How Kenya found herself in the middle of a multinational plot to overthrow the President of Seychelles, and the men behind the plot.
On a quarter page on the Wednesday April 12th, 2017 issue of the Daily Nation was an obituary of an elderly white man in a blue cap and a pilot’s headset. His name was Bill Parkinson.
Missing from the paragraphs celebrating Bill Parkinson’s life was his involvement in an elaborate plot to overthrow the President of Seychelles in 1981. That, and his recent involvement with one of the world’s most notorious mercenaries, Erik Prince, to whom he sold his most famous company, Phoenix Aviation.
Born in Northern Ireland in 1932, William Henry Boyd Parkinson moved to Kenya in October 1953 as British forces bolstered their forces to fight the Mau Mau. Over the next decade and a half, he climbed the police ranks up to Chief Inspector. He also learnt how to fly, which remained his cover as he become a spy, a veritable member of the notorious Special Branch intelligence unit. Both of these things, that he was a pilot and a former spy, are actually where this story starts.
Shortly after 1730hrs on November 25th 1981, a keen customs officer at Seychelles International Airport found a hidden fruit in the luggage of a French tourist. Spooked, he demanded that everyone else open their bags. The next person was a member of a rugby team and an odd beer club called Ye Ancient Order of Froth-Blowers. His bag was full of bulky toys because the beer club was a charitable organisations, and the rugby players were on holiday. Only the club had been dead since the 1930s, and the man was not a rugby player.
Unbeknownst to the customs officer, he was just about to uncover an elaborate multinational plan to overthrow the government of Seychelles. Actually, by then, most of the plan was in progress. Of the 44 mercenaries who had flown in under the same disguise, 42 had already made it through customs. The last two were unlucky, unravelling the entire plan.
Rummaging through the bag, the customs man noticed something that was definitely not a toy. He found himself staring at the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle, peaking from a false bottom. He fled towards the office to alert his colleagues. The last mercenary panicked. He removed his gun and aimed it at the fleeing customs officer, only to miss and hit his own colleague instead. The officer made it to the office where he barricaded himself and alerted his colleagues and by extension, the world, that Seychelles was under attack.
The other 42 mercenaries hurried back into the hotel, and their leader, Mad Mike Hoare, told them surrender was not an option.
What followed was a six-hour gunfight between the mercenaries and Seychelles’ small army. The mercenaries were stuck in the airport building with hostages, which made it harder to remove them. Cornered, they managed to hijack an Air India Boeing 707, Flight 224, which had been forced to land for a scheduled refueling on its way from Zimbabwe to Mumbai. Then they forced the pilot to fly them to Durban.
But not all of them made it out. Among the six that were accidentally left behind was a man using the pseudonym Martin Dolinchek. Little was known about him, but that was deliberate. He was a South African spy using a false name, and he had already visited the Seychelles once before using his real name.
In his bag, Seychelles’ police found a paper that carried details of a plane meant to fly from the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa to Seychelles International Airport two days after.
That’s where Bill Parkinson, and by extension Charles Njonjo and the head of police at the time, Ben Gethi, come in. A pilot and a former spy, a Cabinet Minister, and a cop.
Barely a year after Seychelles attained independence, the Prime Minister, France-Albert René, overthrew the President, James Mancham, while he was in London. In a year, Mancham had made a name for himself as a globe-trotting playboy, always with a socialite in tow, selling Seychelles as a tourist destination.
Rene was more left leaning than his predecessor, publicly choosing non-alignment in the Cold War. Most importantly, he had no sympathies for the apartheid government in South Africa.
One of the first things he did was to withdraw South Africa landing rights for scheduled refueling stops on long distance flights to places such as Japan. Then he reduced his island nation’s economic interaction with the apartheid government.
Mancham and his colleagues flew to Durban, hoping to use this as a launching pad for a coup.
They drew the first plan in 1978, but the South African government turned it down. Then it accepted it with enthusiasm a few months later. So much enthusiasm, in fact, that it became a power play between South Africa’s military and civilian intelligence units. Other than a friendly government and landing rights, South Africa would also get a launching pad to destabilize Tanzania, and would effectively control the key Cape sea route.
Officially, the name of the plan was Operation Angela.
The man the execution of the coup fell on was a veteran mercenary called “Mad” Mike Hoare. He was a notorious leader of foreign dogs of war in the Congo Crisis. But by 1979, he had retired back to his old job as an accountant and stockbroker. Before him, the South African government presented a chance to make money and new, powerful friends.
