The impoverished people of Guinea-Bissau had dared to hope that their difficult lives might improve after a military coup a year ago that handed power to a civilian transitional government. Instead, the west African nation is stagnating under the rule of its all-powerful military, with drug trafficking on the rise, elections postponed indefinitely and the economy anaemic. “I hope the political and military elites examine their conscience and realise that Guinea-Bissau runs a real risk of disappearing as a state,” former East Timor president Jose Ramos Horta, the UN representative in Bissau, said this week.
Taking stock of a transition year after the latest in a long line of coups that overthrew the regime of former premier Carlos Gomes Junior on April 12, Horta said the country’s public institutions were too weak to take on the might of the military in politics. Without a strong state and a strong government and political institutions, it will be extremely difficult for Guinea-Bissau to survive faced with regional challenges, with the threat of organised crime, including drugs cartels of diverse backgrounds and extreme poverty,” he said. Coup leader Antonio Indjai, a former army chief of staff, agreed in May last year to hand power to a civilian transitional regime headed by President Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, who was charged with holding elections within 12 months.
But on January 21 the president announced that a vote within such a tight timescale would be “technically impossible” and he announced an indefinite postponement. Diplomats and observers in Bissau say divisions in both the army and within the political class, and especially the power of the military in decision-making, explain the delay. Instability in Guinea-Bissau, which gained independence from Portugal in 1974 after a war with its colonial power lasting more than ten years, is nothing new. The country has suffered intermittent unrest since its liberation, as well as a series of military coups attributed largely to the unprecedented bloating of the army after the war.
The chronic volatility has fanned poverty in the country of 1.6 million people with few resources other than cashew nuts and fish, attracting South American drug cartels who have turned it into a hub of cocaine trafficking for west Africa. The drug trade and the money it generates have in the end corrupted all of Guinea-Bissau’s public institutions and in particular the armed forces, whose senior officers are notoriously involved in trafficking. Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, a former chief of the navy, was arrested 10 days ago by US federal agents in international waters off west Africa with several accomplices as he was allegedly about to receive a large shipment of cocaine. The officer, described as a “drug kingpin” by the United States for several years, was transferred to New York where he will stand trial. His high-profile, dramatic arrest will not, however, paper over the relentless rise of cocaine trafficking from South America since last years coup, according to United Nations sources in Bissau. “Political upheaval has severely damaged the fight against drug trafficking,” a report released at the end of last year by the UN’s anti-drug agency noted, highlighting the involvement of political leaders and military in trafficking.
Despite all these problems, the “obviously fatigued” international community must not abandon Guinea-Bissau, said Horta, who believes trafficking remains a “real danger” to its future. After the coup, most of Guinea-Bissau’s partners, including the European Union, one of its largest donors, suspended aid donations. The country is already ranked 175th out of 177 in a UN list of the poorest states in the world and more than 80 percent of its population lives on less than a dollar a day.