Instability and organized crime in Guinea-Bissau
A tiny State but with a crucial role in the global drug trafficking, Guinea-Bissau presents perfect conditions for corruption and organized crime to melt and become one with the authorities.
In the first half of 2012 Guinea-Bissau, a small country in Western Africa already known for being classified as the most significant example in the World of a "narco state", made is coming back to the international fore.
On April 12th Guinea-Bissau was the centre of another coup d’état by the army. They occupied the capital Bissau, took control of the media and kidnapped two of the most influential politicians: interim president Raimundo Pereira and Carlos Gomes Junior the favored candidate for the presidential runoff election, which should have been held on April 29th.
After all, the results of the first ballot, held on March 19th, following the President Malam Bacai Sanha’s death which took place in Paris on January 9th, have been strongly contested, so that the challenger Gomes Kumba Yala, former president from 2000 to 2003, stated that he wouldn’t present himself on the ballot. Following the condemnation of the act by Ecowas (Economic Community Of West African States) and by the African Union, the military forces allowed Gomes and Pereira to flee to Côte d'Ivoire, and has agreed with the parties to form an ad interim government, to pave the way for new elections in two years (despite the period of 12 months demanded by Ecowas).
The situation remains tense now as the army refuses to negotiate with international bodies which, consequently, have imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions to this small African country.
These events are just the latest in a long series of political upheavals that have occurred in Guinea-Bissau since the independence in 1974 and which produced a climate of perpetual instability. This gloomy scenario reached its climax between the 1st and 2nd March of 2009, with the killing of army chief Batista Tagme Na Waie, and President Bernardo "Nino" Vieira.
The killings of President Vieira and General Na Waie - given their complicity in criminal activities - are not coincidental but instead the latest symptoms of a problem in which the drug trade plays a central role.
This latest political crisis shows how the transnational illicit trafficking is not only the main resource upon which the system is based on, but, also, fuels corruption on one hand and political and military struggles between factions on the other. Guinea-Bissau, being a "shadow-state", is not able to guarantee citizens the security from violence, nor a functioning judicial system or a basic social assistance. In this atmosphere of severe instability, political leaders appear to be mere puppets that follow one after another, without making any real political change.
Fertile ground for organized crime
Organized crime prosper preferably in areas where institutions are not able to enforce the rule of law and where the black market does have a decisive role in the national economy. Once settled onto their new territory, criminals use large amounts of dirty money that come from illicit trades to bribe police personnel, judges and politicians in order to secure impunity for themselves.
Hence, state institutions become a cover for traffickers and, in fact, political life reflects the dynamics of power on which criminal organization is based on: in such a weak state, a change in the leadership or a struggle between rival factions may evolve in a coup or in a civil conflict. Therefore, in this contest it occurs a vicious circle where organized crime gets richer and the state loses progressively authority.
The case of Guinea-Bissau well represents the dynamics and the implications that tie together political instability and organized crime.
In this state, organized crime has emerged boosting – primarily - international trafficking of narcotics (including cocaine) and it is so profoundly embedded in the territory that more than one observer has suggested the definition of "narco-state" to name it.
All this was caused by peculiar economic and socio-historical events that have characterized Guinea-Bissau. Firstly, it is one of the smallest and poorest state in West Africa: its population is about 1.5 million inhabitants, its GDP per capita is around U.S. $ 1119 (165th place in the global scale) - according to the International Monetary Fund 2011 report - and the national budget is about the sale in Europe of two and a half tons of cocaine.
Although the country possesses significant quantity of mineral resources, consisting of natural reserves of oil, bauxite and phosphates, the lack of infrastructures and financial resources prevent any kind of exploitation.
The civil war (1998-99) has destroyed any trace of a production system, so that Guinea-Bissau is forced to depend on Western economies to get basic necessities. Thus, the country has accumulated foreign debts for 921 million dollars and, today, it is the target of programmed structural adjustments financed by the International Monetary Fund which is attempting to reduce unemployment and turn the state into a condition of self-sufficient economy.
Guinea-Bissau has an appealing environment for organized crime: it has the characteristics of a "shadow State" and has been defined as a "permissive environment", or, in other words, a nation in which the weakness of both State’s institutions and government’s executive apparatus allows criminals to operate without any legal or financial negative consequences.