Mad Mike first drew plans with a budget for US $5 million, but only $300, 000 could be raised. Where the money came from is a point of contention, with some sources saying it was from Seychellois abroad but more credible sources having it that it was from Adnan Khashoggi, an Arab arms dealer. Another related theory is that Mad Mike drew a plan so people could invest in the coup in exchange for rights once it was successful. Since he was a stockbroker and investment banker, this last one is the most plausible.
With a shoestring budget, Mad Mike’s plans had to change. He had a small army of 54 mercenaries, at least 27 of whom were South African special forces, armed with 75 AK-47 assault rifles, 24, 000 rounds of ammunition, 40 hand grenades and 100 rockets. They would fly in the weapons rather than smuggle them in a boat, which would have been easier but more expensive.
The guns would be hidden under false bottoms in the suitcases which would have heavy toys to sell the charitable organisations part of the cover.
Once in Seychelles, they would find the advance team, wait until Rene held a cabinet meeting the next day, and then launch a massive attack. First would be the meeting itself, then the airport, an army barracks and a police station, and most importantly, a radio station.
But Operation Angela failed before it even begun properly. What followed was a diplomatic mess.
The papers the Seychellois found on the South African spy showed flight times for a Beechcraft Super Kingair 2000 with tail number “N821CA.” The plane was scheduled to fly to Comoros on November 24th 1981, from Mombasa. Then it would fly back, before taking off again on November 26th, this time to the Seychelles.
By itself the paper said little, but then Dolinchek begun to talk.
On the Sunbird Aviation charter plane from Mombasa would be James Mancham, his wife, and three colleagues, ready to retake power. With them, Dolinchek added, would be Kenyan military and police reinforcements for the coup.
Kenya and the Seychelles had had cordial relationships up until that point. Shortly after that dramatic November 1981 evening, Seychelles’ President René held a press conference and declared that “It has been very clear for some time that some members of the Kenyan government do not like the Seychelles and its present government. I can tell you Mr. Njonjo, for one…does not like the Seychelles at all.”
He was making a direct accusation, and homing in on the man who had given Mancham and his mercenaries’ refuge.
But why was Kenya trying to destabilize the Seychelles? Why was it helping the apartheid government?
The Kenyan government waited 20 hours before responding to the accusation. It denied any role in it, but that would change three years later, after Charles Njonjo properly fell from power.
One of the accusations against him at the commission of inquiry appointed to assess his conduct in office [Report Link] was that he had helped plan the attempted coup in November 1981. On the witness stand were two pilots, Bill Parkinson and David Leonard.
Parkinson owned the plane that was meant to fly Mancham through a company called Executive Jets Ltd. He had leased it to Sunbird Aviation, and then organized a charter flight to the Seychelles for five American tourists using the names: Mr. and Mrs. Morgan, Mr. and Mrs. Bowman and Mr. Nescott. Only these were fake names. The first two were in fact James Mancham and his wife.
Instead of delivering five tourists on a chartered flight, the Beechcraft would be delivering the new government.
The only reason we know of it is because it wasn’t.
Exactly how Charles Njonjo and Ben Gethi got involved in the plan is still unknown, but how they brought in Parkinson is. 20 days before the mercenaries landed in the Seychelles, one of Mancham’s right-hand men, Gerard Hoareau, landed in Kenya and stayed at the 680 Hotel in Nairobi. He had been a cabinet minister in Mancham’s government, and had been exiled to South Africa in 1979 after a previous attempted coup.
It was Hoareau who booked Parkinson’s plane at Sunbird Aviation. Sunbird was owned by Lord Andrew Cole, the seventh Earl of Enniskillen. Cole was one of Njonjo’s closest allies, and in later interviews (in 2012) would say the media portrayed him as “Njonjo’s Mr. Fix-It.” Cole also seemed to think that Sunbird Aviation had flown Mike Hoare and his crew to the Seychelles, which wasn’t the case. Mad Mike’s crew landed in a chartered Royal Swazi plane. The Sunbird plane never got a chance to take off.
After Hoareau, less than two weeks to the coup attempt, another of Mancham’s allies called Paul Chow arrived and also stayed at the 680 Hotel. Their brief was to make contact with Mancham’s friends in Nairobi, and facilitate an operational base for the former president. The choice of Kenya could also have been because Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi had, in 1978, built a house in Kenya in his expansive Ol Pejeta Ranch, and also bought vast land in other countries including the Seychelles. He had financial interests in a Mancham presidency and the right connections across the continent.
