Almost 70% of the population of Guinea Bissau live below the poverty line and it is recognised as one of the least developed countries in the world. Once dubbed as ‘Africa’s first narco-state’, Guinea Bissau has experienced high levels of organised crime and corruption. Following a military coup in 2012, the EU cut ties with the country. However, after peaceful elections last year, the EU recently announced that it was restoring co-operation with Guinea Bissau. Guinea Bissau now has the opportunity to implement much needed reforms to tackle poverty, corruption and organised crime however, whether these reforms can help staunch the flow of cocaine through the region remains to be seen.
The international community has demonstrated its committed to reform. An international conference on Guinea Bissau took place on 25 March and was co-hosted by the government of Guinea Bissau, the EU and UNDP. At the conference, Federica Mogherini stressed that the EU would support the new government in “rebuilding the country, strengthening its democratic institutions and moving towards stability, reconciliation and economic development”. The UN Security Council has also extended its mandate in Guinea Bissau and international donors have pledged more than $1.1 billion to support a ten year development plan proposed by the government. Following decades of instability, these commitments present an opportunity for major reform in the country.
But this is no easy task. Fragile states in West Africa have been purposely targeted by traffickers due to weak institutions and fragmented law enforcement which provide opportunities for organised criminal networks to grow. Equally, state corruption and the participation of government officials in the trade is a direct consequence of traffickers. The relationship between corruption and drug trafficking in Guinea Bissau seems to be symbiotic.
Since 1973 Guinea Bissau has not had a government serve a full five year term and the entire military and political system has been rife with corruption. A coup d’état staged by the military in 2012 led to the EU imposing sanctions and limiting its cooperation with the government. A number of senior military officials within this government were directly linked to organised crime groups and the drug trade. Bubo Na Tchuto, former chief of the naval staff, and Antonia Injai, former head of the army, were two of the officials accused of drug offences by the US. It has been reported that government and military officials were awarded between $700,000 and $1million dollars for their participation in a major drug trafficking consignment.
Halting the flow of cocaine requires interregional cooperation between all countries affected. By cooperating with the government to tackle drug trafficking in the region, the EU now has an opportunity to have a more effective response. Nevertheless, the challenge should not be underestimated. With extremely high levels of poverty and very few natural resources – persuading people in Guinea Bissau not to engage in lucrative illicit activities is likely to be difficult. The International Peace Institute has already criticised the international community for not addressing the links between corruption, political instability and the trafficking of drugs in Guinea Bissau. To be effective, development efforts in Guinea Bissau should address corruption and poverty in addition to solely focussing on organised crime. Whether Guinea Bissau can shift from a country of criminality and corruption to one of transparency and legality remains to be seen. What is certain however is the unrelenting demand for cocaine in Europe – a significant threat to development in Guinea Bissau.