By Marcel Gascon Barbera, Balkan Insight
It was April 1999. NATO was bombing Yugoslavian military targets to stop Serbian forces from attacking ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who fled in their tens of thousands to neighbouring Albania.
More than 10,000 kilometers away in South Africa, an eminent Albanian spoke about the crisis to the Associated Press. From his residence in Johannesburg, wearing a sky blue safari suit, he pleaded for the continued air military operations, and for the deployment of ground troops against the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic.
“As an Albanian I would like to pick up a rifle and go and join them, but that’s not my job, primarily,” he said about the Kosovar fighters.
That eminent Albanian was Leka Zogu, or as he would have called himself, King Leka I of Albania.
Leka Zogu was the only son of the late Zog I, the only monarch to reign in Albania. The Albanian monarchy had an unusually short history. The founder of the royal house, Zog, was a wealthy landowner and politician who, after Albania’s independence in 1913, first became prime minister and then president before proclaiming himself king in 1928.
Zog I came from a noble Albanian family. He claimed descent from the Albanian national hero Skanderberg, who led the resistance to the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.
Zog I and his wife, Geraldine, went into exile on April 7 1939, when Mussolini’s Italy invaded Albania. Little Leka Zogu was only two days old. After escaping through Greece, the royal family toured several European countries until they settled in England, from where they moved to Egypt to enjoy the protection of King Farouk I.
The fall of Farouk led the family back to Europe. Leka Zogu continued his education in Switzerland and studied economics and political science at the Sorbonne. He had previously graduated from Sandhurst, the prestigious British military academy. After Zog I died in France in 1961, an exiled “national assembly” proclaimed Leka “the new king of the Albanians” in a Paris hotel.
Bearing the name of Leka I, the young pretender intensified a long campaign against the Communist regime that prohibited him from entering his country.
Spain was his first operations centre. Leka had the sympathies of Spain’s anti-Communist dictator, General Francisco Franco. The idyll with the Spanish authorities faded after Franco’s death, however, and in 1979 he was expelled after the Spanish discovered an arsenal of weapons in his home.
Leka would later assert that, at the moment of his expulsion, they were “very close” to overthrowing Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime through “military activity”. According to him, the Western powers feared that the fall of a Communist government in the region would destabilize the Balkans, and pressured Spain to expel the troublemaker.
African adventure begins
There began his African odyssey. Leaving behind a debt of “millions of pesetas”, Leka and his bodyguards left Madrid for what was then white-ruled Rhodesia.
During a technical stopover in Gabon, local troops threatened to arrest and extradite him to Albania, but desisted when they saw Leka wielding a bazooka. Shortly after his arrival, the charismatic Marxist guerrilla Robert Mugabe took power in Rhodesia, which would then change its name to Zimbabwe.
Leka left. “We would have been the best gift Mugabe could have for the government in Tirana,” he told The Independent journalist Matthew Sweet about his hasty subsequent exit to South Africa.
Apartheid South Africa was now the only African country still governed by a white minority, and was also the most developed on the continent.
Hundreds of thousands of whites fleeing black independence movements in Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique had taken refuge there. Anti-Communism was one of the central beliefs of the Pretoria government. South Africa invoked the red threat to cling to a system of racial segregation that denied the black majority their basic rights.
It was a natural destination for Leka. As he did in Franco’s Spain, the son of King Zog I obtained diplomatic and other privileges in South Africa. This good relationship bore fruit in 1982. When Leka’s wife gave birth to their only son in a hospital in Johannesburg, the government declared the maternity ward temporary Albanian soil to ensure the crown heir was born on Albanian territory.
South African journalist Chris Barron said the apartheid government thought Leka had a chance to rule Albania once the Communist regime fell. “They reasoned that, if this happened, Albania would be a useful friend in an increasingly hostile world,” the journalist wrote, referring to the international sanctions imposed against South Africa.
Besides diplomatic immunity, Leka was exempted from paying tax in South Africa and allowed to import cars, cameras, and “whatever else he wanted without paying import duties”.
The Pretoria government called Leka “Your Highness”, and he visited the Union Buildings from time to time to talk about politics with Foreign Minister Pik Botha. The local press considered him an exotic species, and wrote regularly about him.
He settled in the Bryanston, a wealthy suburb in Northern Johannesburg where he lived under strict security measures. Leka feared he might be assassinated by the Sigurimi, the Albanian political police, and claimed that Albanian agents followed him everywhere.
The pretender to the throne was surrounded by loyal bodyguards. “Leka’s royal guard is a mix of foreign mercenaries and hard-bitten Albanian mountain men – the sort of blood-feuding thugs that the lowland Albanians like to call ‘Chechens,”’ wrote Sweet for the Independent.
Leka had loved weapons since childhood. In another interview with Associated Press in his Bryanston house, he can be seen wearing a gun in a holster attached to his belt. In these images he looks more like a military commander than a king. Military maps of the Balkans hang on the walls of his office. An Albanian flag presides over the courtyard of the residence, a sober, rectangular bunker-like building. Leka speaks for the camera while smoking, a habit he shared with his wife and inherited from his chain-smoking father.
“Zog was said to have regularly consumed 200 cigarettes a day, giving him a possible claim to the dubious title of the world’s heaviest smoker in 1929,” reads the official website of the Albanian royal family.
After Albania got rid of its Communist dictatorship in the early 1990s, in 1993, Leka made an attempt to return to his country. He was refused entry. His passport was issued by his own royal court in exile and listed his occupation as “King of the Albanians”.
Four years later, when the Albanian government called a referendum on the restoration of the monarchy, Leka was allowed to go back and campaign. But 70 per cent of voters opted for a republic. Leka denounced the result as a fraud and led a protest dressed in camouflage fatigues and brandishing an Uzi submachine gun and a pistol.
One person died in armed clashes between his supporters and the police. Leka, who had returned to Johannesburg in a private jet, was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison for attempting to organize an armed insurrection.
Back in South Africa, the white government lost power in 1994, and the new black leftist administration was not sympathetic to the would-be king.
In 1999, he was arrested for possessing illegal weapons after police found an impressive arms cache that included grenade launchers, anti-personnel mines and 14,000 rounds of ammunition in his Johannesburg house.
“It was suspected for a long time that this guy was involved in some shady dealings,” a South African official told the Los Angeles Times. “This guy had connections all over the place.”
One of those connections was Dirk François Stoffberg, as the South African investigative journalist Jacques Pauw revealed in his book, Into the Heart of Darkness: Confessions of Apartheid’s Assassins.
Pauw described Stoffberg as a “former bank clerk and Sunday school teacher who became and international gunrunner”, but also as a “murderer, fraudster, smuggler, money launderer, spy and self confessed apartheid assassin”.
According to Pauw, Stoffberg and Leka had several meetings to discuss arming and training a guerrilla army that would invade Albania and overthrow the regime.
“In a letter to Stoffberg, Leka wrote about ‘the feasibility of training a unit of 300 men with a possibility of eventually accepting 1,500.’ Nothing ever came of it.”
The Albanian government eventually pardoned Leka. In 2002, he returned to his home country – not without 11 cases of grenades and automatics weapons that were seized on arrival.
Leka never gave up on his claim to the Albanian throne, but led an unusually quiet life in Tirana until his death in 2011.