Literature Review: Guinea-Bissau
What the press – from both sides of the pond – is saying about Guinea-Bissau
Literature Review is an occasional series investigating how the U.S. press covers an African country or issue.
Think of the following list of films. Scarface, Midnight Express, Traffic, Another Day in Paradise, Goodfellas and the recent release, American Gangster. If the business of America is business, the business of Hollywood seems to be the drug business. Of course, without an eager audience, Hollywood flaks wouldn’t be bending over backwards telling these often dreary and lurid tales.
It’s not that the Europeans lack good drug movies – no, the French Connection doesn’t count. It’s just that mainstream American popular culture seems so much more fixated on the evils of drugs than their Europeans do. If I can generalize: Drugs in European popular culture are generally seen as a means (and a window dressing); whereas in the States, drug use is most often an ends.
If you were going to write a movie about this next story, would you rather have a flashy Hollywood screenwriter (I hear one may soon be available) or a European willing to pen a gritty screen play. Would the American look to write a morality tale? Would the European want to tell it as a slice of life? Most important to me: who would do the soundtrack?
As the success of Blood Diamonds proves, directors have found it’s easier to make serious films about Africa when the tragedy is safely ensconced in history. The problem with this tale is it exists in the present, and we don’t know how it will turn out.
History’s first draft
Thus, we’ll have to leave it to the journalists to give us their first draft of history. The quick take: The West African state of Guinea-Bissau, plagued by political and military instability since its freedom from Portugal in 1974, often cited as one of the world’s poorest countries, is now in a bitter fight over its territorial integrity since the arrival of assertive drug lords who have begun using the nation as a transit hub for European-bound cocaine. They have done so because this poor nation – which just celebrated the installation of its first two ATM machines – does not have the capability to police the nearly 90 uninhabited islands, rivers and mangrove swamps that make up its 400 mile border with the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, leaders of such a fledgling country can be found to be easily, shall we say, persuaded to look the other way.
American journalists, deft practitioners of gauging reader interest, are never one to shy away from a tale of thick plot lines and deep meaning. However, because the story takes place on Europe’s doorstep, so to speak, those from the continent have beaten their colleagues from Western Hemisphere to the punch. In fact, for a story that has been running for nearly six months, only one major American broadcast daily has filed a report on this subject matter: National Public Radio. Although Time magazine recently sent a reporter.
After reading stories from Reuters, the BBC webiste, The Independent, BBC radio, even IRIN, one is beaten over the head by the brutal paradoxes fashioned in Guinea-Bissau now that a ton of cocaine is transported nearly every day through its porous borders.
For example, the capital city Bissau’s infrastructure may be failing – every reporter does not fail noticing the deplorable shape of the roads – but an expanding and increasingly restless nouveau-riche busies itself by building fancy houses, driving around town in unmarked new 4x4s, hiring local security forces, partying in new fancy discos where one pays the rough equivalent of a hard day’s labor for a drink. One estimate puts 60 Colombians in Bissau, buying up businesses and generally throwing money around.
A dash of context
For those in need of context: A mere six ounces of cocaine is roughly equal to a year’s salary in Guinea-Bissau. It is said that traffickers move on average a 600 kilo shipment through the country every day, which is roughly equivalent to 20 percent of all foreign aid (in 2006 dollars), 14 percent of the country’s export revenues and three times the amount of foreign investment.
For those keeping score, we have the details of an emergent high class with their newfangled entertainments and statistics on the street sale of cocaine. Yet we have no proof that drug money is funding these new gadgets. Secondly, who says its Colombian drug money? For one, reporters breathlessly point out the details of the detention and subsequent liberty of two Colombians found with automatic weapons, explosives, a large amount of money and a diagram listing government and military members. One of the Colombians had already been convicted in the U.S. After a few weeks in detention – famously, the country has no prison – both men were freed on bond. If you’re surprised, the same thing happened a year before – only those two were caught with $25 million worth of blow. (That consists of my only street drug reference in this story.)
Just any facts, ma’am
One worry that cropped up while reading these stories is finding confirmation for facts. Getting anyone to talk about an illicit market – however large and powerful – must be difficult. But how sure are we that reporters double-check the facts given to them? It’s especially disheartening when the titles “Western intelligence sources” and United Nations Drug experts,” “top US Drug Enforcement Agency official” are substituted in stories and quotes for people with real names.
Let’s be honest here, these people are making pretty large claims. For example, this is “the worst drug trafficking problem we’ve ever encountered on the continent,” from the DEA guy. Even those people with names make some serious allegations. "The region is directly under attack, there is no other word which we can use," said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Are we supposed to take their word for it?
