26 AUGUST 1972, Page 9


General Oufkir's last interview

Peter Johnson

The last time they tried to kill Hassan, General Mohammed Oufkir called it "an incident on the road." Exactly a year later, in a scenario that might have been written for The Godfather, Morocco's Minister of Interior Benhima employed the same phrase when fingering Oufkir as the principal plotter behind last week's attempt on the king. Oufkir used the words contemptuously — and, it now emerges, cynically — while talking to me in his air-conditioned office at Rabat's Defence Ministry, the walls plastered with photographs of the monarch and his family. "There has not been one country," he said, "which has not had a road incident in its life. But the essential thing is to have good insurance, and Morocco's insurance is the King, the dynasty and the army."

In a life in which he walked closer to death than most men of power in this world, the insurance ran out for Oufkir at the age of fifty-two. His death leaves little doubt of his complicity in the plot to eliminate Hassan. Suicide or execution? The manner of his going (having known him, I hardly believe Oufkir would need three bullets to finish a suicide job) leaves behind the essential elements of mystery and mayhem on which his career thrived.

Never a man for publicity, Oufkir surprised his own aides as much as me when he agreed to an hour-long interview a month after the July 1971 attempted coup when cadets led by rebel officers burst into the king's fortieth birthday party and killed over 100 people, Ministers, military and foreign diplomats. Having been in Rabat during the coup, I was convinced that Oufkir held the key to many unsolved questions of that afternoon. I telephoned him from London, as a freelance journalist. Surprisingly, he accepted the call, and agreed to an interview. I flew back to Rabat and in thirty-six hours met Oufkir, after officials of the Ministry of Interior had questioned me at length on the timing and purpose of my request.

For, in those thirty-six hours, a government shake-out was announced. Oufkir, invested with emergency powers after the bid on Hassan, moved from the Interior to National Defence, with full control over the armed forces (and, some said, over the king himself). Did I have prior knowledge of the changes? I was asked. It seemed incomprehensible to the ministerial mind that my request for an interview was coincidental, merely a journalistic hunch. They seemed amazed that the inaccessible General Oufkir should agree to an interview at all. In retrospect I think that Oufkir, normally contemptuous of outside opinion, wanted for once to mark the record in his own way.

Out of his para-drab, Oufkir presented a slig'ht, almost debonair figure: an elegantly suited man of middle height and slim build, wearing the inevitable Moroccan ministerial dark glasses. There was nothing in his ready smile and easy good manners to equate him with his reputation as "Morocco's iron man," ruthless in dealing with opposition. General de Gaulle gave him a life sentence in his absence for his alleged part in the disappearance of Moroccan Opposition leader Ben Barka. Some said — well beyond Oufkir's reach — that he had personally strangled Ben Barka. I remember looking at his hands. They were disappointingly slim, almost delicate. He spoke with assurance of Morocco's future, and he chain-smoked through the interview, plucking king-sized American cigarettes from a packet placed on a low table before him.

When Oufkir, by now the 'despicable gangster,' was proclaimed as Hassan's arch-enemy last weekend, Benhima added for good measure his belief that he had also been behind the events of 1971. Hardly devastatingly perceptive hindsight. As long ago as last summer the theory was being bandied around openly by diplomats in Rabat. Otherwise, went the argument, when the rebels attacked why didn't they kill Oufkir, ostensibly the man from whose death they had most to gain? For an hour before the collapse of the coup, Oufkir was closeted with the king and rebel officers in a room of the palace. In that time, if indeed he was the architect of the plot, did Oufkir persuade the king "to sign something" in return for Hassan's life and freedom?

You don't exactly ask a man, like Oufkir, to his face, if he has' just plotted to overthrow his king. The king, however, had described his own escape as " a miracle," so I asked Oufkir if he looked on his own survival in the same way. He took several seconds to answer — after all, he was lighting his fifth cigarette. "Ah," he said, "but you know, miracles do happen." Then, quickly, laughing: "But not every day." As a man who had often come close to death as a soldier of France in Indochina, didn't he feel at any time that day that he would be killed? Oufkir: "Let us say that day I died . . ." looking up at the ceiling, " . . . and I was reborn. Morocco, all of us, we died and were reborn." Silence invited the next question.

Speaking, in French through an interpreter, Oufkir talked at length about investment in industry, the training of the young, the consolidation of the armed forces' loyalty. In the aftermath of the coup, and its own military bloodletting, nine senior officers were executed by firing squad. A cynic might be forgiven for believing this made Oufkir's hand even more powerful. Indeed, the three Oufkir men who stood behind him at the interview — his newly promoted head of national gendarmerie, the chief of military intelligence and a civilian-suited official — were patently very young. They nodded or laughed in unison as their General made his points to me.

"The loyalty of the armed forces," he said, "is better today than it was yesterday. Yes, even better. They will always remain loyal to their oath, My God, My Country, My King. There will be no more plots. No, no, no. The events of July 10 have been a lesson to us all. Naturally I deeply regret the loss of valuable people, even if they have resorted to excesses. The plotters had no plan, no purpose, no popular support."

He allowed himself a rare attempt at humour: "Were there any British tourists harmed in the fighting? No, not one. I can assure you they are safer in Morocco than a Moroccan tourist would be on the streets of Belfast."

He ended the interview with an attempt at English: "I do not call it a coup d'etat. I call it a hold-up."

Paradoxically, as a hold-up man Oufkir would have few equals, yet his botched attempt at airborne assassination had all the marks of an amateur operation. Perhaps he had become over-confident, careless. The moral is clear in Morocco for the next in line to manufacture "an incident on the road." They must keep their feet on the ground.