October 10, 1995
PARIS - Twelve days ago, the man most feared by African dictators staged what was probably his last, great adventure.
Under cover of darkness, the legendary 66-year old Frenchman, 'Col.' Bob Denard, and 12 white mercenaries, waded ashore outside of Moroni, the seedy capitol of the Comoros, a downmarket group of islands off the coast of southern Africa in the Mozambique Channel.
Denard and his men, joined by local Comoran soldiers, quickly seized Moroni, put the unpopular dictator, President Said Djohar, under arrest, and proclaimed a new government. African states howled in outrage. The man known as 'The Frightful One,' the 'White Devil,' had returned.
The colourful, swashbuckling Denard has always been one of my favorite characters. He is the last of the famous white mercenaries who fought in a hundred little wars during the era of decolonization from 1948 - 1980.
I remember Co. Bob from the Congo days, during the 1960's, and his equally colourful pal, 'Mad Mike' Hoare. Col. Bob, Mad Mike and a handful of white mercenaries routed the entire Congolese Army. They saved hundreds of whites from being tortured, burned alive, or eaten by gangs of savage, paint-daubed, drug-crazed 'Simbas' of Pierre Mullelle and Antoine Gizenga. In Katanga, they humiliated a UN army sent to drive 'President' Moise Tschombe, a stooge of Belgium mining interests, from power.
Col Bob went on to fight in the bloody Biafran war of succession against Nigeria. He battled communists in Angola, with my old friend, Gen. Jonas Savimbi. Denard soldiered in Rhodesia against black guerrillas; he fought in Yemen's civil war; and with the mujihadin in Afghanistan. Frederick Forsyth was later to model the hero of his novel about mercenaries 'The Dogs of War,' on Denard.
In 1978 a young lunatic named Ali Saleh seized power in the Comoros, an obscure, former French colony of no importance. Saleh subjected its 500,000 black, mainly Muslim inhabitants to a reign of terror. He put teenage thugs in charge of every organ of government. A 15-year old headed the police. Gangs of armed teenagers drank, raped and looted.
Comoran businessmen hired Denard to get rid of the madman Saleh, setting up a war chest of some $6 million. Denard recruited old comrades from the Congo, bought an old rustbucket freighter, and stocked up on arms. He eluded agents of France's domestic security agency, the DST, and the foreign spy agency, SDECE, who had caught wind of the plot.
After a long voyage around Africa, Denard and his men landed from rubber boats late at night outside Moroni. PresidentŠ Saleh was lounging in his palace's bedroom, with three, naked, barely pubescent girls, popping bennies, smoking hashish, and watching a porno-flick - when Col. Bob kicked down his bedroom door. A short burst from Denard's submachine gun finished off the teenage tyrant.
Next morning, Denard draped Saleh's riddled body over the fender of a jeep and drove slowly through Moroni, as crowds cheered and acclaimed him as their saviour and king.
Col. Bob appointed a figurehead president and then ably ruled the Comoros for the next 11 years. Not since the white Rajas of Sarawak last century had a European adventurer seized a kingdom for himself.
Comorans loved him, Black African dictators did not. They lived in terror of Denard. After threats by black African states to stop buying arms from France, France finally sent troops to the Comoros in 1989, and overthrew Denard.
Denard returned to France, where he was briefly imprisoned. In 1993, he was charged with plotting a coup against the brutal marxist dictator of the West African nation of Benin. Since then, however, Col. Bob insisted he was in permanent retirement and interested only in raising vegetables in his garden. That is, until last week, when he and his men, some as old as he, stormed ashore in the Comoros.
Once again, black Africa howled in with outrage. A white could not be allowed to rule in Africa, particularly not one so popular. But French PM, Alain Juppe, announced his nation would not use military force to oust Denard. Black African nations evidently felt they lacked the military capability to confront Denard and his 12 white mercenaries.
So the Organization of African States again threatened France with an arms boycott. On Wednesday, President Chirac overruled his humiliated prime minister and sent 600 French commandos to the Comoros. After some fighting, the French troops freed the jailed president and seized Moroni. Col. Bob, decked out in combat gear and ammo clips, limping from his old war wound, surrendered to French troops. The old dog of war had been cornered.
I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Col. Bob escapes. French security forces have a nasty habit of shooting troublemakers. Hopefully, Denard will be back in his garden after a short stint in jail. This caper was very likely his last. At 66, after a thousand close calls, it's time to hand up the submachine gun, store the grenades, and drink a last bottle of red wine with the boys. The day of the white mercenary is almost past.
Yet even so, no black tyrant in Africa will sleep soundly in his palace until Denard is dead. For who knows, Col Bob and his senior citizen mercenaries might be somewhere out there in the sultry African night.