When President Umaro Sissoco Embaló of Guinea Bissau survived a coup attempt this week, there were sighs of relief all round.
West Africa has recently seen coups in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso — two in the same year — and all said countries are currently under military juntas that argue that civilian-led governments had failed to secure the countries from insurgents.
But in Guinea Bissau, the coup attempt also told a different story. That of a mix of politics and narcotics.
After President Embaló’s troops quelled an alleged rebellion near the presidential palace in Bissau on Tuesday, he addressed a press conference and shockingly old the world that the coup plotters were against reforms by his government, and his troops acted “notably to fight drug trafficking and corruption.”
President Embaló, a 49-year-old reserve brigadier-general is a veteran bureaucrat, soldier and politician. He was prime minister from November 2016 to January 2018, and his presidency has been accused of being sympathetic to the narcotics underworld, the same one he said he fought off on Tuesday.
Five months after he took power in 2020, the country´s diaspora gathered in Brussels, Belgium, to protest against him and his government which is led by Prime Minister Nuno Nabiam. The Guinean diaspora accused the duo of turning the country into a dictatorship and narco state. In fact, narcotics has always been associated with politics here.
The US government has labelled Guinea-Bissau Africa’s first narco-state. In 2013, it gained a global reputation of being a major transit hub for cocaine from Latin America to Europe and North America, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The drug trafficking cartel operating in Guinea Bissau is sometimes connected to top-ranking army individuals because of their influence in the country since Independence in 1974. The country has since then been plagued by coups and political unrest.
In August 2021, the US State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest and or conviction of Guinea-Bissau national Antonio Indjai, a former head of the country’s armed forces. A former army general, he has been the subject of a United Nations travel ban since May 2012, “as a result of his participation in an April 2012 coup d’état in Guinea-Bissau,” according to a public dossier on him.
Osvaldo Bango, a political analyst on Lusophone Africa based in Luanda, Angola said that in Guinea Bissau, the drugs networks are heavily connected to the country’s political elites to an extent that they are the only political players and control the army, and those who oppose them are ejected from the power circles. “Electoral campaigns, coups and even instability are sponsored by drug trafficking,” he added.
The first coup d'état in 1980 was bloodless. Nino Vieira, a chief commissioner, equivalent to a prime minister, overthrew president Luís Cabral.
But Vieira´s 18-year regime was haunted by four military coups d'état, army subversions, resulting in assassinations and arbitrary arrests.
In 1999 Vieira was deposed by Brig Ansumane Mané, and later President Kumba Lalá was overthrown by the army.
Then Ecowas executive secretary Mohammed Ibn Chambas publicly said they would probe the possible role of drug cartels in the death of President Vieira and that of the country´s army chief of staff, Gen Batista Tagme na Waie.
Mr Chambas then claimed that Guinea-Bissau was a known transport hub for drug trafficking. But the matter was never pursued, probably because the country stabilised after the 2012 coup, the last before this week’s attempt.
In September 2019, the country had the largest drug bust, of 1.8 tonnes of cocaine hidden in sacks of rice. The main opposition party leader Domingos Simões Pereira launched a scathing attack on the government, accusing it of facilitating drug trafficking.
"There are networks which certainly protect drug trafficking, but they are also quite courageous elements within the judicial police and within the political system who have stood up to drug trafficking," said Mark Shaw, co-author of a report titled ‘Breaking the vicious cycle: cocaine politics in Guinea-Bissau’, in an interview with the BBC, after the incident.
President Embaló, who came to power in February 2020 promised to restore the state authority in the country and stop drug trafficking. But going by the country’s recent history, it will not be easy.
“President Embaló is very intelligent and has vast experience”, Mr Bango said.