August 25th, 2009
Once Upon a Coup
Filmmaker Notes

No film turns out as you expect it to.

Early in 2009, on a preliminary visit to the palace of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the rather engaging President of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, I felt I knew exactly how it would go.  Obiang and his advisors would repeat on camera the astonishing claims they were making off camera about the involvement of foreign powers in the oil coup of 2004.  We would track the perpetrators from Madrid to Washington.  On the no-smoke-without-fire-principle, there might be truth to Obiang’s claims.  If there was, we’d find it.  The President agreed we could come back with a crew in several weeks to start the process.  On a first meeting he seemed an intelligent, charismatic man with a story worth following up.  In my mind, he would be the star of the show.

If it didn’t turn out that way, it sure wasn’t our fault.

Lots of stories begin with arriving in places that are like nowhere else. Malabo Airport in Equatorial Guinea really is like nowhere else. Standing in line at immigration, I and other arriving passengers eye a group of what appear to be French gendarmes, white men in quasi-Pink Panther uniforms, who are restraining large dogs. Barking penetrates the silent terminal. Beyond the gendarmes are ruined airplanes, not unusual in Africa except for an Antonov that was to be used in the coup attempt and a couple of newish-looking executive jets, stained and corroded in the tropical air. Are they like the Saudi Bentleys of legend, discarded because they ran out of gas? In the arrivals hall, the luggage carts have been chained together and the key lost. Luckily, local lads – possibly related to airport officials – are taking advantage of this unhappy situation. Passengers hand over dollars, pounds and yen. There is no place to change money at the airport and Equatorial Guinea is a cash-only economy. No credit cards, no ATMs.

The President has kindly provided an official Mercedes for the trip into town. Forget the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower; the landmarks here are different. One is the airport road itself, now a magnificent highway. Beside the road, the previous President used to crucify his enemies. Arriving diplomats would pass bodies dangling from stakes.

But that was the past. Today’s Equatorial Guinea does not, on Day One, strike me as a particularly grim or fearful place. I am more afraid of the Malabo Sofitel. My small room, with its non-functioning light bulbs and empty shampoo bottle, costs $500 a night. Cash. This is plainly Big Oil territory, the preserve of men who fly in from Houston on private jets. Men with briefcases full of $100 bills. Why are credit cards not used in Equatorial Guinea? Because the President forbids them, a check-in person tells me shyly. Why? There are security issues. What? She cannot say.

Next to the Sofitel is Malabo Cathedral, whose hauntingly beautiful music – Africa meets Spanish Catholicism – stops you in your tracks. Next to the cathedral is one of Obiang’s palaces, painted a startling shade of tropical terracotta. The Sofitel seems an extension of the palace. Air France crews mingle with Armenian entrepreneurs and earnest men from the government, talking sotto-voce in the bar. The country is all about deals. There are new roads and harbors. Huge construction contracts are on offer. Corrupt it may be, but it seems nothing like the murderous backwater described by journalists before me. But then I am in the Sofitel, not the slums.

The following night, with the President’s charming lawyer Henry, an Englishman who practices in Paris, I walk down Malabo’s main drag to a pizza restaurant favored by foreigners. We pass a small tank with its gun pointing out to sea, presumably to deter further coup attempts. The street is empty. A few children come out of the darkness to politely ask for money.  In Lagos or Nairobi we’d be dead by now. The only other third world city I’ve walked at night in near-total safety is Havana.

Obiang isn’t in Malabo, we discover. He’s at his other palace at Bata on the mainland. We fly to meet him. He rarely talks to the Western press so it has taken all Henry’s charm and persistence to get us an appointment. Bata is a city in waiting. Our hotel – newly built by the omnipresent Chinese – is full of men who need just half an hour with the President. In the restaurant, the same faces appear at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some, I’m told, have been here for weeks. They stare at Russian paperbacks or leaf through draft contracts. From time to time the tension explodes. An angry beer-bellied Ukrainian storms into the elevator followed by a young African girl in emerald leggings. Everyone wants to pitch, persuade or ask forgiveness. Obiang makes all the decisions, even trivial ones. As you learn fast in Equatorial Guinea, it’s pointless talking to anyone else.

A palace car arrives to pick us up. There is a brief crisis. Henry has lost his shirts, last seen in Malabo. He finds one that is slightly presentable.

The palace lies at the end of a long driveway, behind high walls patrolled by soldiers in green fatigues. Its architecture reminds me faintly of EPCOT in Disney World. Tomorrowland in Africa. Inside, a Moroccan guard ushers us towards an airport metal detector. Obiang has long used Moroccan guards. Presumably he can’t entirely rely on his army, which reflects divisions within the ruling clan. In the waiting room are friendly Ghanaians, a glum Ukrainian and a man with a black armband. We glance at each other, trying to figure out who counts – who will be whisked in to see the President and who will wait. The man with the armband sits in silence while everyone else is called. He is still there when we leave.

