The Seychelles lie on the major trade routes between Asia, Africa and Europe, and they have been of interest to all the major powers for decades. In an investigation by Martin Plaut, based on files accessed in the National Archive in the UK, he reveals the murky involvement of the South African government in the destabilisation of the Seychelles in the 1980s.
By Martin Plaut
If ever there was a place for which Somerset Maugham’s epithet about a “sunny place for shady people” was apposite, it is the Seychelles. As a recent study remarked: “Seychelles, a thousand miles from anywhere, is an offshore magnet for money launderers and tax dodgers.” Situated in the Indian Ocean, the 115 islands are 1,500 kilometres east of Africa. They lie on the major trade routes between Asia, Africa and Europe, and are also strategically near the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. No wonder they have been of interest to all the major powers. At the same time the Seychelles authorities have normally turned a blind eye to questionable financing. The most recent example of this saw a British businessman threatened with losing his castle after a judge questioned the probity of his Seychelles registered company.
During the apartheid era, the South African government saw the Seychelles’ potential as a means of finding a loophole to avoid the increasingly severe economic sanctions being imposed by the international community. At least one coup attempt was launched by the South Africans, although the apartheid government went on to make its peace with the Seychelles government after it failed.
This blogpost outlines the apparent coup attempt of 1986 and considers material discovered in the British National Archive which throws fresh light on these events.
The South African government’s interest
The Seychelles has been unstable since the run up to independence in the 1970’s. There was a deep political divide between James Mancham, leader of the Seychelles Democratic Party (who initially campaigned for the islands to be integrated with the United Kingdom) and France-Albert René’s more socialist Seychelles People’s United Party (which campaigned for full independence, with the support of the Organisation of African Unity). At independence on 29 June 1976 the two parties came to a compromise and formed a government of national unity, with Mancham and President and René as Prime Minister. It did not last. On 5 June 1977 René’s party had staged a coup and installed their leader as President and turning the country into a one-party state. The pattern of unconstitutional transfers of power by coup and counter coup had been established.
Seychellois exiles plotted against the René government in London – a fact revealed by a tape recording handed to the British press in 1982, after the bugging of an hotel room by a private detective, hired by a René associate. The South African government and its secret services had developed links with Mancham during his brief presidency, with agents delivering to him “[bags full] of bribe money to secure South African interests.” In 1978, when P. W. Botha ascended to the South African presidency, Seychelles became woven into a comprehensive policy of resisting threats to apartheid, described as a ‘total onslaught.’ Links were developed with the Botha security services by pro-Mancham exiles in South Africa. This resulted in a bungled coup-attempt by Mike Hoare, an Irish mercenary, who landed at Seychelles international airport on 25 November 1981 with a contingent of 45 men disguised as a drinking club, the Ancient Order of Frothblowers. Following a shoot-out at the airport the men were arrested and Hoare was returned to South Africa, to the embarrassment of the authorities in Pretoria.
As the years progressed the South African government reversed its policies and developed links with the René government. A South African secret policeman, Craig Williamson established ties with a close René associate, Mario Ricci. Williamson made his role in the secret service public when he testified before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission about his role in covert operations. He said that he joined the Security Police in 1971 and admitted to his role in the killing of four members of the ANC and Communist Party. Among them was Ruth First, who helped found the Review of African Political Economy. He was granted an amnesty by the Commission.
In an email to the author, Williamson confirmed his relationship with Ricci, saying that he had come across Ricci in late 1984 or early 1985 after “reports came in of another recruitment exercise for an attempt at a coup in the Seychelles.” Williamson says that he had considered leaving the police force, but in January 1986 was given a senior position responsible for the covert collection of information from Africa north of a line from Angola to Mozambique. Williamson explained in an email to this author how his work developed:
One of the first tasks I had was to report on Soviet activity in the Indian Ocean area and particularly on the then close relationship between India and the Soviets and their naval cooperation. Obviously Soviet or surrogate Indian naval operations on the east coast of South Africa (SA) could interfere with SA naval operations, particularly those in support of Renamo. The use of the airport in Mahe [the largest island in the Seychelles archipelago] by Soviet aircraft flying to Mozambique was also a priority task.
