Guinea-Bissau has repeatedly, over the past few years, been dubbed a ‘narco-state’. This label has tended to be associated with the image of a dysfunctional ‘failed’ state. Yet, a recent report published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank shows remarkable improvements in the country’s health and education sectors and calls for a more qualified understanding of the country’s politics.
The evidence that supported the “narco-state” label was generally sketchy, but nevertheless undeniable. As in other West African countries, the Bissau-Guinean police have seized a number of major drug shipments from traffickers and planes – generally originating from Latin America and headed to Europe – in past years. Expensive cars allegedly owned by drug-traffickers or their allies were also seen in ever greater numbers in the streets of Bissau. The ‘narco-state’ tag was further strengthened by visible links between representatives of the state and drug-trafficking networks, as some of the arrested traffickers and seized drugs later vanished from the state’s prisons and coffers, with no explanation forthcoming from the Bissau-Guinean authorities. Another sign of criminal state complicity was in the rapid and ostensible enrichment of some of Guinea-Bissau’s senior military officers.
Although the government of Guinea-Bissau has signalled its willingness to address the issue, the series of political crises since 2009 has made this task very difficult. In spite of the peaceful legislative and presidential elections that took place in November 2008 and June-July 2009, the coup attempts, political assassinations and army mutinies during the same period underlined the persistent and violent rivalries in Guinea-Bissau’s political leadership.
The assassinations, on 1st March 2009, of the head of the armed forces, General Batista Tagme Na Wai, and of the president, João Bernardo (“Nino”) Vieira, paradoxically raised hopes. Many thought that the personal antagonism between the two men accounted in great part for the political paralysis preventing essential reforms, first and foremost in the security sector. In spite of the violence that preceded and marked the subsequent presidential election campaign, the smooth running of the two election rounds and the unanimous, domestic and international, recognition of its result – the election of Malam Bacai Sanhá, of the ruling party PAIGC – as democratic and transparent, raised hope that Guinea-Bissau was finally entering a new era of peace and greater prosperity.
The return in December 2009 of Rear-Admiral José Américo Bubo na Tchuto – who had been accused of organising a failed coup attempt in August 2008 and had taken refuge in The Gambia – and the army mutiny organised by some of his allies the following April, however, cast a further shadow on Guinea-Bissau’s future. The events led to the dismissal of Chief of Staff General Zamora Induta, who had been appointed following his predecessor’s assassination and had promised to proceed with the long awaited reform of the army. It also saw the reinstatement of Rear-Admiral Bubo na Tchuto, cleared from charges of coup attempt and involvement in drug-trafficking activities by a military court, at his old position at the head of the country’s navy, and the rise of his ally General António Indjai.
Many analysts have seen in these events the hand of a narco-trafficking mafia eager to prevent any political reform that could lead to repression of their activities and to protect their accomplices within the army and civilian administration. While the influence of narco-trafficking over the current power relations in Guinea-Bissau cannot be doubted, the direct involvement of narco-traffickers in the above crises is still the object of much speculation. Analysts and journalists alike hastily drew on some rumours – for example that the bomb that killed General Tagme Na Wai in March 2009 was made in Thailand, a country known for its involvement in the international drug trade – to draw a link that we should still treat with the greatest caution.
Nonetheless, the events of 2009 and 2010 have come to confirm Guinea-Bissau’s narco-state label in the minds of many international actors. This has had, overall, negative consequences for Guinea-Bissau as the international community has been increasingly reluctant to support a country with such an uncertain political future. Most notably, in 2010 the EU decided to withdraw its initial plans to follow up EUSSR Guinea-Bissau (a mission in support of security sector reform), with another,similar mission. In reaction to the official appointment of mutiny leaders at the head of the army, the EU subsequently opened an article 96 consultation procedure with Guinea-Bissau, which could eventually lead to a definitive suspension of EU development aid. While there may therefore have been a time when the spotlight drawn on narco-trafficking suited Guinea-Bissau’s political leadership – providing renewed international interest in the small country and averting eyes away from its long-time, unsolved political rivalries – this is hardly the case now, and Guinea-Bissau seems increasingly isolated.
However, not all donors have turned their backs. The Bretton Woods institutions have remained consistently present in the country, with IMF staff continuing regular visits to the country. And the government of Guinea-Bissau carried on with the implementation of the economic and administrative reforms agreed with the IMF and the World Bank. This is remarkable, given the political atmosphere of the last years and the general – and seemingly sensible – belief that political instability and violence necessarily disrupt governmental action.
What is more, the IMF, World Bank and government’s joint efforts seem to have produced measurable, positive results for the welfare of the country’s population. In their joint staff advisory note on the second annual progress report of Guinea-Bissau’s poverty reduction strategy paper (PRSP) published in December 2010, the IMF and World Bank teams thus note that the country has made significant progress with respect to most indicators covering education and health, Quoting figures obtained from the Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS) conducted by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2010, they underline that primary school enrolment rates rose from 42% in 2000 to 45% on 2006 and 65% in 2010. Gender equality in education has followed a similar trend, with the ratio of girls’ to boys’ enrolment expanding from 0.67 in 2000 to 0.83 in 2006 to 0.94 in 2010. The illiteracy rate among women of 15-24 years has accordingly decreased from 83% in 2000 to 61% in 2010. Results are also impressive in the health sector, with child mortality falling from 223 deaths per 1,000 births in 2006 to 155 in 2010. The cholera awareness and prevention programme led by the national health authorities and their NGO partners also seem to have effectively prevented any new outbreaks in 2009 and 2010.