On our way to the President’s office I am reproved by a guard for not buttoning up the top two buttons of my new Harrods suit. We enter a dark, tasteful room.  The Head of State appears receptive, charming even. Claims by an exiled opponent that the urbane man sitting before us is a cannibal who “devoured” his own police commissioner seem absurd.

I outline our plans. Henry translates. I had been afraid Obiang would be bored with the coup but far from it. He chats animatedly about what happened – about the country’s troubled relationship with its former colonial master, about how elements In Spain backed the plotters and why George Bush reluctantly approved the coup.

How does Obiang know? Because, his counselor says, as a young man he trained with Spanish officers at a military academy in Spain. They subsequently rose to high positions in the Spanish military and diplomatic service and from time to time pass information to their old classmate.

Henry and I leave with a firm commitment from Obiang to discuss the coup and what lay behind it on camera, to grant us visas to return within several weeks, and to allow us to interview Simon Mann, the British mercenary currently serving a 34-year prison sentence for leading the coup attempt. I am delighted and slightly surprised. Clearly intelligent, Obiang has seemed by no means the monstrous figure his enemies claim. On the basis of today’s meeting I expect our shoot to begin in Equatorial Guinea, with Obiang re-stating on camera his claims of Western complicity. Then in Madrid, Washington and South Africa we will follow them up.

Back at the hotel, Henry finds his shirts have reappeared. The mainland has a tradition of magic so their mysterious teleportation from Malabo doesn’t faze us. The meeting has gone so well we don’t even mind when the plane that was supposed to take us back to Malabo gets stranded in Cameroon. At the airport one of the President’s men roars up, hauls us aboard a pick-up and drives us at high speed through the moonless African night to the runway. There, a military transport plane is waiting, ringed by SUVs. Passengers are stumbling up and down its ramp, lit by car headlights. A wild-looking Russian with a shock of blonde hair is taking names. “I hope he’s not our pilot” Henry says. He is. It appears that African women are being offloaded so we can travel. There are metal benches either side of the plane. Luggage is piled up in the middle, not tied down. United Airlines it isn’t. A stowaway is found and removed. Apart from us the only other passengers are jolly Ukrainian helicopter pilots. As we take off one of them runs around the cabin, arms outstretched, making vroom-vroom noises.

We fly low over the Gulf of Guinea. Everyone seems to be on the phone. Henry takes calls from his foreign clients. We lurch into Malabo where the Ukrainians disappear into the night. Dragging our cases, we stumble blindly across what seems to be the active runway. We have no idea how to get to the terminal but we don’t mind. It’s fun.

I don’t know it yet, but this is the high spot of the making of Once Upon a Coup.

Back in Malabo, after Henry’s return to Paris, I’m taken to see new housing for slum dwellers. There are neat rows of Chinese-built homes. Are the tenants really from the slums? Strangely, some have an SUV parked outside. I move out of the Sofitel, dismiss the Mercedes and take local taxis, in the hope of getting a clearer sense of the place. I assume I’m being followed. The slums are nowhere near as bad as those of Nairobi or other third world megacities. But perhaps that is not the point.

In London we book a film crew, expecting to return almost immediately. The country’s ambassador is courtesy itself but can’t issue visas without a request from Malabo. No such request is received. Henry does his best to rescue the situation. He calls the official appointed by Obiang to look after us who says there’s no problem.

Evidently there is a problem. With the days turning into weeks, we have to do something. I and senior associate producer Michael Chrisman decide to go to South Africa to pursue the mercenaries, which we’d planned to do much later. With no preparation, the trip begins disastrously. South Africa’s soldiers of fortune are affable but don’t want new wives or business partners to know of their part in an abortive coup. We have titillating meetings with intelligence people who tell us great stories but won’t be filmed. One day Jacob Zuma, the newly-elected President of South Africa, gives a press conference at our hotel. The international press is here in force, bristling with dynamism and purpose. We watch them from the lobby. We have nothing to do and nowhere to go. Not a soul will talk to us. The crew and equipment are costing a fortune. I’ve never had such a miserable filming experience. We’re doing this entirely the wrong way round.

We decide that Michael should continue chasing coup plotters while I drive eight hours to Pomfret on the edge of the Kalahari desert. Pomfret is an abandoned military base where black soldiers who once served the apartheid government were put out to grass. Today, it’s a recruiting ground for mercenaries.

To save money, I will do the filming myself. On the way north, the new South Africa does not seem that new. We eat at a fast-food joint where all-white servers sing a faux-African version of Happy Birthday. The only black in sight is an elderly man in the street who wants our biscuits.

