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

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. Continue reading

The African Exodus: A View from the Ground


Sunday’s El País carried a surprising article detailing the increase in immigration from Africa to Spain in the past two years.

Although Spain is in the midst of a debilitating economic crisis, with an unemployment rate of over 27%, the number of would-be migrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco in the first quarter of 2013 has quadrupled compared with the corresponding period in 2012. Alarmingly, the proportion using inflatable rubber dinghies – the kind your kids play on at the beach – has risen from 15% to 90% in the past year. These dinghies are designed to be used by two people, but in the Strait they are often intercepted with up to ten on board (Spain’s coastguard has yet to hear of one that has completed the fourteen kilometre journey – the lucky ones are rescued before they sink). In Morocco, the market in these vessels is thriving – a 2-3 metre boat that can be had for €300 in the Spanish beach resorts will set you back over €600 in Tangiers.

This continued flow of migrants from Africa to Europe gives the lie to the “Africa Rising” story peddled by some Western media outlets of late. Although GDP is growing in many parts of the continent, most Africans see nothing of this. The millions who have migrated from villages to cities in search of a better life too often end up with nothing to do, and in their desperation are forced to look further afield, to Europe, for a way out of poverty (as the chief prosecutor in the Spanish port town of Algeciras noted, ‘many people would love to have our crisis’).

While researching my new book, The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries, which as well as analysing the great social upheavals the developing world is going through as it modernises is an attempt to give voice to the people experiencing these changes on the ground, I observed this frustration at first hand. The population of Bissau, the capital of the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau which was the first stop on my trip, has quadrupled in the past thirty years. Whole villages in the interior have emptied out as the land has become too crowded to farm and the lure of modernity entices people to the cities. My wife Ebru and I spent a few weeks in one of Bissau’s poorest districts, where, as the excerpt below shows, urbanisation’s losers face a constant dilemma over whether they too should undertake the perilous journey to the West:

Since there is no power and the heat quickly rots anything perishable, Bissau’s residents must lay in a new supply of food each day. Every morning, therefore, we walk down the paved but potholed road that leads from our bairro to Bissau’s main market at Bandim. The market is a labyrinth, its narrow dark lanes winding between rickety wooden stalls whose tin roofs jut out threateningly at throat height. A press of brightly-dressed shoppers haggles noisily over tomatoes, onions, smoked fish and meat. The vendors know their customers – you can buy individual eggs, teabags, cigarettes, sugar lumps and chilli peppers; bread sellers will cut a baguette in half if that is all you can afford; potatoes are divided into groups of three, tomatoes into pyramids of four; matches are sold in bundles of ten, along with a piece of the striking surface torn from the box. In the days leading up to Christmas and New Year, which all Guineans celebrate regardless of their religious persuasion, the market is crowded and chaotic, but after the turn of the year, when all the money has been spent, it is empty and silent.

Only the alcohol sellers do a year-round trade. On a half-mile stretch of the paved road there are thirteen bars or liquor stores. They sell cheap Portuguese red wine, bottled lager, palm wine and cana, a strong rum made with cashew apples. Bissau has a drink problem. Its inhabitants’ love of alcohol is well-known throughout West Africa. Back in Senegal, a fellow passenger on one of our bush taxi rides had warned us that Guineans ‘like to drink and party but they don’t like to work.’ Later in our trip, on hearing we had spent time here, Sierra Leoneans would talk in awed tones of Guineans’ capacity for alcohol consumption. The liquor stores near our bairro are busy at all hours of the day and night. Christians and animists quaff openly, Muslims more discreetly.  Continue reading

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.


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…

The face of aid

“The nature of the ties linking the African with the European has not really changed since the first Portuguese ships went sailing down the west coast of the continent: the sophisticated magic of the white man remains irresistibly alluring to the black.” (Shiva Naipaul)

In all the debates about aid, its visual impact is rarely remarked upon. In rural areas, aid probably looks like a good thing. When you see that a donor has dug a well for your village, you may feel grateful to and enthusiastic about the donor (that is, if you don’t feel embarrassed that your community has failed to dig its own well – a fact rammed home in nearly every village in Guinea-Bissau by a billboard placed next to each well proclaiming that it was a gift of the Kuwaiti, Spanish, Portuguese or American people).

But in cities, to which young Africans are migrating in droves, the visual effect is more ambiguous. When the urban African looks at aid, he sees aid workers and missionaries driving around in brand new Toyota Land Cruisers or Hiluxes. He sees them staring at laptops or chatting on snazzy mobile phones. He sees them dining in expensive restaurants or drinking in smart cafes. And he sees their glittering air-conditioned offices and villas, with iron gates and security guards.

In countries like Senegal, where there are tourists and Western businessmen, aid workers do not stand out. But in poor, remote, unvisited Guinea-Bissau they play an important part in shaping perceptions of the developed world (Guinea-Bissau has no cinemas, precious few internet cafes or televisions, and no press to speak of). And, as they have done for centuries, Africans see all this opulence and want a part of it. Guinean politicians, grown rich on drug money, purchase Land Cruisers and build gated villas. Ordinary citizens spend more than they can afford on mobile phones. And young Guineans, who until recently have not joined the West African exodus to Europe, have begun to talk about taking the boat to Spain – a journey which at least one in six of the many Senegalese who attempt it does not survive.

Of course, foreign aid workers are not the only cause of this new yearning, but it is likely they play some role. Many young Guineans I spoke to, who do not want to risk the trip to Spain, are desperate instead to work for foreign NGOs or the UN. It could be argued that giving young Africans something to aspire to will hasten progress and encourage hard work. Maybe so, but is owning a mobile really progress when you can’t afford your daughter’s $10-a-month school fees (as one mobile-owning mother in Bissau complained to me recently)? And in a country like Guinea-Bissau where aspiration is outpacing people’s capabilities and even well-intentioned governments are struggling to manage expectations, are ostentatious displays of affluence the best way of promoting peaceful development rather than the violent upheavals Nigeria, Guinea-Conakry and others are beginning to experience?