I decided to run my African operation under cover of a private commercial intelligence organisation with a British-SA flavour. First, I had to establish a base in Africa, and I arranged to visit Mario Ricci in the Seychelles. We got on well. I explained my idea and as René was paranoid about a mercenary or other coup attempt, especially one launched from or supported by SA, it was soon proposed that I should have a contract to detect and counter security threats to the René regime which were mainly centred in Durban or London. Thereafter I went to Jersey in order to set up a company. I bought a shelf company from a company management group and was given a list of names to choose from. One name on the list was Longreach which I thought was apt and so Longreach came about.
Williamson was also appointed managing director of Ricci’s South African company, GMR, which had interests worldwide. The company assisted the South African government to avoid the economic sanctions that the country was facing from the mid-1980’s. This may have included using the Seychelles to avoid oil sanctions. What happened next is directly related to the current story. This was the British historian, Stephen Ellis’s explanation of what took place.
By this time, South Africa’s relationship with Seychelles was thoroughly ambiguous. Seychelles was often represented in the South African press, and the Western press generally, as pro-Soviet and anti-apartheid. In reality, Pretoria had developed closer relations with the government in Victoria [the capital of the Seychelles] in the months after the 1981 mercenary coup attempt and had expelled Seychellois opposition leaders from South Africa, but the South African secret services at the same time conspired with a group of coup-plotters based in Britain through a diplomat at the South African Embassy in London. The South African secret services eventually betrayed the coup plot to the Seychelles government in August 1986 and in effect aborted the plan. It seems that the South African strategy was to cultivate all sides in Seychelles with a view to cementing its own influence. After the August 1986 coup plot, South Africa’s Military Intelligence had the Seychelles government under effective control, largely through Williamson and the relationship he had established with Ricci. GMR South Africa shared its Johannesburg office with another company controlled by Williamson, namely Longreach, which acquired responsibility for government security in Seychelles after 1986. Years later, after the African National Congress had come to power, Williamson was to admit that Longreach was in fact owned by Military Intelligence. Seychelles was all the more useful as a Military Intelligence asset because of its government’s pro-Soviet reputation.
The coup plot of 1986 has received limited attention beyond Stephen Ellis’s article. However, a number of websites provide an insight into what took place, which was given the name ‘Operation Distant Lash’ (see here and here). These suggest a coup attempt by the Seychelles Minister of Defence, Ogilvy Berlouis, involving some 30 mercenaries and 350 Seychellois. An Indian naval vessel, the INS Vindhyagiri had fortuitously arrived in the capital, Victoria, in July 1986. As one of the authors of the website puts it: “A few weeks earlier, Indian intelligence agencies had learnt of Operation Distant Lash, organised by high-ranking Seychellois ministers to oust René.” Delhi decided to act to protect René, who is reported to have retreated to his Presidential palace, protected by North Korean bodyguards. The INS Vindhyagiri remained at Port Victoria for 12 days, “making great use of its Sea King to provide public displays of helicopter commando ‘slithering’ and assaults. The ship regularly trained its 4.5-inch gun on power mode as a demonstration to the coup plotters. By mid-June the planned coup had been averted. Seychelles authorities – with the likely assistance of Indian security services – arrested six men (but not Berlouis).”
Williamson provides a rather different perspective on these events:
In mid-1986, Indian intelligence alerted the René government of a so-called Operation Distant Lash whereby a 350 strong mercenary group would attempt to overthrow the government. This information came conveniently when an Indian naval vessel with a detachment of marines was docked in the Mahe harbor. We were apprehensive that the marines would be deployed into Mahe but fortunately things didn’t go that far.
We managed to survive the fallout from that incident, probably due to Ricci’s close relationship with Berlouis and René and to the lack of any real evidence of such a plan. We ascribed the Operation Distant Lash incident to a Soviet active measure designed to discredit Ricci/Berlouis/Longreach in René’s eyes. We noticed increased connection between the local Soviet embassy (Ambassador Orlov?) and Lt. Col James Michel Berlouis’ deputy. Michel was clearly hostile towards Longreach.
