off the airplane in a suit and a tie and be shaking hands. Now, that may sound a little bit far-fetched to people. But the point here is, we knew that there was a lot of opposition within the country, and indeed, there was a lot of opposition within the palace.

If you’re going to have a palace coup, it’s going to be done by people very, very close to the president. They’re literally going to walk into his bedroom and say, “Get up, you’re under arrest.” So it’s going to be family members, it’s going to be absolutely close. And Moto, the guy we were bringing in to try and set up democracy, had been the mayor of Malabo, the capital. He had been elected with a big majority, so much so that he’d frightened the president and was shoved into prison. He had then been pardoned at the personal requests of the Pope and King Carlos of Spain. That’s how high they had gone to get him out of that prison.

And my job, more than anything else, was to look after him. As you can imagine, the one thing we don’t want to happen is for someone to come out of the crowd and shoot the new guy. So more than anything else, we came as a close protection team for Severo Moto. And in theory, all we had to do is arrive and escort him to the palace.

Now, yes, you’re right. Things can go wrong. And that’s why we had a whole load of arms and ammunition in the aircraft—or rather, that’s why we were planning to have it. And that’s when we were arrested in Harare, while on our way to collect the arms and ammunition.

But the arms and ammunition, I mean, we had to have it in case things went wrong. To protect ourselves or even to protect Severo Moto. We wouldn’t even test-fire it. You know, even if we’d got it that night in Harare, test firing the weapons in the hold of the aircraft is not a very tactically sound configuration.

Reflections on African Prisons

While in Chikurubi Prison in Zimbabwe, you existed in two worlds. There was the day-to-day survival, but you also had to think about writing to lawyers, convincing your remaining contacts to help you, and negotiating with the local power brokers. You even thought about media headlines. What’s it like going from private operative to public figure under these circumstances?

In the Angolan story, the Sierra Leone story, and the Papua New Guinea story, I had been a key player. But nobody knew my name. Other people’s names had been all over the papers in South Africa and the UK about those things, but not mine. And that’s how I wanted it to remain. Even if we were completely successful in Equatorial Guinea, Simon Mann was going to be not on the radar if I could help it.

Obviously, when the shit hit the fan, that’s all out the window. I am right up there, and very public. Of course, what I’m really thinking about is my wife and the kids at home, because when all of that happens, they are going to catch it. It’s going to mean bullying at school, the wife’s going to get stupid comments made to her, and all sorts of shit is going to come out of that. It’s a horrible thing to live with. If you’re going to play these kinds of games, if you’re going to roll the dice in this kind of way, then that’s the risk you’re running. That’s the downside. There’s just no way around it.

What I must tell you is that when I was in prison, I had to be pretty ruthless about my own thinking. I had to look after the people I managed to get in there with me. You know, I had 70 people with me in Zimbabwe, and then 10 or 15 that were up in Equatorial Guinea. And so whatever happened, you know, I had to try and look after them, as best I could. And I mean, it didn’t go that well, but it could have gone a lot worse. But I had to make some really difficult decisions that probably went against my interest and the interest of my family. But I had to make that decision because of the men I was with.

You talk in the book about your personal routine. You kept a physical exercise routine, and you also wrote each night.

Looking after my own head, right? Staying sane was a big deal. Death is final, but going mad will last a long time. Worse than Zimbabwe was the eighteen months in Equatorial Guinea, because that was all in strict solitary confinement.

The really awful thing was, there’s no welfare state in South Africa. There was no support system for the wives and children at all for many of the men with me. And the money that should have come from my organization hadn’t gone through to those people.

And that is where I got really angry with my fellows, my backers. Because they did absolutely nothing to help those people. Which not only should they have done from a moral point of view—but also looking after me, because I was in prison with these guys. And they were coming to me saying, “Simon, you are responsible. You have to look after us and our families.” And you know, prison is a dangerous place. You’ve got to watch out. So, I was put into an impossible position by the people who should have been backing me.

How I dealt with those men in that place was the hardest test of leadership I would ever want to face. I must have done okay because I wasn’t killed. Now we are all friends.

How else did your time at Black Beach differ from Chikurubi? And how did you stay sane in solitary confinement?

In Zimbabwe, some days 20 people were dying a day. That’s a lot. The average was probably about 10 a day. So obviously, that’s horrendous. I wasn’t going to die, because I was too valuable. They were going to keep me alive because they could make their money. And I knew I wasn’t going to die. But just to be in a place where that’s happening is very unpleasant.

I built a flight simulator out of bits of paper. And that was very useful. But really and truly, the thing that made all the difference for me in Equatorial Guinea was that I could write. And I wrote these books, which are like adventure books, about a girl hero. And when I told my two boys—they’re older boys—about this, they said, “Well, Dad, that’s absolutely pointless, because she’s just you in a skirt.” I said, “What’s wrong with that!?” Any self-respecting shrink would make such hay out of that. “Oh, so you wrote a book in the first person and you were a girl?” Well, you know, you’ve got to find a girl somewhere!

