Cocaine and a very murky coup in Guinea-Bissau

After a five-hour gunfight with unidentified attackers at the government palace in Guinea-Bissau this week, President Umaro Sissoco Embaló declared that one of the assailants, three civilians and seven security personnel had been killed.

But Embaló, the target of the attack, had seen off the assault and pointed the finger at the drug traffickers that have made the country of 1.8m people a key hub for South American cocaine bound for Europe.

The “attempt to kill the president, the prime minister and all the cabinet” was perpetrated by “an isolated force . . . linked to the people we fought”, Embaló said after the attack had ended. The “failed attack against democracy . . . was well-prepared and organised and could also be related to people involved in drug trafficking”. 

The attempted assassination comes amid a surge in coups across West Africa. If successful, it would have been the second in a week after Burkina Faso and the fourth since last May. On Thursday, regional body Ecowas said it would deploy troops to help stabilise Guinea-Bissau. But while the unrest elsewhere reflects unhappiness with government’s ability to stem rising jihadi violence, the situation in Guinea-Bissau is seen as related to internal power struggles as well as the country’s relationship with the drug trade. Some even question if it was really a coup attempt.

Embaló, who won the presidency in a highly disputed 2019 election, has pitched himself as a foe of drug traffickers that are deeply entwined in the ex-Portuguese colony’s economy, politics and military.

Trafficking has been central to power in Guinea-Bissau since South American drug cartels turned the cashew-rich country into a trafficking hub in the 2000s, exploiting its endless labyrinthine creeks and islands, and a history of instability that has seen the country suffer at least 10 attempted or successful coups. More than a decade ago, the US and UN dubbed it Africa’s first narco state.

Cocaine flows from West Africa to Europe map, 2020

A turning point came in 2013. The US Drug Enforcement Administration arrested the ex-head of the navy on a luxury yacht in the middle of closing a deal that would have paid him $1mn for a tonne of cocaine transited through the country. José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto, the ex-Navy chief, served time in prison in the US.

Traffickers switched their attention to neighbouring countries but Guinea-Bissau is again central to the trade, according to experts. Antonio Indjai, the ex-general that the US government last year called “one of the most powerful destabilising figures in Guinea-Bissau” when it put up a $5mn reward for information leading to his arrest, lives freely in Bissau.

Indjai, who according to a 2013 US indictment helped orchestrate a cocaine-for-arms deal with Colombia’s Farc rebel groups, now tends his rural cashew farm. He was pictured with Embaló at the presidential palace in 2020. Embaló has ruled out extradition, and said last year during a trip to the US that he would encourage authorities to drop Indjai’s case.

Critics charge that the president’s record belies his anti-trafficking rhetoric. “Contrary to what the government pretends, since Sissoco Embaló has come to power we have not witnessed a reduction of narco-trafficking,” said Carlos Lopes, the Guinea Bissau-born ex-head of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Embaló, an ex-general who has never been implicated in trafficking, won the 2019 election but was only installed in office with the military’s help.

Embaló “seems very keen to make sure everybody knows this was an attack against him and his government because they are standing up against drug trafficking,” said Lucia Bird, director of the West Africa Observatory for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC). But “we have no indications that cocaine trafficking has decreased in Guinea-Bissau since Embaló came to power — there’s lots of indications that it very much continues”.

The last big cocaine seizures — roughly 2.6 tonnes worth over €100mn — were in 2019, and it was widely thought that the drug had been brought in to the country “to fund the 2019 electoral campaigning for parliamentary and presidential elections”, according to GI-TOC. Bird noted that there had been no major publicised seizures since Embaló took office.

Blaming the attack on traffickers is a politically savvy move, Luis Vaz Martins, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist, told the Financial Times. “But this has nothing to do with drug trafficking,” he said. “The general sentiment here is that this is a fake coup d’état.”

The murkiness surrounding the attack — and questions of how the president survived a five-hour gun battle in a country where coups are normally bloody and swift — may partly reflect tensions with prime minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam, who is close to the military.

“The relationship between the president and his allies is tense, and because of that he might not feel safe being protected by his allies, so he’s trying to bring [West African regional bloc Ecowas] forces in order to have the protection he needs,” Vaz Martins said. “To try to prevent what has happened in places like Mali, Conakry and Burkina.”

Ruth Monteiro, an ex-justice minister who fled to Portugal when Embaló took office, added to the scepticism. It “doesn’t look like a coup d’état”, she said. “Nobody claimed the coup. The borders were not closed, the [national TV and radio] were not taken — we are talking about 5 hours of shooting, but no deaths.”

Vincent Foucher, a consulting senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the truth may yet be hard to parse. “Bissau has [a] special property: many key events never get really clarified, nobody is too sure who killed who,” he wrote on Twitter. “And so competing versions remain, with various political actors choosing the one that fits best with their narrative.”

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