Tony Buckingham: murky past of a mercenary turned oil baron

Simon Mann, the fall guy for the bungled 2004 ‘Wonga Coup’ in Equatorial Guinea, is back in Britain, to the consternation of his alleged co-conspirators, says The Daily Telegraph. 

But while Mark ‘Scratcher’ Thatcher and others wait “nervously for a knock on the door”, another of Mann’s old muckers is cracking open the champagne. Tony Buckingham – SAS man, turned mercenary, turned oil baron – looks set to scoop £95m from the sale of his Heritage Oil assets in Uganda (see below). Now that is serious wonga.

Buckingham, 58, is at pains to play down his colourful past: he has had no involvement in military or security operations since 1998, and no contact “of any nature” with Mann since 2000.

Indeed, the only mention of his buccaneering history in Heritage’s corporate blurb is a somewhat coy reference to his time as “a security adviser to various governments”. But don’t be fooled by that bland statement, says The Sunday Times. Buckingham’s informal CV reads like a Who’s Who of wild-goose chases in the 1990s and places him “at the epicentre of the trade in arms and soldiers… into war-torn African states”.

Buckingham was a founding partner of Executive Outcomes – the unit of crack (mainly South African) commandos whose chief alumnus was Mann. He was also a leading figure in Sandline International, the mercenary group run by Col Tim Spicer. Its activities in Sierra Leone made a mockery of the newly elected Blair government’s ‘ethical’ foreign policy when it transpired that the Foreign Office was implicated in arms sales. That scandal uncovered a murky world of offshore companies and middle-men with links to the London offices shared by Sandline and Executive Outcomes at 535 King’s Road. “The Executive Outcomes mercenaries are not simply ‘guns for hire’,” noted the Observer in 1997. “They are the advance guard for major business interests engaged in a latter-day scramble for the mineral wealth of Africa [including] oil, gold and diamond-mining ventures… and offshore financial management services.”

With his “easygoing nature and ready smile” Buckingham comes across as a likeable fellow who “fits in well with the Cowes set”, remarked The Independent when it caught up with him on board his yacht in 1998. But his past was shrouded in mystery, the paper added. “He gives his nationality as British and date of birth as 28 November 1951. But there is no birth certificate for him in the public records on that date.”

It was a stint working as a diver in the North Sea in the 1970s that sparked his interest in the oil industry. He worked as a concessions negotiator for both the Ranger Oil and Premium Oil firms before founding Heritage Oil & Gas in the early 1990s. But oil wasn’t his only interest in Africa. He also ran Branch Energy, a subsidiary of the listed Canadian miner DiamondWorks, which held diamond concessions in Angola and Sierra Leone.

Buckingham claims to have severed his racier connections, says The Sunday Times. Yet Logo Logistics – the company used by Mann to recruit mercenaries and supply military equipment and ammunition – is based at the same business address as two other firms connected with Buckingham companies. It seems an ‘unfortunate’ coincidence.

Industry hard-man with an army at his beck and call

At the peak of his dual mercenary/mining career in the late 1990s, Tony Buckingham was considered the obvious heir to that other great African business buccaneer, Tiny Rowland. “He even has Rowland as a middle name,” noted  The Independent.

Buckingham was “a businessman of the hard school”, capable of summoning “a small private army with little more than a few phone calls” and using that army “to raise fabulous wealth”.  Those days are long gone. As Heritage’s finance director recently told The Sun, “Tony and Heritage have a proven track record in finding oil. The rest is irrelevant.”

His investors probably agree. Uganda’s Lake Albert fields have proved hugely successful for both Heritage and its rival Tullow Oil. Why then is Heritage selling its Ugandan fields to the Italian oil giant Eni? Mainly because of the massive cost of transporting the oil, says The Sunday Telegraph. What’s more, Heritage plans to use most of the cash from the $1.35bn deal to buy further assets in Buckingham’s latest favourite area – Kurdistan.

The Eni deal will, however, curtail Buckingham’s ambition to turn FTSE 250 Heritage into a FTSE 100 player. Earlier this year, he announced a reverse takeover of the Turkish group Genel Energy that would have created a $6bn behemoth. That deal is now off. Some believe Heritage may even become a target itself. But whatever happens, says the Evening Standard, Buckingham wins. Not only will he keep a one-third stake in the company; he also gets three years’ money if Heritage is bought. Given that he was paid more than £1m last year, “that’s not an insignificant sum”.