Drug-trafficking in Guinea-Bissau is undermining the country’s stability, distorting its economy and intensifying the competition for power among political and military leaders, say analysts and observers.
“Because drug-trafficking stokes instability, it affects every citizen. Moreover it gives the country a deplorable image, which tends to discourage donors. In a country where access to credit is difficult, some observers say that drug money has been used to fund the cashew nut trade, the country’s main export and a key revenue source for the rural population,” Vincent Foucher, a researcher with the International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN.
He said drug money is also funding the personal security networks of top politicians and military personnel - an important element in ongoing power struggles and political strife.
“But regarding drugs, the security forces have a comparative advantage [to the politicians],” said Foucher.
The wholesale value in Europe of cocaine trafficked through West Africa, with Guinea-Bissau being one of the main transit points, dwarfs the national security budgets of many West African states, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a recent report. The entire military budget of many West African countries is less than the price of a ton of cocaine in Europe, it said.
“Cocaine-related corruption has clearly undermined governance in places like Guinea-Bissau,” said the report. Cocaine seizures in West Africa peaked in 2007 with 47 tons netted. The seizures have since declined to about 18 tons, it said.
Routing Europe-bound cocaine through West Africa has followed changes in the world cocaine market over the past decade. Prices have been plummeting with demand in the USA falling, while demand in Europe has doubled, said UNODC.
On 2 April US forces arrested former Guinea-Bissau navy chief José Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, alongside four fellow countrymen in a sting operation in international waters in the Atlantic.
He is accused of conspiring to import cocaine from South American to Guinea-Bissau. “Na Tchuto noted that the Guinea-Bissau government was weak in light of the recent coup d’état and that it was therefore a good time for the proposed cocaine transaction,” according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Guinea-Bissau military chief Antonio Indjai has also been charged, in absentia, by a US court with conspiring to sell weapons to Colombia’s FARC rebels to protect the group’s cocaine factories against US military forces and to store FARC’s cocaine in West Africa.
Indjai is subject to a UN travel ban for his alleged role in Guinea-Bissau’s April 2012 coup.
“Antonio Indjai conspired to use his power and authority to be a middleman and his country to be a way-station for people he believed to be terrorists and narco-traffickers so they could store and ultimately transport narcotics to the US,” US attorney Preet Bharara said in April in comments carried by the DEA.
Colombia, Peru and Bolivia are the sources of cocaine transiting through West Africa. More than 20 major seizures were made in the region between 2005 and 2007 mostly at sea, but also on private aircraft or on land, said UNODC.
However, José Ramos-Horta, the UN special representative in Guinea-Bissau, said drug-trafficking through Guinea-Bissau was “exaggerated”.
“It is serious enough, but not to the extent of calling a country a narco-state. Guinea-Bissau has the chance to not be completely taken hostage by organized crime. Consumption of drugs in Guinea-Bissau hardly exists, there are no factories. Guinea-Bissau is essentially a store… [The drugs] are easy to track down and destroy.”
ICG’s Foucher argued that as long a soldier’s official salary remained at 20,000 francs (US$ 40) per month, “it is obvious that drug traffickers will always find allies in the military and that some of the troops will be ready to strike deals with the traffickers as well as other criminals.”
Since independence from Portugal nearly 30 years ago, the country has suffered intermittent unrest, with no president ever being able to finish a full term in office.
“It is not because people are poor that they engage in the drug trade, it is because the state is absent,” said Kwesi Aning of the West Africa Commission on Drugs. “To be able to give people hope that there is an alternative to criminal life, the state must be made strong and functional.”
“This is not just about Guinea-Bissau; we can see it in the so-called functioning states - in Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria,” Aning told IRIN.
Declarations of intent
Meanwhile, analysts say efforts by West African countries to curb the drug trade have not gone far beyond declarations of intent.
“Across West Africa, politicians are talking about drugs but they are not implementing the policies. The rhetoric is good but the response is poor. There is strong rhetorical commitment,” said Aning.
Cooperation between West African states to combat the drug trade seems to mostly centre on training and supporting operations implemented by Western nations, said Foucher.
“The feeling among Western actors seems to be that African states have little motivation to combat the drug trade which they see mostly as a problem for the West.”
Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s poorest countries. Almost 70 percent of its 1.6 million people live in poverty. The country mainly relies on cashew exports and fishing for revenue.