More drug trouble in Guinea-Bissau

by | Apr 3, 2010

Back in January, I posted the text below (I subsequently took it down for re-posting at a later date because of a bizarre and unnerving incident that happened to me in Dakar):

“The airstrip on the island of Bubaque in Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagos archipelago is, appropriately, a white line cut out of the bush, a narrow sandy strip hemmed in on both sides by thick forest. Only small planes can land there, but small planes can carry large quantities of cocaine.

The Guinean government claims that the drug trade through the islands (which South American dealers have adopted as a transit point on the way to the lucrative European market) has abated in recent months. The country’s leaders are reluctant to forfeit European Union aid, so they are keen to show that they are fighting this new scourge.

I spent ten days on Bubaque over the Christmas period and heard a dozen or so planes in the night. More may have arrived while I was asleep. Given that the airstrip sees no commercial traffic, with the islands’ few visitors and provisions being shipped in on pirogues and the weekly ferry from Bissau, the obvious conclusion to draw is that the planes were from Latin America.

Nor are there signs in the capital, Bissau, of any let-up. The city is in the midst of a minor building boom, as smart new villas spring up, with gardens, fences and security guards – all funded, according to locals, by drug money.

But even if it does show resolve, the government’s capacity is limited. Only around twenty of the eighty Bijagos islands are inhabited, so they are extremely difficult to police (more so when your navy has no ships and your air force no planes). And the resourceful South Americans are putting in contingency plans to pre-empt EU and government pressure. Two of them, I was told, recently scoped out a hitherto unused island, posing as tourists and asking villagers if there was an airstrip (there isn’t) or a forest clearing (there is) where they can land small jets or helicopters. But even landing areas are not essential – the traffickers can also drop the drugs into the sea for collection.

In the islands, few are willing to discuss the drug trade – many believe Colombian or Venezuelan drug lords killed their president, Nino Vieira, last year after he failed to pay them for a consignment of cocaine, so they are understandably fearful. But the return to the country of Admiral Bubo has put the cat among the pigeons and sent tremors through the highest levels of government.

Before he fled into exile after a failed attempt to topple Vieira, Admiral Bubo was head of the Guinean navy. This position gave him privileged access to the narco-traffickers, who use boats as well as planes to transport cocaine across the Atlantic. Admiral Bubo therefore knows many things, which is why the government was so keen for the UN to hand him over, which it agreed to do last week. He knows the extent of Nino’s involvement in the trade (some believe the president carried cocaine to Europe himself, taking advantage of his immunity from customs searches). He knows who killed Nino, and whether senior members of the new government are involved in drug trafficking.

But Bubo is playing a dangerous game. Guinea-Bissau has no prisons, so he will either be freed or “disappeared”. It is almost certain that he profited from the drug boom himself, so if the government doesn’t protect him he will be at the mercy of rival navy or army factions and of the Latin Americans. How Bubo is dealt with will be a test case of the government’s seriousness in combating the trade.”

Last Thursday, the Admiral Bubo story took a new twist. Bubo was taken into the protection of a group of soldiers headed by a General Antonio Indjai, who at the same time arrested the Prime Minister, Carlos Gomes, and forty army officers including the army chief, who had opposed Bubo’s release. As Indjai took control of the armed forces, Bubo announced that Gomes is “a criminal who must be judged.”

When news of the PM’s arrest broke, hundreds of Guineans took to the streets to demand his release. The plotters relented, placing him under house arrest instead.

Admiral Bubo, as I suggested in January, was likely to have been implicated in the cocaine trade. Vincent Foucher, a researcher with the Bordeaux-based Centre d’etudes d’Afrique Noire, claimed in this weekend’s Libération newspaper that Carlos Gomes had been trying to sideline General Indjai because of the latter’s involvement in drug trafficking. The alliance between the admiral and the general is not surprising, therefore.

But what of the Prime Minister himself? Vincent Fourcher believes he is taking a strong hand against the narco-traffickers. Bubo, who knows exactly who is involved, argues the opposite. While in Guinea-Bissau myself in December and January, I heard many conflicting opinions over whether or not Gomes was abetting the traffickers – some even believe he had Nino Vieira killed in the turf war for control of the trade.

Whatever the truth, it seems that battle lines are being drawn, with Bubo and Indjai on one side, Gomes on the other. Where the country’s president, Malam Bacai Sanha, stands is not yet clear, and nor, perhaps most crucially for the future of Guinea-Bissau, is the allegiance of the Latin American drug cartels…


  • Mark Weston

    Mark Weston is a writer, researcher and consultant working on public health, justice, youth employability and other global issues. He lives in Sudan, and is the author of two books on Africa – The Ringtone and the Drum and African Beauty.

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