«The problem of drug-trafficking in Guinea-Bissau needs to be urgently addressed – said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in a special report on Guinea-Bissau released on May 7, 2012. The political and military leadership have accused each other of being involved in the illegal narcotics trade. Concerted efforts to combat this problem could go a long way in addressing impunity in Guinea-Bissau».
Drug traffickers have been attracted from all this and, in turn, have contributed to the deterioration of the State. We cannot label Guinea-Bissau as an "ungoverned territory" since there is an official government but, because it fails to attempt to impose the rule of law, the government is, as a result, in favor for illegal activities. Two levels of government, the official one operating under the protection of UN and EU’s missions and the "shadow" one in the hands of Colombian drug traffickers, exist and go on in parallel, pretending to ignore each other.
The "permissive environment" allows traffickers to use air bases that have been constructed during the independence war and are disseminated along the 350 km coastline and, also, scattered throughout the 88 islands that compose the Bijagos archipelago, which isn’t patrolled by authorities.
Moreover, having been a Portuguese colony, Guinea-Bissau has linguistic and cultural affinity with two key States of the drug trade: Brazil, where the transatlantic drug route departs and Portugal, one of the major ports of entry of drugs in Europe, which is gaining importance in recent years. Finally, the traffickers take advantage of the fact that Guinea-Bissau does not attract international attention as much as its neighbouring counties, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In Guinea-Bissau peculiar and typical characteristics of the military and judicial institutions go along with all the favorable factors above mentioned, and altogether this atmosphere makes the country highly attractive for organized crime activities.
The history of this little State is marked by two bloody wars: the independence one, between 1963 and 1974, and the civilian one, between 1998 and 1999. The footprint of those conflicts can be seen in the widespread militarism and in the close relationship between the military leaders and the political ones. High-ranking military officials enjoy a popular legitimacy thanks to their contribution in the liberation struggle according to the militaristic and authoritarian ideology of the PAIGC, the chief party in Guinea-Bissau.
The political-military elite has increasingly moved away from the population, getting closer, instead, to activities that can easily procure wealth: the arms trade (especially for the Casamance rebels) and the drug trade.
In a country where, as matter of fact, is the armed forces to hold the power, it has emerged the trend to overthrow the government for the succession to power. As a result, no president has ever been able to accomplish its mandate.
The army in Guinea-Bissau is one of the largest in relation to its population: 284 agents every 100 thousand inhabitants. Such large statistic can be explained by the fact that joining the army has been a way to integrate war veterans on one hand, and rebels on the other. However, given the State economic hardship, military personnel are underpaid, or, sometimes, aren’t salaried at all; furthermore, they are not adequately equipped.
Guinea-Bissau is a territory where criminal organizations can operate with minimal risk and maximum profit. Threats to traffickers are of two kinds: economic and juridical. The financial losses occur when drug loads are confiscated, or when some affiliate fail to fulfill their commitments, triggering violent reactions. The judicial system in Guinea-Bissau is extremely weak, without resources and therefore prone to corruption.
It must be said that the laxity of public officials implicate that State institutions are unable to guarantee the respect for the rule of law, thus undermining public confidence in the State. Consequently, this situation has a negative impact on those who seek to take actions against organized crime.
Unlike the State, which is in poor economy conditions, cocaine trafficking, thanks to its high monetary value, has a significant impact not only on an individual level among citizens, but also at the highest official ranks in the government and army circles. The penetration of traffickers in these environments prompts continuous struggles between rival elites that compete to gain access to the profits.
«Any lasting solution to instability in Guinea-Bissau should include concrete actions to fight impunity and ensure that those responsible for political assassinations, including those committed in 2009, and other serious crimes such as drug-trafficking-related activities and breaches of constitutional order are brought to justice – concluded UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. It is time to put an end to the cycle of impunity in Guinea-Bissau and to establish a stable political environment conducive to socio-economic development and the realization of human rights in the country».
The fight against organized crime is therefore a prerequisite to establish a functioning democratic order in Guinea-Bissau. This can only be achieved if accompanied by an economic development, in order to let the State function without the illegal trade support.