Drugs fuel turmoil in West Africa

March 2, 2009

“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?


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I dare not dampen HOPE for Guinea Bisau, but this murder can not good for any country looking for a way out of poverty. Africa is being decimated by petty rivalry borne out of ethnic diversity and greed.

Why should Africans turn to the International community when there is turmoil at home? The continent struggle stems from a neocolonial system, which has pride itself over the years in crashing anything and anyone who threatens or may threaten their power. Hence, in a century when words, speeches are the greatest power in awakening dreams and vision for the good of all, Africa is being failed by a political class blinded by greed, mistrust, self glorification.

There would surely be another president in Guinea-Bissau soon and trust me, like the previous one, this president and his government would continue the neocolonial system of governance which has distinguished itself in its lack of respect for and responsibility toward its people while, worshipping the Western world and enriching the themselves and cronies.

It is time, the continent and Africans learn something from the struggle of Afroamericans for Freedom and equality in the USA if we are to forge a common dream and vision necessary for a substenable drive toward prosperity for all and a culture of respect for civil liberty, freedom of expression and a renewed African consciousness

Posted by Francis Ngale | Report as abusive

The first signs are encouraging as military forces have not attempted to take over. It is now up to the International Community to support what seems as a start of national conscience to democracy.

Posted by Philippe Mandangi | Report as abusive

[…] Läs om Guinea-Bissau, den förra presidenten Vieiras historia och om drogkartellerna har börjat ta sig in i landet: Drugs fuel turmoil in West Africa. […]

Posted by längs vägen « Gustaf Redemo | Report as abusive