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Equatorial GuineaI’ve been doing this project of learning about Africa one nation at a time for about a year and a half now, and I have read a lot of academic books. In some of these small countries, the only people doing the research are those looking for more and more obscure dissertation topics. I expected to find the same when I started looking at Equatorial Guinea, population 757,014. Then I found a true story that may as well be a thriller, involving (among many others) spy novelists Frederick Forsythe and Jeffrey Archer as well as Mark Thatcher, son of the Prime Minister.

Whoa.

Adam Roberts covered Southern Africa for The Economist when he heard the story about a fantastic coup. Within a day, it was global news.

“Wonga” is British slang for money. And Equatorial Guinea has characteristics that made it look ripe for takeover that would generate tons of money for the plotters, had they succeeded. The country is a former Spanish colony in West Africa. It became independent in 1968. In 1979, coup led by  Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo took power, and the country fell into dictatorship and plunder. The people suffered while Nguema Mbasogo and his family lived large, with lots of cars, mansions in Paris, overseas bank accounts – that sort of thing. If you want the stereotype of a basket-case African nation, this is it.

The GDP per capita of Equatorial Guinea is high – $25,700 – but most people are poor subsistence farmers. The country has oil, and the benefits accrue to the Nguema Mbasogo family and affiliates or to the oil companies, not to the average citizen.

The opportunity that presented itself to former British army officer Simon Mann was this: a dictator that no one wanted around sat on a rich pool of oil. An exile in Spain claimed that he was the rightful ruler of Equatorial Guinea. If Mann could get together enough people and military equipment, he could take over. The people of Equatorial Guinea would get a better ruler, and he could make a lot of money from the oil revenues. What could possibly go wrong?

Mann had to raise a lot of money, and he did from different British and South African people who sensed an opportunity for profit and adventure. These people included Mark Thatcher.

The investors money went to buy used equipment, of not always good quality, and to hire a lot of soldiers-for-hire. So many people in so many countries (England, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Spain, and the U.S.) were involved that the costs kept rising. Even worse, lots of people talked, and word got back to the Equatorial Guinean government.

The coup failed. The plotters and mercenaries were imprisoned. Nguema Mbasogo is still in power.

And the British tabloids had a field day with the story. It fabulous tale was made into a TV movie in Britain, and rumors have floated that a big-budget film directed by Ridley Scott is in the works.

Meanwhile, the people in Equatorial Guinea suffered in poverty while their rulers and families drove around Paris in ridiculous cars. Some of the corruption is being addressed, but it has been slow, and this is not a place for investors any time soon.