Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Arms on Ghana Plane

I came across this clipping from the spy swap issue in Talking Drums magazine, published in December 1985 when Ghana and the US swapped spies. It's almost an afterthought from the rest of the issue but the story ticks off all my buttons.

The headline, tucked in the back pages, reads Arms on Ghana Plane. You would likely miss it if you focused on the cover story which was full of spy intrigue.

The plane that was found at Dublin airport last week with arms on board has been confirmed as a Ghana-registered plane owned by a Viennese company.

Irish police had been baffled about why equipment similar to that used by the IRA should be on a Ghana plane...

The Boeing 707... is owned by an import-export company called Penetex owned in turn by a Viennese conservative councillor Peter Neuman and registered in Ghana. He is said to have acquired the plane three years ago as payment of a debt.

The plane is said to be regularly used by the Libyan international show jumping team and had just returned from Libya. Police fear that Libya had started supplying arms to the IRA again.
Now, now, now. What do we have here? A small tale of strange bedfellows, arms dealers, rogues, terrorists, Ghanaian coup makers, Austrian politicians, the IRA, British and Irish police, and, of course, He of the Little Green Book

There's surely a novel or script to be written about the escapades of the Libyan show jumping team and their travels in the 1980s, John Le Carre had a surfeit of material to draw on and a cast of characters that couldn't be beaten.

Or perhaps consider this as a James Bond joint, for the mechanics of the affair are piquant. You can imagine the tradecraft at work, the setup of the shell company, the cutouts, the forged documentation and the vaguely plausible backstory. Throw in say Viktor Bout in the mix to heighten the tension. The background of a showjumping or polo competition would be highlighted, the thoroughbreds at work, the elites and the monied, the crates with hidden bottoms and so forth. Great heists have been made out of lesser material.

Ghanaians like to think they are at the periphery of world affairs and keep a low profile - we tend to go for opacity culturally, but the Rawlings-Tsikata crew were neck deep in all manner of dodgy dealings, being convinced ideologues and unafraid of blood. You can find their bloody fingerprints all over the continent. The most explicit was the support for Thomas Sankara's coup in Burkina Faso but elsewhere they were allies with many unsavoury regimes notably the Congo-Brazzaville lot, the Angola heavyweights and so forth. Here though, Ghana was featuring (and being used as a front) in the big leagues; Gaddafi and the IRA are about as high profile in infamy as one can get. The Semtex especially that wasn't intercepted by the British during this period - when Libyan assistance was at it most munificent, made a tangible difference to the terrrorists, and many paid the price with their lives in the ensuing years. Living in exile in London as I did at the time, I can testify to the baleful effect of the emboldened Irish terrorists.

For the longest time in the 1980s, the Ghana government made a quite lucrative trade in end-user certificates. Planes from Eastern Europe carrying weapons destined for hotspots like Angola would fly in to Ghana and briefly pause to satisfy the fraudulent paperwork and turn around to fly to their ultimate destination a few hours later. Episodes like this discovery on the Ghana plane would bring great scrutiny from the great powers.

Sidenote: if Ghanaian planes were used by Libyans to supply the IRA with weapons in 1985, we shouldn't be too shocked to learn that one of the Al Qaeda plotters passed through Ghana on his way to the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and stayed overnight in a government safehouse. Once you entertain the company of rogues, indeed if you actively court their shenanigans, you open the door to deviousness that you can't control. The prospect of being a scapegoat or collateral damage in other people's wars is not something that most would seek out.

Anyway, I've been here before: He of the Little Green Book
Thus, ever since the Flight Lieutenant's arrival
We'd had to develop a new philosophy of survival

At markets, we would fight over corned beef and sardine tins
Throughout I kept asking myself: why are these men laughing?
I suppose this in keeping with the Excellent Discussions they were having.

The moral of course is be careful with the company you keep. Rawlings and company simply failed to heed the Ewe proverb, the goat does not pass the leopard's door.

talking drums 1985-12-02 The spy swap Sousoudis for 8 Ghanaians and families



In the cutthroat world of elite sports
Many go to great lengths to seek out advantages
A few grams shaved off here and there
Aerodynamic styling in Formula One cars
The steroidal cocktails - liquid gold at that,
That underlay the nutrition of East German athletes
Designer drugs, custom feeding regimens
All is fair to avoid defeat

He of the Little Green Book, for his part,
Hearkened all the way back to Buda's wagon
For he was quite minded for revenge
Plastic explosives would be his secret weapon
The show jumping team entered the competition
They would show the world that Libya was best
Albeit with the hidden cargo on the Ghana plane
They also delivered a load of Semtex

Arms on Ghana Plane, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note (spotify version) Bonus beats: You Dropped a Bomb on Me by Gap Band


Timing is everything
Observers are worried

(We'll get to the spy swap in due course, that's another story ...)

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Writing log: May 30, 2021

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