Africa News blog

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Overdose of trouble in West Africa

June 28, 2009

That political stability is vital for investment and development goes without saying, but it seems as though too much instability can be bad for criminal enterprises too.

The cocaine cartels that used West Africa, and Guinea-Bissau in particular, as a conduit to Europe were long accused of worsening the chaos in one of the region’s poorest and most troubled states by buying off some factions of the security forces and political leaders.

But if so, things may have gone too far.

In less than a year, Guinea-Bissau has lost President Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira (dead), the head of the army (dead), the head of the navy (fled), a former defence minister (dead) and a candidate to replace the slain president in the June 28 election (dead). And those are just some of the figures at the top.

Whichever of Guinea-Bissau’s leaders might have been involved in the drugs trade and which were trying to fight it, the removal of such a swathe of the leadership appears for now at least to have knocked the traffickers off balance too.

Drug smuggling through West Africa has plummeted, according to the U.N., despite the fact that its geography also makes it an ideal bridge between Latin America and Europe.

“The fact that big traffickers do not any longer have certain partners in power clearly have disrupted the routes,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, regional head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “A trafficker would never bring 2 tonnes of drugs to a country where he is not sure he can operate,” he told Reuters.

Political changes in Guinea, where a junta seized power after the death of President Lansana Conte, and Ghana, where the opposition won a democratic election, also appear to have limited their use as smuggling conduits for now.

An election in Guinea-Bissau now offers a chance for a new start. With greater international support its chance of becoming a failed state could have improved.

A question for the West African countries – and for the drug traffickers – may be whether administrations that become more entrenched over time will more easily fall prey to the lure of the drug money despite the dangers.

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