The Reporters Without Borders investigation claimed that the main problem for local journalists – and foreign investigators – is that the drugs problem is Guinea-Bissau’s crazy aunt in the attic: the problem no one talks about in polite company. Fair enough. But, the NPR report provided lyrics to a local pop song about the houses people are building with the help of drug funds. Perhaps the best quote I heard from any story came from the BBC radio documentary, where the rector at Guinea-Bissau’s only university was asked about the complicity of the very powerful military with the alleged drug lords: “If they don’t know what is going on, then they are incompetent because it is their job to know what is going on. If they know, they are corrupted.”
I must wonder if reporters spending a little time here felt the same thing about everyone else in the country.
Hey Arlo, what rhymes with ‘flying into Guinea-Bissau?’
With appropriate caveats due to the issues of unverifiable facts noted above, here is how the so-called drug specialists claim cocaine has infected the country of Guinea-Bissau.
First, the drugs must get to Guinea-Bissau. One popular method, according to the press, is airplanes. Guinea-Bissau is pretty much a straight shot across the Atlantic from South America (read: Columbia), one reporter was told, making the journey easy for a small twin-engine aircraft to cross the ocean every night. This plane then lands on one of the many (BBC radio claims) small airstrips the Portuguese built during the colonial era on one of the largely uninhabited 90 islands dotting the country’s coastline. These planes touch down with roughly 800 kilograms of cocaine, a European street value of about $100 million.
Sometimes those planes land elsewhere. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has long questioned the complicity of the country’s military in the drug transfer. This office believes that an estimated 2.5 metric tons of cocaine has landed at a military airstrip. Their theory is bolstered by the fact that two soldiers were arrested in April in a car carrying 635 kilos of cocaine.
Another theory is that bags are literally thrown out of planes onto these uninhabited islands and then picked up by people in speed boats.
Boats are another method of transportation popular in many stories. Earlier this summer, Senegalese police found 2.5 tons of cocaine on a deserted sailing boat (along with plane tickets from Brazil to Bissau.) A BBC-made map shows that most of the cocaine seized throughout West Africa in the past three years has in fact been found at sea.
This has lead to the famous incident – famous because it has been retold in nearly every story – of local farmers a few years back found bags of a white powder floating in the sea. They took some for themselves, and then put the powder on their crops, only to watch in horror as the plants wilted and died. The smugglers, hearing of the packages, returned to the villages willing to buy the bags. Happily, the farmers’ harvest wasn’t ruined after all.
Once the cocaine makes it to Guinea-Bissau, reporters become a little fuzzy on what happens next. Most just claim it is transported to Europe, although some stories suggest it also goes “elsewhere” – but nobody has ever filled in that blank. Some stories claim most of the drugs leave by ship; light aircraft also deliver the drugs to market. A portion of the cocaine is carried with the same criminals who smuggle illegal immigrants to Europe. Also, like the drug distribution system to the U.S., some drugs are brought in by “mules.” A few stories hint that other West African states are also in on this racket.
Just say non
Only one story, from Reuters, noted the sticky fact that even though a guesstimated one-third of the total amount of cocaine entering Europe is shipped through West Africa, drug traffickers are merely meeting demand. The story points out that an estimated – the numbers monitoring drug use are most likely speculated upon as drug shipment data – 4.5 million Europeans used cocaine last year, a million more than the year before.
From information I have, cocaine is Europe’s second most popular drug, after cannabis, but is it has presently reached “historically high levels” of use. Other than surveys, one method to measure drug problems is to tally those seeking help to get off the drug. In the Netherlands and Spain, at least one in four treatment demands involve cocaine. Throughout Europe, those demands have doubled between 1999 and 2004. In 2005 cocaine was to blame for some 400 deaths.
One interesting fact is that drugs of all stripes fell in street price throughout Europe. The value of cocaine fell more than 20 percent in the five year period between 1999 and 2004.
Guiné Portuguesa é nosso
What these reporters say in passing, but fail to investigate thoroughly, is Guinea-Bissau’s fragile political culture. A major reason for this stems from the fact that Guinea-Bissau is a former Portuguese colony, which like Angola and Mozambique, had to fight its way to independence, giving the military unquestioned loyalty and power – which it spent the next 30 years abusing.
The Portuguese first hit the shores of modern-day Guinea-Bissau in 1644, ready to begin dealing slaves. By the 1950s locals began pushing for independence, and the move became formal with the formation of the Partido Africano de Independencia da Guiné e Cabo Verde, called PAIGC. By the turn of the new decade, when most Francophone and Anglophone African nations were gaining their own independence, the PAIGC began an armed rebellion. They were soon aided by China, Cuba and the Soviet Union, sending enough arms and munitions to fight the Portuguese to a stalemate. (Some claim that newly-independent neighboring African states also aided the guerrilla movement.)
