Cocaine Politics in Guinea-Bissau: The link between drug trafficking and political fragility and its wider implications

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Drug trafficking and its impacts have become defining features of politics, governance, and statehood in Guinea-Bissau. While “cocaine politics” is triggering a new era of fragility and instability across the subregion and beyond, the problem is deeply rooted. This paper examines the country’s postcolonial past to better understand the present relationship between drugs and statehood and the role of the international community in Guinea-Bissau. Such an analysis offers insights into potential strategies that might begin the process of delinking these increasingly intractable, interwoven strands and mitigating their impact and emphasizes the urgency of doing so.

A military coup in April of this year, and its subsequent broad legitimization by the international community, has finally squared the circle for drugs and politics in Guinea-Bissau.[i] The coup was engineered by the military, whose longstanding relationship to drug trafficking is well documented, and of which at least two senior members are on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) list of drug kingpins. A Security Council Resolution in May condemned the coup, demanded the military to step down, and called for the restoration of the constitutional democratic process.[ii] The Resolution also made the explicit connection between the coup and the drug trade, “expressing deep concern about the possible increase in illicit drug trafficking as a result of the military coup.”[iii] By all accounts, this concern was not misplaced. Not only was the coup itself reportedly used as diversion for a major shipment, but in the immediate period after the coup, the airstrip of General Antonio Indjai, chief of staff of the military and leader of the coup, was said to be “busier than the main international airport in Bissau,” as the drugs flowed freely in.[iv]

Despite the condemnation by the Security Council, the process of international recognition of the new interim administration, and thus the de facto recognition of the coup itself, is slowly taking place. Most recently, ECOWAS, who facilitated the establishment of an interim administration after the coup, called upon the African Union to recognize the Transitional Government, and for the Security Council, the EU, and the AU to lift the sanctions that they put in place after the coup.[v] In short, they urged the international community to return to business as usual in its relations with the State. In addition, indeed maybe that is an appropriate description, the administration before the coup had ties with drug trafficking, as did the one before that. In fact, evidence of drug trafficking in Guinea Bissau was clearly seen at the turn of the millennium. The finances generated by drug trafficking were injected into a political structure that was desperate for resources, which in turn further distorted the country’s already fragile politics.

Structural weakness and external resources

The politics and economies of the countries of West Africa have always been externally focused. First, and most obviously, as patterns of governance, economic management and civil service were established and orientated around the colonial powers that first created the states. The sweep of newly independent states and fragile governments in West Africa, which began with Ghana in 1957 and ended with Guinea-Bissau in 1974, left a legacy into which the organized crime was born, beginning in Nigeria in the late 1980s.

The independence era coincided with the peak of the longest and most widespread economic boom in history. It was a windfall for Nigeria, the only oil producing country in the region, but created massive export deficits in most other countries in the region. New democracies, with minimal experience in governance, plagued by corruption and the inability to provide or project regulatory capacity across the state, quickly found themselves in financial difficulties as they strove to meet the rising oil prices and manage deficits triggered by profligate spending in the boom years. In the next decade, nearly every country in the sub region was compelled to borrow from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and undergo their structural adjustment regimes. The structural adjustment regimes imposed a process of economic liberalization, which dramatically curtailed public expenditure, and created a schism between rural poor and urban elites. Structural adjustment concentrated wealth in the hands of the business elite and continued a system of governance focused not on meeting the needs of the population, but on external economic patrons. During the 1980s, thirty-six governments in sub-Saharan Africa entered into stabilization agreements with the IMF or structural adjustment with the World Bank, with a total of 243 loan agreements worth over $200 billion.[vi] But while accepting donor funds, few governments made genuine reforms, concentrating instead on the accumulation of wealth for themselves and their supporters.

