COLONEL BOB DENARD
Né: Gilbert Bourgeaud
Nom de Guerre: Robert (Bob) Denard
Other Aliases: Said Mustapha Mohamed
Born: April 7, 1929 in Gironde, France.
Died: October 13, 2007 in Paris.
At the age of 19, Denard enlisted in the French Navy for his first tour of duty in the seas off Indochine. He spent five years as a colonial policeman in Morocco and was later recruited by the French Secret Service in Algeria.
He was an ultranationalist determined not to let France’s vast colonial empire dissolve. As the Cold War heated up, he also proved to be a fervent anti-communist. An Old Guard patriot, Denard considered himself a Corsair, a soldier of France, never a soldier of fortune.
Denard fought wherever communism and anti-colonialism were kindling and whenever France needed plausible deniability, mostly former French Colonies where a budding democracy might be heading in a direction contrary to France’s established interests. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had him on the payroll for adventures in Algeria, Benin, Tunisia, the Aden Protectorates, North Yemen, Iraq, Gabon, Chad, Congo (Zaire), Katanga (Zaire), Angola, Nigeria and, of course, Comoros. He was not the best at his job.
In 1956, Denard participated in the failed attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister of France, Pierre Mendès-France, who withdrew all French forces from Indochine in the wake of the humiliating defeat at Diem Bien Phu. He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison but spent only five months in jail.
In 1968, French President Charles de Gaulle supported the dissolution of Nigeria, a former British colony, and asked Denard to train the army of the breakaway Eastern Province, Biafra. Nigeria routed the Biafran forces; a million died of war and starvation.
His most spectacular failure, though, was Opération Crevette (Shrimp): the sea borne invasion of Benin in January of 1977. (The coup attempt is believed to have the inspiration for Frederick Forsyth’s novel, The Dogs of War.) Denard’s band of mercenaries was caught with incriminating evidence that implicated the direct involvement of the French Foreign Ministry. Quai d’Orsay fervently denied all connections with their man in Africa and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Denard would become infamous, however, for his multiple invasions of a single African nation, the tiniest and poorest of the lot, the Comoros [see A Short History of the Comoros].
After killing President Abdallah in 1989, Denard spent five years in exile in South Africa unable to return to France because of the outstanding warrant for his arrest for the failed Benin coup. In 1994, home-sick, he returned from exile to Paris, was tried, convicted but received a suspended sentence. Thereafter, he was acquitted of Abdallah’s murder, but French justice did find him guilty in July 2007 for staging Operation Eskazi, but the sentence (one year, three suspended) was never served due to failing health.
Denard died of dementia several months later in a nursing home at the age of 78.