A complex coup in Guinea-Bissau

Last Friday, just as West Africa watchers were recovering from the excitement of the coup d’état in Mali a couple of weeks back, little Guinea-Bissau piped up with a putsch of its own. A group of soldiers attacked the residence of the prime minister and presidential candidate, Carlos Gomes Jr, and arrested him and the country’s interim president, Raimundo Pereira. They subsequently declared that they were forced to take action after discovering a secret document signed by Gomes Jr that gave a detachment of Angolan soldiers permission to “annihilate” Guinea-Bissau’s army. Said soldiers had been in the country, at Gomes Jr’s request, for a few weeks, ostensibly to restructure and reform the bloated military.

The secret document is quite likely to be a fabrication, but it seems probable that the coup happened because the army had had enough of Gomes Jr’s meddling and wanted to re-establish its authority. Indeed, the Transitional Council it has set up to run the country while the putschists decide its long-term future includes 22 opposition parties but has explicitly excluded Gomes Jr’s ruling party, the PAIGC.

The invitation to the Angolans was a provocative move. Downsizing the military would reduce its access to the lucrative drug trade which for the past few years, as Guinea-Bissau has become a staging post on the cocaine route from South America to Europe, has filled the coffers of the country’s top army, navy and air force officials. It is not known whether Gomes Jr was himself involved in the trade and wanted to weaken the competition (his late predecessor Nino Vieira almost certainly enriched himself with a spot of narcotrafficking on the side), but his removal from power – and he was very likely to win the presidency in the second round of voting later this month – leaves the way clear for the army to continue to profit from the cocaine boom.

Who is behind the coup is not clear. My immediate thought was that army chief-of-staff Antonio Indjai, a shrewd operator who has sidelined rivals such as former navy boss Bubo Na Tchuto and who a couple of years back briefly arrested Gomes Jr and labelled him a criminal, was masterminding things, and it seems Indjai attended the first two post-coup meetings between the junta and opposition leaders. Guinea-Bissau’s leading blogger, Antonio Aly Silva, was of the same opinion, and was arrested shortly after posting that the army chief was in control (he was later released after receiving a beating and having many of his valuables stolen).

But reports have recently emerged that Indjai himself has been arrested, and that his number two Mamadu Ture Kuruma is in control.  This made me wonder if Bubo Na Tchuto, a popular and influential figure who has attempted at least two coups in the recent past, was taking his revenge on his former ally, and at the same time eliminating another rival in Gomes Jr. Investigating, I found a single article from the Spanish news agency EFE claiming that Bubo, who has been described as a drug kingpin by the US, had indeed been released from prison over the weekend, that “military sources” said he had been collected from his cell by a group of uniformed men. This, I thought, confirmed my suspicions, but just as I was congratulating myself for my detective work I was shocked to read the last few words of the article, which stated that  ‘according to unconfirmed rumours, Bubo was executed in the early hours of the morning.’

So we still do not know who is really in charge. Guinea-Bissau’s foreign minister is convinced that Indjai holds the reins and has dismissed rumours of his arrest as ridiculous. Bubo may or may not be alive, and may or may not be the coup mastermind. Indjai’s number two is also on the list of suspects, as is opposition presidential candidate Kumba Yala, who looks like benefiting from the political agreement (although at least one source says he too has been arrested).

But although speculating is interesting, to a large extent it does not matter who planned the coup. The real power in the country is held by the drug barons from South America, and this coup, like several before it and no doubt many more in the coming years, is really a squabble over who gets access to their gifts.

Update: Kumba Yala has denounced the coup and refused to join the “Transitional Council“, which coup leaders say will run the country for the next 1-2 years.

Update #2: This report (in Portuguese) suggests that Antonio Indjai had threatened to attack Angolan troops on 5 April, at a meeting of  the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abidjan. Indjai complained that the Angolans had heavy armaments, including fourteen tanks, and warned ECOWAS that its emergency forces would soon have to go into Guinea-Bissau as well as Mali.