In the shadow
September 30, 2004 | More from Don Murray
Don Murray is one of the most prolific of the CBC's foreign correspondents, filing hundreds of reports - in French and English - from China, Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. He is currently based in London as the senior European correspondent for CBC Television News.
During his 30 years with CBC, Murray has covered a multitude of major stories, including the advent of perestroika and glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wrote A Democracy of Despots, a book documenting that collapse and the rebirth of Russia. While in Berlin, he covered the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia and, in London, covered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. He authored Family Wars, a major feature article for the International Journal paralleling the troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Bosnia. In recent years he has covered the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Being the son of a powerful political leader is not easy. Ask Oedipus.
His father, Laius, was the king of Thebes. He had a weakness for soothsayers. He wasn't, on the evidence, overly fond of children, particularly his own.
Having been told by a soothsayer that he would be killed by his son, who was then a baby, he ordered that the boy be taken and killed. He wasn't; a shepherd saved him. He grew up and, at the spot where three roads meet, he got into a fight with an unknown man and killed him. The man was his father. The rest is Oedipus Rex, one of the great tragedies of theatrical history.
There is less tragedy, but considerable irony, in today's stories of star-crossed sons.
Consider, first, "Scratcher." He's now under house arrest in South Africa, facing questioning and possible extradition. The charge? Helping to underwrite a failed mercenary coup d'état in Africa.
And there's the plight of Jean-Christophe. He's been languishing without a passport since 2000. And in September he had to face a court on charges of tax evasion. His alleged crime? Not declaring his revenue from commissions on secret arms sales to one of the combatant sides in the long-running civil war in Angola.
Scratcher is Mark Thatcher pardon me, Sir Mark Thatcher the son of Margaret Thatcher, Britain's "Iron Lady" and prime minister in the 1980s. Sir Mark owes his title not to any contribution of his own but to the ennobling of his mother. She became Baroness Thatcher after stepping down as the country's leader, and her husband became Sir Denis. The title is hereditary; when Denis died, the Sir passed to the son.
Jean-Christophe has no title. He lives in republican France. He is the son of the former president, François Mitterand.
Both men have struggled in the shadow of their powerful parents. Scratcher Thatcher also struggled academically. He had mediocre school grades and failed his accountancy exams three times. His confidence, however, was unbridled. He once said he was responsible to only three people: his mother, himself and God.
It's not clear what role God played in his career. His mother, or rather her position, played a key one. While she was prime minister, Scratcher earned enticing sums as a "middleman" on contracts negotiated with countries in the Middle East.
There was more than a whiff of scandal about these deals because they involved the British government. Some of them were large arms deals. Critics accused Mark of trading on his name. Mother dismissed all questions, saying she was "batting for Britain." Scratcher just took the money, rumoured to be more than $25 million, and moved on to the United States.
There he found a wife in Texas, described by her father as "just a millionairess." Prospects seemed excellent. But several business ventures flopped. American tax collectors began hovering. Scratcher left for South Africa.
There he met up with Simon Mann, a well-known mercenary. Mann now languishes in a prison in Zimbabwe. He was arrested there several months ago along with 67 colleagues on a plane that landed to refuel. The Zimbabwe authorities impounded the plane and arrested its passengers, saying their intent was to fly to Equatorial Guinea to stage a coup against its dictatorial president, Teodoro Obiang. They were all convicted. The colleagues were given relatively short sentences, Mann got seven years.
During his interrogation he apparently named Scratcher as one of the financial backers of this adventure. Scratcher, in turn, was arrested by South African authorities just as he and his wife and children were preparing to leave the country for the United States. The family did indeed leave; Scratcher was left in a cell. Once again Mother intervened, this time to bail him out.
He still faces extradition hearings. Equatorial Guinea wants to try him.
Why are these people interested in this small country? In a word: oil. It is one of the biggest producers in Africa, "the new Kuwait" according to one British expert. Rumours swirl that the aborted coup had the implicit backing of elements in the American and British governments. Both countries have major interests in Equatorial Guinea and both know how much its president has been stashing in offshore accounts.
Now Scratcher awaits his legal fate. Hearings are underway to determine whether he should be extradited to Equatorial Guinea. The faint ray of good news is that he probably won't be extradited. Equatorial Guinea executes people for plotting coups and South Africa doesn't approve of this.
Jean-Christophe also has a nickname: Papamadi. This recalls his heyday and his verbal calling card: Papa m'a dit, or Papa told me. Papa in those days was president of France and Jean-Christophe was taken on as one of his advisers. He worked in the so-called "cellule africaine" or African Department at the Élysée Palace. He later became its head.
There he gravitated towards other sons of powerful men. "There is not one African dictator's son whom Jean-Christophe was not permanently in contact with," one French expert said. He was particularly friendly to the offspring of the dictators of what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and of Gabon. The first country is mineral-rich, the second oil-rich.
Papamadi had to leave his job several years before his father left his. There was a minor matter of the disappearance of $50 million that had been intended as a guarantee for the storage of cacao in the Ivory Coast.
Young Mitterand was still able to capitalize on his contacts. He moved into the illegal arms trade. That, at least, is what French prosecutors alleged when they charged him in 2000. They also charged him with tax evasion for not declaring sums totalling $2.5 million held in a Swiss bank, sums which the French authorities said were paid for arms dealing. Papamadi said he was only paid for consulting services in Angola. He did admit he had not declared the income to the French tax authorities.
He feels beleaguered: "Even my bank is after me today. I cannot repay my loans. No one wants to work with me now and I can understand that."
Oedipus would understand.