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Wide Angle: Once Upon a Coup

Once Upon a Coup submits that the West interfered and even orchestrated the near-coup in Equatorial Guinea and backed off without much forethought or planning.

Wide Angle: Once Upon a Coup

Airtime: Wednesday, 10pm ET
Cast: Kevin Silverstein, Ed Soyster, Johann Smith, Simon Mann, Tiodoro Obiang
Network: PBS
Air date: 2009-08-26

The very title of Once Upon a Coup indicates its thematic focus and formal structure. This episode of Wide Angle tells the seemingly fantastic story of an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny nation on Africa's West Coast, wedged between Gabon and Cameroon, "the world's newest, least understood oil state." As the opening images alternate between military jeeps and smiling children, urban streets and village roads, the film suggests that the "mystery" of Equatorial Guinea has to do with competing ideas and interests.

Each of these is illustrated in fairly standard fashion -- a voice-over and talking heads provide information concerning dates, events, and players, while images provide specific illustrations, metaphorical and literal. So, when former U.S. Ambassador John Bennett describes the torture practiced by the government of Equatorial Guinea, his earnest interview, perfectly shadowed and composed, is followed by a photo of a human foot, swollen and discolored, evidence of his account. And when the film recounts the "spectacle" made of the trial of former president Francisco Macías Nguema (during which he was "hung from a ceiling in a cage"), former South African Military Attache Johann Smith adds that he was "perceived to be a witch doctor" and claimed to been powered by the "magic skull" of an ancestor.

When this skull is passed on to his successor, current President Teodoro Obiang, the show implies, he is also strange and scary, his power based on a mix of traditional beliefs and fears, military maneuvering, and high-stakes deal-making with other nations of the world. (His son, deemed a "wild card," is said to have "dated a rap star who left him because she thought his father was a cannibal.") Following 9/11, Once Upon a Coup reports, Equatorial Guinea became the West's new object of desire, the combination of its "untold amounts of oil and gas" (with production dramatically increased since 1997) and its supposedly West-friendly status as a "non-OPEC, non-Islamic" government.

This appeal, so apparently urgent, leads directly to the fantastic tale of the almost-coup, a tale that includes a range of participants, from South African and American mercenaries to financiers Eli Khalil and Mark Thatcher (son of Margaret) to tacit or maybe not so tacit finagling by the U.S. The show doesn’t so much sort out or investigate this tangle of players as it does lay out an array of possibilities, represented in shots of planes in menacing silhouette, footage of bloody mercenary activities in Sierra Leone, and perp walks by Thatcher and Simon Mann, an American mercenary sentenced to 34 years in a South African prison for his participation in the almost-coup.

Such conventional narrative and visual configuration leaves details fuzzy and raises the drama. The logistics seem obvious and familiar. An interview with Obiang reveals that he has his own ideas about his relations with the West, namely, that he is wrongly accused of "corruption." "One talks about misappropriation of money, money laundering," he says, "But I know there are a lot of problems in Europe and all the problems that are highlighted today, like corruption. The word itself comes from Europe. It is a word unknown in Africa. The Westerners come here with ideas of corruption in order to accuse Africans."

The show submits that this is the case -- that the West interfered and even orchestrated the near-coup and backed off without much planning on any side of it. With the involvement of Executive Outcomes (most famously part of military misadventures in Angola and Sierra Leone) as well as the Americans' known hope for "regime change," Equatorial Guinea is here presented as both an object and subject, a goal and a means. "It sounds like a novel," says host Aaron Brown early in the show, and in the end it still does.


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