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Guinea-Bissau: Traffickers’ Paradise?

6 October 2010 6 October 2010 Tags: , , No Comment Print This Post Print This Post

The West African country of 1.6 million people, Guinea-Bissau, is on a crossroad of its history: all the hopes of those who love that country, many of whom are exiled, seem to hang on the yet unresolved impasse of it’s internal corruption. The state corruption phenomenon is not unique to Guinea-Bissau. Other West African countries, despite their vast natural and human resources, and a progress made in the last decade toward the establishment of democratic culture and governing systems, continue to occupy the bottom ranks of a democratic development maturity. Similarly, many of them score poorly in relative indexes that measure good governance. Guinea-Bissau remains one of the 6 most corrupted states in Africa, followed by Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Chad and Somalia, and ranked 162nd for corruption perceptions in the world.

The international mass media have recently highlighted the role most of West Africa play in the transatlantic drug trade. Drug users, mainly European in this case, created a substantial market that, in turn, created a substantial traffic involving mainly cocaine. Participants of drug trafficking into EU often end as illegal immigrants adding to the total numbers of about half a million illegal immigrants entering the EU each year. EU officials have said that the bloc must try and attract economic migrants, particularly those who are highly skilled, to compensate for falling birth rates and an aging population. Illegal immigration related to drug trafficking taints negatively the perceptions of migrants in EU in spite of the fact that almost all illegal immigrants are decent people migrating there in search of better lives for themselves and their families left behind.

By default, drug trafficking always progressively erodes the foundations of any sustainable and balanced development. The pervasive power of the corruption of criminal organizations, coupled with a general crisis of a state, progressively diminishes trust, security and justice. In that context, the case of Guinea-Bissau is probably the clearest example of what West African states may face in the near future if all the serious problems of security and justice are not properly and promptly addressed.

The troubled path Guinea-Bissau is currently on started with great hopes. The Guinea-Bissau state became officially established 36 years ago  after the collapse of Portugal’s dictatorship and Luis Cabral became the president. His effectiveness, however, was greatly weakened by a widespread hunger in the country in the late 1970s and following gradual deterioration of hopes, triggered a crippling era of military insurgencies, coups and counter coups. Luis Cabral was overthrown by his prime minister, Joao Bernardo Vieira, in 1980, when a military-dominated revolutionary council took control. Cabral was jailed and ended in exile in Cuba and then in Portugal. In 1994, Vieira, under foreign pressure to bring democracy, held and won a multi-party presidential election. Four years later, a failed coup attempt lead to civil war and Vieira won military support from the wneighbor countries. In the process thousand were killed. A year later, soldiers toppled Vieira, who flees into exile, and Kumba Yala, a former philosophy professor, won presidential election after a transition period. Four years later, the army again seizesd power pledging to restore order after repeated delays to elections and Yala was forced to step down.

In 2005 Vieira won election to return as president. Not incidentally, crack addiction, that has been an unknown plague in Guinea-Bissau, started claiming victims in 2007 when international drug traffickers started to target the country. Since then, hundreds of people living in Bissau’s slums have become addicts. Prostitution increased substantially, consequently generating a new wave of HIV that became just another face of drug trafficking there.

The election and rule of President Viera seem to be the center piece of the complex situation Guinea-Bissau is currently involved in. Viera’s election, consequent escalation of international drug trafficking  and attempts to suppress internal forces trying of stop the trafficking business are well documented. In 2008 President Viera became aware of his Generals gradually gaining power and control and began eliminating those who were opposing him while showing the Latin American drug cartels that the Guinea-Bissau was still a convenient place for their business. Four years later after his election President Vieira’s rule was brought to a bloody end in March 2009 when renegade soldiers entered his palace and shot him dead, reportedly to avenge the killing of the Army Chief, Na Waie – a key critic of Viera since 2005, hours earlier. Na Waie reportedly survived an assassination attempt in January, when a militia assigned to the presidential palace opened fire on his staff car, although the militiamen denied it was an assassination attempt.

The body of Guinea-Bissau armed forces chief of staff, Batista Tagme Na Wai, was buried in Bissau, capital of Guinea-Bissau, March 8, 2009. Guinea-Bissau's President Vieira was assassinated early on March 2 after his army chief Na Wai was killed in an explosion on March 1, 2009. (Source: Xinhua)

The power struggles of Guinea-Bissau continue rapidly through 2009 and 2010 in a sequence of interrelated events outlined below.

2 March – President Joao Bernardo Vieira is shot dead by renegade soldiers, hours after a bomb attack which killed the army’s chief of staff, General Tagme Na Waie;

June – First round of presidential polls. Days earlier, military police killed one of the candidates in bid to foil a “coup”.

July – Malam Bacai Sanha wins presidential election in a run-off.

April – Mutinous soldiers briefly detain Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior and replace the armed forces chief.

Consequently, EU announced it will not extend a mission to help reform Bissau’s security forces as the country has failed to respect the rule of law since the army mutiny in April 2010.

The current complex socio-political reality of the Guinea-Bissau include interlinked network of corrupt officials, members of the military and police, Latin American drug traffickers and local gangsters who are entangled in a high-stake power struggle game similar to the scenario observed in Columbia in the past and, recently, in Mexico. Such a situation is pron to unleash a turf war that typically include escalation of violence and corruption on the highest levels that, with time, become practically impossible to control.  Additionally, that war involves great many young people. They are inexperienced in the hardcore high-level international drug trafficking yet, but are determined to find a quick alternative to living in poverty. Like the Italian Mafia of the past, the corrupted elements often gain a status of “local heroes” especially to those who indirectly benefit materially from the cocaine trafficking.

Source: The Africa Report (p.9)


While the international community cannot dictate how Guinea-Bissau should manage its internal politics, it should be made clear to the Guinea-Bissau leadership that political stability remains a prerequisite for continued financial and other assistance. Fundamental changes to the way in which the country is run are urgent and required now – once criminalization infects the state apparatus and the society, the related challenges become infinitely greater and practically impossible to meet for years to come. Guinea-Bissau natives, especially those who are currently exiled in the USA, active normally in Portuguese-speaking  on-line communities, may indeed benefit from turning more attention of  the English-speaking public and exposing to them the current struggles of their beloved homeland.

Written by Mark Bajkowski
Mark, born in Poland, is a Jack of all trades, master of none, who lives in New York since 1979. Mark has an unusually wide range of interests and is known to relate well to the people half of his age. Since his early childhood, he felt a curious relation to Africa, which unavoidably brings up the controversial subject of multiple-life experiences.


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