| Mark Thatcher being escorted into a car after his arrest. (Reuters)
London, Aug. 25: Mark Thatcher, the son of the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, appeared in court in Cape Town today, charged with financing a bizarre plot to overthrow the President of the oil-rich African state of Equatorial Guinea.
Although the British media has always had it in for the former Prime Minister’s son, a Sanjay Gandhi-like figure but without the latter’s charm or political ambition, no evidence has been provided so far that he has been dabbling in African politics. Mark’s lawyers have said he is pleading not guilty.
His mother Lady Thatcher, who is in poor health and suffers memory losses, was today in America and not available for comment.
Mark, who had been charged with two sections of South Africa’s Foreign Military Assistance Act, was released on bail tonight on a bond of 2 million rands (£165,000) and after agreeing to hand in his passport.
The alleged plot in which Mark is said to be involved could be taken from a Frederick Forsyth novel. It involves mercenaries, illegal weapons purchases, an Old Etonian who faces the death penalty and Mark Thatcher — or rather Sir Mark Thatcher, as he technically should be called following the death last year of his father, Sir Dennis Thatcher.
The accusation is that Mark and his friends have been planning to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, a backward country which has attracted the unwelcome attention of western adventurers after suddenly discovering vast reserves of oil. The country is now pumping 350,000 barrels a day.
The idea is to replace Obiang, who has been in power since 1979 after executing the former ruler, who happened to be his uncle, with a more accommodating man, Severo Moto, an Opposition figure currently in exile in Spain — or so it is alleged. In return, Moto, once he is in power, will shower his benefactors with business concessions.
It is claimed that a Briton, Simon Mann, an Old Etonian-turned-African mercenary, is the ringleader. In March, he was held in Zimbabwe, allegedly with a plane full of mercenaries on their way to overthrow the Equatorial Guinea government.
Mann is one of 70 defendants held in Zimbabwe while another 19 are on trial in the Equatorial Guinea capital, Malabo. They include South African arms dealer Nick du Toit, another alleged key figure, who told the court today that he met Mark in the months before the alleged plot was foiled.
Du Toit, who faces the death penalty for his alleged role, said Mark was interested only in purchasing hardware that was not involved in the alleged coup plot. He was interested only in buying military helicopters for a mining deal with Sudan, he said.
British reports today did not paint too flattering a portrait of Obiang. That he is said to be a ruthless dictator is par for the course but he is also accused of having recently styled himself as “God”. He is even accused of eating his opponents’ testicles. He fits the western stereotype of the African dictator.
Some would claim that Mark, who left Harrow (Nehru’s and Churchill’s old school) in 1971 with three levels, is simply not bright enough to be involved in such a complicated conspiracy. On the other hand, he has been shrewd enough to make a fortune estimated at £60million by Sunday Times, apparently by shamelessly using the line, “Perhaps, you know my mum...”
While Mark’s twin sister Carol has made a life in journalism — she did not scream for her mother’s help when Max Hastings, editor of The Daily Telegraph, fired her as a feature writer — Mark has always cut a sour figure.
He is best known for getting lost in the desert in 1982, the year of the Falklands War. His mother wept when Mark, a would-be racing driver, went missing in the Sahara during the Paris-Dakar car rally. Not everyone in Britain shared the Prime Minister’s joy when her son was spotted and rescued by a helicopter.
During the 1987 general election, Mark asked Bernard Ingham, then Thatcher’s press secretary, how best he could help his mother win another term in office.
Ingham, a blunt Yorkshireman, reportedly replied: “Leave the country.”
Mark eventually did that, settling in South Africa, with his wife, a Texan heiress called Diane Bergdof whom he married in 1987. The couple, said to have had marriage problems, remains together and has a son and a daughter.
Today at 7 am, at his home in the exclusive suburb of Constantia in Cape Town, Mark was arrested by police who had come equipped with search warrants.
They examined his records and his computer.
Police spokesman Sipho Ngwema said Mark, if found guilty, he could face up to 15 years in prison — and a lot worse if extradited to Equatorial Guinea.
The spokesman added: “We have evidence, credible evidence, and information that he was involved in the attempted coup. We refuse that South Africa be a springboard for coups in Africa and elsewhere. We believe Mr Thatcher assisted in finance and logistics.”
Equatorial Guinea justice minister Ruben Mangue welcomed Mark’s arrest and told a BBC interview: “We congratulate the South African police and the South African government for their efforts in the struggle against terrorism and mercenaries’ activities.”
He urged other foreign governments, including Britain’s, to take action against their nationals who, he said, were involved in the coup plot.
“There are American citizens, British citizens, Spanish citizens involved in the operation. We want their governments to follow the same example,” Mangue said.
He played down suggestions that Equatorial Guinea would now be seeking Mark’s extradition from South Africa.
“Let’s first give an opportunity to the South African authorities and the South African legal system to handle the situation,” the minister said.