The quixotic attempt by a motley group of mostly South African mercenaries to topple Equatorial Guinea's dictator for life, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, in March 2004 made the headlines largely because of the alleged involvement of Margaret Thatcher's ne'er-do-well son, Mark. The coup failed, apparently because the authorities were tipped off by the South African Secret Service, and most of the coup leaders are today in prison. The least one can say is that there are no heroes in this sordid story: the only redemption for the careless coup leaders, their dimwit followers, and various greedy hangers-on is that they sought to remove from power arguably the world's most awful dictator. Roberts' lively narrative is well served by characters from central casting, and his story reveals much about contemporary Africa and its international relations. Mercenaries are thriving in civil wars, from Congo to Iraq, and are hardly in danger of disappearing. The plotters' fatal mistake was not grasping that the discovery of substantial oil reserves off the coast of Equatorial Guinea condemned their venture even as it made the country an attractive target. The Western governments that had once been likely to react to mercenary-led coups in places like Equatorial Guinea with benign neglect now had real economic interests there -- and had found they could do business with the regime.
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