Writing, and trying to write well, takes you into a completely different world in your head. And that was fantastic. The girl is called Cass—that’s her name, Cassandra. And so, at one point just shortly after I got out of prison, my wife Amanda said, “So, I suppose you are in love with this girl Cass now, are you?” And I said, “No, I’m not. I’m not even sure if I actually even like her. But I think she actually saved me. She saved my mind.”

How to Build a Private Army

When developing Executive Outcomes, your organization favored South African Defence Force veterans and a lot of former CCB people. The organization is racially mixed—when you look at available photos of EO, you see white and black soldiers together. That’s counterintuitive, given the apartheid connection. How did EO integrate its fighters into a cohesive force?

Well, there’s a very simple answer to that, which is that the black soldiers in Executive Outcomes were all ex-SADF. There was an organization called 32 Battalion. Very famous. They’re also known as Buffalo Battalion because their camp was called Buffalo Camp. And these were people who had been recruited by the South Africans to fight the Angolans, mostly. And they were very often of the Ovambo tribe. And so for those people, it was a very natural state of affairs that the officers they had would be the officers, and they were the men. That was normal for them. 32 Battalion was highly regarded during the South African frontier wars era.

It seemed like Executive Outcomes really put a high value on maintaining this distinct core of South African fighters. What was the thinking with this kind of South African operation? 

We didn’t need to take other people. We didn’t take British people! I mean, I got flack from some of my old comrades-in-arms, who said, “Hey Simon, what the hell’s going on here? You guys have this amazing thing, and you’ve made all this money. You didn’t ask us?” I said, “Well, no, I didn’t need you.” Because the South Africans were much better and much cheaper. They know Africa, they know the climate, and they know the health issues. And they were pretty desperate, because it was a desperate time in South Africa.

And, you know, the thing with any kind of force is that, obviously, morale is an issue. And cultural cohesion is required. Now, if everyone comes from the same military background, the same army, then they all understand one another perfectly. And in fact, in Executive Outcomes, the recruits had to actually—when they signed up to say that they were joining Executive Outcomes—they had to sign up and agree that they would abide by the rules, traditions, and customs of the SADF. And if a corporal told them to get their hair cut, they had to go and get their hair cut. They couldn’t say “I’m a civilian now, you can’t tell me what to do.” No, no, you don’t understand, we will tell you what to do. This is the old way.

Was Afrikaans the operating language?

Very much so. I think it’s often the case with old soldiers that they like it. They actually like the life before, and they want it to go on. At the time, because the ANC was taking power in South Africa, the whole society was very wobbly, right? For example, SADF officers’ pensions were being torn up by the ANC. They were saying “Well, we’re not going to pay you your life pension out when you were the guys that were assassinating us.” So pensions were being torn up. And that applied to the 32 Battalion people as well, the black SADF guys.

It seems easy to roleplay military culture and dress. In your book you described a scene in Sierra Leone where you observed the following at the presidential HQ: “Paraphernalia copied from a Hollywood Banana Republic military dictator…aping a Western cultural stereotype of a corrupt and violent African plutocracy.” You can even picture the guys in aviators and fatigues. What’s going on here?

I can tell you the story. So if we go back to the 1950s, okay, a lot of things in civilian life copied the military. The military was seen as the technological leader, and almost a fashion leader. Now, I know for a fact that about 10 years ago or something, there was a movie where the guys were U.S. special forces, and they had really nice uniforms. So the actual special forces got ahold of the movie and said, “Where did you get those uniforms for the guys from?” And they then copied them! So this is not unique to Africa.  

One of my jokes is that when I travel around these sorts of airports that I tend to end up in, like Dubai or Addis Ababa, these places where people are moving around, I’m very amused because I can pick out an oil and gas worker who’s really trying to look like a private military contractor. There is a kind of style in which the PMC guys dress. So you can get an oil man trying to dress as a military contractor. And then I recognize the actual military contractors, who are now busy trying to look like hedge fund investment analysts. So everyone’s trying to do their own thing.

I think it’s just human nature, and it’s fun. But Strasser, the president who that scene in Sierra Leone was about, was really something else. He was a very young guy, and was surrounded by his mates. The Minister of Education would be another young officer. And they were wild. They were having a ball. They would be out all night, pissing it up, smoking dagga [marijuana]. 

When we went into Strasser’s office, the smell of marijuana was strong. And then on his desk is this sort of beautifully carved, very African, wooden crucifix of Christ. About eight inches, nine inches high. A really nice one. But then hanging off it, are these little colored bird feathers—Juju. Black magic. Uh oh, here we go. Because God, juju, and marijuana could end up being a very dangerous cocktail for us white men who had come up here to try and do a deal with this guy.

And actually, Strasser was a great man, it turned out. I mean, he was young and a bit, you know, bombed out of his brain, and all this stuff. But in the end, he turned out to be a really good guy. 

I remember one discussion with him and Tony. Remember, we’d come there as the victors of the War of Angola. We were the people who ended the civil war in Angola. We were Executive Outcomes. And we were wealthy and powerful. And Tony said, “Look, we can help you. But what we need you to do is ABC, and we need you to agree to the following terms.” And Strasser sits there sort of leaning back with his shades and says, “But Tony, if I agree to this, then Britain has just re-colonized Sierra Leone!” And I remember thinking, good for you, mate. Because he was dead on!

