As Senegalese voters patiently awaited the results of their own nerve-wracking run-off between incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade and his protégé-turned-rival Macky Sall, another heated contest brewed just south of the border in conflict-ridden Guinea Bissau. In a country where citizens are used to coups, assassination plots, and election rigging, Bissau-Guineans must have been asking themselves: if countries such as Senegal, which have for years positioned themselves as beacons of democratic stability were teetering on the edge of a political meltdown, what hope then is there for Guinea-Bissau, a country which has earned the embarrassing moniker of “Africa’s first Narco-State”? Although Senegal has since seen Wade peacefully concede election to Sall, Guinea-Bissau’s narrative appears at first glance to be far more hopeless.

To begin with, five out of the nine candidates who are battling for the seat of late president Malam Bacai Sanhà, who died following a long illness in hospital in Paris on 09 January 2012, have recently announced that they will boycott the upcoming run-off expected to take place on 22 April 2012, following what they deemed were unfair and corrupt first round elections on 18 March 2012. As it stands, provisional election results indicate that ex-prime minister Carlos Gomes Junior is leading the first round of the race with 49% of the vote, whilst former president Kumba Yala, one of the five who say they will not participate in the run-off, is in a distant second with 23% of the vote. Whilst for many international observers, the fact that Gomes, a former prime minister and member of the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, is in first is a positive, the reality is that Gomes, even if he were to ultimately win the presidency, faces a war on many sides.

For one, Gomes is likely to continue to face political competition from Yala, a man who for all accounts does not give in easily, underscored by the fact that he is still interested in holding office even after being ousted in a bloody military coup in 2003. Yala appears particularly adamant about the fact that the Guinea-Bissau elections were rigged even though international election observers by and large have indicated that the election appeared to have been free and fair. Most recently he told BBC’s Focus on Africa programme: “We have evidence that [Carlos Gomes] rigged the vote… and we will show them to the authorities”. Whether or not the election was rigged by Gomes, the fact that Yala and others remain stubborn in their positions raises the spectre of another coup, a possible scenario which should not be taken lightly, especially as just hours after the polls closed, the country’s former head of military intelligence, Colonel Samba Diallo, was found shot dead near his home. Diallo’s death is only one intriguing layer in a complicated story filled with shady drug deals, bought positions and violent overthrows. In the end, even if Yala were to step aside peacefully, Gomes must govern a country riddled with corruption and drug trafficking.

The Rise of Africa’s First Narco-State

Guinea-Bissau is a deeply impoverished country, which has for decades since gaining independence from Portugal in 1973, struggled to find its place in West Africa. As some nations, including Senegal, appeared slowly, but surely, to transition towards a relatively stable democracy, Guinea-Bissau has became something of a stereotype of Western Africa: a country riddled with violence and political instability. To make matters worse, not only has the nation been beset with back-to-back coups, Guinea-Bissau has recently started to earn a name for itself in the narcotics trade. This is due to a variety of factors, including the country’s endemic poverty, its lax security (the country does not have a large enough navy to police its waters), as well as its geography: the country’s vast and small islands make shipping drugs from South America to Western Africa relatively easy as planes or ships from Columbia, Venezuela or Brazil can easily drop products on the islands whilst speedboats are on standby, ready to quickly pick up the drugs and take them further onshore. Additionally, as the aftermath of the US’ War on Drugs has increasingly forced Latin American drug cartels to shift away their routes into Western Africa, countries such as Ghana and Guinea-Bissau have become attractive strategy launching grounds for European markets. Out of the two, Guinea-Bissau has risen towards becoming a drug trafficking hub, where narcotics are often smuggled into Europe via commercial planes through a complicated series of deals whereby locals often pay others cash and cocaine to move the product north. Such a lucrative trade, which according to the United Nations, sees as much as $1US billion a year of cocaine funnelled from the West African country into Europe, has had a knock on effect throughout the country, as most Bissau-Guineans are indirectly tied to this narcotic economy, either through dealing drugs themselves or by sadly becoming consumers for the deadly product.

A Drug-Fuelled Political System Emerges

As many factors contributed to the rise of Guinea-Bissau’s position as Africa’s first Narco-State, politicians, or perhaps more accurately, wannabe drug lords, were in the sidelines waiting to cash in. Whilst Guinea-Bissau has steadily become riddled in drug related violence, drugs have been spotted away in many government buildings, including military bases where officials have reportedly engaged in drug deals themselves. In the past, when honest security officials tried to investigate cocaine seizures on military bases, they were often met with death threats. Concern that high-ranking military personnel have been engaging in drug deals was underscored by reports published by the US Treasury Department in 2010, which declared that Rear Adm. Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto and Gen. Ibraima Papa Camara, were “drug traffickers”. Even Sanhà’s ascension to power came as a result of drug-related violence. In 2009, Sanhà replaced his predecessor João Bernardo Vieira, the self-titled as “God’s gift” to Guinea Bissau, who was “savagely beaten before being finished off with several bullets” following a clash between rival General Batista Tagme Na Waie, both whom were accused of being linked to the cocaine industry. Meanwhile, Guinea-Bissau’s increasing leadership in the cocaine industry has had wider geopolitical ramifications, with the UN and Interpol having now provided detailed evidence that many militant groups, such as the Lebanese-based Hezbollah, as well as Gaza’s Hamas, are using funds derived from drug deals to support their operations. Officials from both international agencies are using Guinea-Bissau as a hub to transport drugs obtained from the Lebanese Shia community in South America for resell in Europe.

Going Forward:

By most analysts’ accounts, Gomes is expected to win Guinea-Bissau’s run-off on 22 April 2012. However, as indicated earlier, he has lot on his plate in the months ahead. First, Gomes must survive any political attacks (and potential coups) from his rival Yala. If he makes it through this stage, Gomes must then seek to balance the country’s delicate political ecosystem, by implementing tougher security reforms with the assistance of the international community, without upsetting the military, a group which effectively govern the country. In the end, Guinea-Bissau’s future is unlikely to resemble that of neighbouring Senegal, which appears at least for now, to have upheld its reputation as a regional leader in democracy.


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