Guinea-Bissau followed Mali’s example last week, as members of the military seized power, overturning the civilian government and disrupting elections.
But for observers a coup in Bissau is vastly different from last month’s upset in Mali. While Mali had been upheld as an icon of democracy in West Africa, Guinea-Bissau is seen as a troubled, coup-prone narco-state. Another coup in Bissau? Well, no president has ever completed a five-year term, so….
The latest coup comes between the first and second round of elections. Carlos Gomes Junior, a wealthy businessman and ex-prime minister, claimed a distant first ahead of former president Kumba Yala in the March 18 vote. Yala had declared the first round results fraudulent and vowed to boycott the second round scheduled for April 29.
For context: the disrupted elections followed the January death of President Malam Bacai Sanha who long-battled diabetes. Sanha became president following the assassination of his predecessor João Bernardo Vieira. Two weeks before Sanha’s death in Paris another coup attempt in Bissau was shut down.
Last week, the army claimed to have taken power after learning of a “secret deal” between Gomes and the Angolan military to “annihilate Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces”. In fact the coup occurred days after Angola had announced the withdrawal of troops that had been in the country as part of a mission to reform the army. But Gomes, the now-kidnapped first-round front-runner supported an overhaul of the military and campaigned to fight drug trafficking.
High-level military personnel and politicians are often accused of facilitating the country’s drug trade. Drugs confiscated by the military have gone missing without explanation, and drug caches have been found on military bases.
Guinea-Bissau is well placed as a midway point between South American cocaine sources and the European market. The country’s many small islands, jagged coastline, and swaths of undeveloped rural land physically facilitate clandestine activities. Ongoing political instability and corruption as well as a severe lack of resources including such basics as fuel, police cars and patrol boats for the police have weakened responses to the drug trade. Fancy new cars cruising the streets of the capital Bissau and a growing crack-cocaine problem amongst the population add color to the problem.
Some analysts argue that the stigma attached to the “narco-state” and “failed-state” labels often applied to Guinea-Bissau hinder development that could otherwise continue despite the instability. The African Union suspended Guinea-Bissau on Tuesday, denouncing the coup. Other world bodies including the UN and the US have vocalized similar sentiments. The cycle of coups, isolation, and attempts to restart democracy have had devastating impacts on the local population. Guinea-Bissau places 176 out of 187 ranked countries in the Human Development Index, a measure of “a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living” compiled by the United Nations Development Program. At the latest count life expectancy was a mere 48.1 years.
Now residents are fleeing Bissau, fearing violence, and Amnesty international reports rising food prices and repression of peaceful protest and independent media. Pressed by politics, violence and drug trafficking, life for Guineans looks increasingly dreary.