Later that year, during René’s attendance at a Non-aligned nations conference in Harare. Rajiv Ghandi warned him of a coup plan to be carried out during his absence and lent René his aircraft to fly directly back to Mahe. The upshot was that Berlouis was dismissed as Minister of Defence and head of the armed forces and was replaced by James Michel.
Due to our close connection to Berlouis at the time we know that he had no intention of ousting René. He was concerned at that time with some unrest in the army due to some ethnic tensions and to dissatisfaction with the North Korean troops.
Williamson says that by this time his role in the South African secret police was coming to an end. He stood for the 1987 general election, although maintaining some links with Ricci, who – Williamson explains – “appointed me as Managing Director of the GMR Group in South Africa and financed my 1987 election campaign.”
That is as far as the story went, but files released to the National Archive following lengthy freedom of information requests throws a new light on the events. It is to these that we now turn.
The ANC plot and the Seychelles coup
The three Foreign and Commonwealth Offices files that are now available in the National Archive revealed some extraordinary events. They provided an insight into two interwoven plots. One described an attempted coup against the government of the Seychelles. The second was a plan to seize and torture three members of the ANC in London – including Thabo Mbeki. Both involved South African security personnel. The ANC plot has been explained in a recent newspaper article and is the subject of a forthcoming article in the Journal of Southern African Studies.
The story involves two Norwegians who had lived in Britain for years under the alias of “Larsen” – father and son, who pretended to be British. They made links with a former member of the Parachute Regiment and the RAF. Some had served in what was then Rhodesia, before joining the South African armed forces. There were allegations that the entire plan was the brainchild of one of the most notorious and secretive of the South African security agencies – the Civil Cooperation Bureau. Attempts to prosecute those involved blew up in the faces of the British authorities, with the Attorney General, Sir Patrick Mayhew, having to explain before a sceptical parliament why the cases were dropped. The timing could hardly have been less fortunate for Sir Patrick, coming as it did shortly after a particularly fractious meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government, when Mrs Thatcher was at loggerheads with fellow leaders over sanctions against South Africa.
It is interesting to see just how seriously the British took the Seychelles which are, after all, no more than a collection of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean. In 1987 its population stood at no more than 65,000. It is clear that the location is among the most important issues for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: they are strategically located between India, Africa and the Gulf and they are the site of important rebroadcasting facilities for the BBC World Service. The documents show that the FCO – just like the South African view noted above – had come to the conclusion that the René government was in their best interests, despite being of an apparently left-wing hew. As a memo marked “secret” from the British diplomat William Marsden to the Africa Minister, Linda Chalker’s private secretary put it on 15 July 1987:
The department’s view, endorsed by Ministers, is that our and Western interests in the Indian Ocean are adequately served by President René’s government, particularly in the denial of the Soviet Union of military facilities in the islands. This is also the US and French analysis as reported to us. A South African puppet regime would almost certainly not in in our interests, as it would inter alia raise the profile of the currently quiescent issue of militarisation of the Indian Ocean with negative effects for our management of Diego Garcia.
The memo goes on to say that it was not clear what kind of regime would replace René, since “possible candidates are not very impressive people.” It was also not clear how the Soviet Union would react if the neutrality of the Seychelles was challenged – and that it would “certainly be hostile.” All in all, the FCO was happy to try to maintain friendly relations with René. Replacing him was not going to receive the support of Whitehall.
Much of the attention focussed on two individuals from the Seychelles opposition who are based in London. They were David Joubert and Peter Ferrari, members of the Seychelles Democratic Party’s ‘government in exile’. The two had been plotting against the René government for many years. Another memo on 22 October 1987 talks of evidence of “Mr Joubert’s readiness to plot coups with mercenaries in the UK” – something the FCO had noted as early as 1982. The FCO also assessed possible alternatives to René – both ‘insiders’ who might mount what they termed a ‘palace coup’ and ex colleagues. None appeared particularly attractive to Britain.