The Spirit of the British Upper Class

One figure that crops up in your account is Nicholas Elliot, the MI6 agent who helped to track the Cambridge Five traitors. Elliot assisted you in Russia. What kind of impression did he make on you?

I adored him. As a person, as a human being. He became a very, very good friend to me. And I still miss him a lot. Obviously, time has moved on. But he did die young, very suddenly and in the middle of all of this, and Tony and I really missed him. Because he had abilities, knowledge, networks, and experience that we came nowhere close to. So he was so valuable. And just an incredibly funny and amusing guy. In the end, the Angolan security services got really worried as to how we’d managed to do what we’d done. And in the end, it all came down to my father having been at Eton! This Old Boy thing. Well, you know, you must know my uncle so-and-so, he’ll sort it out!

Did Elliot embody the virtues of the institutions he was formed in? Or did he have a unique personality, skill set, or intelligence? Was he made or born into his potential?

Well, I mean, he was a great man. And his father was a great man. His father was the very famous headmaster of Eton and also the head of the British Mountaineering Association—or whatever it was called then—that sent Mallory to Everest.

Did you come to any conclusions about MI6 or British intelligence more broadly, based on Elliot being part of that world?

[Laughs] Well, he told me lots of things about it that made my hair stand on end! He had a list of all the things which MI6 had failed to predict. Like the fall of the Shah, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the invasion of the Falkland Islands, and the invasion of Kuwait. And I think he had a couple of others. So he said, “It does make you wonder what we’re really there for, doesn’t it!?” 

That is pure Nicholas, because it’s absolutely spot on. It’s deadly humor. And he’s right. At the same time, he knows perfectly well what MI6 is there for and why you have to have one.

Your background in Sandhurst, the Scots Guards, and the SAS. You’re also an Old Etonian. Has your work been shaped by the British military culture that you were formed in? And is that older ethos still effective in shaping people?

In one sense, it definitely was. I mean to a lot of people, somebody who’s been to Eton, and then Sandhurst and the Scots Guards is of another age. Of course, that’s not true. Because you could perfectly easily be doing that today. In fact, my youngest son wants to go to Sandhurst and join the Scots Guards. And my eldest son did go to Sandhurst and joined the Scots Guards. So, to some people’s perception—I mean, I don’t know about the U.S.—but in the UK, to lots of people, if you were a guards officer then you are by definition this rather ridiculous, anachronistic person. But of course, that’s actually complete rubbish. Because they don’t know what they’re talking about. You see what I mean?

If you consider a 25-year-old who went to Eton, and about what they end up doing these days, what comes to mind is a hedge fund manager. The City of London has captured the vitality, or what’s left of it, of the British upper classes. Should we just take the current crop of Etonians, ship them out to Africa, and see what they make of themselves?

[Laughs] No! Well, you’re now asking me questions about the whole of English society. It’s a very, very complicated story. And if you ask 10 people the same questions, you get 10 completely different answers. Because obviously, societies change. I mean, it’s exactly the same in the United States. I’m sure there were preppy kids wandering around when I was at Eton from 1965 to 1970. But you think about 1965 to ’70, the whole Western world was in a social revolution.

You had the student riots in California, you had the hair, you had Woodstock, you had this whole thing going on. So, of course, it’s all changed. I guess you could say that the path I took, in a sense, is arguably a rather old-fashioned one. Because somehow, it’s like The Empire Strikes Back or something. In reality, it absolutely wasn’t like that. It was accidental. We were an oil company and we did what we did. It’s quite easy to become, I don’t know, a sort of lampoon target.

What would you advise someone young and risk-tolerant who doesn’t want to become a banker?

Well, I don’t think they’d ask me! But making something of yourself or not is up to you, isn’t it? Some people are going to make themselves into great artists and other people are going to be great at something else. If you want to be a soldier, then be a soldier. And don’t be hung up by the class aspects of the thing. If you really want to be a soldier, the best thing you could possibly do would be to get yourself into the Special Air Service as quickly as possible.

Now if you want to be a general, that’s something completely different. That’s not what you want to do. Because it’s a complicated business. 

And I wouldn’t recommend anybody try to do what we did. I mean, that could be fatal.

It seems like history gives us these periods when a lot of people all seem to do interesting things. Today, it seems like there is a kind of pessimism everywhere, and in the UK especially. It seems to be declining. Is pessimism warranted?

I don’t think it’s true. I think that the real stuff is going on all the time. And it’s just a question of which lens you use. I very, very clearly remember Tony Buckingham—my friend and one of the big players in this whole story—saying to me, “God, Simon, it would be so much better if we could have been Elizabethans. We could have been pirates! We could have sailed the seven seas, we could have been catching Spanish treasure ships!”

And I said, “No, no, no, Tony, don’t think that way.” Because the opportunities are out there. Obviously, it’s not going to be a sailing boat and a Spanish treasure ship. But it’s going to be something. It’s there. We have to be ready to grab it when it comes. I think the opportunities are always there.

Ash Milton is Contributing Editor at Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @miltonwrites.