- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

LONDON — If it weren’t all so deadly serious, one could dismiss the acres of press coverage on Mark Thatcher’s arrest in South Africa on coup plot charges last week as merely a product of the annual news-starved “silly season” in the British press at the end of summer. But British diplomats are becoming increasingly worried that the strange development could derail Britain’s Africa policy.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government has made the African continent a priority for moral reasons as well as for economic and global security.

Mr. Blair is trying to make his mark on history — after messy interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan — by pulling Africa out of destitution and misery.

He has set up an Africa Commission ahead of his country’s presidency of the Group of Eight nations next year. Then, when Britain also holds the six-month presidency of the European Union, he intends to ensure that the bloc adopts a unified strategy for its former colonies in Africa.

British officials are well-aware, however, that any African perception that Britain is trying to “reimpose” itself on the continent is likely to backfire. They are worried that the arrest of 69 mercenaries in Harare on their way from South Africa to Equatorial Guinea is playing strongly into the hands of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

A poll, overseen by the Institute of Democracy in South Africa, reported last week that 46 percent of Zimbabweans say they trust Mr. Mugabe, up from 19 percent in 1999, and that a majority of those surveyed no longer see democracy as their best form of government.

“Apparently, ZANU-PF is succeeding in shoring up its base with propaganda about the liberation war and land seizures, while painting the opposition as a foreign-backed force,” said the institute’s report. The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front is Mr. Mugabe’s ruling party.

In Sudan, which British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visited last month, tentative plans to send a brigade of 5,000 British troops to help end months of killing and hunger in Darfur had to be shelved in favor of encouragement for a stabilization force of mostly West African troops.

The British effort endures, however.

Quietly but significantly, 150 Royal Marine reconnaissance commandos began arriving with their helicopters and boats in Ghana during the weekend for a training exercise that could help release some of the best Ghanaian troops for operations in Sudan.

The press focus back in Britain, however, is on Mr. Thatcher, his mother, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and others who are of interest to South African police in their London investigation.

The biggest name is novelist, former Conservative member of Parliament and convicted perjurer Jeffrey Archer, whose name appears to be on a newly famous “Wonga List” of purported financial contributors to the reputed coup plot.

Mr. Archer, who was released from prison a few months ago, has denied involvement, but “JH Archer” reportedly is the person who — four days before the coup attempt — deposited $134,000 into the bank account of purported coup leader Simon Mann, a former British Special Air Service officer under arrest in Zimbabwe.

It looks worse for Mr. Thatcher, who reportedly met several times with one of the purported coup leaders, Nick du Toit, who was arrested. South African police say Mr. Thatcher invested about $300,000 in logistics for the coup plot, put his house up for sale for $3.25 million and was preparing to flee to the United States with his family when he was arrested. He faces the death penalty if extradited to Equatorial Guinea.

He appeared to have few friends in the British press on Friday. Scotland’s Daily Record called him a “waste of space,” and the mass circulation Sun tabloid said it was hard to feel sorry for him.

“Thatcher has been getting into trouble all his life — mostly brought about by his greed and arrogance,” said the paper’s editorial. “He has prospered by squeezing advantage from his famous name. He built a business career by trading on his No. 10 [Downing Street] connections. He embarrassed Maggie when she was Premier with his dealings in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.

“How must she be feeling today, aged 78 and plunged yet again into turmoil by her wayward son? So far, [Mark] Thatcher has survived all the scrapes. This time he may not be so lucky.”

There also was sympathy for Mrs. Thatcher — but not her son — from Charles Moore, her official biographer and former editor of the Daily Telegraph. He told BBC Radio: “If he has to spend her last years in a South African jail, her sense of sadness and loss will be immense. She is a fairly old and fairly frail lady, and she is also since last year a widow. One of the things that was helping her old age was the capacity to rest more and to stay with Mark in South Africa and to see her grandchildren.”

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