In Guinea-Bissau, the policy resulted in the bifurcation of the economy. A series of privatized trading farms, whose owners—the pontieros, frequently those with government connections—were the fortunate recipients of substantial World Bank and IMF grants, while the displaced population of subsistence level farmers continued to seek a survival livelihood based upon regional informal trading networks that moved at the community level across colonially imposed frontiers.[vii]   The impact of this bifurcation was twofold. On the one hand, it meant that the institutional presence of the state in rural areas became almost completely absent, with dire consequences for the development and security of the population. On the other hand, it created enormous volatility in government, as the state contracted into being a purely self-serving entity established to further its own interests. It was in these years that the symbiotic relationship between government and the private sector became fully entrenched. Political patronage meant access to the lucrative international aid contracts that were increasingly driving the national economy, favors were returned through financial support for political campaigns, and financing for the escalating levels of protection required to maintain power. 

The role of the military in this already volatile mix has been crucial; its history, formation and influence within the elite have been crucial to the nature of post-colonial state formation.[viii] In contrast to many of its neighbors in West Africa, the military in Guinea-Bissau was not a colonial legacy, but the normalization of a guerilla force that played a critical role in securing national independence. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of the People (FARP), had the characteristics of a people’s militia, and maintained strong linkages to the civilian state from which the original political elite was becoming increasingly estranged. But to view this as a straightforward ideological and bipartisan split between the elite and the people is overly simplistic. From these nationalistic beginnings, over time the military morphed into its own elitist structure, becoming a refuge for an aging and overinflated officer corps who leveraged their positions to secure their own political and business interests. Forty percent of the current officer corps has served two decades in the military and 20 percent for more than three decades. A series of cliques increasingly dominate state politics—comprised of an ever-shifting array of military, political, and business figures—with patronage and protection the two major currencies of choice.

Cocaine trafficking and the business of statehood

As the 1990s came to a close, a combination of the end of the cold war, the decline of structural adjustment, civil war and political crisis across the region was drying up the usual international funding channels. A number of the pontieros branched out into new industries, most notably transport and trucking, but overall times were hard. Various factions of the ruling political-military-business elite, as always, looked externally for new financing partners, regardless of whether the source of funds were legitimate or not. There were initial incidences of illicit arms trading with neighboring countries, most notably Senegal and in Central Africa, but serendipitously the favorable political environment proffered by Guinea-Bissau coincided with changes in the global cocaine market to present a significantly more lucrative option: the drug trade. The saturation of the American market, the dominance of Mexican drug gangs and more effective interdiction along the Caribbean routes made the strategic shift to develop European drug markets an obvious choice, and Guinea-Bissau was an ideal staging point. 

The first cocaine shipments are said to have reached West Africa—coinciding with a desperate struggle for resources amongst the elite in Bissau—in the late 1990s. The relationship that developed has never been one of drug traffickers imposing their trade on a set of reluctant locals. What emerged was a contract between members of the military and their civilian political or business connections within the Bissau elite, and the traffickers themselves. The relationship was mutually beneficial, but it engendered greater instability locally as various factions vied for a share of the pie. Providing protection for the drug transit market meant controlling the state; and controlling the state meant benefitting from the resources of drug trafficking. And while scale of illicit funds available from drug trafficking in West Africa was still comparatively small in comparison to elsewhere in the world, in this impoverished region it dwarfed any other form of economic accumulation.

Before long, Colombian drug dollars were being liberally scattered throughout Bissau, paying for protection to bring in drugs and then arranging for their onward movement. Protection payments are reportedly in the region of $700,000 to a $1 million per consignment. Alternately as much as 30 percent of the shipments themselves were left in payment for local collaborators.[ix]   This money corrupted every level of society that had the potential to facilitate or interrupt the drug transit chain: within the state, from law enforcement, customs officials, prosecutors, judges, politicians; and within the private sector, from drivers, handlers, security guards, transport barons.   The military, with its transport, communications and security infrastructure, competed against the government to gain access and provide protection to the criminal groups that could fund their lifestyles. This competition over the drug trade led to violence and political instability from 2000 onwards, with an unceasing cycle of assassinations, coups and counter coups. 

The twists and violent turns of local politics illustrate the intensity of the struggle for control of the state. That the cycles of crisis have been shortening since the turn of the millennium is an indication of the exacerbating effect that drug trafficking has introduced into the already fragile political context. Since independence, no president has ever completed a full term in office—three presidents have been overthrown and one assassinated.

