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.


Another turbulent week in Guinea-Bissau

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.


Lifting the lid on the drug trade through West Africa

A trial that has just got under way in New York looks likely to provide some interesting insights into how South American drug traffickers are going about their business in West Africa, which for several years now (as detailed here and here) has been used as a transit point on the cocaine route to Europe and the US.

A prosecution witness in the trial has claimed that Fumbah Sirleaf, son of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former director of Liberia’s National Security Agency, agreed to pose as a corrupt official (not too difficult a disguise for most West African politicians) to help the US Drug Enforcement Agency in a sting operation.

As the Canadian Press reports, Sirleaf and a colleague allegedly met a pair of Colombians representing a South American drug trafficking organisation, and extracted from them a promise to give them $1m and 50 kilos of cocaine in return for letting them use Liberia as a hub. ‘What these defendants did not know,’ said the witness, a DEA agent, ‘was that Liberian officials had not put their country up for sale. The Liberians had been pretending to be corrupt.’ Sirleaf recorded the conversations with the Colombians, and handed the tapes to the DEA. Defence lawyers say their clients were entrapped. Watch this space for updates.

More drug trouble in Guinea-Bissau

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…

A new war in Africa? Or just a new political ploy?

Cross-border wars in Sub-Saharan Africa have been few and far between since the end of the colonial period. Instead, the continent’s disaffected have fought numerous battles with their own countrymen. Last weekend, however, Guinea’s new leader, Dadis Camara, who took power in a coup last Christmas, claimed that neighbouring Guinea-Bissau was amassing troops at the border in preparation for an invasion of his country.

This would be a remarkable move by Guinea-Bissau, which doesn’t currently have a leader (the second round of presidential elections is due on 26 July) and whose army is a disaffected ragbag of poorly paid, badly trained young men who have enough trouble keeping the peace at home (their chief of staff was assassinated in March) without contemplating an invasion of a much bigger neighbour.

Camara reckons the planned invasion is a plot by the region’s drug lords, from Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Latin America, to remove him. Camara has been surprisingly thorough in his purging of those Guineans involved in the cocaine trade which has plagued the countries of the Mano River basin in recent years, and he believes those high up in the industry want him out so that they can maintain their freedom to operate.

A war between the two countries would be disastrous for both and for their region. Both are extremely fragile politically, dirt poor and surrounded by other historically unstable states (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal’s Casamance region). Guinea’s opposition parties are less worried, however. They see Camara’s warning as a ploy to entrench his power ahead of promised elections in October.  Given that he has also banned all political and union activities in his country, it seems that a false alarm of an invasion would indeed be in keeping with a strategy to stay in power, despite his promise to step down once elections are held.