The discovery of the plot came at a particularly sensitive time for Britain. Gérard Hoarau an exiled opposition leader from Seychelles and head of the Mouvement Pour La Resistance, had been assassinated on 29 November 1985 by an unidentified gunman, on the doorstep of his home in London. Hoarau had been spied on by President René (who denied having a hand in the murder), but who had ensured that his London phone was tapped. The FCO memos talk of Seychelles secret service operations in the UK (something the British regarded as “unacceptable”) and had raised these issues with the acting High Commissioner for Seychelles in London, Robert Delpech. The FCO had lunch with Delpech at which these issues were raised and there are records of what was discussed.
As the case against the plotters developed, the FCO spent a good deal of time considering how much to tell René of what they knew. In the end he was briefed, but minimal information was provided to the president, who “bemoans” the lack of action against the opposition in the UK, but accepts that the British ambassador can only give him limited information. In the end the case against Peter Ferrari collapsed. Although he admitted participating in attempts to overthrow the René government, he strenuously denied having any hand in the ANC plot. His attempts to end the René government had – the authorities decided – not contravened any UK laws. For this reason, when the case came to court no evidence was led against Ferrari, and he was freed.
The links to South Africa were never conclusively established by the FCO, although other secret service papers held by the Home Office, to which were not granted access, may have a much clearer view of what took place. A final assessment by the FCO in June 1988 came to the conclusion that evidence of South African involvement was “highly suggestive.” These papers, and the information cited earlier, throws some light on these murky events.
Small states are susceptible to dictatorial control by elites, who share power within a narrow circle of friends and relations. They are also open to outside interference from external forces both public and private. The Seychelles has suffered from all of these tendencies, as evidenced by the 1986 coup plot. It is difficult to envisage a future for the islands that will ensure that they escape such activities in the future.
Martin Plaut is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and a regular contributor to ROAPE. For years Martin worked as a journalist and researcher focusing primarily on southern Africa and the Horn of Africa. He was until 2013 Africa Editor, BBC World Service News, but since his retirement he has published a series of books, including Understanding Eritrea (2016, Hurst), Understanding South Africa, (2019, Hurst) and Dr Abdullah Abdurahman: South Africa’s first elected black politician, (Jacana, 2020)
Featured Photograph: South African mercenaries involved in the coup attempt in the Seychelles in 1981 being interviewed by local journalist (Tony Mathiot, 1981).
1 Somerset Maugham’s remark was about the Riviera. Strictly Personal, Doubleday, Doran and co., New York, 1941, p. 136
2 Liam Campling, Hansel Confiance and Marie-Therese Purvis, Social Policies in Seychelles, Commonwealth Secretariat, London 2011
3 Stephen Ellis, Africa and International Corruption: the strange case of South Africa and Seychelles, African Affairs, Vol. 95, 1996, p. 169
4 Stephen Ellis, Africa and International Corruption, p. 170
5 Stephen Ellis, Africa and International Corruption, p. 171
6 R. Davies, and D. O’Meara, ‘Total Strategy in Southern Africa: An Analysis of South African Regional Policy Since 1978’, Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, April 1985, p. 186.
7 Stephen Ellis, Africa and International Corruption, p. 171
8 Stephen Ellis, Africa and International Corruption, p. 173
9 Stephen Ellis, Africa and International Corruption, p. 175.
10 Email to author, 31st January 2021
11 Stephen Ellis, Africa and International Corruption, p. 184
12 Stephen Ellis, Africa and International Corruption, p. 176
13 The National Archives (hereafter TNA), African National Congress (ANC) and the Seychelles conspiracy, FCO 31/5277 1987, FCO 31/5278 1987, FCO 31/5691 of 1988. It took sixteen months for the FCO to make these available following a Freedom of Information Request. Further evidence could be found in other British government files – particularly those belonging to the Home Office, which deals with the intelligence and security agencies – but we were denied access to these.
14 Hansard, Volume 120, column 1093, 23 October 1987.