By 1972 the PAIGC controlled 60 percent of the country, and the Portuguese dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar was stumbling through its last few years. Portugal had placed 40,000 troops in the small country. But the rebels continued to inflict heavy loses against the colonial power, which some claim lead to the coup d’etat that brought down the 41-year Salazar regime in April 1974. On September 10 of the same year, Portugal granted the Guinea-Bissau’s independence.
Independence from what?
To what avail? As the Central Intelligence Agency points out, since independence, the country “has experienced considerable political and military upheaval.” That may be putting it lightly.
The victorious PAIGC created a single party that brutally and harshly ruled the country into the early 1990s. Cape Verde left the two-country union in 1980. With Guinea-Bissau’s economic output falling steadily, an internal coup took place, really just a shifting of the cards, with the ruling PAIGC creating a Revolutionary Council to continue managing the country.
Skip ahead a little more than a decade to when Guinea-Bissau held its first multi-party elections in 1994. As the country awaited the second multi-party legislative elections in 1998, a faction of rebel troops seized control of the army barracks in Bissau, its international airport and other locations. The soldiers immediately formed a military junta, called for the resignation of the president and his administration. They promised to hold elections in July.
Troops loyal to the government rebelled and fighting broke out. At least 200,000 civilians fled Bissau, sparking fears of a humanitarian disaster. Many members of the army began defecting to the rebel side. A truce was not worked out until late July, which was enforced by troops from Senegal and Guinea. By October, a demilitarized zone was created in the capital, but cease-fires continued to fall apart. With a majority of once pro-government forces now fighting for the rebels, the government agreed to dissolve itself and create a period of national unity.
Presidential and legislative elections were held in November 1999, and longtime opposition candidate Kumba Yalá, who beat out a PAIGC candidate, was finally declared winner in January. In 2003, with more electoral shenanigans in the air, officers acting on orders of the army chief arrested Yalá, simultaneously creating a new government. After much trial and more error, legislative elections were finally held in March 2004, but chaos reigned again: the head of armed forces was killed and civil unrest ensued.
Presidential elections were finally held in June 2005, and Yalá was defeated in the first round of voting. The eventual winner, Joao Bernardo ‘Nino’ Viera, running as a candidate for a faction of PAIGC, was the deposed leader following the 1998 coup, which eventually led to civil war.Menage á trois
Through this all, it leads to little wonder why Guinea-Bissau remains a very poor state with very weak government institutions. It currently ranks 44 out of 48 countries in government performance, according to the Ibrahim Index of African Governments, posting the largest decline of any sub-Saharan African state since the beginning of the decade.
Today, it finds itself caught in a strange trifecta between the military and its alleged allies, the drug traffickers. As Reporters Without Borders points out, “a heterogeneous government fears head-on confrontation with the army because of the danger of plunging the country into another civil war or triggering a major inter-ethnic conflict.” With no funds, and seemingly no international friends, the government has little chance of defeating either.
Can we get a fact check?
Part of the problem, journalists point out, is that the country – and its government – has been largely abandoned by the West. That’s not an uncommon reality for former Portuguese colonies, and certainly not all that rare for small West African states.
But the drug problem keeps worsening, international observers tell us. Thus, there’s a sense of urgency in these stories, as if the FARC-style kidnappings will soon rear its head in Bissau. Never mind the subtext of many of these stories that sheepishly mention other than the fancy unmarked cars, big houses, expensive discos, the country barely lives up to its billing as Africa’s number one narco transit point.
It’s also interesting to point out that for the lone journalist from a major U.S. media organ covering this story, the UN staff was at pains to point out ties between drug traffickers and terrorists. "The real stake in West Africa is the money that is generated through drug trafficking which is, per se, an explosive tool," Antonio Mazzitelli, the regional head of the UNODC told NPR. "It can affect democratic rule. It can finance rebellions. [It can] be a reason for taking up arms and perpetuate corruption, bad governance and instability."
Here comes the calvary?
Of course, who knows how much bluff the UN has. By reading the large pile of stories on this topic, they must be on to something. Of course, the NPR reporter also admitted that Guinea-Bissau is a very charming place to visit.
This claims still don’t answer the question of what can be done in Guinea-Bissau. The BBC radio documentary pointed out that the UNs first plan to help police Guinea-Bissau’s borders called for a project costing “several hundred million dollars,” which apparently was laughed out of Manhattan. Their second, admittedly more scaled back, version calls for nearly $20 million over three years. The government of Portugal recently hosted a one-day donor conference to line up support for the plan. It appears to have been a success – to the tune of $6.7 million. The Portuguese themselves offered $3 million for the program, the European Union will kick in another $2.9 next year and Britain, Germany, Italy and the U.S. all anted up several hundred thousand each.
The question I have: With the money most likely being set in place over the next few months, will Guinea-Bissau hold the same attraction to reporters? Or will the threat of drugs prove a far more appealing story than the fight against them?