Political crisis deepens in Guinea Bissau as sanctions bite
EU diplomat fears a move into dictatorship in West African state as ‘Jomav’ seeks military refuge
Protesters face military outside ECOWAS HQ in demonstration against sanctions. Photograph: Lorraine Mallinder
For a country known as Africa’s first narco state, Guinea Bissau is a pretty sleepy place. Even the vultures picking at indeterminate carrion just a couple of streets away from the capital’s main square, Praça dos Heróis Nacionais, seem a little dozy.
On the square, however, there’s the briefest of frissons as police bring traffic to a standstill. After all, in this land of cocaine, corruption and coups, you never know what might be round the corner. Turns out they are making way for President José Mário Vaz, aka Jomav, returning to his palace after lunch with the army chief, where he mooted the possibility of moving his office to military barracks.
If the former Portuguese colony is in a state of crisis, you’d never know it. “What crisis?” laughs a man sipping Delta coffee in the nearby Hotel Império. “The crisis has been going on since independence!”
This deceptively quiet land, which won independence in 1974, has enough drama to pack a few crime thrillers. Indeed, author Frederick Forsyth happened to be researching a new book in Bissau in 2009, when the then-president and army chief were assassinated in what was thought to be a tit-for-tat double murder, the former attacked with a machete hours after the latter was bombed at military HQ. Both were suspected of being up to their necks in dirty dealings with Latin American traffickers.
As Forsyth may himself have concluded, you couldn’t make it up.
As his bid for refuge would suggest, the president is currently in a bit of a pickle. In essence, he is at war with his own party, the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde), which holds a majority in parliament. His main adversary is party president and former prime minister, Domingos Simões Pereira, aka DSP. Jomav sacked DSP as prime minister in 2015 on corruption charges and the pair have been at loggerheads ever since. The two men are said to be like chalk and cheese, Jomav secretive and taciturn, DSP rather more loquacious.
Relations turned sour after international donors pledged more than €1 billion to fund DSP’s programme to overhaul the country’s economy. When DSP returned from the Brussels fundraiser, Jomav allegedly asked him to hand over the money, believing that his foe carried the cheque in his pocket.
Insiders report that the president was keen to earmark cash for private agricultural projects in his home village of Calequisse, in the west of the country, but that DSP resisted the power grab. Spooked by the ensuing instability, donors withdrew their pledges.
Alienated from his party, Jomav is surrounded by 15 dissident PAIGC MPs of varying degrees of loyalty known as the grupo dos quinze. All are united by their beef with DSP, who is viewed by veterans as a bit of a Johnny-come-lately, unfit for leading the party that won the decade-long war of independence, dubbed “Portugal’s Vietnam”.
It is against this toxic backdrop that the isolated Jomav is battling to retain his grip on power
Recently, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) slapped sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on Jomav’s entourage – on 19 individuals in total – for violating attempts to find a consensus prime minister under the terms of a peace agreement signed in Conakry in 2016. Since DSP’s sacking, there have been five prime ministers.
The sanctions have infuriated the grupo dos quinze, including Jomav’s adviser Braima Camará, a PAIGC MP known to have had presidential ambitions himself. Camará told The Irish Times that he considered Jomav to be too “soft”. “He could have dealt with DSP by now. If it was me, I wouldn’t allow it,” he said.
Caught between the PAIGC and his impatient allies, Jomav has turned lone ranger, his plea for refuge in the barracks, made to his trusted army chief Biague Na Ntan, the latest demonstration of increasingly erratic behaviour. EU diplomats, irked at his move, made despite the small fortune the mission invests in his protection, expressed fears that the sphinx-like president wants to merge this year’s scheduled parliamentary elections with next year’s presidential poll in a bid to control the electoral process and retain a lock on power.
“Nobody knows what is in his mind,” said one EU diplomat. “We fear a move into dictatorship.”
With the country on the brink, thousands took to the streets in mid-February, led by the grupo dos quinze, to protest against the Ecowas sanctions. Jomav had retreated to Calequisse for the weekend, where it is said he regularly consults the village chief for spiritual guidance on his next moves.
The demonstration was an impressive show of defiance but, as The Irish Times discovered while out on the streets, it was far from spontaneous. Many had been paid 1,000CFA, the local currency, (around €1.50) to show up. By late morning, as Camará shouted the odds on a makeshift stage, accusing “the fascist Domingos Simões Pereira” of plotting the sanctions with neighbouring West African countries, the crowds had noticeably thinned and the city was returning to its usual sleepy state.
“They’re all bandits,” said Donizete Da Silva, a 23-year-old onlooker, who refused the cash.
The question of elite racketeering, in particular relating to the drugs trade, is a moot point. The impoverished country has the dubious advantage of being a handy halfway house between Latin America and Europe for druglords, its coastal inlets and islands an ideal staging post for narco landings. A 2013 DEA undercover operation, in which US agents posing as members of Colombian rebel group Farc netted a former navy chief in a cocaine-for-arms sting, is thought to have diverted flows to neighbouring countries.
But while the threat of US commandos lurking in the mangrove creeks may have curbed activity, the truth is that, with no radars to detect air traffic and no X-ray scanners to check shipping containers, estimates on how much cocaine is still flowing through the country vary widely. While bemoaning the lack of equipment, the chief of the judicial police, Juscelino De Gaulle Cunha Pereira, estimated that “not even a tonne” of cocaine was passing through the territory each year.
But one high-ranking UN official in Bissau told The Irish Times that the figure was nearer 30 tonnes. “We’ve been telling them to install a radar system. Then we thought: ‘Maybe it’s better not to get it because then military will have more control’. We thought it would be better to see how the politics develop.”
Either way, the current political situation does not bode well. “Traffickers love the instability, a country that has no control of its borders with no functioning institutions,” said the UN official. “It’s still a major hub. The actors change, the game remains the same.”
It is against this toxic backdrop that the isolated Jomav is battling to retain his grip on power. If he succeeds, he will be the first president to have seen out a full term since independence. But locals in Mindara, a slum often referred to as Bissau’s “favela”, do not think the achievement would signal progress.
“The president wants too much power,” says Alfredo Raimundo Lopes (53), a carpenter. “It’s the people he’s associated with, people who don’t deserve to be in their position.”
Lopes doesn’t believe anything has changed in Africa’s first narco state. “Obviously they’re involved in drugs. They’re involved in illicit business, dirty business,” he says.
“They protect their interests.”