It has been eight months since a reported coup attempt in the small but oil rich West African nation of Equatorial Guinea. Many unanswered questions remain about who was behind it and the band of mercenaries now facing trial, as well as whether the alleged plot to oust President Teodoro Obiang had international support. Among those sought in the case is Mark Thatcher, the son of the former British Prime Minister. One of the alleged perpetrators met with a top Pentagon official just weeks before the failed plot, raising questions about whether the United States might have had advance knowledge of the coup attempt or ties to those allegedly involved.
He has been characterized as a well connected British businessman and a security expert on Africa. But the key question regarding Greg Wales is whether he tipped off the U.S. government about a coup attempt in March in Equatorial Guinea, an oil rich country in a region where the United States has growing strategic and economic interests.
Mr. Wales is named by the West African nation as one of the key operatives in the alleged tttempt by foreign mercenaries to overthrow President Obiang. The apparent plot was uncovered when more than 60 people were arrested in Zimbabwe after allegedly trying to smuggle weapons out of the country aboard a chartered plane believed destined for Equatorial Guinea, where newly-discovered oil has made members of the president's family very wealthy. The arrests came as criminal investigations were underway in the United States into huge deposits made by oil companies into personal accounts at Washington's Riggs Bank. The accounts were controlled by President Obiang and his family.
Greg Wales denies involvement in the coup attempt. But just a few days prior to it, he requested and received a meeting with Theresa Whelan, the Pentagon's top civilian in charge of African issues. Mr. Wales apparently knew something about events to come because Defense Department officials say he told her trouble might be brewing in Equatorial Guinea, and that wealthy citizens were working on getting out of the country. Just days later, the alleged coup plotters were arrested and the plot was foiled.
Pentagon officials strongly deny anyone in the Defense Department had prior knowledge of any coup plot, or that anything like it was discussed during Theresa Whelan's February meeting with Greg Wales. Still, Equatorial Guinea claims the plot had the backing of U.S., British and Spanish interests, something the governments in all three countries deny. But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has revealed his government did have advance knowledge about the alleged plot as early as January.
One Africa specialist who closely follows events in the tiny West African nation is Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. "The South Africans knew about it several weeks in advance. The Angolans also had found out about it, both informed the Equatorial Guinea authorities. And I have a feeling that western nations certainly were aware of things brewing. Even western oil companies in Equatorial Guinea, the night before the arrests, had told people to stay indoors and keep low. The real question that still has been completely unresolved is whether there was any insider links to this, from inside Equatorial Guinea. That I think we still have no answer about," he said.
Alleged conspirator Greg Wales has refused to respond to VOA requests for an interview. The government of Equatorial Guinea has ignored requests as well. But it claims Mr. Wales received 35-thousand dollars for his role in the alleged plot, which was expected to have netted him a portion of the country's oil revenue.
Alex Vines, who continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding the botched coup, believes much of the international community did, in fact, have advance knowledge. "That's why this coup attempt was always doomed to failure because everybody did know about it and in fact the impounding of the airplane at Harare international airport was a sting operation," he said.
For decades one of the world's poorest countries, newly-discovered oil reserves have brought Equatorial Guinea billions of dollars in revenue and American investment, making what had long been considered a backwater region suddenly important to the United States. "It's going to become hugely important to us from a security standpoint," he said.
Air Force General Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Africa, explains the advantage of importing oil from the Gulf of Guinea region rather than getting it from the Middle East. "You don't have to go through the Straits of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Gibraltar. You go right from there to the United States or Europe. Number two, it's sweet crude, it costs half the amount to refine, that's a good thing," he said. "And three, they've got a new technique there where you can pump the oil right into the ship that's sitting right in the Gulf (of Guinea)."
Vice President Dick Cheney has predicted West Africa will become one of the fastest growing sources of oil and gas for the American market. At the same time, the State Department has called the government of President Obiang, who has ruled the country for a quarter century, repressive, corrupt and dysfunctional, with a poor record on human rights.