On any other continent, the tit-for-tat killings of the president and head of the military in what is suspected to be a rivalry over revenues from drug trafficking would have captured the world's imagination. But when the country in question is Guinea-Bissau -- a tiny, obscure, former Portugese colony on the west coast of Africa -- those remarkable events barely raise an eyebrow.
Yesterday, the International Crisis Group called for international support and intervention to help the political elites in Guinea-Bissau stand up to the military and return to the path of democracy. Just prior to the March 2009 killings of President João Bernardo Vieira and Gen. Tagme Na Waie, the country conducted a successful round of parliamentary elections. But as the ICG points out, "the democratic process cannot cope with the rule of the gun."
Since the return to multi-party rule in 1994, no president has successfully completed the constitutionally mandated five-year term. Gen. Tagme is the third chief of defense staff to be assassinated in nine years.
Given that Guinea-Bissau has no natural resources to speak of and makes most of its foreign exchange from exporting ground nuts, one would wonder what all the rivalry is about. In a word: cocaine.
Although the ICG's report glosses over the involvement of Guinea-Bissau in the international drug trade, other reports detail how Colombian traffickers have moved in en masse, transforming the landscape with a string of coastal McMansions, fleets of expensive cars, flashy nightclubs and of course, a lot of high-caliber firepower. (See Joe Kirschke's WPR series, The Coke Coast: Part I here, Part II here.)
The U.K.'s Guardian quoted a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency as saying:
"A place like Guinea Bissau is a failed state anyway, so it's like moving into an empty house." There is no prison in Guinea-Bissau, he says. One rusty ship patrols a coastline of 350km, and an archipelago of 82 islands. The airspace is un-patrolled. The police have few cars, no petrol, no radios, handcuffs or phones.
"You walk in, buy the services you need from the government, army and people, and take over. The cocaine can then be stored safely and shipped to Europe, either by ship to Spain or Portugal, across land via Morocco on the old cannabis trail, or directly by air using 'mules.'" One single flight into Amsterdam in December 2006 was carrying 32 mules carrying cocaine from Guinea-Bissau.
Aside from cocaine traffickers, a place like Guinea-Bissau also attracts groups with ties to militants and terrorists. It is suspected that al-Qaida took advantage of the chaos in Liberia in the late 1990s to launder money and trade in diamonds, in order to raise cash for the 2001 attacks in the United States. Likewise there is evidence, as suggested in this remarkable report from Marco Vernaschi, that drug profits from West Africa are being used to support current Hezbollah and al-Qaida operations throughout the world.
As new Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson casts about for interesting projects on the continent, he might consider looking into Guinea-Bissau. The problem is that in order for a country to ask for help, someone needs to be in charge. But for the traffickers, smugglers and money-launderers, the current situation of near-anarchy fits them to a tee.
(Published June 26th, 2009 in World Politics Review)