Book review: Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”

by | May 30, 2017

Book review

If you’ve ever written a book about Guinea-Bissau, you will know that popular interest in this remote little West African country is scant. Your oeuvre is unlikely to be spotted flying off the shelves of WHSmiths, even less likely to feature prominently on airport bookshops’ lists of Great Holiday Reads. The few journalists who write about the place trot out the old saw about no president having completed his term in office, and then move on to less somnolent parts of the continent.

But Guinea-Bissau, as a few eminent Africanists have noticed, provides an instructive example of how the survival into the post-colonial era of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s extractive political and economic institutions continues to impede Africa’s development half a century after independence. Among these Africanists is one of the most brilliant of them all, Patrick Chabal, whose Africa Works is an essential read for anyone trying to understand how and why so many of the continent’s Big Men have endured in power for so long. Chabal also wrote extensively on Guinea-Bissau, including a biography of one of the Big Men’s nemeses, Amílcar Cabral, who after leading his country to independence from Portugal would become another of Africa’s doomed figures of hope.

Patrick Chabal died before his final work could be completed. But ‘Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”’, co-edited with another Guinea-Bissau enthusiast Toby Green, is a worthy handing over of the baton (disclosure: Toby kindly reviewed and provided a blurb for my own, less academically rigorous book on the country). The book’s ten chapters, written by an assortment of academics from Guinea-Bissau, its diaspora and elsewhere, provide a thorough and clearly argued analysis of why the country remains one of the poorest in the world four decades after shrugging off the colonial yoke; of why it has been subjected to such venal leaders (most notoriously the thuggish Nino Vieira); and of how foreign meddling during and after colonialism contributed to the hollowing out of the institutions of government, exacerbated local ethnic and religious divides, and weakened this primarily agricultural society’s resilience.

Much that has happened in Guinea-Bissau over the past centuries is particular either to the country, to its part of the West African coast or to its experience as a colony, but it is also in some ways a microcosm of the history of the continent as a whole, and this widens the book’s appeal. In the opening chapter Toby Green shows how the Portuguese colonisers’ favouring of one tribe over another, for example, made the ethnic conflicts that have blighted the country since they left more likely. Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, ethnicity had not been a strong differentiator among Guineans – intermarriage was common, and the fierce resistance to colonisation was pan-ethnic. The Manjako ethnic group didn’t even exist until the nineteenth century, when slavers constructed an identity for those who traded with them (ignoring that they spoke many different languages and worshipped different gods).

But the Portuguese afforded preferential treatment to groups with lighter skin, and in particular Cape Verdeans. Resentment of the latter persisted into the post-colonial era, and was an important factor behind the assassination of the Cape Verdean Cabral, and behind several of the other coups and rebellions that have paralysed the country. Violent transfers of power, too, may be a colonial legacy. The Portuguese fought a decades-long “pacification” campaign and later, while other colonisers yielded freedom more peacefully, forced Guineans (as well as their other African subjects in Angola and Mozambique) to fight wars for their independence. Joshua Forrest traces how this legacy led prominent figures in post-colonial politics to view violence as a legitimate means to effect political change.

But it was not only the Portuguese who were to blame for Guinea-Bissau’s poverty (forty years after they left, it remains one of the world’s least developed countries). Marina Padrão Temudo and Manuel Bivar Abrantes describe how the replacement in recent decades of the old barter system of exchange by a predominantly cash-based system has weakened the society’s resilience to shocks. In its 1998 civil war, refugees from the cities where fighting was most intense found shelter and subsistence in rural areas, regardless of whether they had any connections or ethnic ties with villages. More recently, however, the scramble for cash to buy consumer goods has led to an expansion in the cultivation of cashew nuts for export at the expense of subsistence crops. Monocropping has left farmers vulnerable to climate shocks as well as global price fluctuations, precipitating a series of economic crises.

Although resilience has been reduced, however, the country has somehow kept going. In the past decade, Guineans have had to deal not only with cashew price declines and the global financial crisis, but also the arrival of South American cocaine traffickers on its shores. The traffickers use the many sparsely inhabited islands off the coast as a staging post on the route to Europe and North America. Leading politicians and military and police figures have become involved in the trade (former navy chief Bubo Na Tchuto was convicted in 2016 of conspiring to ship cocaine to the United States after being arrested in a DEA sting operation, while it was rumoured that Nino Vieira himself would transport the product to Europe in diplomatic bags). Assassinations and coups have followed as various centres of power struggle to lay hands on this lucrative new resource.

Yet despite the obstructive effects of the cocaine trade on government and the consequent neglect of other sectors of the economy, per capita GDP has slowly increased since 2000, albeit unevenly and accompanied by an increase in the poverty rate. Other quality of life indicators such as primary school completion rates, life expectancy and child mortality have continued to improve. Social cohesion, made stronger by the war of independence against the Portuguese and by Cabral’s efforts to transcend tribal and geographical divides, has helped the country to withstand the adverse currents. Carnival is celebrated wildly every year, and the solidarity displayed during the civil war can still be seen in the huge crowds that throng funerals. Religion is also increasingly important, both as emotional support and social glue. Guinea-Bissau’s Muslims provide alcoholic drinks for Christian guests at weddings, baptisms and funerals. When the Bishop of Bissau died in 1999, Christian, Muslim and animist funerals were held for him. And many families, as Ramon Sarró and Miguel de Barros report, send one child to church and another to the mosque ‘to maximise their alliances’ and expand their support networks. As Patrick Chabal wrote elsewhere, despite the many threats it faces, mutual reliance and co-operation at the community level means that the country still, for now, “works”. His last book goes a long way to explaining why.


  • 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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