As this account demonstrates, political and economic instability have been closely interlinked throughout the history of Guinea-Bissau. From the founding of the independent state, and as political crisis followed political crisis, the boundaries of the government have contracted towards Bissau, and the economy has concentrated around external trade on which the elite depended for patronage. Drugs were grafted onto this unstable foundation and now deeply influence both the evolving nature of Guinea-Bissau’s statehood, but also longer term prospects for peace. There is a school of thinking amongst diplomats dealing with the crisis that the issue of drugs can be separated off and isolated. The reality is that drugs and politics in Guinea-Bissau have become almost intractably intertwined. In the absence of almost any other form of legitimate economic accumulation, resolution of the political crisis will be impossible without reducing the seepage of drug money through the local political elite.

Drugs and regional politics

West Africa today, of which Guinea-Bissau remains the most extreme example, is more than just a transit zone for drug trafficking. States have orientated around themselves around the facilitation, promotion and protection of drug trafficking, and the region has developed a political, economic and cultural environment that facilitates the trade. It is significant that while it is estimated a minimum of 13 percent of cocaine trafficked to Europe is transited via Guinea-Bissau—with a market value of $4.29 billion—there has not been one seizure made since 2007.[x] Originally selected for its strategic geographic location and hospitable political climate, the region has now developed an illicit social capital that has developed over time, allowing it to flourish into a crucial node in the global cocaine market and a powerful domestic industry in a region with few other legitimate alternatives. The development of sophisticated financial and transport infrastructure in major urban hubs—initially Dakar, Accra and Lagos—became an enabling factor that allowed West Africa to deepen its engagement in the drug trade. [xi] But they have also attracted other forms of criminal activity, resulting in the region developing into the location of choice for the investment of criminal proceeds.  Across the region, powerful criminal groups exert their influence to ensure first that drugs can be delivered to the coast line, and second that states remain unable to respond. 

It is significant that the major route for drugs from Guinea-Bissau northwards has been through Mali and onto Libya.  In Mali, once a darling of the donor community, drug funds have hollowed out the state, weakening its ability to control its territory and resolve internal disputes (Lacher, 2012).[xii]  This dynamic is now present in different degrees in almost every state, both along the West Africa coast, but significantly too across the Sahel, where huge territories and weak state institutions face outwards onto a series of states—Tunisia, Libya and Egypt—undergoing profound periods of political transition.  In Libya, while the state continues to make progress in consolidating its control, the Revolution engendered a plethora of militia groups who overthrew the Qaddafi regime. Many of these retain their arms and control local areas, making them ideal partners for protection of drug trafficking routes, should they not be drawn into the fragile compact with the new government in Tripoli.[xiii]  The “open door” that is Guinea-Bissau now has considerable implications well beyond the tiny State’s borders.

Crime and governance in West Africa have become intertwined, and so, while, statehood in Guinea-Bissau becomes an increasingly international affair, the capacity of the traditional diplomatic and multilateral vehicles to engage is hampered by the inability to distinguish between the interests of criminal organizations from those of their host governments. For example, ECOWAS engagement and recognition of the interim government after the April coup is curious, as it opposes the usual policy of refusing to recognize military takeovers. Conspiracy theories abound. Some observers saw it as an attempt by Nigeria to reassert itself as a regional leader, having been threatened by a March 2011 decision by ECOWAS and the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries (CPLP) to use Angolan troops to attempt stabilize and reform the security sector in Guinea-Bissau. When a counter-coup was attempted in October 2012, again accusations swirled. Security Council Resolution 2048 requested the active engagement of the UN “in order to harmonise the respective positions of international bilateral and multilateral partners,” but, given present levels of resources and political commitment, it is hard to imagine how this might be successfully achieved.[xiv]

Rethinking the policy response

If there is any desire to achieve stability in Guinea-Bissau and to roll back the influence of drug trafficking both in country and in the region, then lessons must be learned from the past. Three commitments will need to be made.

