Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s unluckiest countries. Ravaged by the slave trade, stifled by Portuguese colonisers (when the latter were forced out, only one in 50 Guineans could read), and then saddled with a series of inept, corrupt post-independence leaders, the decision of South American drug traffickers to use its offshore Bijagos islands as a staging post on the cocaine route to Europe was a devastating blow (for analysis of the latter, see here). The advent of the drug gangs brought chaos, as politicians, police and the military jostled for a share of the spoils. The assassination of Nino Vieira, who had ruled the country for much of the last thirty years, was the most visible of its impacts, but the repercussions show no signs of abating.
Last week saw the foiling of an alleged coup attempt by navy chief, Bubo Na Tchuto (for more on his colourful past, see here). Taking advantage of the president, Malam Bacai Sanha, being out of the country for medical treatment, Bubo had apparently resolved to take charge of the country – and by extension the cocaine trade – before army boss and former friend Antonio Indjai could lay his hands on it.
Some observers believe the arrest of Admiral Bubo was a positive development, as he has for long been suspected of being in cahoots with the South Americans (this analysis ignores the possibility that Indjai himself, who two years ago released Bubo from United Nations custody, is similarly implicated). But the death in hospital of Malam Bacai Sanha today has shaken things up yet again. Instead of settling down, there is now likely to be a new tussle for power. Indjai is likely to be either king or kingmaker, the prime minister Carlos Gomes, whom Indjai described two years ago as a “criminal” but who is now seemingly an ally (alliances in the cocaine era are extremely fluid), will want a slice of the pie, and former president, the disastrous Kumba Yala, may make another bid for the top job. The stakes are high, the power struggle unlikely to result in anything resembling stability as long as the traffickers remain in the country. The death of the president could barely have come at a worse time. Once again, fortune has frowned on Guinea-Bissau.