The Wonga Coup, by Adam Roberts

img_1101In March 2004 a group of mercenaries led by a former British officer, Simon Mann, attempted to undertake a coup in Equatorial Guinea, one of the nastiest dictatorships in Africa. Of course the motivation of Mann and his cronies was not in the least humanitarian, but rather a hope of getting their greedy hands on the country’s considerable oil wealth.

They had form as “soldiers of fortune”. Mann and co were behind Executive Outcomes, a mercenary operation that stiffened the Angolan army’s campaign against the UNITA rebels during that country’s civil war. Those escapades helped Mann become a millionaire.

However while Mann may have had some considerable tactical skills that could contribute to the winning of battles, his talents as an organiser of coups were much less impressive. The plan was bedevilled from the outset by difficulties with logistics and supply, not least of weapons. In the end the amateurishness of their efforts, particularly in the organisers’ inability to keep their plans secret, meant that the coup was easily rolled up by Zimbabwean, South African and Equatorial Guinean intelligence services before a shot was fired. Many of the plotters spent years in dreadful prisons in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea.

In addition to a forensic detailing of the twists and turns of the plot The Wonga Coup has a number of interesting revelations. For a start Mann’s plot wasn’t the first to threaten the Equatorial Guinea dictatorship. The novelist Fredrick Forsyth, it seems, had tried to organise the same thing in the 1970s to install as president his friend, Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, the former head of Nigeria’s Katanga secessionists. He failed, but the experience provided him with the detailed research for a novel, The Dogs of War.

The Wonga Coup also details the involvement in the coup of Mark Thatcher, repellant son of the vile former British Prime Minister. Thatcher comes across as just as unpleasant as you might imagine and the account of his downfall at the hands of the South African justice system and its anti-mercenary laws is probably the most deeply satisfying part of the book.

Overall The Wonga Coup is a carefully researched and elegantly written account of a bunch of wealthy, grasping thieves’ efforts to enrich themselves further, and brought down by the extent of their own overweening arrogance that rendered them capable of overlooking even their own incompetence.

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Jefferson, Hamilton and moral courage in the struggle against slavery.

Excerpt from a lecture to Gresham College, London, 23 Feb 2017

To this day political figures across the globe covet the title “the new Wilberforce”, in recognition of the towering role that he played in efforts to bring the trans-Atlantic slave trade to an end. This, perhaps, shouldn’t be too surprising. In any given age there are no shortage of people who feel that slavery is wrong.

But, as Batman teaches us, it is not what we feel, but what we do, that defines us. So, anyone who dips their toe into the slavery debate today with dreams of future glory should be aware, that if they lack the necessary moral and political courage, they may become merely “a new Jefferson” rather than a “new Wilberforce”.

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was one of the great geniuses of his age and a declared opponent of slavery. Some of his writings on the subject were described by contemporaries such as John Adams, the United States’ second president, as being more valuable than diamonds in the anti-slavery cause. And yet the vision of the American Republic that he offered was impossible without slavery, and as President he did nothing to end slavery save for a mealy mouthed assertion that it was a task for later generations.

That argument may have comforted him as he sat in his study on his Monticello plantation in Virginia overseeing his own enslaved children. But it was not an argument which impressed Jefferson’s contemporary Alexander Hamilton, who sought, as the United States’ first treasury secretary, to put his anti-slavery convictions into practice by establishing an economic system that would reward free labour over slavery in the hope that that would erode the slave economy and hence end the brutal system.

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Alexander Hamilton

While that did not directly bring an end to slavery in the United States the economic system Hamilton put in place did ultimately provide the North, under Lincoln, with the economic capacity to crush the South and obtain the legal abolition of slavery half a century after Hamilton’s own death: So if Lincoln is the Father of Emancipation in the United States, I would argue that Hamilton is its Grandfather.

And in spite of his incredible gifts Jefferson did not confront the fundamental systems and institutions of slavery when he had the most power to do so. And across the world we see that still.

