Drug Boom, Lost Hope
Drug Boom, Lost Hope
Guinea-Bissau: Transition after the Coup
Guinea-Bissau: Transition after the Coup
Op-Ed / Africa 6 minutes

Drug Boom, Lost Hope

The expansion of drug-trafficking networks in west Africa is further corroding Guinea-Bissau's institutions to produce the region's first narco-state, says Emmanuelle Bernard of the International Crisis Group.

Guinea-Bissau is most likely the world's next narco-state. The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that much of the forty tons of cocaine that transits west Africa every year on its way from South America to Europe passes through the country. The traffickers are attracted by the weakness of Guinea-Bissua's political and administrative institutions. For their part, aid donors - concerned by political instability and public mismanagement - have been reluctant to provide financial support to tackle these core weaknesses. A brief moment of hope in 2007 that this might change was crushed. It may not return soon.

The memory hole

Until recently, few in the west remembered that this tiny former Portuguese colony even existed. In the early 1970s, journalists flocked to the country to report on the jungle war led by Marxist guerrillas against the colonists; it even had a certain cultural presence in the west, as in the French film director Chris Marker's extraordinary essay-documentary Sans Soleil. But after independence in 1974, Guinea-Bissau became just another poor African country struggling to build a state and a viable economy. International attention was lost as quickly as it had been found, and the country went practically unnoticed through three decades of repeated coups d'état and an internal conflict in 1998-99.

That was until drug-trafficking in the area grew by staggering proportions. Traditionally, South American traffickers smuggled cocaine via central America and the Caribbean to the United States and across the Atlantic to Europe. But with declining markets and tighter law-enforcement in north America and higher demand and wholesale prices in western Europe, traffickers sought ways to step up supply to Europeans and found in west Africa a new and safer channel to this fast-growing market. By 2005, Guinea-Bissau had become a hub, and cocaine seizures in the region have grown at least forty times even since 2005.

After spending billions on counter-drug policies such as Plan Colombia and the European Union's drugs strategy (2005-12), western countries are worried the west Africa drug route could undermine years of hard work. But the challenge of combating this new trend is considerable. The country's political and administrative structures are insufficient to guarantee control of its territory. Its police force is under-resourced, and its justice system entirely inefficient. Significant sections of the military work with the traffickers, and many suspect high level politicians are also involved. Even when the police manage, often by chance, to seize drugs, the judiciary then fail to play their part. The drugs disappear, and the suspects walk away.

The reform pact

With political and institutional failures at the root of the proliferation of criminal networks in Guinea-Bissau, attempts at tackling drug-trafficking, even at a transnational level, will not prevent the country's ongoing criminalisation. This is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise. Its state institutions must be consolidated if the country is to avoid becoming the world's newest narco-state.

Donors have realised this but have found it difficult to help. Guinea-Bissau has long been labelled a poor development partner due to its years of political instability. Extreme mismanagement and erratic governmental policy have already led the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to break relations with the country in 2001, cutting off the flow of donor aid in the process. Since then, the international community has been reluctant to resume aid. A donor roundtable in Lisbon in 2005 gathered only a pathetic one million euros in pledges -- which were never even delivered. The following roundtable in Geneva in November 2006 was more successful, with 175 million euros in pledges made largely because of increased concerns about the proliferation of the drug trade. But continuing political instability and social tension remained an obstacle to the actual delivery of funds.

This cycle of instability and the lack of donor confidence could have been broken last year. In March 2007, the parliament, historically powerless against the will of the executive, made an unprecedented demonstration of institutional strength. The three major parties in the legislature signed a pact which gave them enough leverage to force the president, after weeks of negotiations, to appoint a new prime minister and a government of consensus.

With the stability pact and a consensus government working hard at building international confidence, relations with the Bretton Woods institutions revived. The IMF noted "the commitment made by the government in restoring control of public finances and implementing essential structural measures". This was the green light international donors needed to unblock funds for the country. Reforms could at last be funded to rebuild and strengthen the administrative and security sectors - both key elements of the transition towards a fully functioning state.

Legislative elections, originally scheduled for April 2008, were supposed to be a milestone on the country's long-hoped-for return to stability. But with a new government freshly in place and absolutely no money in the coffers, parliament, the international community and even the president quickly agreed that more time was needed to prepare. The parliament's mandate was extended by consensus, and a new election date was set: 16 November 2008. The government continued to work on priority reforms, and the donors continued to promise and give money.

But this momentum has ground to a halt. On 26 July 2008, the stability pact collapsed when one of its three parties withdrew, triggering a deep political crisis. In the following days, President Joao Bernardo Vieira seized the opportunity to dissolve parliament after the supreme court ruled its extension unconstitutional. This automatically led to the fall of the government and opened the way for the president to replace the prime minister, Martino N'Dafa Cabi, and most of the consensus government and those closely associated with it.

This new political crisis is a cause for serious concern. Donors should be worried that the signs of the leadership's determination to restore stability have gone. The previous government, though not perfect, made considerable achievements in cleaning up the country's finances, reassuring donors who had long lost incentives to support the country and launching key reforms to consolidate the state and its institutions. In doing so, it had begun to lay the essential groundwork needed to curb the proliferation of criminal networks on its territory.

Since the government was replaced, the new prime minister, Carlos Correia, has tried to sustain donors' confidence, arguing that legislative elections will still take place as scheduled and that they remain the number one priority of his office. But elections are not a panacea - especially in circumstances where even the country's attorney-general can be threatened for investigating a single drugs scandal. The state authorities and donors alike should be worried about the consequences of current developments in Guinea-Bissau.

The trafficked state

The full impact of the crisis will be felt in the run-up to the scheduled elections in November. The early signs are ominous. Soon after the dissolution of parliament, rumours spread in the capital of a coup plot instigated by the navy chief, Rear-Admiral Bubo Na Tchuto. He was quickly put under house- arrest by the head of the army, but he escaped and fled to neighbouring Gambia. There he was arrested again but continues to deny any involvement in plotting a coup. In a country where the army regularly intervenes in the political sphere and where divisions within the armed forces caused a full-blown war in 1998-99, these developments are disturbing.

Whether this coup plot was real or imagined, in the present circumstances, the prospect of another coup attempt can hardly be dismissed. Some members of the military may see in the political crisis an opportunity to resist security-sector reform in which many soldiers would lose their jobs. Many have warned before that they will not let this happen. Military leaders could easily exploit fears of the shifting balance of power within the military for political purposes and instigate a revolt.

The cholera epidemic of August-September 2007 in Guinea-Bissua - and other health indicators such as maternal mortality - make clear the desperate health conditions of many people in the country and provides an immediate reason for the international community's concern. But the world has a wider interest in the future of Guinea-Bissau. for the threat to it goes beyond the transnational effects of drugs; arms-traffickers have also settled down in the area and there is a high risk that terrorist networks may follow suit. Donors must not be satisfied with promises of elections and the occasional arrests of drug traffickers. This will not be enough to stop the criminalisation of Guinea-Bissau's state structures.

While the international community cannot dictate how Guinea-Bissau should manage its internal politics, it should be made clear to the local leadership that political stability remains a prerequisite for continued financial assistance. Fundamental changes to the way in which the country is run are required now. Once criminalisation has infected the state apparatus, the challenges become infinitely greater.

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