By Toby Green and Peter R. Thompson
Marie Gibert’s article published in African Arguments (“Guinea-Bissau: A Narco-Developmental State?”, 24th May 2011 – read here) is a classic example of how to construct a misleading portrayal of a country on the basis of “objective” economic and social indicators. We would like to make it clear at the outset that we have never met the author, and indeed would like to encourage all researchers to enhance international understanding of the country, as Dr Gibert has tried to do. Our main concern is simply that an accurate portrayal of Guinea-Bissau reaches an informed audience.
Dr Gibert contends that the development indicators collated by the UN and other non-governmental agencies warns against accepting facile tags such as that Guinea-Bissau is a “narco-state”. She notes that these suggest that primary school enrolment is rising, that the gender balance of pupils enrolled is becoming more equitable, and that there are marked improvements in rates of literacy among young women and in healthcare. However, she has little to say about the “narco-state” epithet itself, beyond the fact that it should not mislead informed and interested observers about the true state of the country.
Unfortunately, however, Dr Gibert’s article is misleading at almost every level.
We will begin by analysing the question of the involvement of the political hierarchy with drug-trafficking. Many informed international observers, not least the United Nations and the White House, have suggested that facets of the political establishment at every level are complicit in narcotics trafficking. Another area of concern for the international community is the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of the country’s parliament, theoretically opening the door for the facilitation of illicit activity and abuse of power. To call Guinea-Bissau a “narco-state” is therefore merely a reflection of this reality. However, there are a few signs which give grounds for optimism: recently, a new deal was signed by the President, Malam Bacai Sanha, and the Prime Minister, Carlos Gomes Junior, as to how the politicians of the country will tackle the drugs trafficking issue. A new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Guinea-Bissau has been established in the United Kingdom parliament, strongly welcomed by the UN and the wider international community, and one of its foci will be the issue of the drugs problem as well as the related matter of security sector reform. This should not come as a surprise; the UK Home Office has estimated that half of all the cocaine entering British shores is being trafficked through West Africa.
Dr Gibert has little to say on these key questions, but the reality is that these are fast-changing issues and they cannot merely be swatted aside with the unsubstantiated view that those calling Guinea-Bissau a “narco-state” are just giving the country a misnomer. Important though the drugs question is, it is really of secondary importance to the core of Dr Gibert’s article, which is that these issues are a distraction from the key question of how the running of the state is affecting and benefitting the people of Guinea-Bissau. On her reading, the reality is far rosier than the general international perception of the country might suggest. What she calls “dynamic government action” has allowed the government to remain “effective” in its provision of basic social and educational services.
We would love to be able to concur with this view, but sadly we are unable to. Both of the authors of this article spend extended periods in the country and the reality is that the both the state and the economy of the country are in a state of dysfunction. The availability of micro-credit is so tenuous that many of the small retailers and stores in Bissau and small towns around the country are owned by foreigners, generally from Guinea-Conakry, Mauritania and Senegal. The criminal justice system is in a parlous state, with police unable to fuel their vehicles, the integrity of criminal trials endlessly disputed, and detainee rights within the military justice system a serious cause for concern. The subsistence agriculture sector is in collapse; rudimentary domestic livestock is often imported from neighbouring countries, while chickens are sold at local markets for three times the price of a corn-fed chicken in a British supermarket. The major cash crop – the cashew nut – is often bartered with foreign traders for rice, even though for centuries rice has been the staple crop of the people. Meanwhile, senior government officials often have no access to the Internet and some members of parliament are illiterate. Ministries struggle to pay their rent, and civil servants (including teachers) can often still go without payment for months on end. This inevitably makes it impossible for them to effectively monitor the provision of programmes and the delivery of education services, such as those lauded by Dr Gibert.
At the political level, meanwhile, the country is in a state of perpetual crisis. Division pervades the upper echelons of government, with senior figures often better able to talk to an opposition party than to a colleague in their own. This political paralysis has had a further knock-on effect on the morale of civil servants charged with delivering programmes, many of whom themselves struggle to feed their children on their unpaid wages whilst trying to roll out anti-poverty strategies devised by international organisations.
In short, the government of Guinea-Bissau is in a very real crisis. The state is paralysed, and the drugs industry has provided an outlet for a political class which increasingly sees little point in trying to engage with an international system that does not seem to want to engage with them. It is easy to write theoretically positive news about a much maligned and desperately poor country, but we both believe that Dr Gibert’s article could only have been written by someone who has not had the opportunity to visit the country in person. We hope that Dr Gibert will attempt to rectify this in the near future, so that she can observe the realities on the ground for herself.
Toby Green, a widely published historian, is in the Departments of History and Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at King’s College London. He is Director of Institutional Relations at the Amilcar Cabral Institute of Economic and Political Research.
Peter R. Thompson, a businessman and commentator on African economic and political affairs, is the founder and president of the Amilcar Cabral Institute, an affiliate of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for West African Studies and the Secretariat of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Guinea-Bissau.