It will perhaps be a matter for comment by some future historians that at this shameful period of European history some of the most vocal European leaders on the issue of slavery have been noticeably negative with regard to the formulation of an effective pan-European response to the refugee crisis.  It is the absence of this, more than anything else, which has contributed so much to increasing the risks of human trafficking to Europe from the wars of the Middle East. Furthermore the xenophobia and prejudice that have been allowed to poison the political environment against migrants have further betrayed the struggle against slavery by increasing the opportunities for violence and exploitation.

It is a hard lesson of history, that when the moral courage of political leaders fails in the face of prejudice and vested interests, it is almost always the vulnerable who are the ones to pay in the bloody routine of violence that ensues. And, as was true in the days of Jefferson, it is not rhetoric but moral courage that defines leadership and shapes the history of the times.

‘The Irish Abroad’ – how does Ireland ensure that Irish companies respect human rights when operating overseas?

Business & Human Rights in Ireland

One of the recurring issues that has come up on the blog has been the extent to which Ireland acts to ensure that Irish companies are not complicit in human rights violations when operating abroad (see here, here and here). How companies that are connected with such violations might be liable to litigation in Ireland will be considered at a forthcoming conference at NUI Galway organised by the Irish Centre for Human Rights. In advance of the conference, I intend to run a series of posts highlighting some current examples of where it is claimed that Irish companies are involved in rights violations overseas.

The situation in Western Sahara and the activities of an Irish oil company have previously been mentioned here, and last week in the Dáil, Maureen Sullivan raised the issue again with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan. He was asked to explain…

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Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics, by Tim Marshall

Recently I was at a meeting with a pro-Brexit member of the British parliament who, six months after the referendum on Britain’s future in Europe, still did not understand the difference between the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. Not everyone has to know that of course. But when the person in question is taking decisions that they promise will lead to a better tomorrow, one does expect them to have a firm grasp of the basic facts of today.

Prisoners of Geography is about some of those key and immutable facts. It is about the imperatives that are imposed upon political leaders by the geography within which they find their countries and how they feel compelled to respond.

For example Russia needs a warm water port for its navy. This allows it to project its military power across the oceans and be recognised as a world power. So, when Ukraine displayed a desire to move towards the European Union and Nato it did what it felt was necessary and reclaimed the Crimea and with that Sevastopol, the only warm water port available to it.

Similarly the historical Russian habit of extending its empire into Eastern Europe as far as the borders of Germany is explained by the vulnerability of Moscow to attack from the West across the Northern European Plain. Occupying Poland where the plain is at its narrowest, as it has frequently done, therefore increases Russia’s security from attack.

Another area of potential risk is the artic where Russia’s wish to control the energy sources there could put it on course for a clash with Nato.

Reading this book in the aftermath of 2016 US presidential election was a sobering experience. Marshall reminds us that the United States has a treaty with Taiwan which requires it to go to war if Taiwan is invaded. Something that would spark an invasion by China would be formal recognition by the US of Taiwan as an independent country. Fortunately “there is no sign of that”. Or at least there wasn’t until the US’s gerrymandered electoral system put a narcissist with a disinterest in facts and a xenophobia about China into the Oval Office.

Prisoners of Geography is illuminating not just on these contemporary geopolitical issues, but also on a range of developmental issues: why have Africa and South America developed, or failed to develop, as they have; how geography shaped European history and why the peace the continent has experienced over the past 70 years is not inevitable but the result of conscious political choice in the shape of the European Union. It also throws light on contemporary conflicts in the Middle East, between India and Pakistan, and in the Korean Peninsula.

I was mildly disappointed that there was no chapter on the geopolitics of Britain and Ireland, particularly as Brexit threatens to dangerously reshape the relations between the two islands once again. But, as Brexit also shows, as so much of the UK population and political class is utterly disinterested in reality at this moment in history perhaps there is no point.

Prisoners of Geography is a lucidly written and compelling book. It reminds us why the world is still a dangerous place. It is more dangerous still when power is put into the hands of the intellectually lazy, utterly disinterested in the facts.

