The Mail on Sunday
21st August 2011
By Priscilla Pollara and Emily Hill
For a man who had just emerged from the hellhole of Africa’s most notorious jail after five long years of captivity it was an incongruous opening line.
But to Old Etonian mercenary Simon Mann, freedom must have seemed so surreal that it didn’t seem strange, on first embracing his eldest daughter, Sophie, to open with the words: ‘I gather from your mother’s letter that you’ve recently installed a new kitchen. How did that go?’
On November 4, 2009, the event Sophie Mann had scarcely dared to hope for had finally come to pass.
Her father had been pardoned by the President of Equatorial Guinea and the family was to be reunited after six years.
He had been serving a 34-year sentence for his role in the notorious failed ‘Wonga’ coup d’etat in the West African state, a mercenary plot involving vast sums of money, a cache of weapons and a host of shadowy perpetrators.
A short time after Mann’s privately chartered plane had touched down on British soil, Sophie and her brothers, the children from Mann’s first marriage, were with their father in a London restaurant, enjoying a slap-up meal, almost as if nothing had happened.
‘We were very British about it all,’ recalls Sophie.
‘There was a lot of stiff upper lip. I think I had envisaged a reunion scene along the lines of The Railway Children, with shouts of, “Daddy . . . Daddy!” But, in fact, we were very reserved.’
Instead of tears and lingering hugs, the reunited family all ate a hearty lunch.
After years in an African jail, surviving on a diet of ‘kapenta’ – small dried fish preserved in salt water – it is perhaps not surprising that Mann just wanted to tuck in and try to forget the ordeal he had just come through.
‘At some point while he was in jail, he’d been given a copy of Tatler magazine,’ says Sophie. ‘And the next question he asked me was whether I owned a pair of Manolo Blahniks – because he had read that they were all the rage.
‘The whole conversation over lunch was weird, really, since, what do you say?
‘We weren’t wanting to upset him or cause any distress.
‘The adjustment for him was huge. If my brothers and I had been wailing, it would have all become too much.’ To gauge the true extent of her father’s privations during his captivity, Sophie fears she may have to rely on his forthcoming book about his ordeal.
‘In the years since he came home, Dad’s been really open about talking through his experiences with us, but I am certain, in many respects, we’ve barely scratched the surface,’ says Sophie.
There are those who must be dreading the book’s publication.
Mann, now 59, has already insisted he was merely the ‘manager’ and not the ‘architect’ of the failed coup. Among those who have already been implicated in the plot are
Baroness Thatcher’s son, Mark, and London-based Lebanese businessman Ely Calil, a close friend of Lord Mandelson. Calil has repeatedly denied any involvement.
Sophie, 26, is among those close to him who are aware Mann’s memoir will open up old wounds about the trauma of knowing their father was incarcerated in such a frightening place.
Born in 1985, to Mann and his first wife, Jennie, a housewife, Sophie was their much-loved youngest child and only daughter.
Charged: Simon Mann appearing at Zimbabwe’s High Court in 2008
Charged: Simon appearing at Zimbabwe’s High Court in 2008
At the time she was born, her father was a dashing soldier. The son of Watney Mann brewing heir George Mann, who captained the English cricket team in the Forties, Mann attended Eton and then Sandhurst.
Commissioned into the Scots Guards in 1972, Mann rapidly rose through the ranks and later became a member of the SAS, serving in Cyprus, Germany, Norway and Northern Ireland.
With three young children to raise and a husband frequently away on long tours of duty, Sophie’s mother must have found it difficult to cope.
Although Mann left the Army the year Sophie was born, it was perhaps too late to save the marriage.
Sophie, together with her elder brothers Jack, now 28, and Peter, 30, were brought up principally by Jennie’s second husband, Robert Schuster, in rural Oxfordshire.
‘My parents divorced when I was three months old, so I can’t say I
was ever that used to having my father around at home,’ says Sophie.
‘I was brought up by mother and my stepfather, who I confusingly call “Daddy”, while Simon is always “Dad”.
But my brothers and I were always very close to him, despite the fact that he was away a lot and in and out of the country.
We always went to stay in South Africa, where he lived with his third wife, Amanda, for six years, at New Year.’
Interested in art and design from a young age, Sophie attended Tudor Hall School in Oxfordshire.
Thriving academically, she won a place at Leeds University to study textiles but decided to take a gap year to improve her grasp of European languages.
Then on March 7, 2004, Sophie, who was in Italy, received a phone call that was to turn her world upside down.
‘Someone’s been arrested,’ she heard her mother say. ‘My first comment was, “Oh God, what’s Jack done?” ’ Sophie recalls replying.
She was referring to her brother. An officer in the Blues and Royals, Jack is a close friend of Prince Harry and a keen polo player. He attended the Royal Wedding earlier this year.
But in his younger sister’s fearful mind, Jack’s youthful high spirits made him more likely to land him in trouble than any other member of the family.
‘I concluded from the silence on the end of the line that something more serious was afoot.’ Sophie adds.
‘I still remember the specific moment the call came through. I was stumbling out of a restaurant, as I often did in Venice, and everything changed. Very quickly.’
Distressingly, Sophie and her family had to learn all the details about her father’s captivity by watching events unfold on 24-hour news channels.
Mann, then 51, had been arrested in Zimbabwe for leading a coup attempt against the President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.
He had been detained when the Boeing 727 he was travelling in was impounded in Harare, where it had been due to be loaded with £100,000 worth of weapons and equipment.
Alongside Mann, 69 suspected mercenaries were also held. His lawyers claimed that they had been on their way to the Democratic Republic of Congo to provide security for diamond mines.
On September 10 that year, Mann was sentenced to seven years in a Zimbabwean jail for violating the country’s immigration, firearms and security laws.
