Shoot-Out in Guinea-Bissau

2 March 2009

Shoot-Out in Guinea-Bissau

By Gwynne Dyer

One should not speak ill of the dead, but it’s hard to resist the suspicion that the murder of the army chief of staff on March 1st and of the president on March 2nd in the small West African country of Guinea-Bissau were linked to the drug trade in Africa’s first “narco-state.”

On Sunday, a powerful bomb blew up the military headquarters in Bissau, the capital, killing Gen. Batista Tagme Na Waie, chief of Guinea-Bissau’s military, and severely wounding five other senior officers.

Less than twenty-four hours later, gunfire and rocket explosions were heard near the presidential palace, and shortly afterwards it was reported that President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira had also been killed.

The army didn’t even deny responsibility. “President Vieira was killed by the army as he tried to flee his house which was being attacked by a group of soldiers close to the chief of staff Tagme Na Waie, early this morning,” said spokesman Zamora Induta. “The country will start up now. This man had blocked any momentum in this small country.” But it is unlikely that the quarrel was really about how best to run the country.

The shoot-out had been coming for some time. Last November President Vieira narrowly survived a machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade attack on his residence by “renegade” soldiers. The 400-strong militia he then created to protect himself from the army was accused of shooting at General Tagme Na Waie in January, and the army forced Vieira to disband it.

After that, Vieira knew that he was a dead man walking, and the bomb that killed Tagme Na Waie was probably an attempt to get his retaliation in first. But this was not simply another in the long line of coups and counter-coups that has characterised Guinea-Bissau’s history since it got its independence from Portugal in 1974.

Guinea-Bissau’s politics were rough even when the stakes were very

small: control of a poverty-stricken country of one and a half million people whose principal export was cashew nuts. Vieira himself first came to power in a coup in 1980, lost it in a military mutiny in 1999, and subsequently went into exile as the country was ravaged by civil war. Then he regained power in an election in 2005 after the previous president was overthrown by the army.

The stakes have got a lot bigger now, because the country has become the main transit point for Colombian cartels smuggling cocaine into Europe. More than half of Guinea-Bissau’s territory is a maze of offshore islands, and the tiny navy lacks the strength to patrol them. There is not even a prison in the country, nor do the police own a computer.

The money that the Colombians can splash around is irresistible to many in the government and the army, and an internal struggle to monopolise that money was the inevitable result. Mostly the struggle has been invisible, but occasionally it came out into plain sight, as when an aircraft suspected of carrying cocaine was prevented from taking off last July by the judicial police, which are under the president’s control.

For five days army troops prevented the police from boarding the plane. When they finally let them on, there was no cocaine there any more, but sniffer dogs went crazy when they were brought aboard. Justice Minister Carmelita Pires subsequently received a number of death threats. In another incident, in April, two soldiers were arrested in a vehicle carrying 635kg of cocaine — but they were soon released from detention, and have yet to stand trial.

Maybe the late President Vieira died because he was waging a gallant campaign against the drug-lords who are taking over the country, but it is at least as likely that he was just involved in a struggle with the army over the proceeds. In any case, the army has won, and the country’s status as Africa’s premier narco-state is assured.

Six months ago, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the Security Council to impose sanctions against those involved in Guinea-Bissau’s drug trade, but nothing has been done — nor would sanctions deter officials in a desperately poor country who have been dazzled by the prospect of great wealth. If even the Mexican state, a hundred times as big and a thousand times as rich, faces defeat at the hands of the drug gangs, what hope is there for Guinea-Bissau?

So what is to be done? What should have been done decades ago: end the stupid “war on drugs,” which destroys not only thousands of lives but the integrity of entire countries. Legalise the drugs, sell them under government license to those who want to buy them, and deprive the illegal drug industry of the cash-flow that makes it so powerful.

The war is lost anyway: nobody who wants the drugs in any Western country has any difficulty in getting them, and the supply is so large and reliable that the prices have actually dropped over the years. Moreover, the whole war against narcotics (and other “recreational” drugs like marijuana, amphetamines and psychotropic drugs) is utterly hypocritical.

Other drugs that cause far more devastation, like alcohol and tobacco, remain legal simply because they are used by far more people in the West.

Alternatively, we could make them illegal too, and lose some even bigger wars.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11.

(“Guinea-Bissau’s…army”; and “Six…Guinea-Bissau”)