Former British soldier Simon Mann is awaiting trial in Equatorial Guinea - charged with conspiracy to violently overthrow the government and murder the president of the oil-rich West African country. From London, Tendai Maphosa reports for VOA that analysts say the guns-for-hire business still poses a threat to governments on the continent.
He looks average, unassuming - medium height, graying hair and beard and horn-rimmed glasses. But, Simon Mann is in fact a notorious mercenary behind bars in Equatorial Guinea where his trial is set for next month.
Appearing in an exclusive interview this week on Britain's Channel 4 News, the 55-year-old Mann spoke about his exploits, never denying that he set out to overthrow the government of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Basogo.
He and his group of more than 60 mercenaries were arrested in March 2004 in Zimbabwe, where they had planned to pick up weapons. Mann served four years of a seven-year prison term for firearms offenses in Zimbabwe and was then extradited to Equatorial Guinea.
The plot resembles the novel by British author Frederick Forsythe, The Dogs of War, which describes a plan by a group of mercenaries to overthrow the corrupt government of a mineral-rich African country.
Simon Mann is not the first such gun for hire in Africa. He follows in the footsteps of the likes of Bob Dennard and 'Mad' Mike Hoare who achieved notoriety for their mercenary exploits on the continent in years gone by.
Chaloka Beyani of the London School of Economics was a member of the U.N. Expert Group on Mercenaries and Private Military Companies. He tells VOA that one particular African leader, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, played a major role in the rise of mercenary forces by using them in his own country.
"The developments started in the DRC, or Zaire then, when mercenaries famously went to aid Mobutu in the 1960s and since then Africa has had an unhappy history with mercenaries," he said.
But experts say mercenaries are not in it for the adventure alone. They look to concrete rewards.
In Mann's case it is believed to be Equatorial Guinea's newly discovered oil.
In his TV interview, Mann admitted that money and business reasons were a factor. But he insisted the primary motivation was to help the people of Equatorial Guinea get out from under a brutal dictatorship.
The head of the Africa program at Britain's Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, Knox Chitiyo is not convinced of the humanitarian argument.
"The whole mercenary saga is so redolent of the 60s and 70s, it is arcane and archaic," he said. "Simon Mann represents the old breed of neo-colonialists who feel that they can take the law into their own hands and remove African leaders at will. But the caveat on that is, I think, it is a warning to Africa and Africans that these guys are still out there. I do not believe Mann is the last of the breed."
While the term "mercenary" is no longer much in use, the practice continues under a different name. Chaloka Beyani says they are now widely referred to as private security consultants.
"Many see the private military companies as the new form of mercenary and in Simon Mann's case, clearly that is confirmed because he was involved with both Executive Outcomes and Sandline International, both of which were private military companies operating in Sierra Leone," said Beyani. "He then led this mission to Equatorial Guinea, which shows that the distinction between the modern corporate mercenary and the individual mercenary can be [a] very thin one."
In his television interview, Mann said he was only the manager of the operation. He said the main man behind it all was Ely Calil, a Lebanese-Nigerian multi-millionaire businessman and British citizen.
Mann also mentioned Mark Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as one of his backers. Thatcher was arrested in South Africa in August 2004 and pleaded guilty to unwittingly helping to finance the foiled plot. He was fined more than half-a-million dollars.
At the time of his arrest, Simon Mann said he and his group were on their way to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to guard some mines. But during the Channel 4 interview, he said their real destination was Malabo the capital of Equatorial Guinea. He said had a coup been successful, Severo Moto, an Equatorial Guinean opposition leader in exile in Spain, was to take over as head of state. Spain is Equatorial Guinea's former colonial ruler.
In the interview, Mann said conditions in prison were good. But an Amnesty International report three years ago condemned the conditions in the prison where Mann is being held. Amnesty said there has not been another report since then. Channel 4 was not allowed to look at Mann's living quarters.
The Equatorial Guinea Embassy in London did not respond to VOA requests for an interview.
The country's attorney general told Channel 4 that the crimes Mann is charged with carry penalties that range from lengthy imprisonment to the death penalty. But he said the government has formally agreed to rule out the death penalty.