On February 1, 2022, men armed with machine guns and assault rifles attacked the presidential palace in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau. They maintained open fire for five hours at the compound, where President Umaro Sissoco Embalo, Prime Minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam, and members of the cabinet were hiding. Later that night, President Embalo stated that the situation was under control.
This attack is just one example in a recent wave of coups in the Sahel, the region in Northern Africa between the Sahara and the savanna. Since August 2020, there have been five successful coups in regional states—Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan—and two attempted ones, in Niger and Guinea-Bissau. Some experts, like Joseph Siegle, research director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, view the coups as “contagious.” Although many see this opinion as extreme, even Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, acknowledged the pattern and condemned the “terrible multiplication of coups” in the area.
This international alarm hints at a fear of democratic backsliding in a region that, until 18 months ago, had seemed to be making progress towards democratization. In general, citizens are frustrated with their governments’ inability to stop violence sparked by Islamists and other armed groups in the Sahel. So why is the coup in Guinea-Bissau different?
Conditions in Guinea-Bissau
Since winning its independence from Portugal in 1974, the country of Guinea-Bissau has undergone four successful coups and more than a dozen failed attempts. Unsurprisingly, this pattern instituted general instability in the country. Additionally, the lack of a continuous governmental structure negatively impacted national living standards. Even today, Guinea-Bissau ranks as 175 out of the 187 countries measured in the UN’s Human Development Index.
Emmanuel Kwesi Aning of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Center says that corruption, high unemployment, and low levels of education plague the country. These factors exacerbate Guinea-Bissauns’ pre-existing grievances, “particularly where we have leadership that doesn’t speak the language and behave in a way that reflects the aspiration and hopes [of the youth].” Making matters worse, Guinea-Bissau’s population is exponentially growing, leaving many young people uneducated and unemployed.
Africa’s First “Narco-State”
In the early 2000s, Guinea-Bissau became known as a transit point in the international drug trade. The UN even designated the country as Africa’s first “narco-state.”
A senior official at the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) says that, “the logical thing is for cartels to take the shortest crossing over the ocean [from Colombia] to West Africa, by plane—to one of the many airstrips left behind by decades of war, or by drop into the thousands of little bays—or by boat all the way. A ship can drop anchor in waters completely unmonitored, while fleets of smaller craft take the contraband ashore.” These boats travel only at night and remain motionless during daylight, covered by blue tarpaulins to avoid air detection.
At the time of Guinea-Bissau’s designation as a “narco-state,” policing was on the rise in Jamaica and Panama, both former transit points. Additionally, the growing strength of Mexico’s drug cartels pushed traffickers to find new routes across the Atlantic. Furthermore, Guinea-Bissau is attractive to cartels because its location in West Africa eliminates the extra scrutiny European governments designate for parcels from South America. These conditions, plus Guinea-Bissau’s fragile internal environment, made the country into a breeding ground for drug trafficking.
There have been several high-profile drug raids in Guinea-Bissau in the last twenty years. The most infamous one was the September 2019 operation ‘Navara,’ in which the national government seized upwards of 4000 pounds of cocaine, 20 vehicles, US$3 million in bank accounts, along with US$90,000 worth of wine and porridge.
Drug trafficking has transformed the country in the past twenty years. Bissau, the capital city, is a mix of impoverished locals and Colombian drug lords driving luxury cars. A local Bissau restaurant owner says that “this country is being destroyed by drugs. They’re everywhere. A few weeks ago, the man who used to be my gardener knocked at the door and offered to sell me [approximately 15 pounds] of cocaine.”
It is not just Guinea-Bissauns that have noted the change. Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, visited the country in 2008: “When I went to Guinea-Bissau, the drug wealth was everywhere. From the air, you can see the Spanish hacienda villas, and the obligatory black four-wheel-drives are everywhere, with the obligatory scantily-clad girl, James Bond style.”
President Embalo’s Rise to Power
President Embalo, a former general in the army, took office in February 2020. He rose to power only after a runoff vote and support from the military. His opponent, Domingos Simoes Pereira, bitterly contested the results of the election.
In his 2019 campaign, President Embalo espoused a “zero-tolerance” policy towards drug trafficking. Since then, his aides report that the President better enabled the police to fight against the trade. Mussa Embalo, the President’s uncle and a former advisor, stated that the President also changed the leadership of the navy and judicial police to crack down on trafficking.
It is unclear if those tools improved the situation at all. Lucia Bird, director of the West Africa Observatory for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, said: “we have no indications that cocaine trafficking has decreased in Guinea-Bissau since Embalo came to power—[there are] lots of indications that it very much continues.” It is worth noting, however, that there have been no large-scale raids since President Embalo came to power.
Despite the President’s recent supposed efforts, both Guinea-Bissauns and the international community suspect that the country’s military and government have connections to the drug trade. Late last year, Guinea-Bissau’s chief of the armed forces accused military personnel of planning a coup while the President was on a diplomatic trip in Brazil.
These accusations are not new. In 2009, the President at the time, João Bernardo Vieira, was murdered by his own soldiers. Many linked the assassination to the drug trade given that Antonio Indjai, a former army Chief of Staff, seized power after the attack just as the cocaine trade picked up. Since then, this takeover has been named the “cocaine coup.”
President Embalo said that the coup, “was well-prepared and organized,” calling it “an attack on democracy” that “has to do with our fight against narco-trafficking.” Additionally, he ensured that the Guinea-Bissaun military did not perpetrate the attack: “I can assure you that no camp joined this attempted coup… It is linked to people we have fought against.”
Since then, President Embalo accused ex-rear admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto and two accomplices, Tchamy Yala and Pais Djeme, of leading the coup. All three have records involving drug trafficking.
Yet, Tchuto and his accomplices are not universally accepted as the perpetrators of the coup. Pereira says that “[Embalo] is presenting himself as a fighter against the drug mafia in order to lull the international community into complacency.” On the other hand, Luis Vaz Martins, a human rights activist, says that blaming the attack on drug traffickers was politically motivated, and that it was a “fake coup.”
If President Embalo did orchestrate the coup himself, political analyst Rui Landim thinks it is motivated by hope that the region’s most powerful economic and political bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), will “send troops to maintain him [Embalo] in power.” This reasoning makes sense given Guinea-Bissauns’ and the international community’s fears of democratic backsliding in the country.
At this time, it is unclear who perpetrated the attempted coup—drug traffickers, the military, political competitors, or some combination of the above. Regardless, President Embalo appears to remain committed to fighting the drug trade, and Guinea-Bissau’s judicial police force continues to lead the fight against corruption as the country’s most effective enforcement agency.