In a forgotten state: shining a light on Guinea-Bissau

With so much ignorance surrounding the country, the new book Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to Narco-State arrives at the perfect time.

Credit: Antony Loewenstein.

On the beaches of Guinea-Bissau. Credit: Antony Loewenstein.

Despite being as poorly governed as Zimbabwe and Angola, and having some of the lowest social development indicators on the continent, Guinea-Bissau is one of Africa’s forgotten states. With a population of under two million people and life expectancy of just over 50 years, the tropical West African nation barely makes international headlines, seemingly destined to remain a nation with little to export except for cashews.

However, if the former Portuguese colony is known for one thing, it’s for being a central hub in the smuggling of cocaine from South America to Europe. The nation has been labelled a “narco-state” by the United Nations, with its state institutions – both government and military – known to consistently enable South American drug cartels to sell drugs across its borders.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has even claimed that Guinea-Bissau is the world’s only example of a narco-state, with one official commenting: “In Afghanistan and Colombia, individual provinces are in the hands of drug lords. Here, it’s the entire state.”

Also unlike Colombia, where chaos has helped drug cartels, it is the relative calm in Guinea-Bissau that has benefited the industry though political dysfunction is ubiquitous. Since independence in 1974, an elected leader is still yet to complete a full term, and it has now been a year since there has been a workable government in place. In 2009, President João Bernardo Vieira and an army chief-of-staff were assassinated, and since then a litany of military insurrections have cursed the nation with five separate individuals holding the top job at different times.

Guinea-Bissau’s financial state is also dire. In the words of Finance Minister Henrique Horta this June, “The economic situation of the country is catastrophic”. This has contributed to a situation in which the woefully under-paid army has often been a key conduit for smugglers, while much of the cocaine snorted in Europe will have passed through the hands of poor fishermen in Guinea-Bissau looking to make a few dollars a day.

Guinea-Bissau has few viable industries and despite the natural beauty of the Bissagos Islands, for example, tourism is minimal. Instead, drug traffickers utilise the remoteness of the islands to store and transport cocaine. On Bubaque, the main inhabited island, there are no paved roads but runways used by drug smugglers to bring in their product. In recent years, there has been a slowdown in business due to stronger policing, but previously, local men got a regular income from unloading cocaine from boats and small planes from South America.

In the hopes of encouraging economic development, the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have routinely given aid or loans. But this has instead facilitated corruption and led to a situation in which Guinea-Bissau is dependent on foreign aid for 80% of its annual budget. Even so, the IMF announced this September that it was considering giving yet more funds to a country with no functioning government.

Economically-speaking, China does seem to be looking to increase its engagement, and other countries are offering tentative support, but at it stands, the investment required to build up other industries such as tourism are simply unforthcoming.

Meanwhile, attempts to stop the nation being a drug transit point through more enforcement or legal have had mixed results. Through its Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, the US has invested huge resources. In 2014, this led to Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, former head of Guinea-Bissau’s navy, pleading guilty in an American court to importing narcotics into the US. But this high-profile case had little pay-off. Na Tchuto was sentenced to only four years in prison in October this year. With time already served, he was released back to Guinea-Bissau.

A Herculean task

With so much ignorance surrounding the country, the new book Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to Narco-State arrives at the perfect time. Edited by two academics from King’s College London – Patrick Chabal (who died in 2014) and Toby Green – the chapters examine the country’s history, politics and foreign relations. From agriculture and migration (many of its citizens flee across Africa and into Europe looking for employment opportunities) to the legacy of colonialism, Guinea-Bissau aims to highlight the rich history of one of Africa’s poorest countries.

This involves covering many difficulties facing the country, but as Green argues in his introduction, hope is not lost: “Unlike some of [its] neighbours such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Casamance region of Senegal, the country has not slipped into a prolonged civil war or rebellion”, he writes.

“Day-to-day life in the country remains peaceful, in contrast to the stereotyped image, and people frequently cooperate and marry across projected ‘ethnic divides’…The people have retained some autonomy and strength even through the worst passages of the political melt-down.”

Nevertheless, as the volume’s contributors explain by examining both historical and contemporary dynamics, Guinea-Bissau’s recent story is largely one of hopes dashed after independence and low expectations today.

Central to turning this around, of course, will be tackling the drug cartels, which are deeply embedded in the country’s political system. As Gambian historian Hassoum Ceesay explains: “While the narco-traffickers did not seize power, they were indeed extremely close to the centre of power; and while drugs did not run the country, traffickers took advantage of the state’s inherent weakness and exacerbated it by their presence.”

According to Ceesay, the only way to take the nation out of this morass is to reform the military, noting that without this, “it will be a Herculean task to set the country on the path of stability and growth.”

In her home on the outskirts of the capital Bissau, Dr Carmelita Pires, the former Minister of Justice, echoed this sentiment when we met in late-2015. “Until we have the capacity to organise, to establish authority, we will have drug smugglers coming to my country,” she said. “We need a consciousness uprising, to work hard.” I heard this message from people across the state, though few believed the current crop of political leaders were up to the task.

As long as global demand for drugs remains high, the illegal trade around it is all but guaranteed. And in Guinea-Bissau, weak justice systems, harsh prisons and corrupt policing can exacerbate the problem or create new ones rather than addressing the issue. Furthermore, given the flexibility of drug cartels, even if Guinea-Bissau, Guinea or Liberia were to become less favourable, other routes would grow in prominence, whether in West Africa or elsewhere.

More enlightened ideas such as decriminalising drugs in an attempt to reduce criminality and violence – as was done successfully in Portugal – currently have few supporters in Guinea-Bissau. But it may grow in popularity especially as many nations in Latin America also increasingly recognising the futility of trying to stop the drug trade through law enforcement.

As Green concludes, as long as Guinea-Bissau lacks economic and political stability, it “will continue to be seen as an ‘external threat’”. This means that ignoring the country and leaving it misunderstood should not be an option. In that sense, Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to Narco-State marks a small but invaluable step in the right direction.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian contributor and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).

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