Guinea-Bissau assassinations: Is Colombia's drug trade behind them?

The murder of the president and the Army chief on Monday raises questions about the nature of the instability in this African nation.

Jose Manuel Ribeiro/Reuters
Gone: Renegade soldiers gunned down Guinea-Bissau's President Joao Bernando Vieira on Monday.
Tit for tat? Gen. Tagme Na Waie was killed hours before President Vieira was assassinated.

The assassinations were committed gangland style – a bomb in a stairwell, and a rapid fire shootout – which is perhaps not so surprising in a country that has swiftly become a major transit hub for narcotics into Europe.

But the tit-for-tat revenge killings of Guinea-Bissau's top two leaders, its Army chief and its president, have left this poor country without leaders and the prospect of continued military rule.

By Monday evening, the tiny African country's Army had shut down two private radio stations, and had escorted the president's widow and children to the home of the United Nations representative in Guinea-Bissau.

Meanwhile, the Armed Forces assured citizens on state-run radio that no coup was in process, but that the Army would respect the Constitution and allow the head of parliament to succeed the president.

Unstable region

Coming just a month after an apparently popular coup in the neighboring country of Guinea, the double assassinations in Guinea-Bissau are a troubling sign for a region with weak institutions for self-government and strong incentives for corruption.

"This is bad news for the country, and there are real risks of factional fighting between elements of the military," says Richard Moncrieff, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, based in Dakar, Senegal. "But the question now is what direction the Army intervention takes. To my mind, the risks are the mid-level officers, [who] are not used to running a country and tend to react harshly if a problem comes up."

With a weak economy and institutions of governance, it's not surprising that Guinea-Bissau is seen as a haven for criminal enterprises.

In recent years, Colombian drug cartels have begun flying small planes across the Atlantic, landing on tiny islands dotting the Guinean coastline. Since Guinea-Bissau has no navy to patrol its waters, the cartels were free to unload tons of cocaine destined for Europe. The drugs were then distributed to impoverished African migrants, who would carry the drugs north by boat to the shores of France, Italy, and Spain.

Government corruption, fed by poor government salaries at the bottom and uncertain political leadership at the top, means that Guinea Bissau has few tools to stop the drug trafficking.

Rivalry goes back decades

While the bad blood between Army chief Gen. Tagme na Waie and President Joao Bernando Vieira goes back decades, tensions increased during the country's November 2008 elections, after General Waie accused President Vieira of involvement in the drug trade.

After a narrow escape from an assassination attempt in November, Waie publicly stated that the president wanted to get rid of him and was using his personal armed militia of 400 men to hunt him down.

"This recent set of killings can be explained [as] the action of the drug traffickers, who would not allow anything to get in the way or to obstruct their links with Europe," says David Zounmenou, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, formerly known as Pretoria.

"Africans are very reluctant to call for external interventions," Dr. Zounmenou adds, noting that many African countries are still suspicious of Western countries, some of which were colonial rulers less than 50 years ago. "But drug trafficking is not a domestic matter anymore. It affects the stability of many countries, it affects systems of governance, and it allows groups to acquire weapons."

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