Book Review: My friend the Mercenary by James Brabazon


I'm not exactly sure why my recent taste in books has run to true tales of humans involved in strange ways in brutal and obscure conflicts in Africa but that's what has been catching my eye lately. This is another local story: the mercenary referred to in the title is a South African although the book was written by a British journalist. The book is in two parts: the first tells the story of James Brabazon's documentaries shot during the civil war in Liberia. He hired Nick du Toit, a professional soldier to protect him in the warzone and they formed a very strong bond during their extreme experiences in the combat zones.

Nick du Toit told James Brabazon about some of the mercenary activity he was previously involved in and upcoming plans, which involved staging a coup in the Central African country and former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea, and Nick suggested that James should film it. James agreed but due to his grandfather's funeral, he wasn't there when the coup plot was foiled so he was extremely lucky not to have been arrested, tortured and kept in a hellhole of a jail for over 5 years, as his friend Nick was.

The second half of the book is about James Brabazon's search to uncover the truth of the plot that his friend got involved with and why it all went so horribly wrong and ends with his reunion with Nick after he was pardoned and released 5 years and nine months into a 34-year jail sentence.

This is an unusual account of an unlikely friendship and the author spends a fair amount of time considering the ethically murky situations that he finds himself in. It's a thought-provoking read, as he questions his role in providing war-porn for the news headlines and the traumatising effect that the conflict he filmed had on him. To get another view, I read parts of Simon Mann's book Cry Havoc. Simon Mann was the other mercenary involved in planning the failed plot, a wealthy Englishman who was in contact with the Spanish government, shady characters such as Mark Thatcher, Eli Khalil and the American CIA. His account of his time in jail in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea reads like that of an inconvenienced rich and selfish man. He certainly paid heavily for his crime in a Zimbabwe prison but I found it hard to feel sympathy for him.

My friend the Mercenary is a thought-provoking and unpleasant glimpse into the world of arms dealers, politicians, spies, soldiers for hire, African dictators and the ordinary people that suffer in the crossfire of greed, power and violence. I also found it interesting because when I was growing up, the Apartheid state in power in those days was involved many of Southern Africa's various jungle wars and the boys I grew up were all suitably indoctrinated and sent off to be cannon fodder as soon as they finished their schooling. I also personally knew a photographer who was shot and killed in the Libyan conflict and it's hard to make sense of what goes through people's minds in these situations. I know that it left my friends and classmates deeply scarred.

Not an easy read but highly recommended if you like modern history and politics

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