Rickard Strandberg

The last elections in Guinea-Bissau were charged with great expectations both nationally and internationally. After being postponed several times they were finally held in April and May. Amid continuous political instability, state structures being coopted by trafficking networks, and constant military interference in public affairs, the 2014 election represented an attempt to finally reestablish political legitimacy, regain hope and incite renewal. However, can an electoral process, however legitimate, foment change and find solutions for the structural challenges in Guinea-Bissau?

In April 2005, the Judicial Police of Guinea-Bissau raided a facility located in the Bijágos archipelago, seizing a load of cocaine being trafficked through the country. A storehouse, which had been used for shipping drugs, was covered as a fish-processing depository. At the spot, Spanish, Venezuelan and Colombian nationals were arrested together with 18 kilos of cocaine, cash and guns. The group had also been using a small clandestine landing strip to assist the drug trafficking from South America to Europe, using Guinea-Bissau as a transit area.

It was during this period that the tiny country of Guinea-Bissau, located in the West African coast, emerged on the international radar as a key regional hub in the global drug trafficking schemes. Since then several seizures and interceptions have been reported with linkages to the country and with the compliance of both politicians and militaries, to the degree that Guinea-Bissau has been pointed out as the ‘continent’s first narco-state,’ or even the ‘world’s first narco-state.’ 

Plenty of other connections have been speculated suggesting links with terrorist organisations and armed rebel groups, such as Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Colombian FARC. Almost ten years later, the international community has gathered and coordinated its efforts to bring about an election that could give hope back to the country while ensuring stability, improving the economy and bringing about international partnerships that can strengthen Guinea-Bissau’s state capacity.

Historical Context

Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, gained independence in 1974 after more than a decade-long successful nationalist anti-colonial struggle. However, what was initially seen as a promising model of ‘people’s war’ led by PAIGC (Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde) and its charismatic leader, Amílcar Cabral, establishing ‘genuine socialism,’ would soon be mired in authoritarian regimes and political violence based on ethnic, racial, class, and personal animosities. In the 1980s Guinea-Bissau suffered from a financial crisis that was followed by the exacerbation of urban-rural dichotomies in terms of development and national integration. 

Additionally, there was the constant interference of the military (perceived as the nation’s guardians – a legacy attached to their role in the liberation of the country) in political affairs that led to a civil war between 1998-99. The war in the late 1990s brought the country to an institutional wreck, sketching out the patterns of the forthcoming intra-political and –military disputes and violence that would be a continuous mark during the following decade. 

President João Bernardo ‘Nino’ Viera, who seized power in 1980 following a coup d’etat, was ousted following the civil war and went into exile. However, in 2005, amid the political turmoil and military rebellions, he was elected as President after a second round. He served as President until 2009, when he – together with general chief of staff of the army Tagme Na Wai – was assassinated on the same day. The killings were based on vengeance from each other’s loyal groups; however, the background of the events has provided space for speculation surrounding drug trafficking and cartels, and that it might have been a mutual retaliation based on long-lasting personal animosities from past political disputes. Bordonaro, a researcher from ISCTE (Lisbon, Portugal) has argued that these events ultimately represented the ‘contemporary irrelevance of the state in Guinea-Bissau’ and the degree to which leaders – in this case both perceived as heroes of the national liberation – could be ‘disposable’ from one day to another.

A Decade of Political Instability

When the country was suddenly announced as a favored entrepôt for drug trafficking in the 2000s, it was deemed a direct consequence of the inexistent state structures that enabled a culture of impunity to rein. However, the fact remains that narco-trafficking is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the country’s deeper structural anomalies. 

The country’s deep structural challenges are rooted in an intertwined politico-military establishment eager to hold onto a historical legacy of having liberated the country from colonialism. This has resulted in the politicisation of security forces, a deteriorating political and institutional framework, and the marginalisation of the country’s larger rural, community-based population.

Rather than Guinea-Bissau’s involvement in the international drug trade representing a cause of corruption, poverty, instability, and conflict, it is a symptom, in the turn of the century, of the incapability of rulers to acquire enough resources through external official agencies to dispute or maintain the political order. This has led to new and alternative methods of seeking rents in an era of unsustainable sovereignty. The benefits of not providing legitimate international facade offer a minimum setback compared to seeking rents through illegal global channels that, however illegitimate, can still bear the costs of the politico-military establishment’s privileges.