Parkinson had been brought into the plan by JD Irwin, by then deceased, in 1981. Irwin was at the time the Deputy Head of CID. As a former cop and spy, he most likely had a full picture of what the plan entailed, and stood to make a profit too if Mad Mike’s Operation Angela succeeded.
Assured of the solid plan, Parkinson hired two pilots for the job: Captain Schraft and Captain Leonard. He assured them that the plan had approval from the highest levels of government. To Leonard specifically, he said the plan had been cleared by “his former employer.” Both Leonard and Parkinson had worked for a company called Boskovic Air Charters Limited, partially owned by Charles Njonjo. They both personally knew him, which leant even more credence to the idea that the coup plot was sanctioned from the top.
Parkinson, through Sunbird Aviation, then sought clearance for the plane to fly to Seychelles. A few days before Mad Mike and his team landed on the island nation, the plane was cleared. Everything was ready for the government in waiting, which was holed up in a hotel in Mombasa waiting for D-Day.
As a former spy, Parkinson knew he couldn’t let the entire plan be known, even three years after it happened. The Njonjo Commission called him “an acrobatic liar” and said that he had asked the two pilots he’d hired to change their testimony.
The story of the 1981 attempted coup was almost dead by then, a fading shadow especially after Kenya’s own attempted coup of August 1982. South Africa and Seychelles had mended fences, with all six people who were arrested in the latter being released in 1983. The apartheid government had paid a ransom of $3 million to President Rene’s personal coffers. They’d also come to an understanding where Seychelles would admit some of South Africa’s key interests, to mitigate the UN Security Council inquiry that had followed [Report Link], and to prevent future attempts.
In Kenya though, a key player in the story was on his fall from grace, and bringing back with him, the story of how Kenya had found herself in the middle of a mercenary scandal.
A decade after, in 1994, Bill Parkinson and his son Steve launched a new airline called Phoenix Aviation.
In April 2014, Bill Parkinson sold 49 percent of the company he had owned for two decades to a company called Frontier Services Group (FSG). At face value, the sale of Phoenix Aviation had no relation with Parkinson’s past as a spy and a mercenary. But in truth, his new partner was the corporate animal of the world’s most notorious mercenary, former Blackwater head Erik Prince.
A few months after that first partial sale, FSG fully acquired Phoenix Aviation.
An investigation by The Intercept published last year shows that at the same time FSG was buying Phoenix Aviation and another airline, Kijipwa, it was mooting a plan to build a private army. The private army would come equipped with weaponized crop dusters specially designed for South Sudan, where Prince had a relationship with President Salva Kiir going as far back as 2006.
At the time, Salva Kiir was facing the fight of his life against his estranged deputy, Riek Machar. He needed all the help he could get, especially as the international community was considering a round of sanctions against arms sales to South Sudan. Who better to get him what he needed to turn the war, than Erik Prince, the foremost mercenary in the world.
The Intercept report showed that officially, FSG would be providing logistics and transportation services to South Sudan’s Ministry of Petroleum. Unofficially though, Prince would be leading Project Iron Fist, a classified project to not only arm Kiir’s side, but also to provide mercenaries and military training. At the heart of it was a weaponized Thrush 510G crop duster, modified in Austria by a company called Airborne Technologies.
By late 2014, the relationship between Kiir and FSG was failing. Prince rushed the modification of the first plane, the Intercept’s report showed, delivering one to Juba with several critical flaws. The Thrush “was transported from Juba to an air hangar in another East African nation, where it remains to this day.” With two airlines in Kenya, one in Nairobi and one in Mombasa, it’s most likely the Thrush was flown and hidden in Kenya. That same year, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority denied Kijipwa a license renewal.
Where Parkinson’s former company, Phoenix Aviation, fell in this 2014 dynamic is unclear. But part of Project Iron Fist was air ambulance services, and the private army would need charter flights to remain mostly hidden from view. Phoenix and Kijipwa did both of these.
Wherever this story goes, like the 1981 attempted coup in the Seychelles, it will be the stuff of spy and mercenary thrillers.
One story is good,
till Another is told.
Charles Njonjo Coup James Mancham Kenya Seychelles
Last modified: March 19, 2023