Okay, just what is going on in Zimbabwe?
Last night we discussed the mystery of this planeload of mercenaries taken prisoner in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Now the Zimbabwean government is getting on board with the government of Equatorial Guinea in claiming that the mercernaries were actually bound for Equatorial Guinea to assist in a coup there.
(Keep in mind the backdrop that vast oil reserves have recently been found in Equatorial Guinea.)
What's more, the Foreign Minister of Zimbabwe Stan Mudenge held a press conference today in which he claimed that one of the imprisoned conspirators had implicated the US, the UK and Spain in the plot.
As Zimbabwe's Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi later explained: Simon Mann, one of the detainees, has "been cooperating and has revealed that they were aided by the British secret service (MI6), the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Spanish secret service ... The western intelligence services persuaded the Equatorial Guinea service chiefs, that is the head of the police force and the commander of the army, not to put up any resistance, but to cooperate with the coup plotters."
Now, here's the problem. There's really, really, really good reason to doubt what we're hearing.
Zimbabwe is ruled by the corrupt and autocratic Robert Mugabe, who is almost a caricature of the post-colonial African kleptocrat. Not only is there little reason to take anything his government says at face value, he also has a history of playing on the colonial past and the possible neo-colonial present to whip up support for the rotten state of affairs he has created for his country.
And there's more. You can see the whole explanation that the Zimbabwean officials gave for this coup in this article.
But here's another part that caught me eye.
In Mohadi's words ...
"The group landed in Harare expecting to pick up arms and ammunition from Zimbabwe Defence Industries," a government-owned arms manufacturer, Mohadi said, adding that the plane had been expected to leave Harare Sunday night and land in Malabo Monday morning.
"On landing the group was to be joined by co-conspirators already in Malabo [the capital of Equatorial Guinea] to stage a coup to remove President Obiang from power.
"In the event of a successful execution of a coup d'etat, it was planned that the plane would fly to the Democratic Republic of Congo where the arms and ammunition brought from Zimbabwe were to be handed over to the Katangese rebels."
Now, I'm not clear enough on the geopolitical situation of either of these countries to be sure. But this guy seems to be describing a sort of airborne coup Love Boat.
Sort of like, hey, we're gonna pick up the arms in Zimbabwe and then fly on to Equatorial Guinea where we're gonna hook up with these coup dudes to overthrow the government there. And then once we've got that under control we're going to crank up the plane again and head off to deliver these arms to the rebels in Congo (DRC).
What am I missing here? I'd figure even the nastiest mercenaries and petro-thugs settle for one toppled government a plane trip, right?
Who knows? But it just sounds a little off to me.
On the other hand there are enough suspicious signs that I don't think we dismiss this entirely.
One of the principals of the Kansas company, Dodson Aviation, that supplied the plane told a local Kansas paper yesterday: "It's unbelievable. We basically sold the airplane, and the rest of it is just what we're finding out in the news."
But, as we noted late last night, it seems that a man tied to gun-running and African rent-a-mercenaries may have been an owner of Dodson's South African subsidiary. So I'm not sure that innocent, "golly gee, we just thought we were sellin' a plane" line really cuts it.
A Pentagon spokesman got a grilling on this yesterday from reporters too. And the statement he stood on was "It isn't one of our planes and not any of our people."
I think all that says is that the plane wasn't a US military plane and that the people weren't from the US military -- which of course tells us nothing.
I think what we need here is for a few reporters who have good sources and a good handle on African gun-running and natural resource politics to dig into this story and find out what's going on.
Late Update: There's a piece up on the New York Times website, datelined tomorrow, which discusses this story. Most of the article doesn't provide more than I've seen in the foreign press and what I've found on the wires.
With this exception: The South African government seems now to be lending some credence to the coup story ...
The South African foreign affairs minister, Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma, said her department was in no hurry to help either the 20 South Africans detained in Zimbabwe or the seven arrested in Equatorial Guinea.
She told South African reporters that "there was a link between the plane and Equatorial Guinea" and that one man arrested in Equatorial Guinea had "spilled the beans."
"They are not exactly innocent travelers finding themselves in a difficult situation," she said, adding, "We don't like the idea that South Africa has become a cesspool of mercenaries."
That lends at least some greater measure of credence to these claims. But we still need to know more.