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Is the EU giving up on Guinea-Bissau military reform?

Guinnea-Bissau is an example of failed military reforms, despite efforts from 16 EU advisers over two years, says a Chatham House analyst. What comes next for a country that's now a major stopover point for cocaine to Europe?

By Drew HinshawCorrespondent / July 29, 2010



Dakar, Senegal

This week, the European Union is expected to announce whether it will finally ax a military reform program that has been "a textbook example of the failures of security sector reform," according to Alex Vines, Africa Program head at the London think tank Chatham House.

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Two years, three Bissau presidents, and three prime ministers ago, the EU sent 16 military advisers to the former Portuguese colony whose military has staged coups, fought civil wars, assassinated presidents, and now allegedly trafficks several hundred kilos per month of cocaine from South America to Europe.

At that time, Guinnea-Bissau had recently accomplished an election, plus was eligible for debt relief and much condition-based aid, signaling a promising turnaround point for the marginalized country.

The reform the EU proposed was to finally pry the military's fists from the levers of power by reducing the number of young men and colorful CFA francs going into the military. It was an idea the Bisseau Army brass liked to so much that they staged an afternoon-long veto coup in April, at one point taking the prime minister hostage.

Late last month, the disgruntled general who led that mutiny successfully arm-wrestled his way into Guinea-Bissau's top military post. That promotion inspired the US to cancel its military assistance to the country. If the EU follows, analysts say Guinea-Bissau's military adventurism could sabotage fragile peace processes underway in next-door Senegal and Guinea.

Regional Repercussions

"This poses a fundamental security challenge for Guinea-Bissau's neighbors," says Knox Chitiyo, head of the Africa Program at London’s Royal United Service Institute.

Guinea-Bissau's tiny economy may be based on cashew exports, but what happens in this country of 1.7 million people reverberates along wispy cocaine trade routes through the Sahara into Europe.

The country is a key landing point for South American planes and boats loaded with narcotics that US military officials suspect is a growing source of revenue for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

And it's not just cocaine: Small arms have moved in and out of the country for decades, analysts say, arming rebels in Senegal's Casamance. Meanwhile, Guinea's military is set to handover power to a democratically elected leader for the first time since independence. Analysts say that the isolation of Guinea-Bissau could erode Guinea’s tenuous democracy, and Casamance’s peace negotiations.

"The international community is promoting conditions that will make the situation in Guinea-Bissau and its neighbors even worse," says Paulo Gorjão, director of the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security.

"If you leave Guinea Bissau, you leave the power in the hands of the military, and you give up any hope of changing the balance."

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