Mr Calil, dapper and brazen

THE sudden, violent death of a man who had prospered for decades from oil brokering in Africa is not necessarily suspicious. Ely Calil was Nigerian-born, of Lebanese descent, and well known to African presidents, European ministers and Western oil firms. He died on May 28th, reportedly from a broken neck after falling down the stairs of his large London home.

Mr Calil amassed a fortune thanks largely to his chumminess with two Nigerian dictators of the 1980s and 1990s, Ibrahim Babangida and the flagrantly corrupt Sani Abacha. He was one of a breed of “fixers”, or “bagmen”, who flit between Africa and Europe, cultivating ties with politicians and taking a cut from “facilitation payments” from investors bidding for licences to drill for oil or dig for gold.

Although softly spoken, he was brazen. He once let a journalist from Harper’s observe his negotiations over gourmet dinners in Paris. Until recently laws in several European countries—unlike America’s more stringent Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—did not punish bribery in third countries. Mr Calil was detained by officials in Paris in 2002 as they investigated embezzlement and backhanders paid to Abacha. He was not charged, but later conceded that his actions might be considered illegal under new laws.

These days Western fixers must compete with rivals from China and other countries with less fussy rules. Last year America imposed sanctions on Dan Gertler, an Israeli with a business empire in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The American Treasury described Mr Gertler’s fortune as the result of “opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals”. He is close to Joseph Kabila, the country’s president.

Mr Calil stood out in one respect: whereas others merely cultivated the powerful, he once sought to overthrow a president who displeased him. He was a leading backer of the “Wonga Coup”, a farcical plot by British and other mercenaries to topple the government of Equatorial Guinea in 2004. The hired guns identified Mr Calil as their “Cardinal”—though they also dubbed him “Smelly”. They said he recruited their Old Etonian frontman, Simon Mann, and helped finance the scheme. Phone records and other evidence corroborated this account. Mr Calil introduced the plotters to Severo Moto, an exiled priest who was being flown towards Equatorial Guinea on the night the plot was foiled—and would have become president had it succeeded.

“His big mistake was getting involved in a big and dangerous game, the worst-conducted coup plot in years,” says Nigel Morgan, an ex-spy who helped to thwart the Wonga Coup and who interviewed Mr Calil afterwards. According to Mr Morgan, Mr Calil offered to betray the other plotters, promising information about the scheme to South Africa in an effort to stave off prosecution. Do fixers like Mr Calil do anything useful for Africa? “They’re vultures, pure and simple,” says Mr Morgan.