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Bissau: the quiet coup?

June 2, 2010

 Bissau fishermen tend their netsSince 2008, there have been at least four successful coups in Africa — Madagascar, Mauritania, Guinea and Niger — all proof that the gun still trumps the ballot box as a means of taking power on the continent.

But there may be a fifth quietly happening now in former Portuguese colony Guinea Bissau, where ex-Navy chief and suspected drugs kingpin Bubo Na Tchuto appears increasingly to be calling the shots.

A military court this week dropped treason charges against Na Tchuto, two months after his allies in the armed forces toppled the military leadership and threatened the life of the prime minister.

“We’re hearing Na Tchuto is the man and the president and prime minister are essentially powerless,” said a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.

Where other putschists have risen to power in a dramatic and swift burst of gunfire, Na Tchuto has been taking a long and circuitous route.

In 2008 he tried to overthrow former president Joao Bernardo Vieira but was beaten back by forces loyal to the regime.

He then went into exile in Gambia for a while, during which time rogue soldiers killed Vieira and a new president, Malam Bacai Sanha, was elected democratically.

Na Tchuto returned to Guinea Bissau in December 2009 by sea, disguised as a fisherman, and took refuge in the local offices of the United Nations while Sanha’s regime pushed to have him handed over for trial on charges of treason.

Then, on April 1, soldiers loyal to General Antonio Njai broke him loose, took the military leadership and briefly arrested the anti-Na Tchuto prime minister.

Sanha and Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior have been quick to say they remain in charge and that the April outburst was a once-off problem confined among soldiers.

But observers say nothing gets done now in Guinea Bissau without the military’s OK.

Guinea Bissau has a long history of political turmoil, but the country is a growing worry for Western powers who see it as a hub for Latin American cocaine trafficking to Europe.

In April, Washington identified Na Tchuto and another former top military leader as drugs kingpins. 

With a reputation like that, maybe Na Tchuto’s hoping his new coup attempt doesn’t get noticed.

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