Firstly, Guinea-Bissau and the drug trade in West Africa must be moved higher up the international agenda. While the country is small, the crisis in state is impacting the entire region due to volume of drugs and the scale of funds pouring across its borders. The instability in Mali is partly connected to the drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau and its impact is further impacting the fragility of the Sahel and Northern Africa. The international community needs to sustain its longstanding interest in Guinea Bissau but scale up the level of funds and interventions. Given the level of drug money influencing politics in the region, this cannot be left exclusively to regional institutions, and considerable funds will be required. Responding to Somali piracy cost in the region of $1.5 billion. Similar figures will need to be committed to West Africa also, if the region is to be returned towards a path of stability, democratic governance, and development.

Second, impunity for drug trafficking must stop. This will reduce the constant pendulum swing between government and the military, and will begin the process of delinking trafficking from governance. As a recent report noted: “Accusations of drug trafficking and murder have become tools to destabilize political adversaries. In the absence of a robust justice system, these accusations are never the object of proper investigations and judgments.”[xv] Given current levels of capacity and corruption, an internationally staffed regional or national tribunal will be necessary, but this can transitioned towards a more integrated national solution as its success is felt and capacity permits.

Finally, there is an urgent need to redress the absence of state influence outside the capital and to re-establish urban-rural production linkages and sustainable legitimate livelihoods for the majority of the population. Ultimately, the long term solution to reducing the influence of transnational organized crime in any context is through the provision of viable economic alternatives within an overall framework of the rule of law. Ignoring the dire economic and human development situation of the vast majority of the population will ensure that no matter how many top-level, mid-level, or functional players in the drug trade are removed through a criminal justice or law enforcement process, there will always be more ready to step into the breach. Furthermore, as trafficking flows push north, the risk of criminal groups associating with radical extremist or terrorist organizations will also be exacerbated. Al-Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb’s (AQIM) growing association with trafficking groups has already been observed.[xvi] While state institutions remain too weak to serve their population effectively, investment can be made into building civil society and private sector capacity to provide service delivery, build community resilience and serve as a watchdog of transparency and integrity.

Authors’ Biographies

Mark Shaw and Tuesday Reitano work for STATT (, a consulting firm dedicated to building community resilience to transnational threats.  Working in partnership with the Institute of Security Studies (, STATT has embarked on a year-long research project that will explore the relationship between organized crime and democratic governance in West Africa. This paper was drawn from initial fieldwork in Guinea-Bissau, funded by the International Peace Institute “Peace Without Crime” Program (


[i] The European Union, at Portuguese urging, has been the firmest opponent to recognising the government. Internally, however, some European States, notably France, have tried to engage with the new government in Bissau. The reality is that despite EU protestations the government that came to power through a coup is recognised as an interlocutor, both regionally and further afield.

[ii] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2048, 2012.
[iii] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2048, 2012.
[iv] Adam Nossiter, “Leader Ousted, Nation Is Now a Drug Haven,” New York Times, 1 November 2012; Interview by Mark Shaw, October 2012, Bissau, Guinea-Bissau.
[v] ECOWAS, “Final Communique, Extraordinary Session of the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State and Government”, Abuja, Nigeria, 11 November 2012.
[vi] Martin Meredith, The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence (???, UK, Simon Schuster; 2011), 374-76.
[vii] Joshua Forrest, “Guinea-Bissau” in A History of Postcolonial Lusophone Africa , eds. Patrick Chabal et al. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002), 242.
[viii] Birgit Embaló, “Civil-military relations and political order in Guinea-Bissau”, Journal of Modern African Studies 50, no. 2 (June 2002), 259.
[ix] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “World Drug Report 2010” (World Drug Report, UNODC, Vienna 2010), 28.
[x] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “World Drug Report 2011” (World Drug Report, UNODC, Vienna 2011), 2.
[xi] Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire was long the regional financial centre for West Africa, but its role has declined rapidly given war and political instability there.
[xii] Wolfram Lacher, Wolfram, “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region” (Paper, The Carnegie Endowment for Peace, Washington D.C.: 2012)
[xiii] Unpublished interviews conducted southern Libya, November 2012
[xiv] United Nations Security Council, “S/RES/2048” (Security Council Resolution, UN Security Council, New York: 2012)
[xv] International Crisis Group, “Beyond Turf Wars: Managing the Post-Coup Transition in Guinea-Bissau” (Africa Report No.190, Dakar: 2012) 16.
[xvi] Lacher, 10.