Researcher David Robinson points out how, ‘ironically, the emergence of drug trafficking may work to reinvigorate foreign assistance to Guinea-Bissau due to its new relevance to the Western world.’ However, the demands attached to foreign aid have most of the time been linked to the need to pursue Security Sector Reforms (SSR) and Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) – with different actors having intervened both at bilateral level, such as Angola, and through regional approaches, as with ECOWAS and the EU. Nonetheless, this has obviously been perceived as a direct threat to the military and, consequently, to the political elite, who are aware of the need to rely on their influence and power in the country. Thus, the result has been a reluctance in foreign donors to cooperate with government due to the perception of the state itself being involved in the drug trafficking.

The country’s last coup d’état in April 2012 was ousted a couple of weeks before the second presidential round between Carlos Gomes Júnior and Kumba Ialá. Many details point out that one of reasons the military rebelled and aborted the elections was a growing tension between the political elite and the military, with the latter claiming that Carlos Gomes Jr. held a secret plan with the Angolan forces through MISSANG (Angolan Technical Military Mission) to dismantle the Guinean military forces.

The military, with links to the political elite, has persistently been able to play the card of the nation’s guardians of independence, while simultaneously detaching itself from any responsibilities inherent to the conducts of statehood and thus constantly interfering in political and civil affairs. In April 2013, Bubo Na Tchuto, the Chief of Staff of the Navy, was arrested by a DEA sting operation and brought to a courthouse in Manhattan after being accused of involvement in trafficking since 2010. Interestingly, before his arrest, a Channel 4 reporter confronted Na Tchuto about his alleged involvement, to which he replied: 'As a military man, I am not surprised of being accused of drug trafficking, I was one of those of who helped giving freedom and democracy to the people of Guinea-Bissau, so now they are free to say whatever they want.'

Moreover, before the urge in narco-trafficking, the political-military elite were already dependent on other external and illicit revenues, such as arms and cannabis (as was the case during the insurgency in the neighbouring separatist Casamance region). These last decades, drug trafficking from South America has represented the predominate source of revenue. Once and if it disappears, new ones will invigorate as long as the current socio-political order remains, underpinned by the motionless capability of the military to evoke their role as the guardians of Guinea-Bissau’s independence.

2014 Elections

Following the 2012 coup, a legitimate presidential election was postponed for two years with an interim government chosen by the military junta. The last elections, which were initially scheduled for 24 November 2013 and then 16 March 2014, occurred finally in April and May 2014 – with the historical PAIGC winning the parliament elections and José Mário Vaz ‘Jamov’ winning the presidential seat after the second round. The international attention and anxiety around the forthcoming elections showed the degree to which it was perceived as the final end to the continuous turmoil the country has been suffering.

Paulo Gorjão, director of IPRIS, stated in an interview that the elections clearly showed the people’s intention of voting against the military’s influence and the praise for the return of the legal-constitutional order, thus voting for ‘Jamov’ in the Presidental election instead of Nuno Nabiam, who was favored by the military. The result shows the willingness and desire to change the country’s current situation as well as the attempt to try and soften the country’s external image.

However, while the international community will entertain itself with the idea that fair elections, well-monitored and funded by a selection of regional and international actors, can resolve Guinea Bissau’s current problems, the issue remains that without any deep structural reforms and involvement – evolving not only the political establishment and the weak institutions but also (and mainly) the military in consultancy with the country’s growing civil society groups and communities’ representatives – external intervention and aid alone will not rescue the country from its entrenched and marginal pariah-position.

While in 2005 the attention was focused on drug trafficking, today and during the on-going elections, it could be focusing on the tons of timber being illegally smuggled with severe consequences for communities’ livelihood and the environment. If the international community does not start understanding the overall context of Guinea-Bissau’s global entrenchment as well as its internal idiosyncrasies instead of focusing solely on symptoms (and presenting them as the single cause of instability, poverty or violence) it will not comprehend the larger and structural anomalies the country has been suffering from.

In the 21st century, as a result of broader global economic and political changes and a motionless internal establishment linked to a historical legacy, the country has reached an end-point incompatible with current international demands to sustain itself as a nation-state. Until this is dealt with, Guinea-Bissau’s challenges are still far from over. And consequently, the only way to engage with the real world is to embrace the existent alternatives to obtain external revenues, be it through drugs, guns, timber, or... whatever comes next. 

Image via Accoutability Lab.

Rickard Strandberg is Swedish-Portuguese writer who graduated with an MSc in International Politics at SOAS, University of London. His main interest topics are political economy, state-building, conflict-resolution, peace-building and development in Africa, and especially, its Lusophone countries. He is currently interning in Mozambique with Swedish NGO Afrikagrupperna and their local partner UNAC - a peasant movement working on farmers' rights, sustainable development and food sovereignty.