The Wonga Coup by Adam Roberts

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The Wonga Coup by Adam Roberts

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Chris Bradshaw
Reviewed by Chris Bradshaw
Summary: A rollicking review of Simon Mann's outlandish coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846682346

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The chances are that you've never heard of Macias Nguema. You probably don't know his nephew, Obiang Nguema either. They're certainly up there in the Premier League of killing and disappearance, alongside the likes of Pol Pot and modern day tyrants like Robert Mugabe. The fact that the Nguemas are dictators from the tiny west African state of Equatorial Guinea meant they largely slipped off the radar of western consciousness.

Overthrowing a tyrannical regime in itself would appear to be an admirable goal. What made Nguema's homeland of Equatorial Guinea all the more ripe for exploitation was the discovery of vast oil deposits off the coast off the country, oilfields worth potentially billions of dollars. All of a sudden, the largely ignored former Spanish colony was at the centre of outlandish speculation. Throw into the mix an Eton educated, SAS trained former mercenary in the shape of British adventurer Simon Mann and you have all the ingredients for a coup attempt.

The Wonga Coup recounts the details of the astonishing attempt to overthrow the Nguema dictatorship. With a cast of characters including the charismatic Mann, the puppet leader in exile Severo Moto, a band of shady financiers including the mysterious JH Archer (could it really be that Archer?) and the son of a former prime minister, Mark Thatcher, The Wonga Coup often reads like an outlandish thriller.

Roberts has gained great access to the main players and manages to paint a convincing picture of what goes into trying to overthrow a government. Where do the weapons come from? (crooked Zimbabwean government official). How would a fleet of sixty four mercenaries get into Equatorial Guinea unnoticed? (by posing as a rugby team on tour). He delves into the murky world of private armies, often run by fearsome South Africans delightfully known as The Moustaches. Roberts also touches on the curse of corruption which has blighted so much of the African continent and on the conspiratorial and contradictory behaviour of a number of western governments (were the Spanish and the US complicit in the plot?). He also gives a brief history of the military coup and looks at the life of the freelance spy.

With material this fruity it would be tough to write a dull book and Roberts certainly hasn't. It's as pacy and gripping as most thrillers despite the ending being known in advance. His research is thorough and he really gets to the heart of what inspires men to take such risks. For some it is undoubtedly the prospect of great wealth but for many of the other conspirators it was the prospect of adventure. As one of 'The Moustaches' puts it, despite losing his job and his liberty he would do something with Simon (Mann) again. But not for the money, for the kicks. It's not hell I'm never going to do this again. Life is for living. Sometimes there's a f**k up.

And that's what it boiled down to for many of those involved. Of course the money was important, but so too was the possibility of adrenaline fuelled adventure, something which Roberts deftly identifies throughout the book.

The coup in Equatorial Guinea failed through a combination of bad planning, lack of money, bad luck and the overwhelming arrogance of many of those involved. Mann is still in the notorious Playa Negra prison in Equatorial Guinea, sentenced to thirty four years in prison for his involvement in the plot.

Roberts has written a highly entertaining chronicle of a remarkable set of events. As the recent affair in neighbouring Guinea shows, the appetite for a coup is there providing the riches on offer are worth the risk. The final words though should go to Jeffrey Archer from his 1980 novel The Coup. Pull off a coup and you're a national hero, fail and you're an evil villain. Simon Mann would no doubt concur.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag. We also have a review of The Riddles of The Hobbit by Adam Roberts.

For another enlightening look at Africa we can recommend Blood River by Tim Butcher.

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