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?

Travelling in style

We achieved the record for a ‘sept places’ (seven-seater) the other day. This is considered the most luxurious form of transport in this part of West Africa. It consists of a Peugeot or Renault estate car slightly modified with an extra row of seats where the boot should be. It is designed to seat seven plus the driver.

If you are seated in the front or middle rows, it is fairly comfortable, provided of course that you don’t object to clouds of dust billowing in through the uncloseable windows, chickens pecking around your feet, or spray from the driver’s spittle occasionally flying in your face.

If you are seated in the back, however, it is less luxurious. You then have to choose either to bend your legs double in front of you so that they are folded tight against your chest (and these cars never stop during the journey, so your knees may be folded for seven hours straight, as mine were on our first sept places journey), or to put your legs on the floor and instead have your head rammed up hard against the metal ceiling. Shifting from one buttock to the other, moreover, to avoid contracting haemmorhoids from the rock-hard seats, is impossible – there is no room.

The middle row is only comfortable, of course, if the driver sticks to the 7-person limit. Often, however, he cannot resist the temptation to fit a few more in. Sometimes there are four people in a row designed to squeeze in three, turning the sept places into a neuf places. This is uncomfortable, but not the worst of all possible worlds.

The other day our driver allowed no less than 16 passengers (plus 3 chickens) into one of these cars. There were people standing up! They were leaning from the rear row over the middle row, where Ebru and I were seated with three others and the chickens. Astonishingly, nobody complained when we stopped to let in more passengers – when there are fourteen of you in a car designed for seven, after all, a couple more bodies doesn’t make that much difference.

The driver was not satisfied with our discomfort. He decided to make the journey even more challenging by giving us a demonstration of his driving skills. He seemed to have only recently passed (or bribed his way through) his driving test, for he looked extremely nervous. Sweat poured down his long hooked nose from under his white Muslim cap. He gripped the wheel tightly, and hunched over it to be closer to the road surface. Then, every time he reached down to change gear, he lost control and the car veered into the middle of the road. This behaviour provoked some complaints from the passengers; we were lucky the road was virtually deserted, so that when he regained control of the wheel we were still intact.

Near the end of the journey, a rotund, stern-looking woman passenger asks him to stop to let her out. “Where?” he asked. “At the mango tree.” The road is lined on both sides, as far as the eye can see, with mango trees. “Which one?” asks the hapless driver, gripping the wheel and staring intently ahead. “That one there, straight ahead,” the woman replies, tutting at the driver’s stupidity. He keeps driving, bemused, sweat pouring down his black robe, until she shouts, “This one! Stop!” We screech to a halt, and are down to a more comfortable 15 again…

Adieu Guinea-Bissau

And so we move on from Guinea-Bissau. The journey to Ziguinchor in the Casamance region of Senegal passed without incident, although reports of the road from here to Gambia are less positive, with the separatist rebellion hotting up in recent months. Have decided to hole up here for a while to write – although Ziguinchor is surrounded by trouble, the town itself is well protected by army roadblocks and appears peaceful.

It was strange and slightly sad to leave Guinea-Bissau, a difficult, testing little country that somehow we’d grown to like. You can learn a lot about a place by leaving it. Although itself one of the world’s poorest nations, Senegal is affluent compared to Guinea-Bissau. It has buildings of two storeys. Some even have three, four floors! Its markets have piles of food rather than just scraps. There are factories, cash machines, bookshops! People in boats are made to wear life jackets. There are tourists, and the incessant hassle from hustlers that comes with them. Guinea-Bissau has none of these things.

Most amazingly of all, Senegal has electricity. You press a switch and a light comes on! Wonder of wonders! Fans turn instead of lying still. There are streetlights, so you don’t need a torch to pick your way through the potholes at night. Food is stored in refrigerators. Guinea-Bissau, whose lights went out in 2003, has none of these things.

But I’d take Guinea-Bissau over Senegal any day. The people are friendly but not overfriendly. Foreigners are left in peace. There is solidarity among Guineans, too – despite its poverty, there are far fewer beggars there than in Senegal, and far fewer people yearn to make the dangerous trip to Europe. Guineans who are in trouble can turn to family and friends for food and shelter, and they are ridiculously generous even to wealthy strangers like us. And despite its governments’ venality, the country is at peace, and its people have hope for the future.

I myself am less optimistic than many Guineans. The drug trade (of which more later), an over-reliance on cash crops, an over-hasty rush to the cities, and the clash of generations are likely to put a brake on the country’s development, while it may not always remain unaffected by the instability of the region as a whole. On the next stage of my journey, I will find out how it compares with Sierra Leone, and then Burkina Faso. It should be an interesting ride.

A prodigal son returns

Yesterday on our way back to Bissau from the south, we were stopped at a military checkpoint and forced to empty our rucksacks. Well, empty them until the soldier got bored halfway through and told us to stop – he didn’t look at the other half.

The reason for this sudden rigour (at the same checkpoint a few days previously mentioning Manchester United was sufficient to avoid a bag check) is the return to Guinea-Bissau of General Bubu, the former head of the navy. Bubu had to flee the country 18 months ago when he was discovered plotting a coup d’etat against the then president, Nino Vieira. He took sanctuary in Gambia.

Last Monday, weary of exile, the general returned secretly to Guinea-Bissau in a dugout canoe, entering via one of the country’s many rivers. Eluding checkpoints such as the one we passed through, he arrived in Bissau, walked into the United Nations building and claimed refugee status. There he remains today.

The government wants the UN to give him up so they can try him for his crime – although Nino Vieira is now dead and Bubu claims he has come in peace, you can’t trust anyone around here, especially someone with his popularity. But the UN constitution makes handing him over impossible, so there is deadlock. All that can be done is for soldiers at checkpoints to make sure people like Bubu don’t get through in future (although checking only half of one’s bag and not asking for ID may not be failsafe). After us, the regional governor passed through the same checkpoint. His bag was searched too, and he angrily asked the soldiers why they were shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted. The soldiers, chastened, shrugged.