The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 29th, 2004

Africa, wonga and Scratcher: a morality tale for our times

Life, as has all too often been said, is much stranger than fiction. It beggars belief often and it often outdoes fiction writers, which is why they rarely make things up. From Tolstoy to Hanif Kureishi, they write about things and people they know, which is why friends and lovers get so angry.

You don’t need to make things up, least of all about Africa, which has always been so rich in extremes and absurdities. It was not comic genius in Evelyn Waugh to write his great novel Scoop about a bogus revolution in Africa; it was merely close and brilliant observation with only a light touch of the fantasist’s art.

So forget fiction. For sensational holiday reading over the long weekend you need look no further than last week’s newspaper accounts of The Coup That Wasn’t in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Even Waugh would have hesitated to over-egg the pudding of this story quite as much as the most respectable newspapers did, hampered though they are by the laws of libel.

I don’t know which part of this story is most implausible. It is high classical tragedy, it is Monty Python, it is pantomime, pathos and bathos all horribly entangled, with a dazzling cast. We have Simon Mann, an Old Etonian mercenary and former SAS officer who smuggled a message from a filthy Zimbabwean jail demanding a “large splodge of wonga” from Scratcher and Smelly and others to get him out.

Both Smelly and Scratcher (and others) have an awful lot of wonga, as it appears to be called in this cautionary tale, although it is not an African word but a Romany term meaning moolah, dosh or loot. However, Mann did not get out, whatever anybody may have done for him; on Friday he was found guilty in a Zimbabwean court of attempting to buy arms for an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea, an exceptionally wretched country with huge oil reserves.

Scratcher turned out to be Sir Mark Thatcher, wayward son of the legendary Margaret, a man who left Harrow with only a couple of O-levels and who has a title only because his mother asked the Queen not for a peerage for herself, but for a hereditary baronetcy for her husband, thus ensuring the elevation some day of her dearly beloved son to a distinction that she must know he little deserves, unless getting rich mysteriously quick entitles you to a title these days, which perhaps it does.

He is now said to be extremely rich and lives — although currently under house arrest and the threat of extradition — in great luxury in a millionaires’ ghetto in South Africa. Curiously enough — so small is this weird world — none other than the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea is Scratcher’s neighbour in this same ghetto.

Smelly turns out to be Ely Calil, a friend of Scratcher as well as of Mann; he is an extremely rich and reclusive Lebanese entrepreneur and oil trader living in serious splendour in Chelsea, who once had a spot of bother in the massive French Elf oil scandal but emerged without any charges against him. No self-respecting story teller would dare to use the names Scratcher and Smelly. The connotations are too obvious for fiction — Scratcher for you-scratch-my-back and Smelly for stinking rich. Scratch and sniff but don’t scratch too deep.

Serious splodges of wonga would be needed for a coup, obviously; you would need mercenaries and guns and ammo and helicopters and mosquito spray and cash for bribes, presumably, and no doubt all the expensive kit that poor William Boot in Scoop had to buy from the top London tropical outfitters.

Of course, I have no idea whether a coup was really being planned or, if so, who was involved. This is a story bristling with “allegedly” and “reportedly” and assumptions of guilt by association. And the verdict of a Zimbabwean court hardly seems to cast much light on the matter one way or another.

But there is allegedly a “wonga list”, compiled by a young Englishman (now helping the South African police with their inquiries), of rich people prepared to finance the alleged coup in exchange for rich pickings in an Equatorial Guinea under new management.

Smelly and Scratcher have firmly denied any involvement in any such thing. Meanwhile, the perjured peer and ex-con Lord Archer — he of the “fragrant” wife — has cropped up in the story like a minor character from one of his own novels. We also have doughty Carol Thatcher, twin of Sir Mark, distraught about her mother’s anguish and declaring that she doesn’t think much of Africa or of her brother.

Then there are two wicked African rulers, Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Obiang of Equatorial Guinea; it is hard to guess which is worse but it might be Obiang, who is alleged to eat the testicles of his enemies (when dead) to enhance his virility. Medically that would be unwise; he may perhaps be unaware that cannibalism is known to lead to kuru, a nasty disease rather like bovine spongiform encephalitis.

Then we have the playing fields of Eton and of Harrow, we have the oil fields of the equator and we have a supporting cast of fantasists, chancers and wrong ’uns out of Oxford, out of Africa, out of the Middle East, in a web of unedifying complexity. Underlying all this is torture, starvation and kleptocracy, and the white man grabbing greedily and stupidly at Africa yet again. Allegedly.

I keep wondering rather guiltily why I am enjoying the whole thing so much (and I am assuming that most other people share my low tastes). It would be nice to be too high-minded for schadenfreude.

In extreme cases like this, when reality seems so exceptionally sensational and fantastical, the news takes over from religion and from film and fiction in providing morality tales. However jaded we imagine we are, most of us still long for morality tales.

Most people love spy thrillers and gangster movies because they are about good and evil and how to be and how to measure oneself. And there are some simple morals in this complex tale that can make us all feel rather better about our much less exotic, less enterprising lives.

For instance, and in no particular order, it is not only wrong but also stupid to interfere with Africa for any reason; the risks are too horrible. Equally, there is little outsiders can do for Africa, however good their intentions. The only thing that the West could do is to stop providing safe places for kleptocrats to hide their stolen money.

There are not many ways of getting seriously rich that are entirely honourable. The most virtuous of mothers can be putty in the hands of the least virtuous of sons. Women often prefer their less deserving sons to their more deserving daughters. That makes perfect sense in terms of evolutionary biology and such mothers are driven not by their judgment but by their genes.

Being extremely rich seems to make you more, not less, hungry for money. Gated communities are bad for people. Watch out for people who talk in mannered class-driven slang. Greedy and amoral people are often surprisingly brave; courage can be value-free. And moral lessons are much more interesting when demonstrated in the university of life than in the closed academies of fiction.