A few hundred miles later, we confess to BBC Health and Safety that Pomfret is built on an old asbestos mine. Initially the BBC wants us to turn back. That night I stand in the desert talking to a man in London who speculates about my lifespan should I ingest a speck of asbestos dust. Shooting without a crew seems fun until, in a church, I’m attacked by an elder who snatches my camera and throws it against the rocks outside. Hearing rumors that there is plan to seize our vehicle and get rid of us, we beat a hasty retreat.

Back in London things are not much better. The visas have still not materialized. I text and e mail Henry so often I worry he’ll get sick of me. If he is, he doesn’t show it. Obiang has no more loyal or faithful advocate. He transmits our pleas to Malabo. WNET’s deadline is getting nearer. We have no idea why the visas are taking so long. Does someone, somewhere want a bribe? Are we being blind or just stupid? Regardless, we have to keep shooting. We have to make sure we can fill fifty minutes of airtime even if Equatorial Guinea doesn’t allow us back.

Our researchers in Spain can do nothing without hard information to follow up. Nor can we explore the financial sinews of the coup without documents connecting Simon Mann with his backers. We opt to go to the States to film interviews. There is nothing else we can do.

Achieving balance is not easy. In this context, what does balance mean? I found Obiang interesting and approachable but I’m a novice. Few respected foreign experts have a good word to say for him. The only positive voice we can find remains that of Johann Smith, filmed in South Africa. Even getting him to talk had been a struggle. Of recent international visitors, Manfred Nowak of the United Nations is particularly harsh, claiming his life was threatened during a UN torture investigation late last year.

By now our visa problems are changing the shape of the project. The film was never meant to be a foreign view of Equatorial Guinea, positive or negative; it was meant to be the story of a coup and the countries that may have promoted it.

Suddenly, just as we finish shooting and are about to start editing, the visas arrive. We return to Malabo in some confusion. At the airport not much has changed. The gendarmes are still here. The dogs are still here. The luggage carts are still locked. The key still hasn’t been found.

The President is celebrating his birthday. The only reliable way to know what he’s going to do next is to follow his noisy motorcade. Visually at least, fabulous opportunities present themselves. The President in his new city, Malabo II, opening Chinese-made buildings. The President at mass. The President receiving birthday gifts like an ornate walking stick and a pair of prancing silver leopards. No other TV crew has had a chance like this.

In his baseball cap, Obiang seems every inch the 21st century politician, at ease with himself and the crowd, speaking fluently without notes, looking younger than the 67 years he admits to.  By contrast we are ageing fast. We have 26 cases of camera equipment and the heat is unbearable.

Taking refuge in an air-conditioned building where a reception is being held in the President’s honor, we learn the Evian has run out. The only liquid left is whisky. After several glasses I feel even better disposed to Obiang. I talk to a man who describes himself as his banker. Look, he says, it’s not Sweden or the Netherlands here. Perhaps it should be. But you have to compare the President with the other old men of Africa. What did President Bongo do for Gabon, just down the coast of West Africa? Very little, in several decades. Sure, you can say not enough oil revenue has been spent on development, but now at last things are changing.

Henry’s efforts to get a date for the interview finally pay off. It will be on Obiang’s actual birthday, sandwiched between a marathon run and his afternoon engagements. It swiftly becomes apparent that it will be not so much an interview as a press opportunity.  Our plans for a long session with the President have been mangled by officialdom. Soon an official tells us our time is up. We have barely begun our questions about the coup.

We are however given all the time we need with Simon Mann. Finally the government is being genuinely helpful. We seem to be able to go more or less where we want. Maybe they just didn’t understand we had a budget and a deadline. But we’re out of time and money, and the main prize – a long Presidential interview – has eluded us.

The mystery is why Equatorial Guinean officials, given a unique opportunity to answer their critics and show how things are changing, with exposure either side of the Atlantic and the clear commitment of the President, did not cooperate earlier. We went there with no pre-conceived agenda. Our initial focus was not human rights but the possible complicity of Western government in the coup attempt. We were ready to follow up what Obiang had to say about Spain and the U.S. with all the resources available to us. It was inept of officials to keep us waiting so long, then to schedule an interview with the President on a day when he had no time. In the end we put together a balanced film that covers most of the big issues and provides a unique glimpse of a land that few journalists see. In the longer, international version of the film there will be more detail and an interview with a justice official about the Simon Mann case. But Equatorial Guinea would have done much better to put its President center stage. Had we been allowed to do what Obiang himself offered at the beginning, this would have been a different film – with more of the President, less of his foreign critics.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2023 WNET.ORG Properties LLC. All rights reserved.