West Africa’s new resource curse

A few weeks back the Guardian noted the transformation of Guinea-Bissau, a tiny, jungly and desperately poor country on the tip of West Africa, into the world’s first “narco-state.” Presumably this phrase means that its economy relies on drugs, though it has never been clearly defined and Guatemala and Afghanistan have also laid claim to the title in the recent past. No matter, what is not in doubt is that Guinea-Bissau, which had hitherto relied for survival on a meagre harvest of cashew nuts and fish (at least those fish that are not plundered by European Union trawlers), has found its diamonds/oil/gold/coltan substitute: cocaine.

The traditional route for exporting the drug from Colombia to Europe – Britons and Spaniards are the world’s biggest cokeheads – is via the Caribbean, but the American crackdown (no pun intended) has made that option both risky and expensive. Guinea-Bissau, which is the nearest point of Africa to South America, has no prisons and a police force that owns no handcuffs or vehicles, presents an alluring alternative. A few years ago, therefore, Colombian drug cartels began flying consignments of the drug to airstrips (left over from a recent civil war) in the remote jungles of the Bijagos islands. From there, having paid off local police, they move it north across the Sahara to Europe.

Guinea-Bissau’s government, which cannot even afford mains electricity in its ministries, is powerless to stop the trade, even if it wanted to. In the world’s third poorest country, however, motivations to turn down large windfalls are not strong, and few observers doubt that high-level government and military officials are in on the act. The occasional cocaine seizure is widely publicised at the time but usually goes unpunished, with the drug mysteriously disappearing again after the initial kerfuffle dies down.

The government has called for more aid to tackle the problem, so if the West wants to stop it it’s going to have to cough up more than the drug barons. As has occurred with diamonds/oil/gold/coltan in other parts of Africa, this new resource will enrich the powerful and make them both better able and more determined to hold onto power. If they do not succeed, they will be ousted violently by others keen to get their hands on the loot (politicians versus the military, for example, or one army faction against another). Expect Guinea-Bissau’s fledgling democracy to revert to either dictatorship or war (or perhaps both) before long.

The UN’s Commissioner on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Costa, wants Europeans to take greater account of the impacts of their drug consumption – if cocaine was fur or blood diamonds, he argues, it would be much less popular. In the past, such guilt trips have focused on Colombia, but the effects on Africa could be even more devastating. Guinea-Bissau has already had one civil war this decade and a scramble for the cocaine haul will heighten the risk of relapse. Drug money, moreover, will dwarf income from other economic activities; government will have little incentive to invest in agriculture and fishing, leaving these already feeble sectors to wither. And Guineans themselves are at risk of drug addiction; crack cocaine use, seen by the largely illiterate population as possession by evil spirits, is already on the rise, leading to an increase in crime as well as ill health.

People on the ground are aware of these dangers. The drug trade was the main theme of the processions in last month’s carnival. As wealthy Colombians cruised the potholed streets of the capital, Bissau, in their blacked-out Mercedes, masks and floats designed by schoolchildren were paraded. Among the scenarios depicted was a handcuffed drug baron standing next to a mountain of cocaine.