Alex Constantine - April 7, 2008
The Shadowy Mr Calil Accused of Being the £100m Mastermind Behind Failed Coup that Landed Simon Mann in jail
By GEOFFREY WANSELL
14th March 2008
The reclusive Nigerian-born, British-based businessman Eli Calil, whose estimated £100million fortune makes him one of the richest people in this country, could almost be a leading character in one of his friend Jeffrey Archer's more outlandish thrillers.
The 62-year-old Calil certainly has the credentials. After all, this week he was accused by Old Etonian mercenary Simon Mann of being the "main man" behind the 2004 coup to overthrow the regime in the tiny oil-rich African state of Equatorial Guinea.
Speaking in shackles and handcuffs at the infamous Black Beach prison in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, Mann insisted that Calil - or "Smelly" as he was known to the former SAS officer - was the "architect" of the attempt to unseat President Teodoro Obiang Nguema and replace him with Severo Moto, the self- styled "president-in-exile" of the West African state.
"If someone wants to do me a favour, what they could do is put a pair of handcuffs on Calil, chuck him on a plane and bring him to Malabo," Mann told Channel 4 News.
That isn't likely to happen. Indeed, Calil issued a statement immediately after the interview denying that he played any part "in the alleged coup". Nevertheless, the publicity this week "has made him very, very anxious", according to one friend who isn't prepared to be named. "Eli hates being in the public eye - it's against everything he stands for."
Secretive to the point of obsession - Calil has avoided being photographed in public for almost a quarter of a century - he lives behind locked doors and elaborate security in a house in what's known locally as "billionaire's row" in Hampstead, North London.
Not that you will discover that from any attempt to find him there. A knock at the door is routinely met with blank looks from his staff - who will say vaguely that their master is "travelling". He regularly disappears from Britain in a private jet for his other homes in Switzerland and Nigeria.
But that does nothing whatsoever to dispel the mystery that surrounds a businessman whose privacy is guarded "like a Mogul emperor" and who likes nothing more than to boast - in private - about his "powerful friends" and "political influence".
Those friends include the novelist and former prisoner Lord Archer, as well as Sir Mark Thatcher, son of the former Prime Minister, who was also accused of aiding the attempted coup.
Indeed, Thatcher - known to Mann as Scratcher - was fined £265,000 and given a four-year suspended jail sentence by the South African government in 2005 after paying £150,000 for a helicopter despite "suspecting" Mann's mercenaries might use it.
Another of Calil's "influential friends" is EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who rented a luxury one bedroom flat in Holland Park, West London, from Calil for a year when he was forced to sell his own home after the Geoffrey Robinson £300,000 loan scandal and his resignation as Northern Ireland Secretary in 1999.
In 2004, reports in South Africa suggested that Mandelson and Calil met privately just weeks after the abortive coup in Equatorial Guinea.
The reports claimed "Calil says that Mandelson assured him he would get no problems from the British government side" and the businessman was invited to come and see him again "if you need something done".
Again, both men categorically deny discussing the coup.
Calil's powerful friends also certainly include Severo Moto, the former president of Equatorial Guinea, whom he is reported to support financially while he is in exile in Madrid, and who was to return as president had Mann's coup worked.
There was every reason to help - so it is alleged - because Calil would have become the country's chief oil broker had the coup succeeded, and therefore benefited to the tune of many millions of pounds from his share of the country's oil revenues. So, let us examine a little more carefully the shadowy Calil - a man with an appetite for creating a web of intrigue.
"He's a small, slight man who always seems to look a little tired and hunted," says one former associate.
"He looks what I would describe as Levantine - an Eastern Mediterranean appearance. He's also quietly spoken and sophisticated."
Certainly there is none of the ostentatious flamboyance of arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi about him. Calil does not surround himself with a harem of beautiful women, nor spend extravagantly on hotel suites around the world.
"Eli prefers to spend time at home with his family - having dinner parties and talking to the few people he trusts," says another friend.
These include the equally reclusive Syrian billionaire Wafic Said, 69, and his British wife Rosemary. When the two men and their wives meet behind the closed doors and security cameras of Said's vast Eaton Square house, decorated with a priceless collection of paintings, one name mentioned regularly is that of their mutual friend, Sir Mark Thatcher.
During the Eighties, Sir Mark's mother Baroness Thatcher - who lives just down the road in Chester Square - had strong links with Said, whose influence in the Middle East helped secure the £20billion Saudi Al-Yamamah contract of 1986, when Britain sold 72 Tornados and 30 Hawk warplanes to Saudi Arabia, in the country's biggest ever defence order.
Calil's closeness to Lord Archer is no secret. He is reported to have offered the disgraced peer business advice for more than two decades. Indeed, it may well have been Archer who helped get the then little-known Calil invited to a dinner party at Downing Street hosted by Norma Major during her husband's premiership.
There was even a report that a certain J. H. Archer (Lord Archer's initials) paid £74,000 into Mann's bank account before the coup attempt in 2004, but the peer has categorically denied any connection with the money, and Mann has also confirmed that Archer had no involvement in the plot.
Others in Calil's inner circle include the prominent London Iraqi, Nemir Kirdar, founder of Investcorp, and the Iranian socialite Kokoly Fallah, the daughter of the late Shah of Iran's oil minister, who in turn is a friend of the former Tory Chancellor Lord Lamont.
