‘Guinea-Bissau: A Narco-Developmental State?’ – A response to Marie Gibert’s article
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.
Response from Marie Gibert
Opening with the pithy one-line paragraph that my article is â€˜misleading at almost every levelâ€™, Toby Green and Peter R. Thompson then go on to misrepresent what I wrote, at almost every level.
My intention in the original piece was not, as accused, to paint a rosy picture of Guinea-Bissau – and a full reading of it would show that I did not – but to question the often facile interpretation of Guinea-Bissau politics through the â€˜narco-stateâ€™, and indeed â€˜failed stateâ€™, labels. Behind the widely (and often too easily) used concept of â€˜narco-stateâ€™ with regards to Guinea-Bissau, there is a much more complex political reality, one that is highly dysfunctional in some regards but may be more functional (and I think I was very cautious in my assertions there, but I will come back to this) than is generally expected in others.
On the concept of â€˜narco-stateâ€™, I think I was very careful to emphasise that there is clear evidence showing very preoccupying links between state and army officials and drug-trafficking networks. In fact, I am grateful to the editor of African Arguments for giving me the space to describe at the necessary length these suspected links and the many crises Guinea-Bissau has recently experienced. Beyond these obvious observations â€“ links between Guinea-Bissauâ€™s political elite and drug-trafficking and the countryâ€™s political crisis – however, I have several problems with the concept of â€˜narco-stateâ€™ as it is currently used to designate Guinea-Bissau:
1) It tends to suggest that the entire state apparatus has been taken over by the drug-trafficking industry, something I dispute (and so do Green and Thompson, when they rightly underline the daily struggles of many civil servants in Guinea-Bissau, who are neither paid regularly nor involved in the lucrative drug trade). What seems clear, on the other hand, is that narco-rents, like other external rents in West Africa (mineral resources, foreign aid), have increased the stakes and the competition for access to positions within the state and army elites. I therefore contend that the influence of the drug trade over politics in Guinea-Bissau is very real, but much more indirect than that generally suggested by the proponents of the â€˜narco-stateâ€™ label. In other words, it cannot be properly understood without reference to the political history of the country.
2) This label has also led many to believe that Guinea-Bissauâ€™s politics are to be analysed through the exclusive â€˜drug-trafficking gridâ€™. There again, my wish was to call for greater caution as Guinea-Bissau has a long history of personal rivalries and some events are not necessarily best explained through the influence of drug-trafficking networks (the assassinations of Tagme Na Wai and Vieira in March 2009 being a case in point). The fact that the â€˜narco-stateâ€™ label has too often been a pretext to neglect Guinea-Bissauâ€™s rich political history, and the complex relations between its army and civilian power, and between Bissau and the rest of the country, is, in my view, very problematic.
3) The link between the drug trade and Guinea Bissauâ€™s non-development is also far from clear. Sure, the country is extremely poor, and dysfunctional at many levels. Some of this can be traced to the detrimental effects of criminality. But was the country a haven of stability and prosperity before the drug trade arrived? Hardly. And what of other countries â€“ can a direct and causal link between poverty and crime be demonstrated? I doubt it. The relationship between criminality and development is a complex and non-linear one, something the â€˜narco-stateâ€™ label only serves to distort.
4) The â€˜narco-stateâ€™ concept, finally wrongly suggests that a transnational phenomenon such as drug-trafficking has been circumscribed to one state, when we know that it has gone across borders and affects the economies and politics of other states and cities. Many credible rumours thus partly attribute the recent construction boom in Dakar to the drug business and its money laundering needs â€“ and yet, no one refers to Dakar as a narco-capital.
