Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Regime in Guinea-Bissau, Built on Coke, Looking for New President

Posted in African Politics, Global Africa, Guinea Bissau by ruben eberlein on July 19, 2009

At the end of July, a run-off will decide about the next President of Guinea-Bissau. Its result will not change the patrimonial coke-rule of the military profoundly. Read my text on this issue here. If you prefer German, then download the Jungle World-article here.

stamp_amilcar_cabral1‘Well organised, peaceful, free and transparent’ were the words chosen by the monitors of the European Union while reporting on the first round of elections to the presidency in Guinea-Bissau that had taken place on 28 June. The African Union was satisfied as well. The previous months have not exactly been peaceful in the West African country, though: After the chief of defence staff of the Guinean army, General Batista Tagme Na Wai, fell victim to a bomb attack on 1 March, a group of soldiers killed President João Bernardo ‘Nino’ Vieira only hours later. Whether followers of the two rivals murdered the respective other one or if there was a third group involved is currently the subject of all kinds of speculation. Three months later, the assassinations continued. A candidate for the President’s office and two former ministers were fatally shot.

The first round of elections did not result in an absolute majority for one of the eleven candidates. On 26 July, two former heads of state – Malam Bacai Sanhá and Koumba Yala – will compete. The circle of influential actors within the destitute country of 1.5 million inhabitants is extremely confined. This was probably one of the reasons why Guineans were not particularly interested in the elections – only 60 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls. ‘The elections of the past have not resulted in any positive change’, explains Henrik Vigh, social anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen. ‘Guinea-Bissau experienced an endless series of rebellions and changes, but only within the sphere of those people holding power.’

The conflicts between competing factions within the relatively huge military, which array themselves also along ethnic identities, go partly back to the struggle for independence that ended only in 1974 after 13 years of guerrilla war against the Portuguese colonial rulers. They reached a climax when Nino – who came to power in 1980 through a coup himself – was overthrown in 1999 after one year of civil war. Six years later, however, he took the helm of the state again as the victor in elections.

In course of the last years, the tensions between the military clans were considerably aggravated through the colonisation of the country by cocaine-trading syndicates from Latin America. The value of cocaine that leaves Guinea-Bissau for Europe might be higher than the official gross national product of the country, said the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in 2007 already. Military bases are reported to serve as storages for the cocaine, landing strips of the army are said to be used as drop-in centres for messengers of the drug lords from Venezuela and Columbia, among the couriers allegedly activists of the guerrilla group FARC. Death threats against investigative journalists, anti-drug officials and human rights activists are common in Guinea-Bissau.


In the rural areas, people simply ignore

the state and the politicians if they can.

Patrick Chabal


The cocaine business both varied and solidified a system of government that is almost completely fed through the acquisition of rents, i.e. unearned income. The huge majority of Guineans, however, does not receive any of these coke-dollars and other inflows. ‘Except for the very few who benefit from this neo-patrimonial system – that is the clients of the military-political group that controls the access to resources – one expects little from the state in Guinea-Bissau’, says Africa specialist Patrick Chabal of the King’s College London, who is following the developments in the country for three decades. ‘Most people probably know that not much will change. In the rural areas, people simply ignore the state and the politicians if they can.’

Koumba Yala, with 29.42 per cent the second-placed contender of the first round of presidential elections, is cheerlessly remembered by most of the Guineans for his tenure of the highest office between 2000 and 2003. Before he was overthrown by the army, his government was characterised by galloping embezzlement of public finances, the persecution of the opposition and ethnic cronyism. The former professor of philosophy enjoys, however, considerable support among his ethnic group, the Balanta, which are with 30 per cent of the population the biggest ethnicity in the country and form the core of the army. Nevertheless, one has to wait if he is able to mobilise support transcending this base.

Observers of the country have a much more positive attitude vis-à-vis the reputation and history of Malam Bacai Sanhá, winner of the first round with 39.59 per cent. He failed twice already in run-offs for the presidency – first in 1999/2000 against Yala, then again in 2005 against Nino. The political scientist who studied in the GDR is supported by the former liberation movement PAIGC that controls parliament with 67 out of 100 seats. It is however questionable if a possible victory by Sanhá will be accepted by the most influential factions of the military that have been balantised by Yala during his tenure. Every ambitious politician in Guinea-Bissau has to ensure himself of support within the army.


Even getting exploited

is considered something to aspire towards.

Henrik Vigh


Quite in a distant from these oligarchic politics, the youth and especially young men of the country spend most of their time with fruitless attempts in order to get access to the networks which distribute resources, explicates Henrik Vigh who published a study about one youth militia entitled Navigating Terrains of War in 2006. ‘Even getting exploited is considered something to aspire towards as it at least holds the possibility of future reciprocal returns.’ Moreover, the catastrophic situation in Guinea-Bissau, says Vigh, can not be apprehended without an understanding of regional lines of conflict that stretch to Gambia and Senegal (especially the Casamance) and of the marginal global position of the country.

The developments in Guinea-Bissau in course of the last years also prove that African rulers are often not simply the helpless receivers of Western interventions. The ‘excellent bilateral relationships’ (State Department website) to the US and the military support from that country did not avert the rise of a narco-state. The European Union and its member countries, in turn, strive to reform and reorient the military since many years without much success.

Up until today, not a small group of army officers might have been repeatedly taught by foreign experts about the amenities of a parliamentarian democracy and the responsibilities of the military within it. But an unpretentious export of ideology will not change much with regards to the catastrophic conditions in Guinea-Bissau. On the one side, the country constitutes a paradigmatic badlands of modernity that has nothing of worth to offer within the legal world market. On the other side, the neo-liberal ideology of the free global market is taken to its extremes by the drug traffickers.

This is a slightly revised version of the German article that appeared in the weekly Jungle World (16 July 2009). Picture: Postage stamp of the GDR (1978) showing Amilcar Cabral, leader of the independence struggle in Guinea Bissau. Found here.

One Response

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  1. Marie Gibert said, on July 20, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    You underline a number of interesting points here. However, I would be very cautious regarding the ‘narco-state’ labelling of Guinea-Bissau. There have been two good UNODC reports, of course, but also a lot of rumours and the links between the drug trade and the political situation and recent killings, in particular, are far from clear (on this, see Crisis Group’s latest and very interesting briefing).
    Another central point, which you do not underline here, is the army’s constant interference in the country’s politics. In that, Guinea-Bissau’s politics seem little different from other West African states’. But Guinea-Bissau’s army stuill enjoys a considerable degree of legitimacy derived from the long independence war fought against Portugal. That history still has important effects on the country’s politics and cannot be understimated.
    Finally, I’m not sure I completely agree with you – and Patrick Chabal – on the Bissau-Guinean people’s limited expectation of the state. Participation in the legislative elections of November 2008 was high (I can’t remember the exact figure) and 60% of participation for the first round of the presidential elections, given the latest killings and potential security threats, is quite impressive. Many Bissau-Guineans have high expectations, even if they dare not hope too much…

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