Guinea Bissau:  From Africa’s bright hope to narco state?

On Thursday Apr. 12, elements of the armed forces of the small West African Republic of Guinea Bissau (population 1.6 million) seized the capital, Bissau, and arrested Acting President Raimundo Pereira and the former prime minister and probable successor as president, Carlos Gomes Junior.

The coup perpetrators announced that they had no desire to take power, but had been forced to move when they discovered a document which, they claim, proved that Angolan troops in their country on a training and technical assistance mission had been authorized by Gomez to “annihilate” the Bissauan army command.

Of all the tragedies that have been happening in Africa, this may be the most saddening. In the 1970s, when Guinea Bissau was engaged in armed struggle to liberate itself from the colonial control of fascist Portugal, it was the bright hope of many.

That hope was raised by the outstanding revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral (1924-1973). An inspiring leader and a lucid writer on revolutionary methods, Cabral, like Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was a figure who influenced young revolutionaries worldwide, as well as in Africa.

But Cabral never saw the victory for which he had laid the foundation. The Portuguese regime had infiltrated his ranks with agents, one of whom assassinated Cabral on January 20, 1973.

When Guinea Bissau, joined with the Cape Verde Islands (from where the Cabral family hailed), got its independence from Portugal after the Carnation Revolution, Amilcar’s half-brother Luis became the first president. The party Amilcar had founded, the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde), became the sole ruling one. Cabral attempted, with help from the socialist bloc, to create a socialist state in this poorest and least developed of African countries. Among the projects initiated in Guinea Bissau was a major adult education effort led by the famed Brazilian educator Paolo Freire.

However, in 1980, Luis Cabral was overthrown by his own military commander, Joao Bernardo Vieira. The unity between Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde was also broken.

No president of Guinea Bissau since independence has been able to finish his term in office. In the coups and counter coups, there has been much violence. Vieira himself, coming back to power after a long hiatus, was hacked and clubbed to death in 2009. And as recently as Dec. 29, 2011, there was an unsuccessful attempt at a coup.

What are the dynamics behind the current coup? It seems very likely that the international drug trade is somehow involved. In recent years, the Bijagos Islands, a sparsely populated archipelago off Guinea Bissau’s west coast, have become a major transshipment point for cocaine being moved across the Atlantic Ocean from South America to Europe. Fishermen in the Bijagos Islands claim that they can no longer make a profit because fuel for their fishing boats has become so expensive, and so are tempted to work with the drug smugglers as an alternative.

There are also signs, in Guinea Bissau and neighboring countries, of large scale money laundering.

For several years, international observers and agencies have also been warning that the military, and some politicians, in Guinea Bissau are enriching themselves by taking rake-offs from the drug trade. After Thursday’s coup, the mutineers accused Carlos Gomes of drug involvements, but his supporters threw the charge back in the faces of the mutineers, saying instead that the aim of the coup is to prevent military drug dealing from being stopped.

The military in this small country is all out of proportion to national defense needs, and acts like the Praetorian Guards that made the lives of so many ancient Roman emperors so exciting, and sometimes so short. In theory, this is why the Bissauan government brought in a 200 man Angolan military aid contingent with a mission of shaping up its own army and, importantly, reducing its size.

At the end of 2011, the President of Guinea Bissau, Malam Bacai Sanha, went to France for medical treatment, where he died in January, and was replaced on an interim basis by Mr. Pereira. There was an election on Mar. 18, in which former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, candidate of the PAIGC, got a plurality, but not a majority of votes. The run off was originally scheduled for Apr. 29. The man who got the second largest number of votes, Kumba Yala, a former president (overthrown by a coup in 2003) said to be connected to the military, denounced the election as fraudulent, and called for a boycott of the runoff. Yala threatened dire consequences for anybody who campaigned.

At writing, the president, prime minister, and perhaps the commander of the army are being held by the mutineers, while other officials are in hiding. The coup has been denounced by neighboring countries and various international bodies, as well as the U.S. and the UN.

The mutineers have called for an all party interim government, but the PAIGC, which still is the largest party in the legislature, refuses to cooperate, and there are signs of the beginning of street protests against the coup.

There are offers of mediation by Presidents Alpha Conde of Guinea and Jose Ramos Horta of East Timor.

Photo: From an exhibition “Life and Writings of Amilcar Cabral” held at the Universidade de Cabo Verde  in January, 2012.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.