Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
July 12th, 2011
Once Upon a Coup

“A cracking good adventure yarn….
It’s wonderfully made – crisp, fast, thrilling from start to finish –
but it’s also thoughtful and thought provoking, in the spirit of the best documentaries….
Once Upon a Coup is as exciting as any Hollywood movie.”
–Canwest News Service

“A big and intriguing documentary”
–TV America

“Sounds like a John le Carré thriller, but is anchored in fact”
–Globe and Mail

A failed coup attempt…a British mercenary in a notorious African prison…a dictator suspicious of Western powers…and beneath it all, a spectacular underwater oil reserve that the world’s major powers would love to get their hands on.

It may sound like the latest John LeCarré bestseller, but in fact it’s the real-life intrigue of Once Upon a Coup, WIDE ANGLE’s penetrating look at the mysterious goings-on in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny West African nation newly rich with oil and infamous for corruption. The story begins in 2004, when a group of mercenaries, including a British ex-special forces officer named Simon Mann, is arrested in Zimbabwe. Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, accuses them of plotting a coup against him. When Mann is sentenced to 34 years in Equatorial Guinea’s notorious Black Beach prison, he claims to be only one piece of an international plot to control the country’s vast oil resources. Once Upon a Coup travels the globe to unravel that plot, which stretches from Africa to the U.K., from a prime minister’s son to Zimbabwean arms dealers, from South Africa to Spain.

But as this all plays out, another actor is bidding for a share of the oil: China. The Chinese government has showered the country with glittering new buildings and a new administrative capital. If President Obiang has grown skeptical of Western intentions, he has welcomed China as a new business partner. Starting with a small West African nation and stretching around the globe, Once Upon a Coup sheds light on the uncomfortable realities of oil politics in the 21st century.

  • Judy

    Amazing program, incredible that Obiang is still in power. The involvement of the Thatcher family is bizarre and fascinating. When will it be shown again? It was a little bewildering to follow!
    Thank you.

  • Mustafa

    Incredible piece! The inner workings of government dealings for the sake of economic interests are uncovered in this spy-like saga.

    Western governments, including the U.S., tacitly support dictators and corrupt governments while leaving the local population to their fate. It is time that multinationals and private para-military companies were made accountable for their actions overseas. When it comes to our foreign policy in the third world, geo-political interests alone should not be the compass for our goverment decisions. Though, the oil lobby is very powerful, our foreign policy experts should make sure they apply the same moral standard to poor nations as they do at home.
    Otherwise, we will give amunition to our ennemies who claim that greed is the only motivation of the neo-colonialist empire.

    Not enough can be said about African leaders.
    Africa rise up!

  • KB

    I can’t believe how naive I am since everytime I watch shows like this, it just seems so hard to believe that THIS is really how the world works. So much wealth! I’ve been to California where Obiang’s house is, I’ve been to the Spanish islands, and to know that this is what really happens there is unbelievable. The amount of wealth that we are talking about is extraordinary. I know the technology for solar panels, etc. is not evolved enough for total independence, but it really makes you wonder what more incentive a government needs to invest fully in this technology. Being forced to deal with the worst people in the world because we need what they have, while that can be a good thing to increase tolerance, in situations like these becomes a gross distortion of all that is good and evil in the world. Also, as other articles have pointed out, China’s “just give us your resources we don’t care that you torture your people – that’s your business” approach is gaining a lot of supporters and making America less competitive, which was interesting to see in this report as well. It greatly worries me. This is the one of the best shows on TV. Thank you. Keep bringing us fierce reporting and maybe our lazy ass coach potato culture will do something that matters.

  • dlb

    Brilliant journalism. Shined light on a previously unknown (to me) slice of global “politics” that is truly frightening, yet interesting and should be MUCH more widely known to the world. EXCELLENT! thank you.

  • MzDemocrat100

    This program was fascinating. I had never even heard of Equatorial Guinea and thought the only oil in Africa was in Nigeria. I beleive the USA should explore all possible avenues to become independant of foriegn oil. We owe this to our children and grandchildren.

  • Manisthemeasure

    Wow! I was actually born in this island and a child around the time Macias Nguema became the first indigenous president of a newly independent country. I still recall, vividly, the killing en masse that was the order of the day in the aftermath of his ascent to power, in the island’s only stadium. It was a spectacle; macabre as it was, but a spectacle, nonetheless. People were lined up in a stadium full of spectators, blindfolded. In a split second, and upon command, soldiers would open fire, leaving a litter of bodies on the field.
    The Spaniards could not leave soon enough. Businesses that had thrived for years under their care were broken into and whatever was not looted, was destroyed. It was a nightmare! One that started immediately after independence and, from this account, is still going on.
    Most of the despotic and authocratic regimes would probably not survive too long without the support they get from the so called developed nations who give them all the protection they need and provide them with means to syphon scarce resourses from a people that are barely surviving by the skin of their teeth.
    Most people in the west would really wince and shudder if they knew what their government did or have to do to provide them with the excesses they enjoy. Some of the cheap goods and abundance we enjoy in the west come to us at the expence of everything some of us hold dear.
    Africans should be held accountable for their destiny but the people who enable these pseudo leaders to subject their own people to such depravity should also be made to answer for their misdeeds.

  • Shaft

    Such a powerful story, thank you for making it available for viewing. By the way these and such stories are making Africans distrust the West no matter what the offer is.

  • Guy Ayers

    Great story- it has everything- a lot more entertaining than anything one could invent.

  • sovanna

    this is such a great program. are you going to investigate in Cambodia? Cambodia, Thai border.

  • jk

    please re-air this program. I see others re-shown but this had such a brief appearance.
    a bigger picture of size of various outside interests would be helpful – in particular the comparison of contracts to what 60 minutes first reported on of how a small u.s. oil exploration company got the leadership to sign away the field rights for a paltry 10% of the value extracted. that story concentrated on how much of the country’s national natural wealth is being squandered away and how most of the returns get put in the hands of the corrupt few in office rather than go to the citizens of the country. the arcane 10% cut is like thievery that hasn’t been so lopsided since bp got that type of deal from the pre- mossedegh era of iran.

  • Adrine’

    Great documentary this is a great program so powerful with lot of information it reminds me of my own country Iran.

  • Thomas Trappler

    When I was in the UCLA Screenwriting Program I wrote a screenplay about the situation in Equatorial Guinea. That screenplay won UCLA’s Best Screenplay of the Year award that year and got me my first agent at William Morris. If anyone is interested in more information about this screenplay, please feel free to contact me at

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 WNET.ORG Properties LLC. All rights reserved.