As for painting a rosy picture of Guinea-Bissau… Once again, I think I took the time both to highlight the many recent crises the state has been through, but also the extreme fragility of the figures showing improvements in the health and education sectors. I also questioned the reliability of these figures, although some show such strong patterns that we should perhaps be cautious before rejecting them en masse, as Green and Thompson would seemingly ask us to do. These figures, and my piece, do not question the fact that life remains extremely difficult for most Bissau-Guineans, nor that levels of poverty and food insecurity are high throughout the country â€“ it will take many years with similar improvement levels to bring the daily reality of the population of Guinea-Bissau to anything close to satisfactory. In fact, the latest Integrated Light Household Survey shows that poverty and extreme poverty rates have increased from 65% to 69% and from 21% to 33% respectively, between 2002 and 2010 â€“ thus overall confirming some of the serious issues underlined by Green and Thompson. But an overall increase in poverty does not exclude improvements in other sectors â€“ in the health and education sectors, as I underlined in my original piece, but also in the production levels of staple foods such as rice and of Guinea-Bissauâ€™s main cash crop, cashew nuts. Recent figures published by the World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organisation all show that rice production has been increasing over the last four years, underlining some success in the developmental initiatives meant to curb the process of substitution of cash crops for food crops. The 2011 cashew season was the best ever with a record of upwards 150,000 tons produced and a season-closing price of FCFA520/kg, there again confirming (irregular) improvements noted over the last years. Again, if Green and Thompson wish to reject such figures en masse, they might first consider how they are gathered and the strengths and weaknesses of the methodologies used. I am sure the institutions involved, which are often more aware of the weaknesses than we might think, would be happy to engage in a discussion. In any case, whether these figures are more or less reliable than the evidence Green and Thompson present, with such insights as â€˜rudimentary livestock is often imported from other countriesâ€™ as if that somehow sets the country apart in West Africa and Africa more widely, is open to question.
Interestingly enough, there are reasons to believe that these recent increases in cashew production, while partly due to ongoing high levels in international demand and improved internal marketing and production capacity, may also have been stimulated by drug-money, with the same people involved in drug-transport through Guinea-Bissau laundering their earnings in the cashew sector. Of course we must treat such insights with great caution, and it is not my intention to suggest that this allegedly slight positive effect could offset the negative consequences of drug-trafficking in the country. But once again, this observation suggests a more complex and qualified reading of the links between drug-trafficking and Guinea-Bissauâ€™s political and economic scenes.
This, once again, shows that whatever the degree of penetration of drug-trafficking networks into Guinea-Bissau, it has not led to complete economic and political collapse and the state, while worryingly weak, remains functional in some regards (with the support, to a great extent, of foreign aid and organisations). It also shows that the political instability of the last years â€“ which some have directly attributed to narco-trafficking â€“ has not necessarily been synonymous with a linear deterioration of the populationâ€™s welfare. The evidence provided by Green and Thompson, on the other hand, while rightly underlining some of the many daily issues that many Bissau-Guineans face, cannot be used to draw any causal link between narco-trafficking and a worsening socio-economic situation. The salary arrears they cite date back to Kumba Ialaâ€™s time in office (2000-2003) and successive governments have since put much effort into paying them, with increased success for Carlos Gomes Juniorâ€™s current government. The very poor state of the subsistence agriculture and the heavy presence of foreign traders are two features that go back long into Guinea-Bissauâ€™s colonial and post-colonial past. This was the main objective of my reflections â€“ to invite analysts to think beyond the â€˜narco-trafficking –> political instability –> negative developmentâ€™ cycle that has too often been taken for granted and, instead, look at the rich and fascinating complexity of Guinea-Bissauâ€™s political history and reality.
It is kind of Green and Thompson to encourage me to go to Guinea-Bissau. I will undoubtedly be travelling there in the near future, to update an understanding based on many years of research, and five years living in West Africa, including fieldwork in Guinea-Bissau itself.
 My thanks go to Alexandre Abreu, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), for suggesting this perspective.
 On this, I would encourage those reading in French to have a look at Vincent Foucherâ€™s excellent piece entitled â€˜GuinÃ©e-Bissau : la coke dope le pouvoirâ€™, Alternatives Internationales (49), December 2010, which tries to unravel the links between drug-trafficking and politics in Guinea-Bissau and offers a very good analysis of what we know and do not know.
 On this, see, for example, C. Cramer (2006), Civil War Is Not a Stupid Thing: Accounting for Violence in Developing Countries, London: Hurst.
 My thanks go to Richard Moncrieff, South African Institute of International Affairs, for pointing this out.
 Ministry of the Economy and Regional Integration of Guinea-Bissau (2011), InquÃ©rito Ligeiropara AvaliaÃ§Ã£o da Pobreza, p. 8.
 World Food Programme (2011), RÃ©sultat de lâ€™enquÃªte approfondie sur la sÃ©curitÃ© alimentaire et la vulnÃ©rabilitÃ© des mÃ©nages ruraux, p. 30.
 My thanks go to Alexandre Abreu, SOAS, for providing these figures and the above sources.
 My thanks go to Vincent Foucher, International Crisis Group, for this interesting observation.