Guinea Bissau: Back to basics

By Rose Skelton in Bissau

Posted on Tuesday, 24 August 2010 12:12

With the military increasingly tied up in battling the drugs trade, the civilian government is struggling to enact security-sector reform to support the judiciary.

Read more on the drugs now being produced in laboratories on West Africa’s cocaine coast.

Augusto Nhanga looks around the dark room and smiles shyly. “Look how my office is,” the police commandant says. “The problems start here.” He is sitting in a small dank room at the back of First Squadron, one of Guinea Bissau’s only detention facilities, a rotting house in the old quarter of the country’s sleepy capital, Bissau. The brick walls, built by the Portuguese long before they abandoned their colonial acquisition in 1974, are riddled with holes and the old wooden windows hang limply from their frames. There is no artificial light – the country of 1.5 million people has no functioning electricity grid – and by the looks of the cracked and filthy tiled floor, there is no running water.

Even more startling is that this building, which is used to hold those awaiting trial and those convicted of homicide and robbery, has no secure lockable doors. The small gate to the street swings open and windows to the ‘cells’, high-ceilinged rooms strewn with thin, moulding mattresses and a web of mosquito nets, are open to the street. The inmates sit looking depressed and malnourished on the front porch. “There is no security here,” says Nganga. “If I am not here, the prisoners just leave.”

While the cat is away

Nhanga’s predicament – guarding a group of criminals with none of the tools a law enforcement officer should have (weapons, vehicles, secure doors) – is a glimpse into the wider problems facing Guinea Bissau. The country has virtually no security infrastructure. No government since independence has invested in the prison system and the police force is equally lacking in the means to tackle crime.

Guinea Bissau has experienced some of the most serious crime on the continent in the last five years. While robbery and violent crime ?remain rare, drug trafficking by international cartels exploiting the country’s lack of strong institutions is rife. Drug dealers take advantage of Guinea Bissau’s ill-trained and underpaid army and the country’s strategic geographical position to smuggle cocaine from Latin America to Europe.

In February 2008, the EU and the UN began programmes to support the reform of Guinea Bissau’s security, justice and defence sectors. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that 40tn of cocaine, with a street value of $1.8bn, came through West Africa on its way to Europe in 2006. Local police, largely unarmed and lacking vehicles, were unable to stem the flow. While Hummers and Lincolns, driven by military chiefs who technically earned low salaries, bumped along the unpaved streets of Bissau, the few arrested foreign smugglers simply disappeared without facing charges.

The reform process, a massive task which includes cleaning up the public sector to get rid of ‘ghost workers’, streamlining the military and giving technical support to the judiciary police is ongoing and seems to have produced results. The EU and the UN have been helping discussions to clear the country’s $700m ?foreign debt. “No [Bissau] government has ever been able to do that,” says Vladimir Monteiro, the spokesman for the UN Integrated Peace-Building Office in Bissau. “It’s proof that things were moving forward.”

The UNODC is rehabilitating four prisons that can hold around 30 people each and is awaiting funding for the building of a fifth, which will hold around 200 people. By the end of April, the prisons at Bafata and Mansoa were ready to accept their first inmates. The training of prison guards is also underway.

“This prison project will be the biggest and most visible achievement under the UN Peace-Building Fund in Guinea Bissau,” says the UNODC’s Manuel Pereira. Inmates from First Squadron detention centre will be transferred to Mansoa, where they will be held four to a cell and will be given recreation and exercise areas, a small garden in which to grow vegetables, running water, electricity, a visiting area and three meals a day.

Regimes of instability

Amilcar Cabral The leader of Guinea Bissau’s independence movement, pan-Africanist intellectual Amilcar Cabral is heralded as the country’s founding father. He was assassinated by Portuguese agents, with the help of a political rival, just months before Guinea Bissau declared its independence on 24 September 1973.

Louis Cabral (1974-1980)? Amilcar’s half-brother Louis was the first president of Guinea Bissau. Together they formed the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) in 1956. Louis was overthrown in 1980 by a military coup led by João Bernardo ‘Nino’ Vieira.

João Bernardo ‘Nino’ Vieira (1980-1999)? A key fighter in the war for independence and a member of the PAIGC, Vieira organised and won elections in 1994. In 1998, he sacked Army Chief Ansumane Mané, after which a brutal civil war broke out. Vieira’s forces surrendered in 1999 and he went into exile in Portugal.

Ansumane Mané (1999)? Mané fought alongside Vieira during the struggle for independence but was suspended for allegedly dealing arms to rebels in Casamance, a separatist region of Senegal. After leading an uprising against Vieira, he was the temporary head of state until Malam Bacai Sanhá took over as acting president. Mané was killed in a battle with government forces in 2000.

Malam Bacai Sanhá (1999-2000) ?Sanhá was a PAIGC member and president of the National People’s Assembly from 1994 to 1999. He stepped down after coming second in the 2000 presidential polls.