La La Land

Seb is a struggling musician… and a bit of a jerk. Mia is an aspiring actress who looks exactly like Emma Stone and is just as lovely. After a couple of inauspicious encounters they finally get to know each other and fall in love. Each encourages the other to pursue their dreams. But unfortunately the very pursuit of those dreams threatens to tear them apart.

The story may be slight, but the way La La Land tells it is nothing short of exquisite. It revives the Hollywood musical format in a way not seen in decades – particularly if one overlooks, as one should, the execrable movie version of Chicago. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are as lovely a central couple as have ever graced the silver screen. But there is something that seems grounded about their characters, almost ordinary, that makes them easy to relate to.

Like Singing in the Rain, La La Land is a movie about the makers of art. But there is something perhaps more universal to it. As well as the enormous joie de vivre of the film’s comedic exchanges and its glorious song and dance the movie takes seriously Beckett’s admonition: “Ever try? Ever fail? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I am generally not one for musicals, but I left the cinema wondering if La La Land had just stolen a place in my all time movie top 10. It is a lovely tonic in these bleak times, celebrating art and artists just as the storm clouds gather again on Europe and the United States. Just like the Women’s Marches across the world in the aftermath of Trump’s inauguration, La La Land reminds us of the importance of getting up after getting knocked down. It is perhaps the perfect movie for our times.

The Black House, by Peter May

A man is found murdered on Lewis, in the Scottish islands. The modus operandi of the killer is similar to that of a case that Fin McLeod, a Lewis native now a Detective Inspector, is investigating in Edinburgh. So Fin is sent North, returning home for the first time in 18 years, to see if he can be of any assistance to the police team investigating the Lewis case. What he finds reawakens a whole series of long suppressed memories. 

The Black House starts routinely (“There’s been a MURDER!”) enough as that classic trope: a police procedural with a flawed, troubled detective at its centre. But it quickly turns into something else. In significant part the book is about growing up, and a major portion of the book is told in the first person as Fin reminisces on his childhood, and the days leading up to his departure to university in Glasgow. This reminded me a lot of Seamus Deane’s sublime novel of childhood, family, politics and war in post-partition Derry, Reading in the Dark.   
Interspersed with this is the procedural part of the book, in the “present”, which is told in the third person. It is not at all clear until close to the end of the book just how these two parts relate to each other. But they ultimately merge very elegantly.

The Black House is the first part of a trilogy, and it is a hugely entertaining novel of life and crime, with a strikingly unusual setting in the Western Islands. I look forward to the rest of the series.

The Great Siege: Malta 1565, by Ernle Bradford

img_1080In 1564 the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, decided to try to put paid, once and for all, to the religious-fanaticism tinged piracy on Turkish shipping of the Knights of St John. To do this he aimed to capture their base on the island of Malta. By early summer 1565 he had put his plan in motion and managed to land a force of over 30,000 crack troops on the island to confront the ten thousand or so knights and men-at-arms under the command of the Order.

So began the first great siege of Malta, and it was an extraordinarily vicious and bloody affair.

Ernle Bradford (1922-86), the author, was a participant in the second great siege of Malta, during the Second World War, as a navigator on a Royal Navy destroyer. So he brings to this account of the battle a strong sense of what it means to wage war on this island.

Bradford is a generous and fair-minded chronicler of the battle, recognising the extraordinary courage of both Christian and Ottoman forces, and the extraordinary barbarism with which they fought each other. For example frequently the Ottomans would execute their prisoners by means of bastinado. Or, following the Turkish capture of one of the Knights’ forts, St Elmo, La Valletta, the Grand Master of the Knights, ordered the Ottoman positions to be bombarded with the heads of murdered Turkish prisoners of war. Such courage and barbarism had the same roots: a belief in the evil of their opponents and a conviction that death in the Holy War in which they fought was the noblest thing, and that it would lead to immediate transportation to paradise.

The outcome of the battle shaped decisively the course of European and Ottoman history. But more than that, the conduct of the battle remains vitally relevant. It gives an insight into the frightening violence that can emerge when human beings believe themselves in possession of so absolute a truth that it not only allows them, but requires them, to be the judge of others.