The IMF-World Bank report attributes these improvements to broadening access to social services thanks to government reforms supported by NGOs and the private sector. Among these, the report quotes the elimination of school fees and the introduction of school feeding programmes in most primary schools, large-scale vaccination campaigns, the effective distribution of bed nets and improvements in health facilities, as well as an incentive premium for healthcare workers operating in isolated rural areas (and its effective payment).
Although this positive assessment must be treated with great care – all specialists of Africa know how unreliable such figures can be – it does call for more caution in our descriptions and analyses of states like Guinea-Bissau, which many would hastily call ‘failed’. It is important to note, first, that dynamic governmental action, supported by external and private actors and no doubt also strengthened by Guinea-Bissau’s history of state presence in rural areas, can result in significant improvements in health and education over a remarkably short period of time. While these short-term results remain terribly fragile and insufficient, they indicate that adequate – and sufficiently supported – governmental action can have a significant social impact extremely quickly.
Second, while the Bissau-Guinean state may be ‘failed’ enough, notably in the security sector, to attract narco-trafficking interests, it clearly seems to have been strong enough to lead an effective campaign in two sectors that are of vital importance to the country’s population. This is not to say that the recent political events, and the many signs of narco-trafficking’s pervasive influence in Guinea-Bissau are not extremely worrying – indeed, the IMF and World Bank teams underline that political instability has repeatedly compromised the ability of the government to provide essential public goods and services and has contributed to the exodus of qualified personnel. Nevertheless, this shows that a state can be failed in certain – especially politically sensitive – sectors and remain, or become effective again, in others. Perhaps more importantly, it shows that a state can continue to function, at least partially, in the kind of ‘no peace-no war’ situation that Guinea-Bissau has been experiencing for many years.
Finally, these recent improvements in Guinea-Bissau’s health and education sectors call on donors and journalists/analysts alike to be extremely weary of easy and quick labelling tendencies. Guinea-Bissau’s security sector is indisputably in need of a reform that would, inter alia, put an end to narco-trafficking’s detrimental influence on the country’s politics. It is also clear that this reform is unlikely without a strong political will, at the heads of both the state and the army. The above results obtained by the government in adverse political conditions also seem to indicate, however, that there may be a greater need for constructive – and possibly selective and target-orientated – external support than for all-encompassing sanctions and conditions on the part of donors. Not least because a government able to make a significant difference in the daily lives of its citizens will no doubt be more popular and thus have a strong advantage over a still reform-resistant army.
Marie Gibert is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
 E. Bernard (2008), ‘Guinea-Bissau: Drug Boom, Lost Hope’, Open Democracy, 13th September 2008; see also M. Vernaschi’s widely publicised photo-reportage on drug-trafficking in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Bissau: West Africa’s New Achilles’ Heel, Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, May 2009, http://pulitzercenter.org/projects/africa/guinea-bissau-west-africas-new-achilles-heel,.
 In 2006, 674 kg of cocaine disappeared from a ministry of finance safe after it had been seized from traffickers. In 2006 again, two Colombians arrested in the country’s largest ever drugs haul were released without charge, and in September 2007, another Colombian suspect walked free two weeks after being arrested in possession of weaponry and large amounts of cash. In August 2008, a Bissau-Guinean judge ordered the liberation, on bail, of four suspects arrested after more than 500 kg of cocaine had been seized at Bissau airport. The four suspects fled the country and it remains unclear what happened to the drugs. In November 2010, three military officers and a police officer were arrested at a military camp in possession of cocaine. As in previous cases, however, their fate has remained unclear.
 In 2007-2011, the Bissau-Guinean authorities announced the creation of an inter-ministerial commission in charge of investigating the involvement of politicians in drug-trafficking, a special council to oversee the national strategy to combat drug-trafficking, various special police units against drug-trafficking and an anti-narcotics agency. These apparent signs of the government’s determination to address the issue, however, have often been contradicted by other, more consequential decisions, such as the sacking, in June 2007, of the chief of the judiciary police who was widely regarded as the country’s most effective officer in the fight against drug-trafficking, or judges’ decision to release suspected drug-traffickers.
 Meanwhile, the Council of the European Union authorised the European Commission, in September 2010, to open negotiations with Guinea-Bissau for the renewal of the fisheries partnership agreement – a major source of revenue for the government.
 International Monetary Fund and World Bank (2010), Guinea-Bissau: Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper – Second Annual Progress Report – Joint Staff Advisory Report, IMF Country Report No. 10/381, 22nd December 2010, available online: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/cat/longres.aspx?sk=24534.0, pp. 2-3 and 7.
 Providing health and education services to the remotest parts of the country was part of the PAIGC and its leader, Amilcar Cabral’s, strategy to gather popular support during the guerrilla it led against Portugal and to start building a state worthy of becoming independent in the eyes of the international community. See P. Chabal (2003), Amilcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War, London: Hurst.
 IMF and World Bank (2010), op. cit., p. 10.