Kumba Yalá (2000-2003) ?Yalá won the presidential elections of 2000. Originally a member of the PAIGC, he was expelled in 1992 and formed the Partido para a Renovação Social(PRS). Poor financial management and a rocky relationship with the military resulted in his overthrow in 2003 by General Veríssimo Correia Seabra. The PRS is now the most important opposition party.

João Bernardo ‘Nino’ Vieira (2005-2009) ?Vieira returned from exile in 2005, landing in a helicopter in Bissau’s main football stadium. He beat Sanhá and Yalá in elections months later. In March 2009, Chief of Staff General Batista Tagme Na Waie was killed in a bomb attack. Hours later, Vieira was hacked to death by Na Waie’s soldiers. Both Vieira and Na Waie were involved in the drug trade.

Malam Bacai Sanhá (2009-present) ?Sanhá took over in the second round of open elections in July 2009. His presidency will be defined by his success in bringing about military reforms and attracting donor support for his government.

While prisoners in Bissau are completely integrated into society – one advisor to the Justice Ministry said that the prisoners’ wives are at home but they still manage to get pregnant by their husbands who make nightly exits through holes in the prison roof – these new prisons will send a clearer message to criminals. “The worst punishment for a Guinean is not to be a part of society,” says ministry of justice representative Basilio Sanca. “With these new prisons, criminals will know they are in a prison that they can’t run away from.”

The international donor community, encouraged by democratic elections in July 2009 that brought the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde‘s Malam Bacai Sanhá to power, felt they had allies with whom they could work on the reconstruction of the country’s corrupt judicial system, its weak defence forces and its almost non-existent security sector. The selection of well-respected General José Zamora Induta as army chief of staff had reinforced the government’s position on the fight against the narcotics trade.

Zamora began recruiting soldiers from schools in order to populate the army with educated young men rather than the largely illiterate freedom fighters from the 11-year war for independence from Portugal. Also, before the 1 April coup, the government had already approved laws which would allow for the conviction of foreign traffickers.

Drug cartels and middlemen from Nigeria, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Ukraine and Russia, who had previously been granted impunity by the top echelons of the military, were no longer offered protection. In the last year, the drug trade had slowed somewhat.

The 1 April coup has put a stop to such progress by reaffirming the political dominance of the military chiefs. On that day, former Navy chief of staff José Américo Bubo Na Tchuto and deputy-chief of staff Antonio Indjai arrested Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, whom they later released after publicly threatening to kill him. They took army chief of staff Zamora to the military barracks in Mansoa, 40km from Bissau, where he is still being held and is seriously ill. The coup has further destabilised the fragile political system and threatens to put the security reform process back to the starting point.

An invisible menace?

On 8 April, the US government named Bubo as a key figure in the international drugs trade. Senior figures in the army have continuted to resist security reform all the while.

“Some top people in the army saw the security reform as a threat,” ?explains one local analyst. “People had confidence in Sanhá’s government, they’ve been paying [civil servants’] salaries and showed a willingness to combat drug trafficking. In my opinion, [the events of 1 April] were organised by Indjai to allow a free passage for bringing in drugs.”

“Narco-traffic had become almost invisible,” echoes Lucinda Ahukarié, head of the judiciary police, referring to what has been happening over the last year. “But now it has started again and it is on the increase.”

The possibility that trafficking is once more on the rise was confirmed by the UNODC. Its officials say that none of the large seizures that were reported to the UN in the first quarter of 2009 can be traced back to Africa. However, it is likely that traffickers are just becoming more sophisticated in their operations.

“Before, it was purely in transit and people profiting from the transit,” says a source at the UN. “But in the last year, young [Guinean] people have been getting involved and getting mobilised.” Could Guinea Bissau start to refine cocaine and produce ecstasy, as is thought to be happening in neighbouring Guinea Conakry? “This is a big question mark,” the source says. “I believe that deep in the jungle there is something going on, but the judiciary police do not have the capacity to investigate.”

While the new prisons will serve as a deterrent to ordinary people, they are just the first step towards building a stronger security apparatus. Prison facilities alone will not deter foreign drug cartels whose profits are many times larger than the country’s GDP.

“In the past, some leaders received huge sums of money [from the drugs trade], which they used to destabilise certain institutions,” says Mamadou Saliou Galo Peres, the justice minister. “Thanks to these people and this money, they were able to corrupt judges, police and other state officials.”

International organisations say that senior figures in the government have the political will to fight drug trafficking. The problem lies with a lack of funds and the lawless and powerful army which urgently needs to be restructured. But does the involvement of the military in the drugs trade make Guinea Bissau a narco-state?

Justice Minister Galo Peres calls this an “unjust criticism.” “The people concerned [in the drugs trade] have never done this in the name of the state, even if they were part of the state. We are doing everything to fortify the judicial system and guarantee the security of the country. The people who use our institutions to traffic drugs are criminals and will be punished. We are determined to fight drug trafficking.”

This article was first published in the June-July issue of The Africa Report.

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