Shadowy he may be, but there is no doubt whatsoever that Calil's tentacles of power and influence stretch out across political and financial London. But where does his fortune come from? In part it is from inheritance. His Lebanese-born father George, who had relocated to Turkey - where the family was known as Khalil - only to be forced into exile in Nigeria in the Thirties, became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Africa. He founded a major groundnut oil business and Nigerian Oil Mills.
Eli was born in Kano, Nigeria, in December 1945, and privately educated in Europe. When his father died in 1967, his eldest son, then just 22, inherited £20 million, as did Eli's brother, Bernard.
Eli also inherited his father's skill as an entrepreneur and dealer - and, after realising he needed to find another basis for the family fortune beyond groundnut oil, focused his energies on the rapidly emerging crude oil industry in Nigeria. Calil's riches quickly multiplied through shrewd investments. They grew even more when General Ibrahim Babangida assumed power in a 1985 coup.
Calil, who had known Babangida since he had been quartermaster-general of the Nigerian army, not only expanded his business into manufacturing batteries, selling trucks and trading in Nigerian oil, but also set up a series of companies for the General.
Even when Babangida was succeeded by General Sani Abacha, whose regime was marked by corruption and human rights abuses, Calil continued to thrive.
"He was the archetypal Middle Eastern bagman," says a business acquaintance from those days. "He's there to make money."
And make money he most certainly has.
His fortune is said to exceed £100 million, and in 2006 he sold his then London base, the magnificent Sloane House in Chelsea, to JCB tycoon Sir Anthony Bamford for an estimated £30 million, and began to rent a £10 million home.
Calil also keeps a flat behind the Science Museum in Kensington "for business meetings", there is another home in Switzerland, and, of course, a base near Lagos in Nigeria - one that betrays his taste for private opulence.
In a large compound surrounded by guards, the main house is nothing if not showy.
"I remember the hallway had these absolutely giant, 10ft high ivory statues that were encrusted with the most amazing jewels," one visitor recalls.
"The furniture was the type Lebanese millionaires usually have, Louis XIV repro, like you can buy in Harrods, but it was the jewelled ivory statues that stuck in my mind."
As befits a potentate, Calil has had three wives and five children. He married the Tennessee tobacco heiress Frances Condon at Mayfair's Farm Street Roman Catholic church in 1972, and they have two children, George, 35, the actor and former star of the BBC's Holby City, and Katherine, 33, a photographic artist who lives in North London.
Calil and his first-born son are exceptionally close. So close, say some who know them, that he "gives into his every whim", in the words of a friend.
In addition to Holby City, George - named after his grandfather - also played a small role in Steven Spielberg's TV series Band Of Brothers, although his acting career appears to have stalled somewhat.
His current entry on the MySpace internet site makes more of his musical accomplishments as a guitarist and singer than it does of his acting.
Educated at Westminster School in London and Brown University in the U.S., before attending the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, George Calil Jnr has not been able to escape the headlines in the same way his father has done, however.
In June 2003, the actor's then girlfriend, Holby City co-star Laura Sadler, fell 40ft from the balcony of the £500,000 Holland Park flat his father had given him as a gift, and died later of her injuries.
A post mortem found that she had vodka and cocaine in her blood, but the coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death.
That wasn't to be George Calil's only brush with the law and drugs. Two years later, he was questioned and then cautioned by the police after assaulting his new girlfriend in a row about his drugs use.
He was reported to have thrown Swiss actress Antoinette Kruger against a wall at her Chelsea flat.
She called police and they later arrested the actor, who admitted the attack. But he was given only a caution for common assault after Kruger said she didn't want to press charges.
"Antoinette told police that the argument was about a wrap of cocaine which belonged to him," one friend said later.
Just before that incident, the actor had sought treatment for various problems at the Priory, the celebrity clinic in South-West London, although he insisted these had nothing to do with drug abuse, despite earlier admitting to having supplied the cocaine Sadler had taken on the night she died.
"Laura's death was an accident, yet George felt responsible," a friend of the actor told me. "He's an intelligent chap and knows better than to use Class A drugs to deal with his problems."
By comparison, his father's problems were merely domestic. Calil's first marriage ended in divorce in 1985, and the following year he married Hayat Emma Morowa, the socialite daughter of a prominent Lebanese newspaper tycoon.
They had two children - Karim, now 28, and May, 25 - before another, acrimonious, divorce. Hayat went on to marry former Arts Council chairman Lord Palumbo. In turn, Calil married his current wife, Renuka Jaine, with whom he has a daughter, Jasmine, 17.
Calil's reputation as a dealer in influence and power has grown steadily over the years - and with it has come a series of what some might call "scandals". In the Lebanon, for example, Calil was involved in the First Venetian Bank, which collapsed in 1984.
Then, in June 2002, Calil found himself spending a few uncomfortable hours in a Paris police cell after being arrested in connection with investigations into the Elf-Aquitaine scandal.
He denied taking £40 million in 'backhanders' for arranging a contract for French oil giant Elf in Nigeria and was released without charge. No case was ever brought against him.
But still his appetite for power and influence remained undimmed - though his desire for anonymity hasn't protected him completely.
In January, when he was at home one night with his daughter Jasmine and two of her young friends, Calil was held up and threatened by a gang of burglars.
The gang stole £12,000 in cash from the safe, a ring and Calil's Mercedes - but the ring's stone was not a diamond and the car was recovered shortly after the raid.
But then Eli Calil is far too shrewd a man to have vast sums of money in his own house. After all, who needs hard cash when you have even harder influence?