There couldn’t have been anyone more surprised at the unfolding events than Mann’s daughter.
Sophie had thought her father had given up on derring-do when he left the SAS and, as a middle-aged businessman, thought him as dull as most teenagers imagine their fathers to be.
Had she been older and wiser on her visits to her father in South Africa, Sophie might have realised his thirst for danger had not deserted him when he left the Army.
In the mid-Nineties he established the mercenary firm Sandline International, which was involved in missions in Angola, Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea.
At the time of his initial trial, Sophie was thankful that the attention from the world’s media did not fall on her and her siblings from her father’s first marriage.
‘We got away without having any intrusion in our lives, which gave us time to miss him in private,’ says Sophie. ‘My brothers and I weren’t constantly being probed about how we felt.
‘During that entire time, only one person approached my mother. They expected her to launch into the bitter vitriol of an ex-wife, but of course, that didn’t happen. We pulled together, retained our privacy and hoped for his safe return.’
Sophie took up her place at Leeds University and tried to concentrate on her studies. She and her father maintained a close relationship by constantly writing letters.
‘Time would pass so quickly, not hearing from or about him became almost normal,’ she says. ‘At times I used to forget all about it and then instantly feel guilty about having done so.
‘I went backwards and forwards to see my stepmother Amanda in Hampshire, who had by that stage delivered my half-brother Arthur.’
Amanda had been pregnant with Arthur, her fourth child with Mann, when he was first arrested, meaning he had never seen his youngest son.
‘When you’ve got serious things going on in your life, it’s hard to get involved in the frivolity of university life,’ recalls Sophie of that time.
‘I once met someone at a house party who was so impressed with who my father was that he asked me for my autograph. It was totally mad.’
In February 2007, after four years of imprisonment, Simon Mann was released early for good behaviour. But the family had little time to feel any sense of relief as Mann was promptly rearrested.
On May 2, 2007, a Zimbabwe court ruled that Mann should be extradited to Equatorial Guinea to face charges.
‘Of the entire ordeal, I can honestly say the worst bit was when Dad was moved to Equatorial Guinea,’ says Sophie. ‘It just happened one night, and we had no forewarning, no real understanding of why it had happened. Just like that, he was gone.
‘I kept wondering, “How can no one know where he was?” A Zimbabwean jail at least meant that my letters to him were arriving. Equatorial Guinea was our worst fear.’
Mann was transferred to the infamous Black Beach prison in Malabo, where human rights are said to be left at the door and inmates routinely starve and are denied medical attention.
Standing trial in 2008, Mann was accused with more than 60 South African and Angolan mercenaries of planning to gun down President Obiang at an airport in Equatorial Guinea after an advance party led by a former South African commander called Nick du Toit had sealed off the area.
Before the trial Mann, appearing in handcuffs and with his legs shackled in irons admitted to Channel 4 in an interview recorded in Black Beach prison that he had not been travelling to protect a diamond mine and was stupid to go ahead with the plot. ‘It was a f***-up,’ he said.
‘I blame myself for not simply saying, “Cut.” I was bloody stupid. I regret all that terribly.
‘You go tiger shooting and you don’t expect the tiger to win. I have been saying how sorry I am to everybody for four years now actually.’
Documents showed Mann had expected to make more than £7.5 million out of the coup and run the country and its oil revenues through a commercial company. He admitted ‘money and business interests’ were a motivation.
Ironically, Sophie was relieved to see her father on trial simply because she got to see his face and hear his voice: ‘He wasn’t just a still-life photograph, but animated, alive and talking.
‘His voice was a wonderful sound after having gone such a long time without it. He had acquired a bit of a South African twang in his accent, but I laughed and shrugged that off.’
She was more worried by his appearance. ‘He had aged so much. He had a very thin body. It was a horrible sight since he’d always been incredibly youthful and incredibly energetic. It’s funny what a lot of uncut hair and malnourishment can do to your looks.’
Mann was found guilty and sentenced to 34 years in jail. Sophie had almost abandoned all hope that she would ever see her father again.
Then, on a blustery autumn day in November 2009, she received another fateful phone call. Sophie was on her way home from an evening babysitting. It was one of her brothers calling.
He said: ‘Stop driving for a minute. I’ve got some news . . .’ Their father would be home within 48 hours.
The next day, Sophie was due to start a temporary job at the shopping channel QVC.
‘I was a nervous wreck,’ she recalls. ‘A very kind lady was showing me around, but I couldn’t stop shaking. After three hours trying to keep it together I said, “I’m so sorry, I’m probably the worst temp in the world – I can’t stay. My father is coming home. I haven’t seen him in six years.”
‘She turned to me and said, “Great! Go! Get out of here!” ’
Reinvigorated by having her family whole again since their reunion, Sophie has plunged into life.
In May, ‘Dad’ walked her up the aisle of an Oxfordshire church as she married Will Gaze, 28, a Stowe-educated ‘elite plumber’ and property developer whom she met at university.
When the couple got engaged Will is reported to have asked his future father-in-law for his permission.
‘It made him shed a tear,’ said a friend of Mann at the time. ‘He’s been joking how useful it is to have a plumber in the family.’
Sophie has also set up a company called Andara with an old school friend, Tiffany Seaward, specialising in elegant fashionable home furnishings.
Clearly her father’s experiences have not deterred Sophie from travelling to exotic parts of the world to source products.
Indeed she flies to Morocco this week to rummage through the souks of Marrakech.
The girl Simon Mann left behind at the age of 18 has grown up. Father and daughter can now look forward, as they scarcely dared hope for just two years ago, to talking about far more than Manolo Blahniks and her new kitchen.