Drugs fuel turmoil in West Africa
“Nino” Vieira’s past as an old soldier was never far from the surface. It can have surprised few in Guinea-Bissau that the old coup maker’s death came at the hands of troops who turned against him in a country perpetually on the edge of failure because of military squabbles driven by centuries-old ethnic rivalries and the newer influence of drug smuggling cartels.
Covering the campaign for Guinea-Bissau’s first multiparty election in 1994, I found President Joao Bernardo Vieira far from being the most talkative of politicians. Sometimes actions said more. After one campaign stop, and in view of attendant dignitaries, Nino grabbed a military aide by the ear after he had caused offence and twisted it until he squealed in pain.
President Vieira emerged in the 1960s and 70s as one of the leaders of the fight to drive Portuguese colonialists from Guinea-Bissau, a country of swampy inlets, a scattering of islands and a scrubby interior that sent little to the outside world but cashew nuts – before the coming of drug traffickers in recent years made cocaine a more lucrative export for the few involved.
Vieira seized power in a bloodless coup in 1980, took Guinea-Bissau away from a Marxist path and was elected in 1994 when donors started demanding democratic reforms across Africa. Trouble came when he fell out with an army chief in the late 1990s, prompting a rebellion that forced him from power.
He returned in 2005 and was elected president, but there was no end to the instability. In November last year, he came close to being killed by renegade soldiers. In January, Vieira’s militia was accused of trying to assassinate army chief General Batista Tagme Na Wai. Na Wai was killed on Sunday, hours before Vieira’s death in an apparent revenge attack.
Na Wai was among the soldiers who toppled Vieira in 1999, but their differences went back to the struggle against the Portuguese. At least part of the animosity appeared to be ethnic. Na Wai was from the Balante, Guinea-Bissau’s biggest group, from the rice growing lands of the interior. Vieira was from the Pepel, a small coastal tribe.
The arrival of Latin American drug cartels has been another cause for tussles within Guinea-Bissau’s hierarchy. The weak state, unpatrolled coastline and proximity to Europe have made it an ideal staging point. Whether or not any faction has tried seriously to stop the trade is unclear, but it has certainly fuelled the power struggle.
The question now is whether Guinea-Bissau has a chance for a new start or risks plunging back into turmoil? Will the international community care enough to do something about the troubles in a country with few resources to interest the world? What will it mean for the drug cartels?