(Bloomberg) — Bags of rice, cellphone credit and mobile phones were just some of the freebies that politicians in the remote West African nation of Guinea-Bissau handed out in the run-up to Sunday’s presidential election.
Many voters regarded their generosity with skepticism: Cocaine trafficking has been big business in Guinea-Bissau for at least a decade, and suspicions abound about the origin of some of the 12 candidates’ money.
While many hope that the vote will restore stability in the country that’s known nine coups and coup attempts, as well as the 2009 assassination of then-President Joao Bernardo Vieira, that’s unlikely to happen.
Until President Jose Mario Vaz assumed office in 2014, no elected head of state had finished his mandate for two decades. Vaz completed his five-year term, but his tenure was marred by record cocaine seizures and a power struggle with the party that’s dominated national politics since independence in 1974, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, or PAIGC.
“A political elite that’s constantly jostling for position and depends on patronage to stay in power is always looking for money,” said Mark Shaw, an analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “For some, this includes drug trafficking.”
Guinea-Bissau has been a transit hub since the mid-2000s for drugs bound for Europe. After small, twin-engine planes make the 3,000-kilometer (1,900 mile) Atlantic crossing from Latin America to a smattering of uninhabited islands off the coast, their cargo moves further north through Mali and Niger infiltrated by militants taking advantage of the lack of state control. Smugglers also transfer drugs into small boats from cargo ships.
About $1 billion worth of cocaine transited through West Africa on its way to Europe in 2016, according to the most recent estimates from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Guinea-Bissau’s judicial police in September recorded the nation’s biggest drugs bust, finding 1.8 tons of cocaine hidden in flour bags. It said the shipment came from Colombia and was destined for the Islamist militant organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Just months before, in March, authorities seized 790kg of cocaine in a fish truck bound for Mali.
Despite help from the UN, which invested in bolstering the police and judiciary, and the regional body Ecowas, which mediated talks and sent troops, politicians have been unable, or unwilling, to stem the drugs trade.
A near-paralysis of government hasn’t helped. Vaz has been at loggerheads with the PAIGC since firing Domingos Simoes Pereira as prime minister in 2015. The PAIGC typically controls Parliament and nominates a prime minister. Earlier this month, in yet another attempt to wrest control from the party, Vaz appointed his own prime minister to try remove Prime Minister Aristides Gomes, leaving Guinea-Bissau with two governments for about 10 days. Finally, Ecowas stepped in and forced Vaz’s prime minister to resign.
Pereira is now running against Vaz as the PAIGC candidate, while the incumbent is an independent candidate.
While Vaz put in place subsidies to increase cashew production, living standards haven’t improved. More than 70% of Guinea-Bissau’s 2 million people live in poverty, according to data from the national statistics office.
“Not once during Vaz’s five-year term has he given the government the support to move forward on judiciary and security sector reforms,” said human-rights activist Luis Vaz Martins.
“We need reforms to fight drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption, but that’s only possible with the backing of the president,” he said.
–With assistance from Alonso Soto.
To contact the reporter on this story: Katarina Hoije in Abidjan at [email protected]
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Richardson at [email protected], Pauline Bax, Gordon Bell
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